The War on the Working Class

By Randal O’Toole

The Occupy Wall Street movement has focused attention on a supposed divide between the one percent and the 99 percent. But a much more serious class struggle divides America: that between the middle class, meaning college-educated people whose jobs require a lot of thinking, and the working class, meaning less-educated people whose jobs tend to be more physical or repetitive.

Americans often pretend this class divide does not exist, yet there are clear differences in tastes in music, food, and entertainment. The politics are very different: Tea Partiers tend to be working class; Occupy Wall Streeters tend to be middle class. Despite pretensions of tolerance, few members of the middle class have any real understanding or appreciation of what it means to be working class, and they often treat working-class tastes and preferences with sneering contempt and hostility.

One of the more visible manifestations of this hostility is the War on Sprawl. This is a middle-class war, fought by college graduates who themselves usually live in single-family homes and drive for most of their travel. Yet, they are convinced that only people with their refined tastes can appreciate suburban living, and only people with their special skills need to drive―most everyone else should live in apartments and take mass transit.

Intentionally or not, the War on Sprawl is a war on the working class. To curb sprawl, planners use urban-growth boundaries and other limits on suburban development, making housing unaffordable for working-class families. To reduce driving, planners deliberately increase traffic congestion, limit parking, and put other restrictions on driving. This hits working-class commuters, whose jobs are less amenable to flex time, telecommuting, or relocation to suburban offices, the hardest.

This battle goes back to the nineteenth century when America’s fast-growing industrial cities housed both classes. Surprisingly, working-class homeownership rates were then far higher than middle-class rates. Working-class families viewed homes as potential sources of income, taking in boarders, growing small livestock in their yards, and starting in-home businesses; and they worked hard to own their homes.

By contrast, middle-class families treated homes as merely a place to live, and the vast majority of them rented. A major disincentive to buying a home was the worry that a working-class family might move in next-door, bringing down the value of neighboring homes with their boarders, livestock, and home businesses.

That changed in the early 20th century as cities adopted zoning codes that often banned non-family residents, backyard livestock, in-home businesses, and other features found in working-class homes. Middle-class homeownership soared.

After World War II, a combination of unions, immigration controls, and—most importantly—improved worker productivity increased average working-class incomes to nearly 75 percent of average middle-class incomes. By the 1960s, working-class families often lived in the same neighborhoods, drove on the same streets, and shopped at the same stores as middle-class families.

Yet differences in tastes and preferences remained. Large pick-ups and, later, truck-based SUVs were more likely to belong to working-class families. Volvos and, later, Priuses were more likely to belong to middle-class families. “It is a great mistake to equate an income which permits most of the basic amenities of what the middle class calls ‘decency’ with becoming middle class,” observed sociologist Bennett Berger in 1960.

When “even a semiskilled factory worker” can “own two cars, a Ranch house, a TV set, and clothe his wife in excellent copies of Paris fashions,” Berger presciently noted, “higher-status groups (perhaps without considerably greater income) defend the potential threat posed by widespread material abundance to their ‘status-honor’ by designating such economic possessions ‘vulgar’ and asserting the indispensability of a particular style of life—that is, something that cannot be immediately purchased with no down payment.” By declaring a War on Sprawl, the middle class sought to exclude working-class families from pretentions of middle-class amenities.

The much-feared environmental costs of sprawl are in fact negligible: The suburbs are no threat to America’s vast farms, forests, and open spaces, and thanks to pollution controls the environmental impacts of cars are rapidly falling. The real question is not whether we sprawl but who gets the benefits of single-family homeownership and automobility.

The War on Sprawl aims to prevent many people from enjoying these benefits. Those who prefer higher densities and mass transit are free to locate in urban centers where such housing is concentrated. But understanding the sociological roots of the War on Sprawl provides just one more reason to end it.


Randal O’Toole is a senior fellow with the Cato Institute and author of American Nightmare: How Government Undermines the Dream of Homeownership, which Cato will publish this May. He is a guest contributor for Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research center.

