The 'Working Class' Becomes Less White
The "working class" usually conjures the image of a low-wage laborer, who never got a college degree, doesn't sit in a cubicle, and doesn't wear a suit. He is also a "he," and a white one too, just like his male proletarian forebears. But racial minorities make up an ever greater percentage of this group. In New York City's construction industry, a traditional pillar of the working class, white employees are a shrinking minority.
White workers went from 48 percent of the city's construction industry in 2009 to 40 percent in 2010, according to the Census Bureau survey. White men still make up a majority of construction workers in this country, but Hispanics are significantly overrepresented; they make up 14 percent of the U.S. labor force, but almost a quarter of all construction workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
In New York City, however, the percentage of Hispanic construction workers actually fell by 5 percent between 2009 and 2010 to 36 percent of the labor force, slightly less than the 8 percent drop for whites. The gains were solely among blacks and Asians, by 2 percent and a whopping 12 percent, respectively.
"New York City's construction industry has been and remains a vital source of meaningful employment opportunities for recent immigrants and residents of all educational backgrounds," said New York Building Congress President Richard Anderson.
The Working Class Crumbles
Construction, along with other solidly working class industries, like manufacturing and farmwork, have long provided the first stepping stone for immigrants, whether it was the Irish who helped construct our country's canals and railroads, the Germans who became the majority of our Midwestern farmers, or the Italians and Eastern European Jews who helped build America's garment industry into the envy of the world.
But these industries are crumbling. Since October 2000, the U.S. lost almost a third of its manufacturing jobs, which translates into 5.5 million layoffs. With fewer building projects in the last few hard-pressed years, cascades of construction workers have found themselves without a paycheck. In New York City, this industry declined 3.8 percent between 2009 and 2010.
As technology and the relocation of industries offshore continue to vaporize these jobs on American soil, there is little hope of recovery. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts just 1.7 percent annual growth in the construction industry by 2018.
The damage to these sectors could help explain the growing racial wealth gap. The median household worth of whites fell from $135,000 in 2005 to $113,000 in 2009, but for Hispanics it plummeted by two-thirds, from $18,000 to $6,000, according to the Pew Research Center.
This diverse image of the working class is largely absent from our screens. The working class in general has been invisible in the media for most of the last half century, since the bus driver husband and homemaker wife of the "Honeymooners" gave way to the upper middle class household of "Leave It to Beaver."
But in the last few years the working class has reappeared in the reality genre. But the representation isn't particularly inclusive. The fishermen of "Deadliest Catch," the long-haul drivers of "Ice Road Truckers," the loggers in "Ax Men," and the oil riggers of "Black Gold" are almost exclusively white.
The stories of working class immigrants and minorities are rarely told, like the fact that almost half of construction workers in New York City do not have health insurance, or that Hispanics have the highest rate of work-related fatalities.
In order to climb off the lowest rung before it fully collapses, education, as always, is the answer. If you are born into the lowest earning fifth of the population, but get a four-year degree, you are four times as likely to climb your way up into the top earning fifth. The professional, scientific, and technical industries are expected to boom in the coming decade, and a degree in science, technology, engineering, or math, experts remind us over and over, is the ticket to a long and lucrative career.
Unfortunately, only one in six employed Hispanics who are 25 or over have a bachelor's degree, less than half the number for working whites. But in one figure, Hispanics are outshining the rest. Between 2002 and 2007, Hispanic-owned businesses grew at twice the national average. Small businesses are the much ballyhooed engine of this economy, and ones owned by Hispanics are the fastest growing slice of the small business pie.
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Claire Gordon has contributed to Slate's DoubleX, the Huffington Post, and the book Prisons: Current Controversies. While an undergraduate at Yale University and a research fellow at Yale graduate school, she spoke on panels at Yale and Cornell, and reported from Cairo, Tokyo, and Berlin.
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