Richard Florida
by Richard Florida
Tue Mar 17th 2009 at 7:38am UTC

Class and Well-Being

Last week, we looked at what makes for happy states. One thing that stood out was that states with larger concentrations of the working class had lower levels of well-being.

So, we decided to take a closer look at the relationship between the working class and several key indicators of state wealth and well-being.

What we found is striking  – and frankly troubling. States with large concentrations of working class jobs had lower levels of income, GDP per capita, and well-being – pretty much everything across the board.

There were significant negative correlations between states with a large share of working class jobs and three of the five component indices in the Gallup well-being index: healthy behavior ( -.65), physical health (-.42), and life evaluation (-.31), as well as for the well-being index overall (-.51).

The pattern was similar, even worse, when we looked at the relationships between the working class and GDP per capita (-.51), income (-.69), human capital levels (-.71), and housing prices (-.62).

So maybe it’s time to think twice when we hear how important it is to save “good” working class jobs.  Individually, that may well be the case. Some of these jobs pay very well, and lots of people who lose them may find it difficult, perhaps impossible, to find similar work at their pay levels

But from the point of view of society and economic development broadly, it’s important to recognize that states with large concentrations of working class jobs do very poorly in terms of wealth and well-being.

These findings distress me personally. Looking them over and over, I found myself thinking back to advice  my father – who spent more then 50 years as a worker in a Newark eyeglass factory – gave my brother and I long ago. “Boys,” he said, ”I do this so you won’t have to. That’s why you have to stay in school, study hard, and go to college.” I understand much better now what he was driving at.

25 Responses to “Class and Well-Being”

  1. Paul Foster Says:

    What’s up with Kentucky? An identifiable factor or factors for the poor scores?

  2. Brian Kelsey Says:

    Is the well-being data available for geographies smaller than states? I didn’t see it on the AHIP as a choice in the drop down menus, but perhaps you know from your research? The state-level information is telling, but it would be really interesting to look at these relationships at the regional level.

  3. Charlotta Says:

    I completely agree with you Brian. However, we only had state data to work with for this.

  4. Buzzcut Says:

    For the health related data, is it that the occupations themselves lead to bad health, or is it just that the people that take such occupations are unhealthy in other aspects of their lives, like smoking? Drinking? Drug use? etc.

    You could very well have less of these jobs and do nothing to influence health. The people are still there, smoking and drinking and taking drugs.

    At least in the short term, your population is your population. I’m in Indiana, which I see is at the bottom of every single ranking you have there. If GM and Chrysler go bankrupt, it isn’t like our population is going to change tomorrow. We’ll still have the “working class”, they just won’t be working, which very well may make things much worse.

  5. Richard Florida Says:

    Brian – I looked at this pretty closely last week. I believe there is data for Congressional Districts in the drop down. I’ll check and see if they can be matched to something approaching metro borders. Rh

  6. John M Shelton Says:

    Nevada’s performance is fairly solid in terms of working class populations, at least until recessionary adjustments will undoubtedly impact the tourism industry’s stable cadre of available working class jobs. This number will slip. Interestingly, Nevada’s lack of investment in the levels of creative class jobs is disturbing. Given Nevada’s high incidence of foreclosures and limited job market beyond its dependence on service jobs, this does not fair well for our fair state. Apparently, Nevada’s health demands a more diversified economy that promotes creative jobs.

  7. Wendy Says:

    From Economix this morning:

    “Today, the seasonally unadjusted numbers show that 15.1 percent of high school dropouts are unemployed; the comparable number for college graduates is 4.2 percent. ”


    Richard’s dad was right — go to college.

    But also, there is inherent personal uncertainty in that figure. If you have a college degree, a 4% unemployment rate suggests that you can find a job even in a down economy (might not be your dream job, but a job to pay the bills).

    Since many of the “working class” missed out on education somewhere along the line, these numbers likely fit.

    Those without that university degree are likely (a) feeling trapped in their current position, which I’m sure takes away from “well being,” and/or (b) feeling anxious that if they lose their job they won’t be able to find another (also bad for various well-being measures). And many with limited education and now unemployed likely feel soemwhat hopeless (perhaps turing to unhealthy “escape” behavior like Buzzcutt noticed)

  8. Cliff Lippard Says:

    Certainly, some working class jobs are high paying, but I still wonder how highly correlated working class jobs and income are in this data. Is it being working class that is related to the unhealthy behavior, or the resulting income level? If more working class jobs were higher income – or those good, working class jobs so many localities seek – would we still see this relationship?

  9. Mary Adams Says:

    Just read Bob Herbert’s column in last week’s New York Times and you’ll have that answer: In “Reviving the Dream” he lays out how working folks helped contribute to the doubling of our economy since 1980–and ended up with declining average incomes.

