Institutional Drift of the Working Class

Has something happened to our working class? While much of my research has focused on racial inequalities in America, these investigations usually don’t leave me too far from the broader matter of social class inequalities. When sociologists talk about social inequalities we usually are referring to those who are making low wages or those who are classified in poverty. In class I tend to refer to them as a vulnerable population since many students are working minimum wage jobs and don’t always connect their experience with the concept of being part of the working class.  For the most part the “returns on education,” particularly college education, is still better than no college education-so for many of these students they intuitively know, or hope, that their job at Ann Taylor or as library assistant is temporary until they land a “real job,” the one that their college degree promises.

The message regarding those in poverty and the working poor is usually the same: life is pretty hard, as this online experiment shows (very useful by the way in teaching). Your pay is just sufficient enough to get by as long as you never get sick, don’t get your hours cut, or have a major transportation problem that leaves you showing up for work late (and potentially fired as a result). You’re more often exposed to natural elements, harsh chemicals, and dangerous machinery which can cause bodily harm if you’re not careful. Typical examples include: migrant agrarian workers, waste management, restaurant staff, valet parking workers, fast food employees, building custodians. Millions of Americans who won’t attain a college degree earn their livelihood from these jobs.

When I read about the recent finding that more than 50% of births to women under 30 occur outside of marriage, (which fellow blogger Mark Regnerus described), this could be interpreted as an increasing lack of interest or valuing the institution of marriage in raising a child. When I looked more carefully at the figures, it turns out that largest increase in non-marital birth happens to women under 30 with less than a college degree. This sounds like the working class.

This reminded me of the studies that link self-reports of “no religion” with class, particularly education. As you might guess, it’s those with lower education that show the lowest amount of church attendance. Bear in mind, there is an increasing percentage of Americans that are reporting “no religion” as well.

When I put these pieces together, I get a picture that the working class is most affected by changes in social institutions, and generally it seems like there has been a growing drift away from the institutions of marriage and religion. Generally from the view of religiously identified Americans, this drift from these major institutions is not a good sign. But even if one is not religious, some research suggests that participation in marriage and religious groups are generally associated with desirable outcomes such as greater material prosperity [link]. If that’s the case, then perhaps part of the puzzle of the widening gap between rich and poor is reflected also in institutional participation. Again I hesitate to say that there’s a causal link, but they seem to be happening at the same time. Not surprisingly too, if this drift away from marriage and religious participation is in some way linked to class, we’re referring to at least 46 million Americans that are below poverty in more than 9 million families.

In the spirit of dialogue and conversation, I invite readers, especially those from the various Christian traditions, to help me understand the linkages I suggest earlier and consider the following:

Within a couple of decades, a significant part of the adult population, perhaps upwards to half, may not have been raised in a conventional nuclear two-parent household. Moreover, the class of Americans who will most exemplify this pattern will be those who are increasingly unchurched in general. Are our churches prepared to meet this emerging generation?

Second, I ask Christians in particular whether we have unintentionally helped this pattern emerge by paying more attention to our church building plans and programs, and “protecting” our children through greater social isolation from the lower classes via “safer neighborhoods” and homeschooling? Since we don’t give all that much why do we not consider giving a little more toward efforts that reach more of these vulnerable among us?

  • Lois Uptigrove

    One thought that comes to my mind following your question of whether or not church will be able to reach this generation raised outside of nuclear two parent family, is why would we have any credibility in reaching them later when we have “no room” for them and their families now? Your closing paragraph seems to focus on outreach or assistance to the underclass – but not inclusion. The homogeneity of most churches is such a sad failing of our understanding of the unity of the Gospel calling.


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