Are the Tea Party Backers Really Wealthy and Highly Educated?

The new data show that they’re more likely to be middle-class.

Tea Party rally

Last week, the New York Times ran a front-page story announcing the results of a poll that completely scrambled our notion of who made up the Tea Party. The supporters are “wealthier” and “more educated” than the average American, the story announced. What’s more, they are “not afraid of falling into a lower socioeconomic class,” the story continued. In other words, it seemed from the poll as if they are not, in fact, the demographic many of us had imagined: working families hurt by the recession and the lost decade of the 2000s, taking their anger out on a government they perceived to have failed them. 

Like many people, I saw those headlines and was surprised. I had assumed that the Tea Party was made up of folks hard-hit by the economic downturn. Wealthy? Highly educated? That’s a twist.

But then I actually looked at the survey. The Times has posted the demographic breakdown of all the respondents alongside those who identified themselves as Tea Party followers. In comparing the groups, it’s important to remember that the “all” category includes the Tea Party supporters, who make up about one-fifth of the total.

It’s true that the Tea Party respondents tend to have higher incomes than respondents overall, but as I went through the data, I was struck by how this does not actually show that most of them are wealthy. The data instead show that Tea Party supporters are in the group of Americans adversely affected by the hollowing out of the middle class in the last few decades.

Digging into the data, most Tea Party supporters are among the middle class, not the rich or the poor. More than half of them (53 percent) have family incomes between $30,000 and $100,000, compared with fewer than half (46 percent) of respondents overall.

Yes, at the same time, one in five of Tea Party supporters has a family income over $100,000, compared with 14 percent of all respondents. Also, Tea Party supporters are less likely to be poor than respondents overall—18 percent have family incomes under $30,000, compared with 32 percent of the overall population. But what best characterizes them is their solid middle-class-ness.

What’s more, the demographic data show that Tea Party supporters should tend to have higher incomes. They are better-educated, much more likely to be married, and tend to be older than the whole pool of respondents—all of which should, all else equal, lead to higher incomes. The education data alone are impressive: 37 percent of Tea Party supporters have at least a college degree, compared with 25 percent in the sample overall. It makes sense for these folks to be among the higher earners in our economy.

There’s also a very large marriage gap to take into account—70 percent of Tea Party supporters are married, compared with 52 percent of all respondents. This, too, should put them in higher income groups, since married couples typically have two earners, not one. Finally, the largest portion of Tea Partiers is between the ages 45 and 64, when we would expect them to be at their highest for lifetime earnings. (At the same time, they’re also more likely to be retired—32 percent of Tea Party supporters compared with 18 percent of the population overall. This cuts in the opposite direction, toward lower incomes.)

Given that their labor market experience, education, race, and gender should give Tea Party supporters an economic advantage—as well as an internal sense that they should be moving up the ladder—their actual middle-class status may make them feel as if they haven’t lived up to their expectations. Certainly, economic security has eroded, especially in the last few years, for this demographic. White men in particular are one of the few groups to have hit all-time-record-high unemployment rates and record-low employment rates during the Great Recession, alongside teens and older workers.

The picture that emerges, then, is more like what you’d expect. The Tea Party is made up of more-traditional middle-class families who had a certain expectation of upward progress. Over the last decade or so, they’ve gotten stuck. Even before the recession, the 2000s were the first economic recovery in the post World War II era during which median family income was lower at the end than it had been at the prior economic peak, in this case, 2000. That’s a stunning lack of gains for the typical American family.

So while it’s true to say that the Tea Party supporters are not necessarily afraid of dropping down a class, that sentiment does not capture the whole of their anxieties. They wanted a decent shot at the American dream, and they feel they are unlikely to have one, given the recession and potential for long-term economic malaise. Now they are really mad. Covering up the economic reality by saying that they’re “doing fine” does not quite do them justice.

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