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There has been much speculation on why low-income White Americans vote Republican despite the GOP’s tendencies to cut down welfare, lower taxes for the wealthy, and overall favor the interests of corporations and their shareholders. Popular narratives attribute this to growing resentment among White low-income voters towards the Democrats’ social policies (e.g. on immigration, abortion, and gay marriage) to the point where they purposefully overlook their economic interests or that voters are simply misled and cannot identify which party would benefit them most. These tend to take on an oversimplifying—and at times, infantilizing— tone. The voting behavior of low-income White Americans may be traced from the myth of meritocracy, which has become artificially associated with moral failure and race.

The meritocracy trap, or the myth of meritocracy, is a dominant idea in the U.S. that people’s socioeconomic standing is due to their own merit; the people at the top deserve their success, and those at the bottom, their failure. This idea tends to overlook structural reasons for poverty, instead assuring people they can succeed so long as they ‘pull themselves up by their bootstraps’ without the help of others. Despite this framing of poverty as a personal failure rather than a societal issue, meritocratic capitalist systems tend to produce inequality and prevent social mobility. 

The Moralization of Poverty

The creation of the meritocracy myth has been dependent on associating social mobility with morality and reinforcing this image among the working poor. Previous images of poverty in the U.S. largely hinged on the dichotomy between ‘hard-working’, relatively economically stable workers and those who did not work and accepted welfare. While the first group were seen as achieving the ‘American Dream’ through hard work, the second was considered lazy and preferring to mooch off the state rather than working hard for apparently achievable financial mobility. This dichotomous image spurs an image of work as the moral high ground (winning the game of meritocracy), while poverty and welfare were signs of personal failure. 

We see this dichotomy persist today. In exit polls from the 2016 election, those with the lowest income (often those on welfare or unable to work) supported the Democrats with the largest margin compared to Trump of all income brackets, perhaps due to their relatively positive attitudes to welfare. In comparison, those in only the next income bracket of $50,000-$99,000 supported Trump by the largest margin. While both groups would likely benefit from welfare, it seems that being moralized into the ‘settled working class’ versus ‘hard living working class’ has a significant impact on how positively people view welfare policies. 

Despite its dominance, the myth of meritocracy is ultimately untrue. Economic mobility is not easy to achieve, with most Americans born in the bottom fifth of earners not even rising to the middle class. Education is commonly seen as the key to social mobility, but is riddled with nepotism and legacy enrollments. For example, several ivy league American universities admit more students from the top 1% of the income strata than those from the entire bottom 60%. Seemingly small factors like social connections, neighborhoods, and free time further provide asymmetrical benefits to Americans that culminate in meritocracy’s lack of realization. 

These are not malfunctions in the system: the vast intergenerational transfer and accumulation of wealth are exactly how capitalism is meant to operate. However, disdain over the symptoms of capitalism has been displaced onto other factors, like immigration or the ‘liberal agenda.’ Considering the long association between hard work and refusing to accept welfare as being morally superior to one’s ‘hard living’ neighbors, this tendency to misplace blame on other people can feel more natural than questioning our huge and daunting economic system. It is not easy to reorient the ideas behind the ‘American Dream’ in a time where it has become muchharder to achieve and simpler instead to blame the abstract ‘Other’. 

Furthermore, the sentiment that liberal elites have abandoned the working class is not unfounded. Both parties are dominated by the interests of their wealthiest supporters, who contribute the most to the party coffers through campaign donations. Despite the Democrats advocating for a higher degree of social welfare, their public image as out-of-touch ‘elites’ and ‘intellectuals’ is prevalent in the eyes of voters. Their condescending demeanor toward Americans with lower socioeconomic statuses created the perfect space for Donald Trump to emphasize his love for the “average American” and the “poorly educated.” This extremely successful strategy led to the huge loss of voters without college degrees for Democrats in the 2016 election and Trump pulling ahead. 

Ultimately, both parties have not done enough for the working class in conditions of inequality and political disempowerment. The GOP, however, tends to be more successful in fronting a sense of recognition and appreciation for low-income White voters. 

