“’Working class’…once suggested productivity and sturdiness. Now it means downwardly mobile, poor, even pathological”

…the “white working class.” At first, the term sounds more neutral than its predecessors—a category suitable for pollsters and economists (who generally define “working class” as lacking a college degree). But the phrase is vexing. The blunt racial modifier, buried or implied in earlier versions, declares itself up front. Without the adjective “white,” the term is meaningless as a predictor of group thinking and behavior; but without the noun “working class” it misses the other key demographic. “White working class” mixes race and class into a volatile compound, privilege and disadvantage crammed into a single phrase.

“Working class,” meanwhile, has become a euphemism. It once suggested productivity and sturdiness. Now it means downwardly mobile, poor, even pathological. A significant part of the W.W.C. has succumbed to the ills that used to be associated with the black urban “underclass”: intergenerational poverty, welfare, debt, bankruptcy, out-of-wedlock births, trash entertainment, addiction, jail, social distrust, political cynicism, bad health, unhappiness, early death. The heartland towns that abandoned the Democrats in the eighties to bask in Ronald Reagan’s morning sunlight; the communities that Sarah Palin, on a 2008 campaign stop in Greensboro, North Carolina, called “the best of America . . . the real America”—those places were hollowing out, and politicians didn’t seem to notice. A great inversion occurred. The dangerous, depraved cities gradually became safe for clean-living professional families who happily paid thousands of dollars to prep their kids for the gifted-and-talented test, while the region surrounding Greensboro lost tobacco, textiles, and furniture-making, in a rapid collapse around the turn of the millennium, so that Oxycontin and disability and home invasions had taken root by the time Palin saluted those towns, in remarks that were a generation out of date.

George Packer, “The Unconnected”, The New Yorker (31 October 2016), 50-51.