    Now, that worker you described who did his work so the boys didn’t have to–he’d be out of a job.

  10. Richard Florida Says:

    Cliff – Good point.

    The interesting thing is the graph above which plots service class jobs against healthy behavior. Even though service class jobs pay substantially less than working class jobs, service class states are associated with healthy behavior as measured in the Gallup index Now part of this is clearly driven by the fact that many of states with large concentrations of service class workers are also centers for recreation and tourism – Hawaii, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, and Florida – where there better weather and more opportunity for outdoor recreation. But still, there seems to be “something more” behind the clear-cut negative association between the working class class, healthy behavior and overall well-being.

    Let me fathom a few threads of possible explanation. It may be states with large concentrations of working class jobs are somehow less attractive locations across a host of dimensions. Part of this is likely due to weather and climate. it’s also likely that industrial development itself damaged these locations. The nature of work itself may also come into play. Lots of manufacturing work remains physically demanding, and the hours are long. My dad was spent after a day in the factory – I was not up for working out very much during my summer in the machine tool factory.

    I also think that class culture is likely to play a role. There is a side to working class culture – having grown up in it (how do I put this delicately) – which is not overly inclined towards things like working out, eating right, engaging in outdoor recreation which tend to be seen as part of a more yuppie lifestyle. I’ve seen – and felt – this this first hand as a cyclist. When I road my bike in cyclist garb in Pittsburgh and in working class parts of greater Boston, people would frequently lambaste me from passing cars – one time some Bostonites hurled an orange at me. But nothing like this ever happened while riding in post-industrial Greater Washington DC. One time when I visiting my parents back in working class New Jersey, a group of guys shouted “faggot” at me over and over. Something similar happened to a colleague a couple of years ago in working class Australia.

    I don’t want to make too much of this, but the data are pretty clear. And I think we owe to ourselves and our people to take a close and objective look at how class structure and types of jobs effect the well-being and prosperity of our communities.

  11. Michael Wells Says:

    It’s also important to look at differences within the working class. Working in an older factory of a declining industry is a different experience than working in the clean room of a high tech manufacturer. Jobs like construction which require constant problem-solving are different from repetitive line assembly work. I suspect working in low-paid assembly is worse for well-being.

    As the economy changes, manufacturing jobs are losing status and not seen as a route to upward mobility. Richard’s father and mine had good jobs that were seen as a road to the middle class, even if it was lower middle. In today’s economy I don’t think this is as true, at least not for native-born whites.

    The stereotypical working class culture as a package often includes smoking, socializing by drinking, using free time to watch TV. I remember working in a factory in Massachusetts where lunch was picking up some beer and mini-bottles of hard liquor and sitting in a car together drinking and talking. I had quit smoking by then, but most of the group still did.

  12. Buzzcut Says:

    I actually work in heavy industry. The county that I live in in Indiana (Lake) is probably the most heavily industrialized in America, and unlike most places, the steel mills and oil refineries are still in business. They’re even expanding.

    It’s a place where someone without a college education can and do make upwards of $200k with all the overtime and doubletime that people work.

    No doubt, the work is stressful. It’s dangerous. It’s dirty, smelly, and you do get exposed to pollution. If you live close by, you get the added benefit of breathing the air all the time, even when you’re not at work.

    So it’s not the healthiest workplace, but the guys make it a lot less healthy by their lifestyles. Smoking, drinking, and being overweight, mostly. But drugs too. One of the benefits of being in a trade union is that they’ll keep you from getting fired if you fail a drug test. You get company paid rehab instead. Un-frickin-believable.

    Not getting a college education may say something about your time orientation. Poor future time orientation might make you drop out of school, and it totally is at work with smokers and the obese. So it makes a lot of sense that these things are correlated, or the effects are correlated.

    In the case of Indiana, we’re just not education oriented. Our primary and secondary schools are poor performers (strange, considering how good IU, Purdue, and Notre Dame are). And there is absolutely no popular groundswell to make the schools any better. There are high schools in my county that don’t even graduate half their students. I don’t see any local pressure to change that (although there is a little pressure at the state level).

  13. Dee Wilcox Says:

    I’m very disturbed to see Arkansas on the lower end of many of these measures, although sadly not surprised. I grew up in the northwest part of the state and now live in Central Arkansas, less than thirty minutes from the capitol. The culture is very working class, but there are pockets of innovation, particularly in two districts of Little Rock. Unfortunately, these pockets have not gained the momentum needed to influence the rest of the city, much less the state. The working class mindset is very difficult to overcome, as overcoming it can appear “uppity” and is resisted strongly. Unfortunately, for all these reasons and many others, my husband and I are planning to move to one of the creative centers in the US by next spring.

