Every once in a while, I stumble upon some data that catches me off-guard. This is one of those times.
Census data show that in our rapidly growing state, the size of the white working-class population — that’s demographic shorthand for white adults without a four-year college degree — has barely budged since the start of this decade.
The reason I was looking at this data is because the midterm elections are just around the corner, and this demographic group is of particular interest. They played a key role in the 2016 presidential election. According to Pew Research Center, 64 percent of non-college-educated whites voted nationally for Donald Trump, compared with just 28 percent for Hillary Clinton.
This demographic has becoming increasingly aligned with the GOP in recent years, and now makes up a huge chunk of the party’s base. And in Washington, its numbers are stagnant.
The state’s total population grew by about 10 percent between 2010 and 2017, but the number of white people without a college degree, age 25 and older, flatlined at a little less than 2.4 million. And because this group hasn’t kept pace with the rest of the state’s growth, its share of the population has declined remarkably fast.
Census data show that at the start of the decade, white folks without a college degree represented the majority (52 percent) of Washington’s population age 25 and older. That majority is now gone. By 2017, it had fallen to 46 percent.
We see this trend at the county level in Washington, too. The Census Bureau publishes data for the state’s 19 most populous counties. In 18 of those, the non-college-educated white population declined as a percentage of the population in this decade. The sole exception is Grays Harbor, which also happens to be a county that flipped for Trump in 2016.
Meanwhile, the college-educated white population in Washington is gaining share, having grown at a rate twice the statewide average since 2010.
I checked to see if what’s happening in Washington is also happening in other states. It is, although the trend is more pronounced here than in most.
The white working class is losing population share in all 50 states. Not only do you see it in those states where this demographic makes up the overwhelming majority, like West Virginia and Kentucky, but also in states where the white working class is only a small percentage of the population, like Hawaii and California.
In fact, the white working class is not just receding as a share of the population in the U.S. The size of this population is also shrinking.
Nationally, the number of white adults without a college degree has dropped by about 3.6 million since 2010, and now stands at 92.3 million.
There is no parallel among the black, Latino, or Asian populations without a college degree, which all increased in this period.
So what’s causing the non-college-educated white population to shrink?
At least some of it is a due to the rate of college enrollment, which has been on the rise. When a person graduates from college, naturally, he or she shifts into a new demographic category.
But that doesn’t explain everything, says William R. Emmons, assistant vice president and economist at the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank, and who has written about the decline in measures of well-being for the white working class.
“It’s clearly not a story about race alone or about class alone,” he said. “White college graduates, as a group, are doing well.”
Indeed, Emmons’ research found that white households headed by someone with a college degree have made significantly greater gains on measures of wealth and income than similarly educated black and Latino households, further widening the gap.
Conversely, fortunes for white working-class households have declined, even as black and Latino working-class families have made some progress on many measures.
“There’s an overarching notion of an incredible amount of stress,” he said of this demographic segment. “We see it in declining population, in very weak income, declining wealth and homeownership, declining marriage rate. And then health really stands out.”
Emmons points to the spike in the mortality rates as one of the primary factors behind this group’s population decline. Working-class white adults have experienced a sharp rise in deaths from overdose, liver disease and suicide. We see this troubling trend among middle-age white people in Washington, for whom the death rate has been rising.
Emmons’ research shows a sharp decline over the past several decades in the percentage of non-college-educated whites who identify as being in good or excellent health. But for black and Latino people with the same education, health assessments have improved in this period.
Another related factor to the declining population numbers, more generally, is age. The white population in the U.S. is older, with a median age of about 44 years in 2017. That is significantly higher than it is for black (34 years), Latino (29 years), and Asian (37 years) people, according to census data.
This trend will surely have wide-ranging effects, including political repercussions. Non-college-educated white people make up the majority of Republican voters, at 59 percent, according to Pew. For Democrats, this demographic represents just 33 percent of voters.
With so much of its base made up of a demographic group that is losing population share in every state, this is a trend that could spell trouble for the Republican party.
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