The Original Underclass
Poor white Americans’ current crisis shouldn’t have caught the rest of the country as off guard as it has.
The Despair of Poor White Americans
Sometime during the past few years, the country started talking differently about white Americans of modest means. Early in the Obama era, the ennobling language of campaign pundits prevailed. There was much discussion of “white working-class voters,” with whom the Democrats, and especially Barack Obama, were having such trouble connecting. Never mind that this overbroad category of Americans—the exit pollsters’ definition was anyone without a four-year college degree, or more than a third of the electorate—obliterated major differences in geography, ethnicity, and culture. The label served to conjure a vast swath of salt-of-the-earth citizens living and working in the wide-open spaces between the coasts—Sarah Palin’s “real America”—who were dubious of the effete, hifalutin types increasingly dominating the party that had once purported to represent the common man. The “white working class” connoted virtue and integrity. A party losing touch with it was a party unmoored.
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Equally jarring has been the shift in tone. A barely suppressed contempt has characterized much of the commentary about white woe, on both the left and the right. Writing for National Review in March, the conservative provocateur Kevin Williamson shoveled scorn on the low-income white Republican voters who, as he saw it, were most responsible for the rise of Trump:
Nothing happened to them. There wasn’t some awful disaster. There wasn’t a war or a famine or a plague or a foreign occupation. Even the economic changes of the past few decades do very little to explain the dysfunction and negligence—and the incomprehensible malice—of poor white America. So the gypsum business in Garbutt ain’t what it used to be. There is more to life in the 21st century than wallboard and cheap sentimentality about how the Man closed the factories down.
The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible. Forget all your cheap theatrical Bruce Springsteen crap. Forget your sanctimony about struggling Rust Belt factory towns and your conspiracy theories about the wily Orientals stealing our jobs … The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles. Donald Trump’s speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin.
Analysis on the left has been less gratuitously nasty but similarly harsh in its insinuation. Several prominent liberals have theorized that what’s driving rising mortality and drug and alcohol abuse among white Americans is, quite simply, despair over the loss of their perch in the country’s pecking order. “So what is happening?” asked Josh Marshall on his “Talking Points Memo” blog in December. “Let’s put this clearly,” he said in wrapping up his analysis of the dismal health data. “The stressor at work here is the perceived and real loss of the social and economic advantages of being white.”
They are also unsatisfying as explanations for what is happening out there. Williamson, for one, mischaracterizes the typical Trump voter. As exit polls show, the candidate’s base is not the truly bereft white underclass Williamson derides. Those Americans are, by and large, not voting at all, as I’m often reminded when reporting in places like Appalachia, where turnout rates are the lowest in the country. People voting for Trump are mostly a notch higher on the economic ladder—in a position to feel exactly the resentment that Williamson himself feels toward the shiftless needy. As for liberals’ diagnosis that a major public-health crisis is rooted in racial envy, it fails to square with, among other things, the fact that blacks and Hispanics have hardly been flourishing themselves. Yes, there’s an African American president, but by many metrics the Great Recession was even worse for minorities than for whites.
Two new books—one a provocative, deeply researched history and the other an affecting memoir—are well timed to help make better sense of the plight of struggling whites in the United States. Both accounts converge on an important insight: The gloomy state of affairs in the lower reaches of white America should not have caught the rest of the country as off guard as it has—and mobilizing solutions for the crisis will depend partly on closing the gaps that allowed for such obliviousness.
“Welcome to America as it was,” Nancy Isenberg, a historian at Louisiana State University, writes near the outset of White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America. Her title might seem sensational were it not so well earned. As she makes plain, a white lower class not only figured more prominently in the development of the colonies and the young country than national lore suggests, but was spoken of from the start explicitly in terms of waste and refuse.
For England, the New World beckoned as more than a vast store of natural resources, Isenberg argues. It was also a place to dispose of the dregs of its own society. In the late 16th century, the geographer Richard Hakluyt argued that America could serve as a giant workhouse where the “fry [young children] of wandering beggars that grow up idly and hurtfully and burdenous to the Realm, might be unladen and better bred up.” The exportable poor, he wrote, were the “offals of our people.” In 1619, King James I was so fed up with vagrant boys milling around his Newmarket palace that he asked the Virginia Company to ship them overseas. Three years later, John Donne—yes, that John Donne—wrote about the colony of Virginia as if it were England’s spleen and liver, Isenberg writes, draining the “ill humours of the body … to breed good bloud.” Thus it was, she goes on, that the early settlers included so many “roguish highwaymen, mean vagrants, Irish rebels, known whores, and an assortment of convicts,” including one Elizabeth “Little Bess” Armstrong, sent to Virginia for stealing two spoons.
