Getting Educated about Working Class Whites

[Short Version: A university education is one part vaccine against lies and one part credential for entry into the middle class. Which part explains the split in the white Trump vote? Mostly the vaccination against lying part. So stop using education as a proxy for who’s in the working class!]

There have been a boatload of stories about how “working class whites” swung the US election in favor of Trump. Most of these stories, when you look at them closely, use educational divides to define class. So that:

White working class = non-Hispanic whites without university degrees

And indeed, evidence would seem to indicate that this group swung heavily toward Trump. The response, in many quarters, has been to imagine that white working class voters have been left behind in the de-industrializing economy of the USA. The vote for Trump was a vote to shake up the system, speaking of the pain and marginalization of disenfranchised factory workers and unemployed coal miners – especially in the American heartland. In more nuanced reporting, Trump voters are thought to share a “deep story” of resentment, directed at others “cutting in line” in pursuit of the American dream. (See Isaac Martin‘s thoughtful and critical review of this reporting). But let’s get back to some fundamental measurement issues. Since when was university education just about class, or class just about university education?

To be fair, universities have been selling themselves as the route to upward mobility (and/or maintenance of privilege) for a long time now. And we hear a lot about declining opportunities for those without university degrees, including in research on recent mortality trends. There is also great sociology that conflates these issues, if usually in nuanced form, as in Annette Lareau‘s very teachable Unequal Childhoods, where the big divide documented is labeled as class-based, but mostly concerns the interaction of primary schooling with different parenting styles for those with and without university educations.

Lareau’s work is nuanced and complicated in part because of how she studies education systems. These provide status and privilege directly, through credentialism, offering perhaps the clearest basis for thinking of universities as producing social classes. But Lareau shows how education systems also work in conjunction with distinct sets of parent-child interactions to inculcate particular habits. Some of these are about how to get authorities (like teachers) on your side. But others are more directly about how to use systems to gather and sort through information, as in doctor’s visits. Schools can help kids learn things, especially in conjunction with particular “classed” parental interventions. While Lareau studies elementary schools, the lesson should carry over into universities. In an ideal world (indeed, my ideal world!), university educations aren’t just about getting good jobs and reinforcing class divides. University educations are also about learning; about helping people sort through information. For instance, university educations may assist in discerning truth from lie.

To return to the 2016 presidential election: there’s been a lot of lying going on recently.

So what role did completing a university education play in the 2016 election? Was education primarily about white middle class winners from white working class losers, who correspondingly turned to Trump for their salvation? Or was the role of education primarily about sorting truth from lies?

Armed with the recently released ANES (American National Election Study) 2016 results, I think I can make a pretty strong case for the latter interpretation.

First, to establish some basic points:

Point 1) Education can not be reduced to class (nor vice-versa).

If only we could just ask people what class they belonged to! Then we wouldn’t need to use education as a proxy. ANES 2016 to the rescue! People get to (or are forced to) claim their own class identification. I’ve simplified education and self-assigned class categories (the latter drawing from combining pre- and post-election questions), to see how they fit together. Here’s what I get:


There’s a definite relationship between education and self-assigned class, but it’s not at all a perfect fit. Most people make some choice between defining themselves as working class and middle class, although a few are willing to identify as lower or upper class. What’s striking is that within any given education category, you’ll find all four of these class self-identifications. There’s definitely a relationship, insofar as middle-class and upper-class identification rise with educational level, but there’s plenty of messiness, with a ton of people identifying themselves as middle class without a university degree.

But maybe this is all some kind of false consciousness? How about we run this again by pre-tax annual family income quartile and use that to assign class?


Once again, we see a clear relationship between education and income-assigned class, but it’s far from determinative. In many ways, this is a better comparison, insofar as people aren’t forced to identify with a (culturally poorly defined) class divide between “working” and “middle” and there are a lot more people who fit into the top and bottom quartiles (the quartile cut-offs, for those who care, are $27.5k, $60k, and $100k). But in other ways it’s a worse comparison, insofar as it ignores self-identification as well as important distinctions in both partnership status (adding a dual income can easily move someone up a quartile) and geography (relative income varies a lot by place).

Still, I’ll mostly stick with income quartile assigned class to make a few further observations. After all, family income can tell us a lot about marginalization. If we’re concerned about a white working class that’s been left behind, it might be more important to measure the resources income brings directly rather than thinking of class as a cultural identification. But both could potentially tell us more about marginalization than education.

