In Detroit, Dave Miller and his friends wrap their anger in a code word: “subsidation.” It’s a 50-cent synonym that rests on the tongues of Macomb County’s white working class like sour milk. They don’t use the “N” word. For a five-figure salary and overtime, Dave protects lives and property in a black neighborhood, but he will talk your ear off about “welfare cheats” and the essential unfairness of affirmative action. “It’s a generational apathy,” he says, “and they keep getting more and more [apathetic] because they don’t have to work.”
Dave and his family know whom to blame for their economic plight. They blame white neighbors who borrowed to buy big houses they couldn’t afford and then walked away when the payments grew too expensive. They blame a government “welfare state” that punishes workers like Dave and rewards minorities. Dave’s in-laws blame Dave’s generation for spending too little time with their kids and too much money on Christmas presents. Some family members even blame themselves: Dave’s sister-in-law, Lauri Angeleri, recoils in shame at signing her children up for state health benefits when her husband lost his job. “When I filled out that form, I felt this big,” Lauri says, holding her thumb and finger an inch apart. “I never thought I would have to take a handout. It was humiliating.”
Dave’s mother-in-law, Carol Angeleri, typifies the family’s worry about the future. “Our grandchildren,” she says, “are going to have a terrible time.”
That’s the sense of stagnation that white working-class families across the country feel in the wake of the Great Recession, says Erin Currier, project director for Pew’s Economic Mobility Project. Latino immigrants have, in the past half-century, seen their families race from poor villages toward the middle class.
African-Americans have won major gains in civil rights. Those groups can say, “I’m in a better place than my parents were,” Currier says. “Their optimism is reflective of major social and economic changes that maybe other people”—white people—“take for granted.”
That’s certainly how Marcia Soto Rochel feels. Every morning, she, her sisters, and a niece gather in the kitchen of one of Marcia’s sisters. They drink hot water with herbal supplements and protein shakes, watching Mexican television and talking through the world’s problems. Marcia will tell you she doesn’t trust banks or the government, and she says she worries that Americans don’t manufacture anything anymore. But she never points fingers. Too many Americans are angry, she says. Too many live in fear of losing their good life. “When you are afraid, I can do with you what I want,” Marcia says. “And I am not afraid.”
Broadly speaking, polls show that working-class Latinos and blacks are far less likely than whites to blame their economic struggles on the government—and more likely to support government intervention to bolster the economy. In the Allstate/NJ Heartland Monitor poll, pluralities of blacks and Latinos said that government “must play an active role in regulating the marketplace and ensuring the economy benefits people like me.” A plurality of whites, on the other hand, agreed with the statement, “Government is not the solution to our economic problems; government is the problem.”
That divide helps explain the country’s increased political polarization. It also illuminates a hurdle for President Obama’s reelection campaign. Pessimistic whites are deserting a president who explicitly views government as an economic tool, not a hindrance. To replace lost white voters in his electoral coalition, Obama likely needs to increase his appeal to minorities—particularly Latinos—whom many whites see as undeserving recipients of government support.
Tierra Stewart says she trusts government institutions to take care of her when she needs it. (Medicaid, after all, insures her son.) But she declined to go on welfare after Quay was born, to the relief of her Aunt Cynthia, who warns her social-work clients that they’ll have to depend on society for their entire lives. “Never once did Tierra get that lay-about syndrome or get that typical idea that you get pregnant, you get on welfare, you get your own place, and let the system support you,” Cynthia says. “Tierra still talks about going to school.”
Although Tierra manages to save a few hundred dollars a month, any shift in her monthly finances—a broken car, a higher-than-expected electric bill—can throw her off. The other looming threat is another pregnancy: Tierra’s boyfriend wants a kid. Aunt Cynthia has begged her not to have another until she settles down and marries.
It wouldn’t be the end of the world, of course, but a child now could temporarily derail Tierra’s nursing ambitions. It took her several months to scrounge up the money just to get her nursing-assistant certificate. “People don’t just have $700 lying around,” she says, and college costs much more. But she is confident that her dreams will come true eventually.