  14. Michael Wells Says:

    One of the benefits of being in a trade union is that they’ll keep you from getting fired if you fail a drug test.

    Another benefit is that the company will pay the upwards of $200k with all the overtime and doubletime that people work.

  15. Michael Caton Says:

    Another interesting correlation occurs with voting for President in 2008. The more you shifted toward GOP for President in 2008, the unhappier you seem. When you compare the maps, the geographic trend jumps right out at you:

  16. Swordsman Says:

    Nice catch, Michael C. Weird, though. Wouldn’t the happiest people vote GOP since they were in power? Plus, I thought that religious people in general were happier (although that could possibly be because they are less discriminated against).

    Very odd and counterintuitive.

  17. Buzzcut Says:

    One of the benefits of being in a trade union is that they’ll keep you from getting fired if you fail a drug test.

    Another benefit is that the company will pay the upwards of $200k with all the overtime and doubletime that people work.

    No doubt, it is great work if you can get it (at least on the money side. The work itself is tough). And to get it, you need to have an “in” with the union.

    In a county that includes Gary, I can count the number of African Americans in the trades on one hand. I don’t know how they get away with this, but they do.

    Regarding the money, those people really do live on the job. They do shift work, so they might work days one week and nights the next. To make that kind of money, they need doubletime, which means Sundays and Holidays.

    I think that it is amazing that someone without a college education can make that kind of money, but they earn every penny of it.

  18. Jim H Says:

    I’ll be surprised if the union workers you speak of won’t eventually lose their jobs to much cheaper workers in China. Not to mention the non-existant pollution controls. Cap and trade here we come

  19. Cliff Lippard Says:


    Thank you for the elaboration.

    Growing up in a GM factory town in Indiana, I certainly get the gist of what you are saying about different outlooks on recreation, etc. I have also experienced the anti-cycling taunts. Of course, the only time I ever had a soft drink flung at me from a car was in a fashionable suburb of my adopted hometown of Nashville.

  20. Swordsman Says:

    Buzzcut, my sympathies on Lake County. Let me just say I am familiar with the area and leave it at that, man.

  21. Buzzcut Says:

    Buzzcut, my sympathies on Lake County.

    Could be worse. I’m 30 minutes from downtown Chicago. I prefer it to a lot of other places that I’ve lived, including other ‘burbs of Chicago (this is my third!)

  22. Nicole Tessaro Says:

    Very interesting trends. Although I hope that there are reasons other than being in the working class that can explain all the negative correlations. Actually, I hope there is.

    If we extend the logic of what the overall message seems to be (eliminate the working class and replace them with creative class jobs) where would we be if every economy took this approach? Clearly this will not happen in any foreseeable time, but assuming that the developing countries eventually mature into developed economies, then the above trends would suggest that they to, should eliminate the working class.

    But then who will mine our resources and produce our cars, clothes, cell phones? Perhaps by the time most economies have matured, we will have invented robots to do all the ‘menial’ tasks for us. But perhaps not.

    So, hopefully there are other major variables effecting this trend. For instance, I wonder if the trends would be so evident in more socialist countries – ones with free or cheap education, better public transit, better health insurance, more vacation, longer maternity/paternity leaves etc. Maybe then people in the working class would feel happier about their lives.

    Also, I think that the ‘healthy behaviour’ and ‘physical health’ aspects are linked to the cultures in the working class industries, not necessarily the work. Is there a difference between the work and the culture? Not at the present time. But I think there is opportunity to change the culture/mindset of many of these places to be ‘healthier’ places to work. Not sure how…but I think it’s possible.

  23. Alex Matheson Says:

    Nicole Tessaro’s comments concerning the impact of socialism was substantiated in a recent survey that found the Danes the happiest in the world. There may be a more dour bunch than the Danes, but not many. Their “happiness” was not so much euphoria as an absence of things to worry about. Society provided security, a kind of insurance against most disasters and this seemed the crucial element.
    The struggle for money and the attendant buying power of more of it, beyond a certain point, doesn’t contribute to happiness. A basic secure material standard coupled with sufficient unstructured time may be a good starting point. alex

  24. Swordsman Says:

    Good points, Alex. Materialism is fine up to a point where you get creature comforts. When people have 3 Jaguars in the garage and two iPods for every person in the household, they’ve become hypermaterialistic and then wonder why they’re unhappy.

    I think we’ve learned in the past year that economic stability can contribute a lot to happiness and that just wanting more and more and more STUFF is not necessarily the answer. I’m also not advocating we all sell our recliners and go live in caves, either, of course.

  25. Buzzcut Says:

    How do you know that it is socialism that makes them happy, and not the fact that they live in a small, homogenous country?