For much of its long history in the U.S., the Catholic Church was known as the champion of the working class, a community of immigrants whose leaders were steadfast in support of organized labor and economic justice – a faith-based agenda that helped provide a path to success for its largely working-class flock.
In recent decades, as those ethnic European Catholics assimilated and grew wealthier, and as the concerns of the American hierarchy shifted to battles over moral issues, such as abortion and gay marriage, traditional pocketbook issues took a back seat.
THE STATE OF THE U.S. working class gives us many reasons to feel discouraged. Wages have stagnated even as productivity has increased significantly. With independent contracting and the “gig economy,” jobs have become less secure. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that most job growth will be in low-paying fields, such as home health care and food service. Union membership, a central measure of the social cohesion and political power of the working class, has fallen to 11 percent, down by almost half since the early 1980s.
Medical research links economic frustration to rising death rates among middle-aged whites and addiction among younger adults. Long encouraged to believe that hard work would translate into economic stability, working-class people have, as one of the researchers, Angus Deaton, put it, “lost the narrative of their lives.”
Two important shifts in how people think about class and work suggest reasons for cautious optimism. They also suggest possible roles for faith-based organizations.
The first reason might seem counter-intuitive: Americans in general, and younger Americans in particular, increasingly identify themselves as working class. Gallup polls over the past 15 years show that the number of Americans who identify themselves as upper-middle or middle class has fallen by 12 percent, while the number who identify as lower or working class has risen by 15 percent. More than 56 percent of millennials identify as working class, compared with 44.2 percent of baby boomers. Even younger adults with college degrees—which pollsters often use to identify respondents as middle-class—find themselves working part-time, low-wage jobs, struggling with student loan debt, and unable to afford the traditional markers of adulthood, such as home ownership. These surveys (and this year’s political campaigns) suggest growing anger over economic inequality, but as community organizers know, frustration and anger can inspire action.
Some read Romans 13 and lean toward faith being a personal thing (pay your taxes and don’t break the laws, avoid sexual immorality, debauchery, jealousy, and instead clothe yourself with Christ), but the chapter also says God has established government as his “servant to do good.”
This is why, in a country where the public is encouraged to participate in government, I want to encourage people of faith to voice the heart of God when it comes to issues like feeding the least of these.
The white working class, a potentially rich bloc of voters for Republicans or Democrats, hasn’t settled on Mitt Romney or President Barack Obama, a new study from the Public Religion Research Institute shows.
“These white working class voters are not particularly enamored of either candidate,” said Daniel Cox, PRRI’s research director. “In terms of their favorability, they’re both under 50 percent.” Forty-four percent look favorably upon Obama and 45 percent upon Romney.
Released seven weeks before the election, the August survey found Romney with a double-digit lead over Obama among the white working class, which preferred the GOP candidate 48 to 35 percent.
But Cox points out that the gap narrows to statistical insignificance among women voters in this group, and in the Midwest and West, home of several swing states. The upshot for Romney and Obama?
If they want to woo this group, which makes up 36 percent of the nation according to the study, the campaigns may want to consider other findings of the PRRI poll.