The best books on what has happened to the American working class

Andrew J. Cherlin Author Of Labor's Love Lost: The Rise and Fall of the Working-Class Family in America
By Andrew J. Cherlin

The Books I Picked & Why

Blue Collar Aristocrats: Life-Styles at a Working-Class Tavern

By E. E. Lemasters

Book cover of Blue Collar Aristocrats: Life-Styles at a Working-Class Tavern

Why this book?

LeMasters hung out at a tavern in Wisconsin from 1967 to 1972, talking to factory workers who held well-paying, unionized jobs in the heyday of American industrial production. Working-class lives are so different now that I wish I could enter a time machine and travel back to the 1960s and talk to working-class men then. LeMasters’s book is as close as one can get to doing that. He describes the outlook of the tavern regulars on their work, their families, and the world around them. Despite their prosperity, they express attitudes about public life that, in some respects, would not sound out of place in a focus group of working-class adults today.   


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Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis

By Robert D. Putnam

Book cover of Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis

Why this book?

Fast-forward to the 2010s, and political scientist Robert Putnam returns to Port Clinton, Ohio, where he had graduated from high school in 1959. He finds a sharp contrast between the kids who are growing up in middle-class homes with college-educated parents who are doing well and the kids who are growing up in working-class families who aren’t doing nearly as well. The working-class parents no longer have access to the well-paying industrial jobs of a generation earlier, and their children don’t have the advantages that come with steadily-employed, decently-paid parents. Putnam also probes the academic literature on the split between the situations of children in working-class versus middle-class families.


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The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class

By Guy Standing

Book cover of The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class

Why this book?

This U.K. author provides the most insightful analysis of a new category of worker. The portmanteau title combines “precarious” and “proletariat” into “precariat.” The growing number of workers in the “precariat” not only receive low wages but also take precarious jobs in which scheduling can vary week to week, employment guarantees are absent, and fringe benefits are almost nonexistent. Standing looks for the reasons behind the emergence of the precariat and how we might respond to their growing numbers.


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We're Still Here: Pain and Politics in the Heart of America

By Jennifer M. Silva

Book cover of We're Still Here: Pain and Politics in the Heart of America

Why this book?

While a lot of attention has been paid to the industrial decline in cities, the loss of jobs in industries such as mining has caused distress in rural areas. Recently, we have seen rises in drug abuse, overdose deaths, and suicides in rural America. Jennifer Silva did fieldwork in a rural Pennsylvania area that has experienced these shocks to its system, and she shows us the difficulties its residents are having.


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The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit

By Thomas J. Sugrue

Book cover of The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit

Why this book?

How and when did all this start? Historian Thomas Sugrue shows that the peak of industrial employment in cities such as Detroit, the focus of this book, occurred in the 1940s. Then as hundreds of thousands of industrial jobs were lost in Detroit (and millions elsewhere in the US), the position of the urban working class deteriorated. This decline was an important source of the “urban crisis” that started in the 1960s.


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