Yesterday, Christine had called Dave on her way up to the cottage. He told her he hoped to join her that night. But he had a home-repair job to finish—the housing bust all but eradicated new-home construction in Detroit, so Dave handles less-lucrative repair and remodels now—and he was already sounding pessimistic that he’d make it on time, if at all.
Waiting for Dave, Christine and her sister-in-law sit with their feet atop the break wall, watching from the front yard of the cottage as their children play in the waves. “You’ve got to hope it will get better for your kids,” Christine says. “If not, what do you have?” The children will need more education that she got, but college tuition is getting out of reach. “It’s a vicious cycle.”
Those attitudes typify the working-class white perspective across the country. A recent Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor poll found that whites without college degrees are just as likely to believe they have fewer opportunities than their parents did as they are to believe they have more. Only a quarter of whites believe that their children will have more chances to get ahead than they do.
Dave Miller wrestles with pessimism, too. “I’m going to work my ass off to see [my children] have better opportunities than us,” he says over breakfast at a Detroit-area diner. He just finished a 24-hour shift at the station and needs to wrap up that home repair. The cottage will have to wait.
For blacks in South Carolina, the road into the working class ran from fields to cities and factories. Tierra Stewart’s grandmother, Betty Stewart, picked cotton in Union County when soybeans, peach trees, and apple orchards also dotted the landscape there. Agriculture eventually yielded to the booming textile industry, and then to factories where Tierra’s aunts and uncle worked eight-hour shifts baking frozen dinners and building luxury cars.
Nationally, about two-thirds of blacks believe they enjoy greater economic opportunity than their parents did at the same age, double the percentage for whites, according to the Heartland Monitor poll. Only one in eight say they have less opportunity. Nearly three in five believe that their children will find even more chances to get ahead than they have.
It’s easy to see why Tierra believes she’ll do better than her parents. Her mother shuttled between jobs, working for an Adidas plant or for the payroll department of a health care company. Tierra never remembers her father holding down steady work apart from the occasional construction job. Later, he landed in jail for fatally shooting his girlfriend in a domestic dispute.
Tierra’s best economic role model today is her Aunt Cynthia, her closest relative to go to college. Cynthia and her husband of 23 years live in a planned community with a well-manicured lawn and a spotlessly clean truck in the driveway. Cynthia is a social worker who deals with troubled youth. She offered her car when Tierra’s broke down, and she often bails her niece out when something goes wrong. Like Cynthia, most of Tierra’s aunts and uncles own their homes. They buy new cars. Occasionally, they take vacations (a few of them recently returned from a wedding in Las Vegas). They’ve worked for the same factories or companies for 10, 13, 17, or 30 years, jobs with health insurance.
The family members in Tierra’s generation enjoy less security, but they dream bigger. Tierra has round cheeks and a wide smile, and she looks young enough to be in high school. Her voice is quiet and low. At work, she wears gold hoop earrings and pulls her hair into a tiny bun; at home, she prefers jeans and fitted T-shirts, a sharp contrast to how she dresses Quay—in colorful, brand-name polo shirts, ironed shorts, and white socks.
After high school, Tierra made $8.90 per hour at the Wal-Mart bakery. But then she earned a certificate as a nursing assistant from Spartanburg Community College in May 2009 and quickly found work in the booming medical field. Now she works at homes for senior citizens and disabled people, making $10.55. “Grandma Betty was picking cotton in the fields when she was my age,” she says. “My life is better.”
Tierra and her 24-year-old brother, Antwan Booker, both harbor dreams of returning to college, securing middle-class—even corporate—jobs, and leaving South Carolina, if not for work then at least for vacation. Tierra wants to become a hospital nurse, a job that she’s heard pays as much as $28 per hour. After three years of job searching, Antwan now makes $17 an hour at a paper plant, but he hopes, someday, to land an accounting position at a big bank in Charlotte, N.C., where he might earn enough to buy season tickets for the Panthers or the Bobcats.
Their aspirations embody the relentless optimism of black Americans. Typically, the younger you are, the more hopeful you are about the future. A Pew Mobility Project analysis this spring found that, holding all other factors constant, being black was “equivalent to knocking 20 years off one’s age in terms of hopefulness.”