Jim Webb wants to speak for the white working poor. Democrats should listen to what he has to say.
On the reality of white disadvantage, Webb is right. While the poverty rate for white Americans is 9.6 percent—substantially below the rate for Latinos (23.5 percent) and black Americans (27.2 percent)—they account for nearly half of all of America’s poor, and 56 percent of the country’s poverty-level wage earners are white.
But this isn’t part of the national conversation, which owes itself, in part, to geography. Unlike black and Latino poverty, which is tied heavily to the nation’s urban spaces, white poverty is more diffuse, though there are areas where it’s highly concentrated. Kentucky, West Virginia, and Arkansas are mostly white states with double-digit white poverty rates—18 percent, 16 percent, and 13 percent, respectively—and the ills that come with them: drug abuse, incarceration, and family dissolution. And overall, the number of whites who experience this kind of disadvantage has grown substantially in the last 20 years. “The number of non-Hispanic white people residing in high-poverty neighborhoods more than doubled between 2000 and 2007-2011, rising from 1.4 million to 2.9 million,” writes sociologist Paul Jargowsky in a 2014 report.
Ironically, it’s this pervasiveness—the fact of its existence in almost every part of America—that makes white poverty nearly invisible to the national elites, who cluster in urban centers like New York City and Washington D.C., where minorities are a presence. It’s easy to forget the white poor when your closest examples of poverty are the housing projects of Anacostia and not the dilapidated mills of western North Carolina or the crumbling railroad towns of southern Georgia.
Working-class whites face similar problems. While their disadvantage isn’t as deep—although many will experience spells of poverty or even slip in the ranks of the long-term poor—they have landed with the short end of the economic stick. This isn’t a new story. Between deindustrialization and public disinvestment—as well as “trickle-down” policies that pushed productivity gains into profits, not wages—working-class incomes have been destroyed. A generation of whites has been left behind—with work that isn’t steady if it pays well, and doesn’t pay much if it’s full time—and their children are sliding down the same path.
What Webb recognizes is that from their perspective, neither the Democratic Party nor the government is on their side. Ignore whether you agree with Webb’s normative suggestions—that Democrats should give up anti-discrimination and affirmative action programs. The simple truth is that working-class whites see the Democratic Party as hostile to their interests as workers and citizens.