According to dictionary definitions, the working class is defined as the socioeconomic class consisting of people who work for wages, especially low wages, including unskilled and semi-skilled laborers and their families. It includes people working in manual jobs and unemployed people and is often associated with the use of the term in Marxist works, where it is related to socialist policies. Sociologists have defined working class as "the people who rely on income from one or more members of the family doing a manual job."
The concept of working class began to take shape in the late 18th century with the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. People were needed to work in factories, mines and agriculture - employment which did not appeal to the upper class.Poorer people from lower social statuses were attracted by the numerous work places available, although the conditions were sometimes dreadful. Before the existence of unions, working days lasted from dawn to dark, while days off were not regulated and the pay was insufficient to sustain a family.
In Western Europe, the face of the working class began to change in the early 20th century, while in Eastern Europe, due to the post-World War II Communist regimes, it continued its existence until the late 1980s. In Western Europe, men and women frequently worked side by side in agriculture and industry. They were granted equal rights and working conditions and trade unions were strong and influential. However, the circumstances were different in some parts of Eastern Europe where there was no democracy and many of these countries were under dictatorship or totalitarian regime.
In countries like Britain, the increase in the number of factories and mass production led to urbanization and a large gap between working class cities and other, more rural areas. This trend was noticed in other European countries where the concentration of millions of people were engaged in heavy industry. These workers enjoyed a relatively calm and civilized life as opposed to the ever diminishing population of the countryside. Small farms could not compete with industrialization and this led to hostility. There were whole cities that looked like a large-scale workhouse, including a huge complex of factories and newly built apartment blocks, which could easily house thousands of working class families.
Across the Atlantic, things looked quite different. The American working class was not as revolutionary as it was in some European countries and it differed significantly in one aspect - a large proportion of the U.S. working class consisted of immigrants who were not looking for social reforms (which was the case in Europe) but for social justice. Immigrants believed that the United States could give them an opportunity to have a decent life and to provide the best possible options for their children. Moreover, European models of class struggle could not be applied in the American class mobility system.
In the 20th century, the United States was described as a "melting pot" in which people from different social and ethnic differences can achieve their goals in a "free" society. The homogeneity of the melting pot was the dream of American social reformers and immigrants alike. It was the notion of the American egalitarian ideal and was presented as the antithesis of the hierarchical organization of European society. People believed that by adapting to U.S. customs and ideals immigrants could be integrated into society. However, some sociologists argue that this never quite happened due to the fact that immigrants tended to isolate themselves from others in closed communities, maintaining social contacts with other immigrants from their countries and even inhabiting whole parts of cities together. Thus, neighborhoods like Little Italy, Little China and Little Poland appeared, where the customs, ideals and the social structure of the respective countries were followed. By the end of the 20th century, the working class was declining in the United States and Europe with the reduction of production in heavy industries such as oil, steel, automobiles and electrical machinery.
According to statistics from the Working Poor Families Project (2008), 28 percent of American families with one or both parents employed live in poverty. The report reveals that 9.6 million households can be described as "working poor." This report shows that such families "lack the earnings necessary to meet their basic needs" and face a daily struggle to survive due to surging food prices and the cost of gas, health and education. These families find themselves in difficulty despite parents working long hours to support their children.