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Why Is the White Working Class Declining?

Friday, April 3, 2020

From Cheryl Russell, Demo Memo

The white working class is shrinking, according to an analysis by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. The question is why. The St. Louis Fed analysis defines the white working class as non-Hispanic whites without a four-year college degree. The number of working class whites peaked in the early 1990s and has been declining in most years ever since.

At the same time, every other major group in society – Asians, Blacks, Hispanics, and non-Hispanic whites with a college degree – has been growing. Working class whites accounted for the majority of the population until 2004. Today, they are a minority nationally, in three out of four regions, and in seven states.

What is the cause of the decline in the white working class? In the Fed analysis, the researchers looked at two potential causes. First, they examined the rise in “deaths of despair,” which are deaths due to suicide, alcohol, or drugs. While the death rate from these causes has tripled among the white working class in recent years, these deaths explain less than 1% of the decline in working class whites, according to the calculations.

Then the researchers examined educational attainment. Bullseye! The number of non-Hispanic whites with a four-year college degree tripled between 1976 and 2019. The surge in educational attainment is resulting in a loss of about 1 million working class whites each year and explains most of the decline.

“To the extent that the decline of the white working-class population in recent years is due to rising college degree attainment, this population change can be viewed positively,” the researchers conclude.

Source: Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, The White Working Class: Declining Mostly Due to Rising College Attainment

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