Americans today say they are generally optimistic about their futures, according to Gallup polling. But one group in particular -- poor white Americans -- has a shockingly dismal view of what the future holds for them. And this pessimism among poor whites goes a long way toward explaining the strange political moment we find ourselves in, one in which Donald Trump surged to the top of the Republican primary ticket by tapping into a deep vein of racial anxiety among the nation's working class.
Carol Graham, a happiness researcher at the Brookings Institution, recently analyzed Gallup's data on life satisfaction and found that when it comes to their outlook on the future, the most desperate groups are poor and near-poor whites.
Gallup asks people to rate their current lives on a scale of 0 to 10, where 0 is the worst possible life they could be living and 10 is the best. Crucially, they also ask people to imagine what their lives will look like five years in the future.
Among the poor, whites are the demographic group least likely to imagine a better future for themselves, Graham found. Poor Hispanics were about 30 percent more likely to imagine a better future than poor whites. The difference for poor blacks was even larger: They were nearly three times as likely to imagine a better future than poor whites.
The difference in optimism between poor blacks and poor whites is nearly as big as the difference between the poor and the middle class overall: "The average score of poor blacks is large enough to eliminate the difference in optimism about the future between being poor and being middle class (e.g. removing the large negative effect of poverty)," Graham found.
In short, poor whites aren't just poor: They're also in a state of despair.
John Daniel Davidson writes at The Federalist:
Last week, The Washington Post ran a long piece unpacking the results of a massive analysis of 87,000 interviews by Gallup. The survey data shows that although Trump supporters are less educated and more likely to work blue-collar jobs, they’re not necessarily poor. In fact, they earn above-average incomes, a finding that corroborates previous studies. Jonathan Rothwell, the economist at Gallup who wrote the paper, said the “results do not present a clear picture between social and economic hardship and support for Trump. The standard economic measures of income and employment status show that, if anything, more affluent Americans favor Trump, even among white non-Hispanics.”
But they still tend to live in troubled places like Fishtown. Rothwell found that, “social well-being, measured by longevity and intergenerational mobility, is significantly lower” in communities that support Trump. That means places where people die younger and those who grow up poor are more likely to stay poor.
These are the parts of the country where for the past 15 years the mortality rate for middle-aged white men has been rising for the first time since 1968, thanks largely to suicide and drugs. These are also places that, according to Rothwell, are “racially and culturally isolated zip codes and commuting zones,” which means they interact less often with the Mexican immigrants they think are taking American jobs.
Here we come to the crux of the matter. Trump supporters are not in fact suffering disproportionately from the flight of manufacturing jobs overseas, or competition from immigrants. They might not be poor themselves, but they live in places that are in a state of crisis, where the pathologies of the white working class are manifesting themselves in visceral ways: heroin overdoses, single-parent families, rampant opioid addiction, vast swaths of adult men on disability and out of the work force. It’s no wonder they feel like something has gone horribly wrong in their country. It has—but not quite in the way they suppose.