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Posted by at 05:00 | Posted in Economy, Education, Government Regulation, Individual Responsiblity, Land Use Laws, Metro, Occupy Wall Street, Oregon Government, Portland Politics, Tea Party | Tagged , , , , , | 47 Comments |Email This Post Email This Post |Print This Post Print This Post
  • Sardine

    Sprawl is bad and Oregon has led the way in preventing it through draconian government interference with the free market. Oregon should be proud. We use less fuel per capita than many states due to our fine light rail systems and our tightly packed people. We can all be proud to do our part to combat the warming of our mother.
    Who really cares about the so-called middle class anyway – they are mostly in flyover country and often cling to their guns and bibles.
    I applaud the brave stance taken by Oregon politicians to prevent the urban sprawl that has plagued so much of Amercia today.

    • marvinmcconoughey

       Oregon has not prevented urban sprawl.  I am engulfed in it each time I travel to Portland; actually, the greater Portland sprawl that now includes numerous once-outlying towns and cities.  Sprawl is coming out of the smaller city near where I live and in a few more years will engulf the area where I live.  Driving to Eugene now brings one into an expanding sprawl that extends for miles. 

      There is nothing in Oregon statutory code that would prevent sprawl. Cities are mandated to establish future growth areas.  Once established, this sends a clear signal to developers to begin buying the property and making plans to build on it.

      Our most effective recent restraint on growth has been the dismal economy, not alleged efforts to prevent sprawl.

  • HBguy

    In my view, you’re confusing the politics of the democratic party with the politics of the vast majority of the middle class. 

    I don’t disagree that the democratic party, in Oregon at least, is run by a coalition made up of the public unions, environmentalists, and, to a lesser extent, the gay and lesbian equal rights community. 

    And when necessary to obtain a seat in a more conservative district the democratic power structure will occasionally support a moderate candidate who doesn’t toe the party line 100% on these big three interest groups. But that person will never obtain a position of leadership within the party.

    That largely leaves out private industry blue collar worker voters and their policy positions from having influence within the Oregon D party. Those voters are arguable more concerned about things like housing prices, saving money for college for their children, health insurance, and the tax bite out of their more modest wages.

    Now, one reason I think this has happened is because of the evaporation of private unions and the policy positions they fought for within the Democratic party. Paper mills, steel workers, aluminum plants, all had strong private unions that had a seat at the democratic table. That’s no longer the case.I understand the republican party, and libertarians in general, would prefer to see a civil war within the middle class. And the democratic party in Oregon is doing everything it can to help. Unfortunately.

  • Bob Clark

    I’ve lived in Tigard from its transition from rural area (50s and 60s) to flow blown suburb, and I can’t say I see anything preferrable in today’s highly planned downtown Portland.  Downtown Portland has become a tangled mesh of rails, brick and streetcars blocking streets.  Pedestrians have to navigate through this tangled mess while being routinely hit up by panhandlers.  Then, there’s the cost of parking which by far outstrips the cost of driving to downtown.  I think I might actually prefer “sprawl” to downtown Portland’s government forced smart, dense development.  Eventually sprawl coalesces into something more organized by natural economic and community interaction.

    I guess a lot of people like living like sardines in can, though.  Kind of reminds me of a famous quote from Yogi Berra about a famous New York restaurant:  “Nobody goes there anymore.  It’s too crowded.”

  • Ronglynn

    Mr. O’Toole: You have fallen into the trap of thinking you know what kind of people make up the Tea Party movement. Don’t feel lonely as lots of other peoople have fallen in the same trap. The makeup is simply unknowable and I will tell you why. One, America is a very vast country populated by over 300 million people. The Tea Party is a decentralized movement with thousands upon thousands of groups flying under the banner of different titles. Who are the big players? They are Tea Party Express, Tea Party Patriots, 9-12 Groups, Republican Party, Americans For Prosperity, Freedom Works and others. There have been lots of groups and people claiming the mantleship of leadership for the Tea Party movement. They are living in fantasy land. There simply is no way for anyone to keep track of the people who are involved with so many groups involved the Tea Party movement.  

    For Example, our Josephine County Republican Party will host a Tea Party on Tax Day April 16th. Our local party is made up with mixture what you call Middle Class and Working Class. Our Tax Day Demonstration will attract different kinds of people associated with other groups and people who are not affliated with any groups. The people who show up for these kind events come from all different walks of life.

