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The Definition of ‘Working Class’ Is Changing — And Joe Biden Still Ain’t It

If Biden wants to be America’s ‘blue-collar’ candidate, he’s going to have to do a lot more than talk the talk

I still think of myself as working class. Don’t get me wrong: I haven’t been for ages. I grew up that way, though, in Tennessee, with a working single mother in a household of five people who never earned over $30,000, even after finishing her degree. Unbeknownst to me, I hit middle class when I took my first job out of college making $25,000 — not just because I got the degree, and not just because I was salaried, but because I was the only person in the household, too. In fact, my mother used to tell us that even though we were still poor, at least we could say we were middle class once she, and now I, could say we had higher education. It was, understandably, an extremely important distinction to her, a point of pride, and one that generally factors into class divisions alongside salaried, professional work.

But I still feel a working-class identity, and that roughly means that my personality and outlook still reflects the attitudes and values that come with the gritty resilience of my experience of not growing up with nice shit, or any shit. I speak bluntly and crassly, I argue loudly, I root for the underdog, I believe that work has intrinsic dignity and that working people, particularly people in service work, should be treated with respect. Acting “too good” for anything sticks in my craw.

In that sense, it’s a state of mind I still carry, without meeting the socioeconomic metrics in any way. So when I hear Joe Biden — former vice president, now presidential candidate — has kicked off his 2020 presidential rally at a Pittsburgh union hall, positioning himself as a “blue-collar” candidate, one who is quickly becoming the likely frontrunner in the race because he’s seen as the guy who could beat Trump by siphoning off working-class support, I do a spit take. Does he think he’s working class? Or does he just want us to believe he’s a working-class ally, one who espouses those values in every way?

Biden grew up, by all accounts, middle-class. He left the “blue-collar” Scranton of his childhood for middle-class Delaware at age 10, but not before attending a private elementary school in Scranton first and after sleeping in a two-story house in “one of Scranton’s nicest neighborhoods.” His dad had wealth of the yacht-racing variety, then lost it, and still become a successful car salesman. His grandfather was an oilman. Biden doesn’t seem likely to relate to working-class problems these days, either — not from his six-bedroom, three-story vacation home overlooking the Atlantic, the one that went for $3 million way back in 2007.

He may have inherited the lessons of his father’s ups and downs with money and brief period of hard times and learned the language and handshakes of the common folk, which goes a very long way in getting working-class people to like you just fine. But that’s not how we measure socioeconomic status. We measure it by income, education and size of household. Biden, who attended private schools since elementary age and completed law school, doesn’t make that cut by a long shot.

“Working class” can mean a lot of different things depending on who’s using it, but it generally means hourly wages, no higher education, little job security. Blue-collar work is a term that implies skilled or unskilled labor, but with training and even apprenticeships, and blue-collar jobs include cops, electricians, plumbers, truck drivers and construction workers.

What people often confuse is the fact that union workers can negotiate pay that looks a lot like, or may surpass, what a college-educated professional worker makes, but one of them is still “working class” or “blue-collar” and the other is “middle class.” In a class explainer at Teen Vogue, Kim Kelly explores how this played out among Trump voters in 2016:

A unionized construction worker — like my dad, for example — and a middle manager at a corporate office may bring home a similar paycheck, but they probably view the world and their place within it quite differently. That fact became a central focus of the many media reports post-2016 election that harped on the “white working class” and its role in President Donald Trump’s ascent, usually without taking the realities of the broader working class into account. Pundits blamed white working-class voters and their alleged “economic anxiety” for Trump’s win, seemingly because it was more enticing to focus on poor folks and raucous rally attendees than engage with the prevalence of racism, sexism and xenophobia in America. In actuality, a significant amount of Trump voters were affluent — and the vast majority of Trump voters were not working class at all.

What’s more, the “white working class” we think Biden can swoop up and snatch from Trump isn’t so white anymore. The working class is increasingly female and/or people of color. An estimate from 2015 found white working-class people made up 59 percent of the demographic. The Bureau of Labor statistics estimates that by 2032, the working class (people without a college degree, age 25 to 54) will primarily be made up of people of color.