The Racialization of Poverty

The moralization of poverty comes alongside racialization, where the moral failure associated with not living up to the meritocratic ideal becomes synonymous with low-income people of color, especially low-income Black women. 

This association of race with poverty comes in many forms, many converging on the fact that stringent believers in meritocracy tend to downplay structural obstacles like systemic racism. Subscribers to the meritocratic ideal criticize programs like affirmative action and welfare as ‘handouts’ taken by those less capable in order to cheat the meritocratic game, instead of recognizing the lack of equitable starting points in America. 

Furthermore, while voting Republican creates an economic disadvantage for White Americans among the working poor through more limited welfare programs, it socially upholds the privileges that come with being White. W.E.B. Du Bois pointed to an example of this hidden ‘wage of whiteness’ among White men who formed a coalition with plantation owners in the 1870s/80s to pass laws overwhelmingly benefiting elites and disadvantaged factory workers and small land owners. Despite these laws ultimately undermining the interests of the poorer White workers, they were compensated by the social and psychological wage of fitting into whiteness.

In many countries and in many forms, the dominant economic classes have used racism to undermine the bargaining power of the working class by preventing solidarity among workers, with White workers choosing to reap the benefits of Whiteness instead. David Roediger, author of The Wages of Whiteness, argues that many White Republicans were likely not blindly fooled into thinking that the Republican party would economically benefit them but knowingly harvesting these wages instead.

Moreover, there is a great subconscious association between poverty (and its associated moral failure) and Blackness, as manufactured by the American media. The mid-1960s saw a shift in media representations of poverty from being portrayed as a ‘White problem’ to one disproportionately impacting Black Americans, despite income racial compositions remaining stable. 

Then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan heavily worsened this association. He manufactured the stereotype of the “welfare queen,” an image of  “an indolent Black woman, living off the largesse of taxpayers.” This rhetoric associated Black women closely with welfare recipients and painted them as cheating the meritocratic system. 

Xandi McMahon notes that the government wanted to regulate welfare oversights as an excuse to control Black women’s bodies. This regulation included eligibility requirements for welfare, like those in New York for mothers’ pensions, which policed mothers’ lives by adding clauses preventing them from working or having men live in their homes. Likewise, Reagan was able to pit welfare recipients against each other, using white supremacy to dismantle the welfare state by associating welfare with Blackness. In the end, Reagan’s promise for tax and welfare cuts to ‘trickle down’ to benefit the working class did not happen; his policies only hurt low-income Americans by increasing the wealth gap. 

Dismantling the Meritocracy Trap

‘Meritocracy’ has been purposefully used to erode class solidarity and welfare benefits to the favor of conservative politicians and economic elites. The very real discontent that the White working class currently feels remains insufficiently addressed by either political party, and is pushed onto people of color instead. Misleading narratives of immigrants ‘stealing jobs’ are one example of many displaced resentments towards the transparent failures of capitalism and meritocracy caused by decades of moralizing and racializing rhetoric. 

Not only is meritocracy and the political interests it is used for extremely harmful in practice, but the mere idea that people who cannot climb the economic ladder should simply be abandoned—even in the context of a perfectly equal, meritocratic society—is harmful in theory. Escaping the meritocracy trap necessitates interrogating the psychological impacts of capitalism: why do we think people who can’t economically succeed are unworthy of living satisfying lives? 

Many recommend education for dismantling the meritocracy myth, with social services like college becoming widely accessible through a more robust welfare state. Any attempt to destigmatize welfare requires an understanding—and ultimately, the dismantling—of the racial association with moral failure and poverty; social well-being requires addressing systemic racism, especially towards Black women. 

The creation of ‘class consciousness’, the horizontal solidarity of the economically marginalized class who understands their true interests, needs to be ignited to break the vertical economic hierarchies among White people. While meritocracy is a deeply-entrenched myth in the American psyche, actively working to dismantle it is required to fulfill the true wishes of the American White working class.

Edited by Parsa Alirezaei

Helen Guan

Helen (she/her) is a third-year student studying political science at the University of British Columbia. Originally from China but immigrating to Vancouver, Canada at a young age, she is particularly...