Home ownership is another marker of middle-class status for many people (hey! Read my book! Or one of many others out there making roughly the same point). So who’s left out of the middle-class in terms of home ownership? Let’s check via our education v. income splits:


By and large, home ownership follows income rather than education. The lower your income quartile, the greater your likelihood of remaining a renter. This shouldn’t be too surprising. Mortgage lenders want to know your income and credit rating, but they really don’t care about your education. Indeed, there’s evidence from the recent past that lenders don’t necessarily want you to read the terms of your loan too closely. Education doesn’t track onto homeownership as a measure of class nearly as well as income. Let’s try a better measure of marginalization, tracking popular discourse about a white working class that’s been left behind. Who is most likely to be unemployed or disabled?


People who are unemployed or disabled mostly show up in the bottom income quartile. There is a shallow relationship to education (more highly educated people look less likely to show up as unemployed or disabled), but it seems to me marginalization is overwhelmingly about being stuck in that bottom income quartile. Those are the people who have truly been left behind. But we might also measure people’s feelings of dissatisfaction with their lot in life more directly – at least in the ANES data, where they’re asked “how satisfied are you with your life as a whole?” Most people are actually pretty satisfied, so here I group together those who are unsatisfied and those just “slightly satisfied.”


Lo and behold: here too I’m seeing mostly a relationship to income. Those in the bottom two quartiles are far more likely to be dissatisfied than those in the top two. To the extent there are relationships with education they look curvilinear, moving in different directions by  income quartile. A case could be made that people experience dissatisfaction both from marginalization in terms of their everyday resources, as well as in terms of the respect they feel their entitled to. I’ll set this aside for the moment to return to a central theme, education is a bad proxy for marginalization.

So if education is a bad proxy for social class insofar as we’re mostly talking about who’s getting (and feeling) marginalized in the USA, then what good IS education? And why does it so powerfully predict who voted for Trump? If we think of university educations not just in terms of the class credentials they provide, but also in terms of the skills at sorting through information we hope they provide, then we might imagine people who complete their university degrees are better at sorting lies from truth. Let’s test this. How does believing Barack Obama is Muslim breakdown by education and income quartile?


Hey! Now THAT looks like an education effect! As a faculty member at a big university, this is somewhat heartening. Maybe with every class I teach, my students are actually getting better at telling truth from lie. It’s working, it’s working! On the other hand, I’m not seeing big or consistent income effects here. This isn’t a class story so much as it’s a truthiness in education story. Completing a university education, working through all of those core classes in addition to electives, can provide an inoculation, of sorts, against lying. We’ve developed an effective vaccine against con-men! It’s called the university! (Not 100% effective, I know, but not half-bad).

So how does education versus income quartile play out in predicting a vote for Trump among those who actually bothered to vote?


Wow! There’s that education effect again!

Trump lies all the time. It’s pretty well documented. Those most likely to fall for the con are those least inoculated against it. This is not a straightforward story about the marginalization of the “white working class” (a story that always occludes the marginalization of everyone who isn’t white). Once you control for education in who voted for Trump, class effects either disappear, or actually turn back toward their “normal” alignment (more marginalized folks voting for more supportive candidates). Controlling for education, the unemployed and disabled tended to vote against Trump, as did renters. These election results were never about an uprising of the downtrodden (the dissatisfied on the other hand, tended to vote for Trump, which speaks perhaps to the more complicated relationship we might imagine between satisfaction in life and feelings of entitlement). Education was the big effect we saw in an election rife with misinformation – much of it weaponized against American democracy. Controlling for something as simple as people believing that “Obama is Muslim,” reduces the education effect considerably. The viral lies were effective once they got past our defenses.

