The Financial Plight of White Working Class Males

With the US presidential election about five weeks away, the popular press has feasted on the campaign events and survey results, with the primary focus on the Trump spectacle. The fundamental question remains: How did "The Don" succeed in winning the Republican Party nomination in the first place? And how does he remain in contention in the wake of his bizarre campaign rhetoric?

A provocative new report from Sentier Research gives us insight into what might be a key factor in the Trump phenomenon: A secular decline in the financial well-being of white working class males and what we can infer as the resulting anger directed at the political powers that be.

Here is the opening from the press release for Sentier Research study:

The “working class” in America has frequently been defined as white males with a high school education working at wage and salary jobs. Some have said that this is one of the groups that has been “left behind” and newly energized during this year’s election process. This statistical brief compares changes in earnings experienced by white males and contrasts those experiences for high school graduates and college graduates between 1996 and 2014 within age cohorts.

The Sentier method compares the incomes of white male high-school graduates with incomes of white male college graduates based on data from the US Census Bureau's Annual Social and Economic Supplement (ASEC) of the Current Population Survey (CPS). The focus is on the change in income from 1996 to 2014 for ten 2-year age cohorts. The youngest cohort consists of the 25-26 year-olds in 1996 who were age 43-44 in 2014. The oldest cohort was age 43-44 in 1996 and 61-62 in 2014.

Here is a stunning pair of tables that shows the median real (inflation-adjusted) incomes for the high-school grads (aka working class) versus the college grads for the ten age cohorts along with the totals (which we've taken the liberty of highlighting).

Over this 18-year time frame, the working class white males saw an 8.9% decline in income, a sharp contrast to the 22.5% increase for the college grads. The contrast is especially dramatic for the age cohorts that were entering what is traditionally the peak earning years in their mid-to-late 40s in the 2014 data. The age 25-26 working class had experienced an 18.7% increase eighteen years later in 2014. The college-educated were up 132.8%.

The Sentier Research study offers a remarkable and thought-provoking body of evidence to help us understand the plight of white working-class males, who inevitably see themselves as losers in the quest for financial success in an economy that favors the college-educated professional elite. It thus comes as no surprise that white male high-school grads consistently show up in the polling data as strong supporters of the Trump presidential campaign, which is broadly confrontational to a political system that has routinely favored the wealthly and professionally successful.

For a more detailed perspective on this income data along with some excellent charts, please visit the Sentier Research website. Here is a direct link to the full press release.