The New Geography of the Working Class
Much has been made of the recent renaissance of manufacturing across America, especially in the Midwest. Still, the working class — which includes construction, transportation, and maintenance workers, as well as those engaged in direct production —numbers just over 20 million American workers, or one in every five worker in the country. In the mid-20th century, the working class represented more than 50 percent.
The map above shows the geography of working class jobs across the United States. The table below lists the top 20 working class metropolitan areas.
|Metro||Working Class Share|
|4.||Houma-Bayou Cane-Thibodaux, LA||39.0%|
|7.||Fort Smith, AR-OK||36.1%|
|11.||Holland-Grand Haven, MI||34.2%|
The highest ranked metro is Elkhart-Gohsen, Indiana, where the working class makes up 46 percent of total employment, followed by Dalton, Georgia with 45.6 percent. The working class makes up between 35 and 40 percent of employment in six additional metros.
One thing is abundantly clear: the economic crisis has substantially reduced the working class, even in its leading centers. There is not a single metro in America where the working class approaches the average national level of the 1940s and 1950s. The share of the working class in Elkhart-Goshen fell from 55 percent in 1999 to 46 percent in 2010. It has shrunk even more in large metros, none of which made the top 20. Among those metros, its largest concentrations are found in Memphis (26.2 percent), Louisville (26.1 percent), and Houston (24.4 percent), where the working class accounts for roughly one in four jobs. In the once-great industrial centers of Cleveland, Detroit, and Pittsburgh, just one in five workers belongs to the working class today.
The trend is even more pronounced for production workers—the workers who actually make things. Although roughly one in five U.S. workers (20.5 percent) are members of the working class, the ranks of production workers have fallen to just six percent of the total U.S. workforce.
(Click the map for a larger image)
The map above shows the share of production workers across U.S. metros and the table below lists the top 20.
|Metro||Production Occupation Share|
|7.||Holland-Grand Haven, MI||17.4%|
|15.||Fort Smith, AR-OK||14.8%|
|15.||Battle Creek, MI||14.8%|
|20.||Florence-Muscle Shoals, AL||13.9%|
Not surprisingly, metros with high concentrations of production workers have a large working class in general. They tend to be smaller regions, and are located mainly in the old South and the Midwest. There is one metro where production workers make up 30 percent of the workforce and another where they number more than 25 percent. In no other metros do production workers make up more than one in five members of the entire workforce.
It is even more striking how far industrial work and production workers have fallen in the larger blue-collar metros that were once the bastions of America’s manufacturing might. Production workers make up roughly 10 percent of the workforces in Milwaukee and Youngstown. They account for just eight or nine percent of the workforce in the industrial-era stalwarts of Toledo, Akron, and Cleveland, and Scranton, Pennsylvania. That percentage is about the same level as in Napa, California—in fact, production workers make up a smaller share of Gary, Indiana’s workforce than they do in that sunny center of wine and tourism. The share of production workers is lower still in Dayton, Detroit, Allentown, Syracuse, Rochester and Buffalo—all of which have a smaller share of production workers than Augusta, Georgia, or Asheville, North Carolina. In my former hometown of Pittsburgh, the erstwhile heart and soul of America’s iron and steel industry, production workers make up just 5.7 percent of the workforce, comparable to Eugene, Oregon, Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Charleston, South Carolina.
It’s no wonder America’s industrial workers feel like they’ve been shunted aside—they have. A decade into the new millennium and three years into the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, both America’s smokestack industries and the workers who stoked them are increasingly on the margins.
This post is an abridged and revised excerpt of material from The Rise of the Creative Class, Revisited, out this month from Basic Books.
Top image: Reuters/John Sommers II