So here’s a positive lesson from this election: if I sometimes doubted the value of my job prior to 2016, I can now rest a little easier. Universities aren’t just about reifying privilege, so it’s time to stop using degrees as a shortcut for talking about social class! And it’s time to take seriously what we’re doing in terms of helping people sort the truth from the lies. [In case you’re wondering, yes, it’s possible this whole post can be read as a pep talk to get myself to finish my grading…]



Here’s a full logistic regression model predicting a Trump vote, for those intrigued by such things:


I’ll readily admit that I’m a novice with ANES data – this is the first time I’ve played around it. I ran it through my old version of Stata 10. Happy to share my Stata code (as .pdf) Do-file-text


Squat Teams

The Guardian reports on a team of squatters, the Autonomous Nation of Anarchist Libertarians (yes, that’s ANAL), and their takeover of a mansion in Central London, purchased and left empty by a Russian oligarch since 2014.  As noted by a representative of the team, which has repeatedly taken over empty mansions:

It is criminal that there are so many homeless people and at the same time so many empty buildings. Our occupation is highlighting this injustice.*

Squatting is an inherently political act, and here it’s also something of an art form. But this squat is temporary; more like performance art than marble carving. A possession order is scheduled to be heard in court on January 31st to take the mansion back for the oligarch.

So what does it take to make a squat last?

Turning to more familiar shores, the shacks below were built and inhabited by squatters on Stanley Park in Vancouver in the early decades of the Twentieth Century.


For a long time, squatters were a regular and visible feature of Vancouver. They can still be found if you know where to look, but outside of performance art squats, as with the Woodwards Squat, they’re largely forced into maintaining invisibility. Steve Borik’s tidy little tarp-shack set up on an empty lot along the Fraser River is a case in point. He was able to live there for months, nice and quiet, until transit police stumbled over his shack in 2015.

As a general rule, squats and squatter communities no longer seem to successfully establish themselves in the UK, the US, Canada, or Australia. There are exceptions (like Dignity Village in Portland, up and running at its present site since 2001). And there have also been attempts to revive squatting as a movement, especially after the wave of foreclosures associated with the Great Recession of 2008. But contrast these experiments with much longer-running squats elsewhere, like Christiania in Copenhagen, Denmark. Or even better, look to informal settlements in Mexico City, Delhi, and a wide variety of other cities.

So what determines why squats last as living communities in some places, while appearing more like performance art in others? Is the English colonial and common-law system to blame for developing in such a way to squash squats flat as soon as they spring to life? Is there something about settler societies, founded upon enclosure, dispossession, and active ignorance of competing claims, that leads to especially vigorous state interventions to clarify ownership? Fun ideas for future research, especially in light of the forthcoming workshop on Property Law in the City at UBC’s Allard Law School.


*- It’s worth noting that on quick glance, both the numbers of homeless and the numbers of empty buildings in London appear to be low, adjusting for the size of the city, relative to places like Vancouver. Also: London (and England in general) has a lot more social housing!


Detachment and Democracy

In my book I suggest that houses make poor habitat for democracy. The big argument here, I think, is that houses tend to prioritize control over private space. In so doing they generally encourage detachment from public life. Houses suggest we can cut ourselves and our families off from those around us rather than investing in ways of figuring out how to live together. The “single-family detached” house reifies the notion that the only ties that matter are those of kinship, cutting off our obligations to the broader social world. As I describe in my book, and as further detailed in the work of historians like Frykman & Löfgren (see their excellent book Culture Builders) and John Gillis, this was a strategic move on the part of a rising urban middle-class in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Housing was meant to serve as both a stage for demonstrating moral worth and a sanctuary from the moral claims of others (the latter rendered obsolete by the extension of market governance).

In a broader sense, most houses are surrounded by other houses. That’s a legacy of zoning, of course. But it tends to insure that even when residents leave their housing, they don’t have many public places to go, and to the extent they bump into anyone, their encounters tend to be with people much like themselves.* As described by a variety of political theorists (from Susan Bickford to Thad Williamson to the wonderful Iris Marion Young), who we regularly run into influences who we think we need to take into account in our politics. In much the same way that getting our news through social media tends to provide us only a very partial picture of the world, surrounding ourselves with similar people does much the same, and tends to lead us toward intolerance of difference.

So too many houses is concerning for collective projects like democracy. On a related note, there is a very strong correlation (r=0.82) at the state-level between the proportion of structures made up of detached houses and the proportion of votes that went to Donald Trump. Here’s the scatterplot:


Housing data come from Census (American Fact Finder) 2010-2014 ACS 5-year estimates. Vote data comes from (thanks Dave Leip), and of course is subject to change – especially as recounts get under way! And yes, the correlation is still quite strong if you remove Washington DC (r=0.74) or drop mobile homes (r=0.76), bivariate analyses I’ve already tried (all are defensible variations on the theme). I haven’t run the analyses yet, but at the county level, you’d likely get similar results, if not stronger. More urbanized counties voted heavily for Clinton, as you can see mapped out here (and let’s not forget that she won the popular vote).

