Quick Review: White Trash and Hillbilly Elegy

I recently read both White Trash by Nancy Isenberg and Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance. These two books address the same topic – the white lower class in America – yet have several notable differences. Here is my quick review:

  1. The topic may be the same but the method and genre are quite different. Isenberg covers 400+ years of history while Vance tells the story of his own life. This difference in genre matters: Isenberg has a lot to cover and has difficulty providing details at points. The early history of poor white settlers is particularly interesting as convicts and lower-class residents of England were sent to the colonies. At the same time, there is little depth for the most recent decades and the narrative tends to solely follow presidential politics. On the other hand, Vance is writing a memoir. While he hints at broader trends, occasionally speaks for all hillbillies, and cites some academic studies, he primarily focuses on his own journey in a geographic area including southeastern Ohio, West Virginia, and eastern Kentucky. Together, these two books provide an outsider and insider perspective.
  2. Their political approaches differ. Isenberg provides some of this in the introduction as well as in the most recent history as she does not think the Republican party has much to offer working-class whites. In contrast, Vance does not think government is the answer to improving the lives of hillbillies and consistently affirms their agency and need to make good choices. Vance’s book is blurbed by prominent conservatives and he leans toward Republican or libertarian approaches. It would be interesting to consider the alternative approaches: an academic history that promotes a conservative approach and a memoir that pushes a liberal perspective.
  3. What they attribute the causes of the poor white or hillbilly life varies and hints at the complexity of this issue. Isenberg shows that the need for cheap labor has always been at the root of American social and economic life. Poor whites have been treated poorly from the beginning of the country. In particular, Isenberg highlights the interaction between poor white labor and slavery which foments resentment between blacks and poor whites even though both were exploited for centuries. On the flip side, Vance focuses more on the passing down of values within families and communities. In other words, hillbillies become hillbillies because this is the life they know and experience from their families and neighbors. Breaking this cycle is very difficult, even for someone who spends four years in the Marines and graduates from Yale Law School.

Even with (or even because of) these differences, I would recommend reading these two books together. There are clearly patterns in American history regarding poor whites (Isenberg) even as individual stories can differ with the influence of notable family members and contexts (Vance). While we do not have to go so far as Vance does in suggesting these problems cannot be solved, these two approaches do display the complexity of the situation. Those looking for a quick political fix in terms of helping Democrats appeal to poor whites again or looking for people to find family values and pull themselves up by their bootstraps will likely to be disappointed. This is a long-standing issue rooted in centuries of oppression and it still brings about much personal pain.

Neither presidential candidate says much about helping the poor

This has become common in recent election cycles: candidates focus on the middle class and ignore the poor.

The United States, the wealthiest nation on Earth, also abides the deepest poverty of any developed nation, but you would not know it by listening to Hillary Clinton or Donald J. Trump, the major parties’ presidential nominees.

Mrs. Clinton, speaking about her economic plans on Thursday near Detroit, underscored her credentials as an advocate for middle-class families whose fortunes have flagged. She said much less about helping the 47 millions Americans who yearn to reach the middle class.

Her Republican rival, Mr. Trump, spoke in Detroit on his economic proposals four days ago, and while their platforms are markedly different in details and emphasis, the candidates have this in common: Both promise to help Americans find jobs; neither has said much about helping people while they are not working.

So why don’t they address lower-class Americans? A few tentative guesses:

  1. More undecided voters are in the middle class.
  2. Candidates want a singular message and so they go with the largest group of Americans – a vast majority of Americans, even ones who are legitimately rich or poor, consider themselves middle class – as to not have to complicate their rhetoric.
  3. The efforts in the 1990s to limit welfare – changes to programs and public housing – were very effective in halting conversation about poverty on a national level.
  4. Candidates want to be associated with people who think they have made it on their own.
  5. Lower-class Americans don’t have as much money to give to campaigns.
  6. Even with growing inequality, Americans have settled on the idea that we are a middle-class country. Candidates want to go with what the country thinks.

Regardless of the reason, it does say a lot about the ability of Americans to even converse about being poor.

Catholic bishop in Germany removed after building new McMansion

Catholic priests living in McMansions are controversial and one German bishop was just removed from his post due to the uproar about his new large house:

Pope Francis on Wednesday permanently removed a German bishop from his Limburg diocese after his 31 million-euro ($43-million) new residence complex caused an uproar among the faithful.