    As for the Occupy Wall Street movement, I do not know how one could really understand the makeup of it. Once again, it would seem that there a is a sizeable group of working class people involved with a sizeable group middle class people. Based on the news reports, it would appears to be a lot of people involved who have been left behind from the America Dream.

  • Poet

    Sprawl by the mall,
    sprawl by the wall.
    We gots sprawl all over the hall.
    Stop the madness
    Build small.
    Then we won’t have any sprawl.
    Y’all.

  • valley person

    Mr O’Toole relies on a very questionable assumption to sustain an argument for an even more questionable premise and he backs this up with a bunch of assertions.

    Other than that, his argument makes no sense.

    • guest

      4 ‘Likes’ noted.  In Reply – would like to see a ‘Dislike’ tally placed into account.     
      Really, as often as valley person and 3H, et al, let go – their BlueOregon Festuca could use a little cede chiller from time to time.

      OK, I’m guesting that d’ohs for others,too!  /;-)=)

      • 3H

        Consider this a “dislike”  😉

        • guest

           Lo, a knee jerk proof in the Putin. 

          • 3H

            No.. an honest assessment of your incoherent ramblings.

          • guest

            “Take a closer look at the whining ““…it’s all coming from you, VP, Ardberg and HBGuy.” ~ JoelinPDX

          • 3H

            OUch!  Joel is such an authority I don’t see how I could possibly argue against him  😉

            And yet, another fail.  Keep going though – you’re making me laugh.

          • guest

            3H, you’re such a gas!  The kind canaries worry about. 

          • 3H

            oohh.. sorry.. dislike again.   You need to up your game.

      • valley person

         Why not just try making an argument for a change.

        • guest

           varlet or varmint person, your clock is schlock, er, at least doesn’t appear to have all its numbers.

  • DAMN EXCELLENT ESSAY!

    • 3H

      and.. with the lack of supporting facts it could just as easily be excellent fiction.

  • mavaughn

    My applause! This is, perhaps, one of the most ingenious
    spin articles I have read. Now, we are redirected to blame the middle class for:
    1.      
    Urban sprawl

    2.      
    Highway congestion

    3.      
    Holding back working families (including
    minorities), and

    4.      
    Progress

    All I have to add to this is – follow the money.

    Speculative development companies have always planned their
    next move. Yes, there has been an endless shift away from the inner city, but I
    believe this has more to do with political indifference given to these areas –
    until recently.

    O’Toole says, “By declaring a War on Sprawl, the middle
    class sought to exclude working-class families from pretentions of middle-class
    amenities.” How absurd. He goes on to end this rambling with one of the most
    idiotic, most untrue statements I have heard in years: “The much-feared
    environmental costs of sprawl are in fact negligible: The suburbs are no threat
    to America’s vast farms, forests, and open spaces…”  and that is one of the reasons we need to  end the “War on Sprawl.” I beg to differ.

    I agree with valley p. in that “his argument makes no sense.”

    • valley person

       O’Toole makes a claim that in the 19th century working class families had higher home ownership rates than middle class families. Really? New York railroad car tenaments were condos? Company mining and logging towns were owner occupied suburbs? Practically all the original US suburbs were upper middle class enclaves that zoned apartments out to keep the working class at a distance. Randall needs to crack a history book.

      Urban growth boundaries, which he also complains about, are only used in a few states. And in places like Oregon these are very popular tools that have beaten back every effort to get rid of them.

      Today’s “working class,” as O’Toole defines it, can’t afford 1 acre estates on the urban fringe in any case. Nor could they afford the price of gas they will need to buy to maintain a far flung auto dependent lifestyle.

      And he now touts “pollution controls” as a great thing. What happened to his libertarianism? 

      I don’t know what fantasy land O’Toole now lives in. He used to have some intellectual integrity, but those days appear long gone.

  • Just doing the math

    I’m sorry, but I thought “working” class was middle class.

    • valley person

       Conservatives get all confused about populism.

  • Justtheticket

    All I know is that Oregon leads the nation in bottle recylcing, light rail, and bike lanes. What else is there to know??

  • Jenni Watson

    As a working class person I don’t think you have any clue what makes my life easier or harder. 
    I got a nice chuckle from the bit though.  

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