Economic anxiety in America

A lot of ink has been spilled recently telling liberal America that it needs to empathize with the voters that helped push Donald Trump to victory. Much of this is because the political commentariat itself is openly reflecting with how out of touch it is with wide swaths of the country. In order to help themselves empathize with Trump’s supporters, the press has been retelling the problems his coalition faces, including stagnant wages, an opioid epidemic, and antipathy towards trade. The message that Trump’s support stems from deep-seated economic anxiety is the same consensus journalists reached earlier this year, but is now being framed as something we must accept on our route towards empathy. However, a world in which Clinton supporters are told to empathize with Trump voters for their economic malaise is a world that subtly implies that Clinton supporters are better off than Trump’s. This might be shocking, but this is not the world we live in. The press’ steadfast focus on Trump’s base before and after the election has crowded out the real — and now growing — anxiety in Clinton’s America.

(A) Mean household income of national sample compared to voters with a favorable or unfavorable view of Donald Trump. Income is adjusted to regional purchasing power imputed by state and age using data from the Current Population Survey’s 2015 Annual Social and Economic Supplement. (B) Income status of national sample compared to voters with a favorable or unfavorable view of Mr. Trump.

Extensive data suggests that the average Clinton voter actually faces greater economic distress than the average Trump voter. Recent work by Rothwell and Diego-Rosell found that the average Trump supporter has a higher household income than the average Trump critic (1). And because Trump supporters tend to live in regions with lower costs of living, his voters actually enjoy higher regional purchasing power. When adjusted for purchasing power parity and age, the average income of Trump voters is $87,736, compared to $76,087 for non-Trump voters. Trump voters are also less likely to be unemployed, and there is no real difference in labor force participation between the two voting coalitions (1). Even as early as the primaries, the median Trump voter reported a household income of about $72,000, much higher than the national median of $56,000. This is also well above the incomes of Clinton and Sanders voters, who reported a median income of $61,000 (2). Exit polls from election day revealed that voters making less than $50,000 largely broke for Clinton, with 52% voting for Clinton and 41% voting for Trump.

Median household incomes of all primary voters compared to Trump, Clinton, and Sanders voters.
Percentage of voters in each income bracket who voted for either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump for President according to 2016 exit polls.

This data is not congruent with the narrative being written that economically distressed Trump voters rebelled against wealthy and elite Clinton supporters. It could be reasonably argued that the situation is actually the reverse. However, the most accurate story of 2016 is an unfortunate and lesser-told one. No matter who they voted for, America’s poor is now even more vulnerable. Under a President Trump, 22 million Americans may lose their health insurance and millions more may experience the privatization of Medicare. A Paul Ryan budget calls for large scale cuts to the social safety net, with housing aid, early childhood education, and food stamps all now at risk. Congress may inflict very real pain onto millions of Americans in the upcoming years, and the data suggests that not all of them voted for Donald Trump. In reality, the majority probably voted for Hillary Clinton. It might just be that the poor and working class Americans we are telling to be more empathetic are some of the ones who will need our empathy the most.

1. Rothwell, J. T., & Diego-Rosell, P. (2016, November 2). Explaining Nationalist Political Views: The Case of Donald Trump. SSRN Electronic Journal SSRN Journal. doi:10.2139/ssrn.2822059

2. Silver, N. (2016, May 03). The Mythology Of Trump’s Working Class Support.