Francis had temporarily expelled Monsignor Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst from Limburg in October pending a church inquiry.

At the center of the controversy was the price tag for the construction of a new bishop’s residence complex and related renovations. Tebartz-van Elst defended the expenditures, saying the bill was actually for 10 projects and there were additional costs because the buildings were under historical protection…

Francis has called on his priests and bishops to be models of sobriety in a church that “is poor and is for the poor.”

McMansions don’t get many favorable reviews for the average homebuyer so it is not too surprising they may be even more disliked for religious figures. But, this sounds like it could be more than just a personal McMansion in a suburban neighborhood and more about luxurious finishes and a larger complex. At the least, this is a good example of the term McMansion being used more in a moral judgment sense rather than strictly matching a home that has all of the typical American McMansion characteristics.

Can’t return to an American era where only private charity and churches took care of the poor – because it doesn’t exist

Here is a look at American social welfare policy throughout history and the argument is that there was no golden era of private charity:

One problem with the conservative vision of charity is that it assumes the government hasn’t been playing a role in the management of risk and social insurance from the beginning. It imagines that there is some golden period to return to, free from any and all government interference. As Senator Lee has said, “From our very Founding, we not only fought a war on poverty—we were winning.” How did we do it? According to Lee, it was with our “voluntary civil society.” We started losing only when the government got involved.

This was never the case, and a significant amount of research has been done over the past several decades to overturn the myth of a stateless nineteenth century and to rediscover the lost role of the state in the pre-New Deal world…

As for social insurance specifically, the historian Michael Katz has documented that there has always been a mixed welfare state made up of private and public organizations throughout our country’s history. Outdoor relief, or cash assistance outside of institutions, was an early legal responsibility of American towns, counties, and parishes from colonial times through the early nineteenth century. During this period, these issues were usually dealt with through questions of “settlement.” A community had a responsibility to provide relief to its own needy, native members, defined as those who had a settlement there. This became increasingly difficult with an industrialized society, as people moved to and fro looking for work and were forced out of communities when they couldn’t find any.

The next major initiative was the construction of poorhouses by state governments, especially in the early nineteenth century. The central idea was that by forcing people in need of aid to live in poorhouses where living conditions were quite harsh, there would be fewer applicants. This ended up not being the case, as able-bodied people would still seek out these poorhouses, especially when work was slack and unemployment high. Worse, these institutions became the default support for orphans, the mentally ill, and the elderly without income or family to support them…

That need was partly what gave rise to the Progressive movement. Private charity simply didn’t have the breadth and depth necessary to truly respond to the Four Horsemen in this industrializing era, and Progressives saw a greater role for government to address these ills.

In other words, the government has been involved with addressing social problems from the early days of America. Granted, it may not have looked like the centralized welfare state that is common in the industrialized world today but there was still some government involvement.

This also reminds me of a recommendation made by sociologist William Julius Wilson at the end of The Truly Disadvantaged. After looking at concentrated poverty, Wilson concludes with policy recommendations which includes the key proviso that American social welfare policy should try to raise everyone’s boat because targeted programs for specific groups tend to be seen unfavorably by the larger public. Think of Social Security, a program that benefits a majority of Americans and enjoys widespread support.

Sociologists looking at the “seamy underside” of cities

A number of media reviews of sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh’s latest book highlight his look at the “seamy underside” of New York City:

A finishing school for young minority hookers. A Harlem drug dealer determined to crack the rich white downtown market. A socialite turned madam. A tortured academic struggling to navigate vicious subcultures.

All in all, this might have made a pretty good novel. Instead it’s “Floating City,” the latest nonfiction look at the urban underbelly by self-described “rogue sociologist” Sudhir Venkatesh…

Much of what the author finds out about the seamy underside of urban life has already been discovered by predecessors as various as Emile Zola, Nathan Heard and Tom Wolfe (to say nothing of the producers of “The Wire”).

This reminded me that this is not a new approach for urban sociologists. The classic 1920s text The City from Robert Park and others in the Chicago School looks at some of the seamier sides of Chicago including boarding houses and slums. Numerous other sociologists have explored similar topics including looks at bars, drug use, and criminal activity in cities. This sort of approach works to challenge more cultured American society who can’t understand what motivates urban dwellers involved in these activities, satisfy curiosity.