So did the USA build its way to Donald Trump? There’s a correlation and a plausible connection, fitting with an alarming streak of intolerance running through the Trump campaign. But there’s also Vermont and New Mexico (one of my home states!), clear outliers from the pattern. Other stories might be told as well and surely will be in the months to come, but this one’s definitely worth keeping in mind.**


*-that said, suburbs are getting more diverse! See, for example, Christopher Niedt’s book.

**-for instance the historical association between racism and zoning in the USA is also worth noting, with the persistence of racism possibly playing a role in both the way zoning has configured the housing stock and the 2016 vote (see, for instance, Dorceta Taylor’s work on some of these connections)…

“Ride This Out” and Housing Summit Slides

In my last post, I combined a Leonard Cohen theme (“You Want it Darker“) with somewhat cathartic musings about the US election, in which the nation seems to have declared 2016 the Year of the Scary Clown. The next day, I found out Leonard Cohen had died.  Technically, he appears to have died before I wrote the post, which is important because I don’t want to risk causing the deaths of any other beloved musicians. On that note, here’s a bit more of a rousing theme about riding out the election results and getting back to work (please don’t die, Imaginary Cities!):

Also, the slides from my talk for the Vancouver Re:Address Summit on Housing and the Future of City Building have now been posted.* The background image is from a photo I took of a lovely mural over on Vancouver’s East Side, where the row of houses just doesn’t quite fit into the urban scene. Funny that.

*For some reason, I think whoever posted the slides thought my first name was “Michael”

You want it darker…

So America’s taken a turn for the dark, and a page out of the songbook of Leonard Cohen.

The vote suggests a turn toward a darker vision of America as it currently exists, painting a bleak picture of a rigged system put in place by a self-interested elite living side-by-side with a misled multicultural mob in the hellish cityscapes along the coasts.

I don’t recognize this vision. And I’m not sure how many others do. The polls failed us, suggesting somewhere between a 71% to 99%+ likelihood of a Clinton win (credit where it’s due, Nate Silver at least got the uncertainty right! I long suspected and hoped that Sam Wang was closer). We seem to have ushered in a new, dark age in polling, long feared, but until recently mostly postponed, at least in US politics.  Here, too, we’ve taken a turn for the dark.

And of course, we have no idea what Trump will do as president.He’s promised to “Make America Great Again,” suggesting a return to a glorious, and largely imaginary past. It’s true, income inequality during and after WWII, under FDR, hit all-time lows, according to Picketty and Saez, only to take off again in the 1980s under Reagan.


To be sure, much of the decline in income inequality seemed connected to a broadly prosperous working class and large manufacturing base. But I have a hard time seeing a Republican government successfully bring this back, especially given widespread antagonism to the unions that often made this work. I have a much easier time seeing Republicans attempting to “make American great again” by curtailing the rights of women and minorities. This, of course, is the vision of where the alt-right wants to take us, and it’s squarely in-line with the Trump campaign.  Here, too, America has taken a turn for the dark. Possibly very, very dark.

A Republican government will own the next two years (at least) and possibly longer. The (in my view likely) failure of this government to enact policies that will make anything better for either the vast majority of people who voted for them, or for those who didn’t may move us toward a political re-alignment in the long term, favoring some set of Democrats and responsible Republicans. But the temptation will be there for Republicans to instead pin the blame for their (likely) failures on imaginary internal and external foes. This temptation has basically been Trump’s entire campaign. It’s too easy to imagine it taking hold in a wider form, even if I hadn’t just read through Philip Roth’s excellent The Plot Against America this past year.  You want it darker?  It doesn’t get much darker than the macho victimhood of fascism.

If there’s an even darker lining to all of this darkness, it’s that Trump seems to be a liar, a con-man, and a narcissist. He hasn’t played well with his fellow Republicans. Who knows what he’ll do in power?  Maybe he’ll just use his position to enrich himself and sell more stuff. I fear he will try to make good on his promises, but I take some small, weird measure of comfort from his failure to do so in the past and the fact that I remain so thoroughly in the dark about how things will turn out.

You want it darker? We kill the flame.