Josh and Aubrey Mitchell of Midvale, Utah, cheerfully own their status as working class Americans. But they wish money wasn’t quite so tight and their savings account was a little plumper.
A not insignificant chunk of Americans are working class. But this important demographic is among a group of middle- and lower-income Americans who feel pessimistic about the direction of the country, and frustrated about their place in it, according to a new HarrisX poll for Deseret News focusing on the working class.
This demographic rose to prominence in the wake of Donald Trump winning the 2016 presidential election, because of the role many of them played in electing him to office.
And it’s an especially important group as we enter the next presidential election cycle. America’s working class are still not particularly wowed by the government and are often just plain frustrated. In the poll, 64% of registered voters who identify as part of the working class say the country is on the wrong track, compared to 27% who say it’s on the right track. And a full 52% say their personal financial situation is getting worse, compared to only 20% who say their situation is improving.
What makes someone feel like they’re in the working class instead of the middle class? It’s likely related to a feeling of living on the edge financially, according to Daniel Cox, director of the Survey Center on American Life at American Enterprise Institute.
“I think there’s a tremendous amount of insecurity felt by working class folks. So even if you’re gainfully employed, even if your job provides you with health care ... they’re one unfortunate life experience away from their entire secure existence exploding,” Cox said in an interview with the Deseret News.
This group has shifted in recent years. While the working class used to be considered solidly in the Democrats’ column, slightly more now say they lean Republican. That was evident in the Deseret News/HarrisX poll, with 40% of working class voters saying the Republican Party best represents their interests and views, compared to 36% who say the Democratic Party is a better fit. Voters who describe themselves as middle class most identified with the Republican Party, at 43% compared to 34% for Democrats, while self-identified upper class voters by far leaned most toward the Democrats, with 56% saying the party best represents their views, compared to 28% saying the same about Republicans.
Aubrey Mitchell is folding laundry, which takes the stay-at-home mom a fair amount of time, since her brood includes five kids under 10. The high-pitched sound of laughter and children playing is her background music.
They are a one-income family. Her husband, Josh Mitchell, often works long hours at a company that supplies electrical materials. He loves the work and the benefits are excellent. Plus when the workday’s done, he can be a very present dad to Owen, 9; Zoey, 7; Elliot, 6; Pyper, 4; and Conner, who’s almost 2.
One of the reasons we conducted this poll is because we wanted to know whether working class voters like the Mitchells believe politicians promote policies that serve families. Most of the working class say no, and Aubrey Mitchell agrees. “I feel like they don’t do a good job of listening to what the concerns are and ways to fix them. I think their agendas are usually what they want and not what other people feel.”
The Mitchells made clear they don’t consider themselves political, but they do vote.
Ruy Teixeira, a senior fellow at American Enterprise Institute, is a Democrat who has recently been critical of his party over their treatment of the working class. He said Democrats are preoccupied with what he calls “cultural radicalism,” which has alienated some of the working class voters who once made up their base. This shift gathered steam under Trump, who was a top choice among 48% of working class voters — by far the highest number — when asked to select from a list of which politicians best represent their interests and views, in the Deseret News/HarrisX survey.
Teixeira said many people think Republicans and Trump just appeal to white working class voters, but he said he’s seeing a shift among Latino and Black working class voters as well.
Their support for Trump isn’t so much about policy, but rather about his willingness to take on the “elites,” Teixeira said, and for voters who feel alienated, that message resonates.
“I thought the failure to understand this, and to basically write off all the Trump voters as a bunch of reactionary racists ... I thought was a big mistake, analytically, even politically. And I think nothing has really improved too much since then,” he said.
For Democrats to recapture this voting group, they need to focus again on an economic message rather than on cultural issues, he said.
His colleague at AEI, Karlyn Bowman, a distinguished senior fellow, echoed his thoughts. After reviewing results of the survey, she said she saw an “extraordinary” amount of pessimism among working class voters.
“The economy is the No. 1, No. 2, No. 3 issue for most Americans right now, as it is for the working class, too,” she said.
Who are the working class?
Defining the working class isn’t easy. There’s some overlap between the working poor and lower middle class, because it turns out that personal economics is less of a ladder with well-defined steps and more of a rolling hill, your spot often a matter of personal perception.
“How people self-identify, and the labels they naturally coalesce around, tells you a lot about their social engagement and the pressures, motivations, and values that drive their voice and their vote,” said Dritan Nesho, CEO of HarrisX, which conducted the poll. “It also defines how politicians speak to them.”
When we polled 2,178 U.S. adults in mid-April, we found 15% identified as “working class,” while another 15% said they’re lower middle class and just 5% categorized themselves as working poor. Some polls lump those together in different configurations — usually the working class and lower middle class, creating a group that includes not quite one-third of Americans. Gallup did that in May 2022 and said about one-third of Americans identify as working class.