While this research might help expose the plight of some urban residents, it might have another effect: limit the number of sociologists looking at elites. I remember hearing sociologist Michael Lindsay speak about this a few years ago after carrying out his research with elites. Who is closely studying elites who have both influence and resources?

“Startling” number of “near poor” in the United States

The Census Bureau released figures recently showing a growing number of Americans living below the poverty line. But the figures also showed a population increase in another group: the “near poor.”

When the Census Bureau this month released a new measure of poverty, meant to better count disposable income, it began altering the portrait of national need. Perhaps the most startling differences between the old measure and the new involves data the government has not yet published, showing 51 million people with incomes less than 50 percent above the poverty line. That number of Americans is 76 percent higher than the official account, published in September. All told, that places 100 million people — one in three Americans — either in poverty or in the fretful zone just above it…

The Census Bureau, which published the poverty data two weeks ago, produced the analysis of those with somewhat higher income at the request of The New York Times. The size of the near-poor population took even the bureau’s number crunchers by surprise.

“These numbers are higher than we anticipated,” said Trudi J. Renwick, the bureau’s chief poverty statistician. “There are more people struggling than the official numbers show.”…

Of the 51 million who appear near poor under the fuller measure, nearly 20 percent were lifted up from poverty by benefits the official count overlooks. But more than half were pushed down from higher income levels: more than eight million by taxes, six million by medical expenses, and four million by work expenses like transportation and child care.

It would be interesting to know more about this group of “near poor”: is this a consistent position they hold in society? Is there much downward or upward  mobility from this group? Is this a group that grows dramatically in tough economic times for the whole country? The story makes it sound like this is a group that could easily go either way: a better job opportunity might push a household upward while a large medical bill or the need to replace an aging car might push them back much closer to the poverty line. And after knowing more, what policies would help improve the lot of this group – jobs, education, a bigger safety net?

I wonder additionally how much of this story is really that Census Bureau researchers are “surprised” by these findings. This is what the headline emphasizes. “Surprised” suggests that no one saw this coming. Should they have been surprised? After all, the median household income in the United States is around $50,000, suggesting that there are lots of people not too far from the official poverty line. Past context is important here to know how much larger this group is now compared to past time periods.

More on increasing poor population in the suburbs: 53% increase between 2000 and 2010

The New York Times reports on the growing population of the poor in the American suburbs:

The increase in the suburbs was 53 percent, compared with 26 percent in cities. The recession accelerated the pace: two-thirds of the new suburban poor were added from 2007 to 2010…

“The whole political class is just getting the memo that Ozzie and Harriet don’t live here anymore,” said Edward Hill, dean of the Levin College of Urban Affairs at Cleveland State University.

This shift has helped redefine the image of the suburbs. “The suburbs were always a place of opportunity — a better school, a bigger house, a better job,” said Scott Allard, an associate professor at the University of Chicago who focuses on social welfare policy and poverty. “Today, that’s not as true as the popular mythology would have us believe.”

Since 2000, the poverty roll has increased by five million in the suburbs, with large rises in metropolitan areas as different as Colorado Springs and Greensboro, N.C.

While these are interesting figures (and I’ve noted them before here and here – the original report from September is a month ahead of this Times piece), arguably the suburbs have never completely fit the Ozzie and Harriet image. While many suburban places were retreats for wealthy and middle-class whites, there have also been working-class suburbs and some non-white suburbs. There is indeed a “popular mythology” – but I wonder if suburban critics have also been interested in pushing this image.

A few other thoughts:

1. Do most Americans today even know the show Ozzie and Harriet? In its time, the show had a long run: 402 radio episodes (1944-1954), 435 television episodes (1952-1966). Even with a lot of episodes, this show seems to have been syndicated less than some other shows.

2. If a greater percentage of the poor in metropolitan areas are now in suburbs, is this considered a positive thing for big cities?

3. Do we have any data on what happens to the poor in suburbs – do they have higher levels of social mobility than the poor in the city or rural areas? Additionally, the article suggests jobs and housing have helped increase the suburban poor population but what is the exact data on this?