J.D. Vance and the "affluent" poor

The right is still playing definition games with "class".

Joe Biden’s proposed American Families Plan has launched a new round of discourse, and with it a new set of talking points from the right. A recent tweet from J.D. Vance set the tone:

I’m not going to get too far into the weeds of this data (since it isn’t all public), but I would like to point out that the right is engaged in shenanigans with class once again. To see what’s going on here, let’s look at three moves they make.


I. CLASS BY EDUCATION AND INCOME

Vance’s numbers originate from the Home Building Survey published by Oren Cass’s think-tank, American Compass (AC). Early early on, AC claims that “A definition of class that includes both education and income level offers a better lens for viewing differences in family structure.” Their detailed breakdown of class by education and income is buried in notes at the end of the paper, but it ends up looking like this:

Already we can see some wild stuff going on here. For one thing, you can make as little as $30,000 and the AC will still call you middle class, just as long as you have a college degree. Here’s another: have a degree and make less than that?

Respondents who did not report household income and those with a 4-yr degree or more but household income below $30K are excluded from analyses using the “Class” variable.

That’s 7.8 million poor people that AC completely excludes from its theory of class! And that’s just the start of the trouble.

II. SHIFTING TO EDUCATION

The HBS reports on the child care preferences Vance has tweeted about as broken down by class, using the schema above. But even though his chart cites the HBS, its data isn’t broken down by class; instead, it’s broken down by education. That’s because Vance has actually pulled the chart from an article by the American Enterprise Institute’s W. Bradford Wilcox, who evidently had access to data that AC hasn’t published.

To appreciate why this shift is significant, consider the very first two data points in Vance’s chart: the 14% of respondents without a degree versus the 28% with a degree who prefer paid full time child care. How does this map onto Table 1?

These numbers could come from anywhere! Maybe well-off people like paid child care more than poor people do, or maybe poor people like it more than well-off people do. There’s just no way to know from Vance’s chart how his numbers map onto AC’s theory of class, much less how it maps onto income levels.

III. SHIFTING BACK TO CLASS

And that’s a big problem, because look at how Vance describes his chart: he’s pointing to it as evidence about the “preferences of the affluent” versus “the preferences of the middle and working class.” In other words, for all we know, he is actually doing this:

Vance says that he is talking about “class”, but there just isn’t any way to to get any information about class from his chart - even if we use AC’s dubious definition. In fact, it’s even worse than that, because “the affluent” isn’t even a reference to class: it’s a direct reference to wealth. And while the right rolls out idiosyncratic definitions of “class” on a regular basis, there’s just no plausible way to read that chart as telling anything about affluence.


I can only assume that somewhere in this survey, buried beneath at least three layers of data massaging and definitional gerrymandering, there really were some actual questions about the economic situation of the respondents. And it’s even possible that this data would help make the case that Vance and American Compass want it to make, though if that were true one may wonder why they didn’t publish it.

But all of this speculation is beside the point. The real problem here is that instead of illuminating something about the economy, all these shifting right-wing definitions and redefinitions of “class” have simply obscured it. Millions and millions of poor people can be dropped from the study, or even labelled “affluent”, out of crass ideological convenience; meanwhile, you can make as much money as you like and still be labelled “working class” as long as you don’t have a degree.

This, of course, is just the latest episode in an ongoing series of reactionary capitalists co-opting class warfare: we’ve seen it from everyone from Michael Lind to Scott Alexander, and now from Oren Cass and J.D. Vance. This is just one flank of the two-front war in progress against socialists, but it’s vulnerable precisely insofar as we ignore it.