February 16, 2017; Washington Post

In search of an explanation for Donald Trump’s surprising victory, the angst of white working class voters rose to the top. Democrats focused on the need to reshape their policies and messages to more effectively respond to a voter segment that had walked across the political aisle. Their unrecognized anger at a government that was said to have failed them and had allowed others to take their place in line in pursuit of the American Dream became the common explanation.

The real picture now seems to be more challenging. U.S. Census Bureau data recently analyzed by the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities suggests government may not be really their problem, and we need to look deeper and harder to understand the political forces that have shook up our democracy.

Sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild spent years studying a community in rural Louisiana in an effort to understand this population’s unhappiness and pain at how our nation was working. Her book, Strangers in Their Own Land, captured the angst of the white working class families that was acted out so powerfully on November 8, 2016. She describes a view of life that sees “others” stealing their success away with the help of unfair government policy.

You are patiently standing in the middle of a long line stretching toward the horizon, where the American Dream awaits. But as you wait, you see people cutting in line ahead of you. Many of these line-cutters are black—beneficiaries of affirmative action or welfare…Then you see immigrants, Mexicans, Somalis, the Syrian refugees yet to come…you see President Barack Hussein Obama waving the line-cutters forward…the government has become an instrument for redistributing your money to the undeserving. It’s not your government anymore; it’s theirs.

The Trump campaign tapped into this perception and used it in their march to victory.

Many supporters’ families work in blue-collar occupations such as construction, transportation, and infrastructure; live in low mobility areas; and have little personal contact with immigrants. “Us vs. them” rhetoric framed diversity as an impediment to American greatness, and—consistent with historical racial and socioeconomic fractures—global trade and immigration, the increasing presence of white women and people of color in government, and “dangerous inner cities” emerged as threats.

The emotions are real, but they may not truly be the result of economic and government policies that seem to help those in financial pain. From the CBPP’s analysis of what “safety net” programs have actually accomplished, the biggest winners from government anti-poverty come from the very white working class that seems most disaffected, especially those without a college degree.

One of the report’s authors, Isaac Shapiro, a senior fellow at the CBPP, captured this perspective when he discussed their study with the Washington Post: “There is a perception out there that the safety net is only for minorities. While it’s very important to minorities because they have higher poverty rates and face barriers that lead to lower earnings, it’s also quite important to whites, particularly the white working class.”

Of the more than 13 million working age adults who were helped out of poverty by government safety-net programs in 2014, 12.2 million did not have a college degree.

The safety net lifted out of poverty 39 percent of working-age adults without a college degree who would otherwise be poor; it reduced their poverty rate from 30.4 percent before government benefits and taxes to 18.5 percent after those transfers. By comparison, it lifted 27 percent of otherwise-poor adults who have a college degree out of poverty. It reduced their poverty rate from 8.7 percent before government benefits and taxes to 6.4 percent after such support is taken into account.

Both whites and people of color saw substantial poverty rate reductions because of government assistance, but “working-class whites are the biggest beneficiaries of federal poverty-reduction programs, even though blacks and Hispanics have substantially higher rates of poverty.”

The result does not simply reflect the fact that there are more white people in the country. The percentage of otherwise poor whites lifted from poverty by government safety-net programs is higher, at 44 percent, compared to 35 percent of otherwise poor minorities, the study concluded.

So if it is not that government anti-poverty programs have been unfair to the white segment of America, why then do so many among them see themselves as victims? Perhaps it’s that while the safety net has helped many, the loss of jobs that pay well has had a greater impact on financial security. It may be that problems we face come more from technological advances than government policy. This view was implied in Trump’s campaign rhetoric, as he tied economic concerns to the loss of domestic manufacturing and other jobs, not scarcity of government benefits.

However, what if what we see is neither about jobs nor finances but race and cultural norms? If these are at the heart of the divisions that have left us with national and state governments that seem so at war with much of the population, then the challenge is even greater—if we do not want a split country at odds with itself.—Martin Levine