The poll, among U.S. adults, has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.1 percentage points overall and plus or minus 5.3 percentage points for those who identify as working class.
Income weighs heavily for those who identify as working class, but jobs and family history matter, too.
That focus is no surprise, Elise Gould, a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute, told the Deseret News. “The vast majority of Americans under 65 get their income from work. So how the labor market is doing, how their wages are and how they’re able to make ends meet is easily the most important issue.”
Within this self-proclaimed group of working class adults, this poll included 52% males and 48% females. Over half (53%) have household incomes below $50,000 a year, but folks in higher wage categories claim the working class, too. Nearly 80% of them are working age, 18-64, with millennials and baby boomers each making up almost a third of the working class. They mostly live in suburbs and cities, are predominantly white and 6 in 10 are parents. Not quite half are married and 7% live with a partner but are unmarried. Ten percent are divorced or separated.
On almost all of those, they closely resemble those deeming themselves lower middle class.
Individual differences abound within the category. Most working class are not college educated, but more than 1 in 4 are, including Aubrey Mitchell, who got a bachelor’s degree in community health education, and urged Josh to earn his general associate’s degree (30% of the working class have completed some college but did not graduate) although college was never his long-term goal. It’s a good fallback, he said, so he’s glad he completed it, even if he doesn’t use it. The vast majority of the working class have high school diplomas or better, at 95%.
Most work or are looking for work, though 22% of the survey’s working class have retired. The largest industries in which they toil are health care and social assistance, retail services, and construction. But you find teachers and manufacturing workers, folks working in transportation and administrative assistants in the working class, too.
About a third of those employed work more than full time and they’re usually paid by the hour, as Josh Mitchell was for years. He only recently was promoted to a salaried position. Aubrey Mitchell notes that many workers actually prefer hourly pay because they can earn more to support their families that way, with overtime and holiday pay.
Left behind or doing OK?
Nearly two-thirds (63%) of the working class feel like economic development in the United States doesn’t benefit everyone equally, but instead leaves groups like the working class behind. That’s in sharp contrast to the upper class, where 80% say everyone’s benefitting equally. Gould thinks there’s a tendency among those who have more to think they earned their success — that the wealthy don’t get special treatment, while others might. “In fact, the economy has worked better for those who are well-off for a very long time,” she noted.
Josh Mitchell thinks the working class is “doing OK. We kind of stick together more or less and look out for each other.”
Just 8% of the working class feel very financially secure, while 32% feel somewhat secure. The rest feel at least somewhat financially wobbly.
Nesho, the head researcher behind the poll, said that “our survey shows that while there is significant economic mobility from and to the working class — with a full 50% of those who identified growing up working class now being in higher socio-economic buckets — those who have remained or joined the working class are struggling more to make ends meet, with table-top issues at the forefront, especially economic issues like inflation and job security.”
“When I think about the working class and lower middle class, they’re living paycheck to paycheck with no extra savings. They’re just barely making ends meet,” said Gould. “They are concerned about their wages and about being able to take care of themselves and their family, so it’s a combination of how good of a job can they get, can they get enough hours, are they being paid enough. Is their salary high enough to overcome the inflation they’re seeing and how can they get more leverage to get more bargaining power?”
Josh Mitchell’s not worried about his job, but he wishes he and Aubrey could save more. His wife says they’re getting by but not necessarily getting ahead. She keeps track of their spending and they don’t blow money, but they do like to eat out occasionally and have date nights.
Like nearly two-thirds of those in their class, the Mitchells are most stressed about inflation and the rapid rise in the cost of nearly everything, as well as economics generally. Housing prices are a top worry for a quarter of the working class and the Mitchells find themselves stuck in place because of housing. They bought the home Aubrey’s dad grew up in after renting it for years. They figured it was both abode and investment, a small three-bedroom piggy bank of sorts. But as their family’s grown, so has the cost of getting something bigger. Now they’re trying to figure out if they add on to the house or wait to see if the market improves so they can buy bigger. Seven people and one bathroom is hard.
The Mitchells told the Deseret News their other big concerns are guns and school safety (24% of working class voters say that) and crime and drugs more generally (cited by 15%).
Even if money’s tight, like all of the working class, the Mitchells are proud of their status and income, though they’re among the 53% who say they’re striving to earn more and move up. Aubrey Mitchell is planning on working part-time when Conner’s in school all day.
Josh Mitchell believes he’s outperformed his parents in that Aubrey can stay home with the kids. Both his parents worked and he saw them do shifts to manage child care, which meant they didn’t often get time together.
He doesn’t want that. “I like to spend time with my kids more than hobbies. There’s not that much time for fun. The kids are the fun. I want to make sure careerwise I’m in a stable spot so I can be home every night with my family,” he said.
He expects — hopes — his kids will outperform their parents. The Mitchells are already teaching their children little financial lessons they never learned as children, like making sure to save a little and not spend everything.