Editor’s Note: Tamara Draut is vice president of policy and research at Demos Action, the political arm of the progressive think tank Demos. Draut is the author of the book, “Sleeping Giant: How America’s New Working Class Will Transform America.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Tamara Draut: The notion of working class as male is obsolete. Women have poured into this group
Draut: Candidates must show this critical voting bloc they grasp need for fair wages, fair work schedules, child care and more
The working class has been getting a lot of attention about how it’ll vote this election cycle. While it seems to be conventional wisdom that the working class supports Donald Trump, a deeper look reveals that this group is not as one-dimensional as many assume.
Decades ago, the working class was largely white and male — those blue-collar workers who heaved and hoisted America to unprecedented prosperity.
But today’s working class no longer fits this archetype, though the image endures in the American imagination. More than one-third of today’s working class are people of color, and among the young working class, those aged 25-34, nearly half are people of color. And today, a full 2 out of 3 working class women are in the labor force, up from just over half in 1980.
Today’s working class isn’t shuttered away in factories. It is comprised in large part of women who earn their living in caring for and serving America – clocking into jobs in the retail, fast food, home health care, housekeeping and child care industries, to name a few. These working class women usually do not have four-year college degrees and they are paid by the hour, rather than drawing an annual salary.
With just a few weeks left in this election cycle, the presidential candidates still have work to do to earn the trust and support of this critical voting bloc – something that can only be achieved by understanding what working-class women care about and finally engaging in a substantive conversation on the issues that affect their lives.
I was raised in a working-class family in Ohio, and have witnessed firsthand the downward mobility and gripping insecurity of the working class. The union paychecks, stable schedules and decent benefits of my dad’s generation are gone. In their place is a labor market often characterized by low-pay and too-few hours — or ones that are constantly changing – few benefits such as paid sick days and little protection from wage theft or mercurial front-line managers.
So it’s no surprise that what keeps working-class women up at night are pocketbook issues. Their earnings shape the family budget and they are often forced to make painful decisions about how to spend each and every dollar, such as foregoing groceries to pay the rent. They want dignity on the job and for their work to be seen as valued and valuable.
In my dozens of interviews with working class women across the country, a common refrain has echoed: They feel invisible in our politics, our economy and our culture. They feel that our political leaders don’t care about their struggles or their aspirations – from the daily grind of balancing work and caregiving to the dream of giving their children a better future through college, without saddling them with crippling debt.
We are at an exciting time for working women. Gone is the culture war about whether women with young children should work, as a new generation has grown up with the expectation that mothers can support their households, with positive benefits for their families and their children.
A growing number of states and cities are passing innovative policies (or at least seriously debating them), such as fair scheduling, ending pregnancy discrimination, equal pay for equal work, paid family leave and affordable child care and college education.
In January 2015, San Francisco passed the nation’s first Retail Worker’s Bill of Rights, which among other things requires schedules to be posted two weeks in advance and mandates workers be compensated fairly when sent home from a shift early. This year, 13 states and four localities have considered some form of predictable scheduling legislation, with Seattle passing a secure scheduling law, Washington, D.C. coming very close, and Mayor De Blasio throwing his support and leadership behind a New York City bill.
Paid family leave is now a reality for workers in five states, with many more considering legislation. This spring, New York passed the most comprehensive paid family leave law in the country — offering nearly all workers in the state 12 weeks of paid leave.
In last week’s presidential debate – the final and most substantive of this race – working-class women did have the chance to hear a little more about the issues motivating them in this election. They heard from Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton on her debt-free college plan, which would guarantee an affordable higher education option at our public colleges and universities for families with an income of less than $125,000.
Raising the minimum wage, enacting equal pay for women and the importance of access to pre-kindergarten also secured brief but significant mentions by Secretary Clinton, while Donald Trump was silent on these topics.
But there are many pocketbook concerns for working-class women – from fair scheduling to pregnancy discrimination to wage theft – that have yet to break through.
These issues must be on the table of the new administration. The reality is that the largest source of jobs in our economy are working-class jobs, requiring little education, if any, beyond high school. This is the bargain-basement economy of our present and future – jobs disproportionately done by women.
The next president can and should commit to making every job in the United States a good job — and this should be given same priority and urgency both candidates have given to reviving manufacturing jobs. Why? Reality: In 2015 the service industry hit its peak, employing over 121.6 million workers, 10 times that of manufacturing, which has continued a steady shed of millions since the late seventies.
Working-class women want and need to hear what Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will have to say about the issues that will determine their future. In these final weeks until Election Day, let’s hope that they get some answers.