Expert Commentary

Beyond guns and god: The complexities of the white working class in America

2012 report from the Public Religion Research Institute on the cultural and political beliefs of white working-class Americans.

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According to a 2012 Pew Research Center survey, less than half of Americans (39%) say that abortion should be illegal in most or all cases and about half (49%) say supporting gun rights is more important than gun control. Members of America’s white working class are generally considered to be more conservative than the population as a whole, but does this demographic really subscribe to such conservative beliefs, or are its attitudes growing more diverse over time?

A 2012 study from the Public Religion Research Institute, “Beyond Guns and God: Understanding the Complexities of the White Working Class in America,” created a profile of non-Hispanic, non-salaried workers without four-year college degrees; this demographic constitutes 36% of the U.S. population. Researchers conducted phone interviews with more than 2,500 randomly selected individuals on topics including politics, gun possession, same-sex marriage, job prospects, consumer preferences and abortion rights. The survey took place over a 13-day period in August, 2012.

Key study findings include:

  • Less than 1 in 20 working-class Americans said that abortion (3%), immigration (3%) or same-sex marriage (2%) is important to gain their vote.
  • A majority (53%) said the economy is the central issue; approximately 8 out of 10 blame corporations for job losses to foreign countries.  Approximately 3 out of 10 survey respondents reported that the labor movement shares their values, nearly the same percentage of all Americans.
  • About 30% identified as Republican; 28% as Democrats and 38% as independent. Only 13% considered themselves members of the Tea Party. Whatever their stated political alignment, however, they were more likely to say they will vote Republican (48% versus 35%) than Democratic in the 2012 election.
  • Respondents in the Northeast held more liberal views and than those in the South. For example, abortion rights were supported by Northeastern participants (59%) but opposed by significant numbers of their Southern counterparts (42%); legalizing same-sex marriage found favor in the Northeast (57%) but less support in the South (37%).
  • “Nearly two-thirds (64%) of white college-educated Americans support tougher laws and regulations to protect the environment even if it raises prices or costs jobs. White working-class Americans, by contrast, are divided (48% favor, 49% opposed). Younger white working-class Americans (18-39) are more likely than their elders (65 and older) to favor tougher laws and regulations to protect the environment (52% vs. 39%).”
  • Though church attendance does not differ between the white working class and college-educated whites ((34% versus 35%), the working class is more likely to take the Bible literally (39% versus 17%).
  • Respondents preferred shopping at Wal-Mart and Dunkin’ Donuts over Target and Starbucks; the majority (65%) live in small towns or rural communities.  They are more inclined, the report notes, to defer to authority, to object to affirmative action programs, and are concerned about competing with immigrants for jobs.

“Although white working-class Americans are less likely than white college-educated Americans to believe the American Dream still holds true (47% vs. 63%),” the authors write, “they are more likely than white college-educated Americans to believe that God has granted America a spe­cial place in human history (70% vs. 42%).”

Tags: race, religion, economy, gay issues, labor unions

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