As Kelly notes, “a black nursing aide or Latinx cashier is now as accurate an example of a working-class individual as a white truck driver. The recent case of the striking Marriott hotel workers — a diverse group of workers who were predominantly women and people of color — was a perfect microcosm of the U.S. working class in 2018.” In addition to preaching to firefighters, Biden ought to spend time fist-bumping Hispanic female caregivers and reading up on class and racial inequality. “Prioritizing the slice of white workers that voted for Trump instead of, say, poor and working-class voters of all races who didn’t go to the polls in 2016, makes little sense,” writes Malaika Jabali in Jacobin. “But … establishment Democrats are eagerly citing offhand anecdotes about Biden’s hometown of Scranton, his support from some labor unions and, it seems, simply pointing to his identity as white and male.

None of this prevents Biden from being a legitimate friend and ally to the working class. If politicians wanted to extend a collegiate, faux-calloused hand to pull up the working class a rung, they’d focus on actual policy. The Bureau spells out some specifics:

  • Full employment
  • Equal pay for equal work
  • Universal high-quality child care and early childhood education
  • Strengthened collective bargaining
  • Higher minimum wages
  • Voting rights protections
  • Reforms to immigration and criminal justice systems

The problem is, Biden doesn’t do any of that stuff — he just pretends to. In a review of his record on working-class issues by Gabriel Winant at the Guardian, Biden come up wanting. Winant notes that he’s been endorsed by the International Firefighters Association, and that he is said to have a strong connection with “old-school union guys.” Yet, Winant notes:

At no point in his career has Biden proven willing to take the slightest political risk on behalf of workers. His appearances in union halls occur when he needs something from labor. On the other hand, when Biden went to vacation in the Hamptons during the 2011 Verizon strike, workers in the area sought him out “just to possibly get a show of support, a thumb’s-up, a head nod, anything” — to no avail. That same year in Wisconsin, labor leaders specifically asked Biden to come to rally their resistance to the brutal, ultimately successful attack by Scott Walker; Biden declined.

In fact, I can find reports of only two instances of Biden appearing on a picket line or otherwise supporting embattled workers at any point in his very long public life: once in Iowa, during his 1987 presidential campaign, and just this month in Boston. Now, his first major presidential fundraiser is being hosted by the founder of one of the country’s leading anti-union law firms. The man running to be labor’s champion is sponsored by someone who has made millions choking the life out of the labor movement.

The same can be said for his public policy, which, Winant documents, has seen him working against labor law reform, for mass incarceration and supporting a bankruptcy bill in 2005 to help creditors. Still, Biden name-checks firefighters, cops and tradespeople whenever he can, and at one point he even referenced a coal-mining lineage, though his only coal-working relative was a boss.

This isn’t just a problem of your typical aw-shucks folksy political act, like sliding on a pair of worn-in jeans to seem like you’ve got a little grease under your fingernails, something politicians have been doing since Jimmy Carter to telegraph being a down-home guy, and then copied by Reagan, Bush, Clinton, the other Bush and Obama. (Also, Jimmy Carter was a farmer.) It’s a persona parodied perhaps a little too well by the Onion’s satirical Biden series, depicting Joe in a Trans Am or on a motorcycle, displaying cartoonishly rugged, working-class masculinity.

So what does it mean to be blue-collar, anyway? A lack of resources but a surplus of salt-of-the-earth humility is something that simply can’t be faked: It’s born of hard work and back-breaking labor, of working far too hard for far too little, and of getting by with nothing. Working-class values don’t come from being an evolved, transcendent being — there is no point in romanticizing it — but from having little choice but to survive and rising to the occasion as best as you can.

It’s about being dealt a hand you can’t play any better, a set of economic challenges for which there simply aren’t legs fast enough to outrun. It’s being given the choice of sinking or swimming, and refusing to drown. Like any demographic possible, this experience can produce a wonderfully broad-minded person who appreciates what they have, or a bitter bigot jealously guarding every scrap and every inch of better they can scrounge up. The values that come from it are not something you have to be working class to appreciate or hold, either. I’ve seen extremely wealthy people value frugality, community, loyalty, hard work and humility, too.

The most relatable thing about Biden is his humanity and humility as a person who’s endured tragedy. There’s no question Biden himself has faced horrors I couldn’t possibly imagine and wouldn’t even joke about: He lost his wife and baby to a car accident in 1972, and he lost his surviving son to brain cancer in 2015. But if he wants to get the real working class to trust him, he just needs to talk to them, and not down to them, about the actual issues they face… and then actually do something about them.

At this rate, Biden’s best bet is to win over the actual Trump supporters, not the real working class — which isn’t me, and sure as hell isn’t Biden — because he’s doing a really good job on record and in speeches showing us he’ll hurt families like the one I grew up in. Just as much as Trump already has, and just as much as Biden already did.