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Posted on Mon, Sep 24, 2012 : 9:13 a.m.

White working-class Americans: Busting myths!

By Wayne Baker

0924ov Coal Miners monument in West Virginia.jpg

A Proud Coal Miner by sculptor Burl Jones. Coast to coast, America is dotted with monuments to the working class. This is one of the newer bronze statues in the U.S., dedicated in 2002 on the grounds of the West Virginia capitol complex in Charleston.

Editor's note: This post is part of a series by Dr. Baker on Our Values about core American values. This week Dr. Baker is busting myths about white working-class America.

What do we know about the third of all Americans who are members of the white working-class? I grew up in a white working-class family so I figured I knew a lot. I was wrong, according to just-released results from a survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute.

This is a group often talked about, this year, by pollsters, politicians and pundits. As a group, white working-class Americans are defined as non-Hispanic whites who don’t have a college degree and don’t work for a salary.

There are plenty of stereotypes about white working-class Americans:

They’re members of the Tea Party.

They care more about “culture war” issues than other Americans do.

They vote against their economic interests.

They don’t work hard, compared to other Americans.

But—all of these are myths! Let’s look at the data point by point.

TEA PARTY? Only 13 percent of white working-class Americans strongly identify with the Tea Party. About 10 percent of white college-educated Americas do, too. About a third (34 percent) of the white working class say their values align with Tea Party values, while almost the same proportion (31 percent) of college-educated whites say the same.

ECONOMIC INTERESTS? They don’t tend to vote against their economic interests. This year, political observers argue that supporting Romney would be against working-class interests, especially poor working-class interests, because his economic plan would cut funding for food stamps and other social-support programs widely used by this group. Here’s what the survey shows: Poor white working-class Americans are less likely to support Romney than Obama. Those who have received food stamps are also less likely to say they will vote for Romney. In fact, this was part of the argument Romney struggled to describe in the now-infamous “47-percent” video clip.

CULTURE WAR? White working-class Americans are not unified when it comes to culture war issues. They are almost evenly split on the question of legal abortion. Half oppose same-sex marriage, but 43 percent support it. The most critical issue is the economy, not the culture war.

WORK ETHIC? The work ethic has not faltered among white working-class Americans. On average, they put in a longer workweek than do white college-educated Americans.

These are just a few of the myths shattered by the PRRI study. But conventional wisdom isn’t always wrong. Join us tomorrow when we discuss conventional wisdom about the white working class that turns out to be correct.

Are you a member of the white working class?

Did you grow up in a working-class family?

What do you know about this third of all Americans?

Wayne Baker is a sociologist on the faculty of the University of Michigan Ross School of Business. Baker blogs daily at Our Values and can be reached at or on Facebook.