Class distinctions were maintained above all in the apportionment of land. In Virginia in 1700, indentured servants had virtually no chance to own any, and by 1770, less than 10 percent of white Virginians had claim to more than half the land. In 1729 in North Carolina, a colony with 36,000 people, there were only 3,281 listed grants, and 309 grantees owned nearly half the land. “Land was the principal source of wealth, and those without any had little chance to escape servitude,” Isenberg writes. “It was the stigma of landlessness that would leave its mark on white trash from this day forward.” This was not just a Southern dynamic. The American usage of squatter traces to New England, where many of the nonelect—later called “swamp Yankees”—carved out homes on others’ land only to be chased off and have their houses burned.
By the time the nation gained independence, the white underclass—its future dependents—was fully entrenched. This underclass could be found just about everywhere in the new country, but it was perhaps most conspicuous in North Carolina, where many whites who had been denied land in Virginia trickled into the area south of the Great Dismal Swamp, establishing what Isenberg calls “the first white trash colony.” William Byrd II, the Virginia planter, described these swamp denizens as suffering from “distempers of laziness” and “slothful in everything but getting children.” North Carolina’s governor described his people as “the meanest, most rustic and squalid part of the species.”
At various junctures, politicians (think Davy Crockett and Andrew Jackson) turned humble roots into a mark of “backwoodsman” authenticity, but the pendulum always swung back. The term white trash made its first appearance in print as early as 1821. It gained currency three decades later, by which point observers were expressing horror over these people’s “tallow” skin and their habit of eating clay. As George Weston warned in his widely circulated 1856 pamphlet “The Poor Whites of the South,” they were “sinking deeper and more hopelessly into barbarism with every succeeding generation.” Speaking of this class as a separate breed—a species unto itself—was a way to skirt the challenge it presented to the nation’s vision of equality and inclusivity. Isenberg points up the tension: “If whiteness was not an automatic badge of superiority, a guarantee of the homogeneous population of independent, educable freemen … then the ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness were unobtainable.”
Isenberg, for all her efforts to clarify the role of class in the national culture, succumbs to a different kind of distortion herself. She is frustratingly hazy about regional distinctions within the white lower class, a blurriness that also skews some of the contemporary liberal theorizing about white despondency. As her account progresses, she focuses increasingly on the South, without squarely addressing that choice and its implications. To zero in on the white underclass in or near slaveholding areas is, understandably, to dwell on the fraught dynamic between poor whites and enslaved African Americans and its role in the national debate leading up to the Civil War. On the one hand, opponents of slavery argued that the association of labor with servitude dulled the work ethic of poor whites. On the other, defenders of slavery claimed that being spared the lowliest toil kept poor Southern whites a step above their Northern counterparts.
Regardless of the merits in that dispute, Isenberg ought to have reckoned more fully with the distinctions between poor whites in the Deep South and those elsewhere. At points, she mentions “hillbilly” whites (a k a “mountaineers” and “briar hoppers”) as a subset of her white underclass. But at other points, she makes it sound as if all poor whites lived with blacks in their midst and, when the Civil War came, went off with varying degrees of enthusiasm to fight to maintain their superiority over those blacks. In reality, many poor whites in Appalachia avoided what they saw as the war of the slaveholding planters of the Deep South and the cavaliers of the Tidewater region of Virginia—and even created a new state, West Virginia, in their resistance. Whether or not one buys into the Scots-Irish version of events, the history of greater Appalachia is one of provincial upstarts asserting themselves against elites, not merely one of dispossessed victims.
As Isenberg’s chronicle moves into the middle of the 20th century, she offers a fascinating account of how the trailer parks built to provide housing for war-industry workers gave rise to a whole new demeaning stereotype: trailer trash. She captures the reflexively pejorative depictions of poor southern whites during the civil-rights years. And she shows how, starting in the 1970s, the new preoccupation with ethnic heritage instilled a semi-ironic pride in “redneck” identity. The upgraded self-image prefigured the elevation of the “white working class” in the years to follow.
By the time her account reaches the late 20th century, though, the social and economic texture thins. Instead, Isenberg resorts to cataloguing representations of poor whites in pop culture (Deliverance, Hee Haw, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo) and celebrity politics (Tammy Faye Bakker, Bill Clinton, Sarah Palin), and offers some fairly trite commentary on the current political scene. Isenberg’s history is a bracing reminder of the persistent contempt for the white underclass, but you will have to look elsewhere for insights into why the condition of this class has taken a turn for the worse—and what its members think of themselves, and of the elites who have trashed them for so long.
To have become a memoirist when he’s barely cracked 30, J. D. Vance suggests at the outset of Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, is “somewhat absurd”—except that the result couldn’t be better-timed. Vance’s story amounts to a one-family composite of nearly all the worrisome trends affecting poor white Americans. The cover image of a mountain cabin is slightly misleading. Vance’s family straddles “hillbillies” who have remained in Appalachia and those whose ancestors left for work in the Midwest and are now struggling across the postindustrial flatlands. He still has relatives in Breathitt County, Kentucky, and feels a strong bond with that place. But most of the book is set where his grandparents moved decades ago and he grew up, the small manufacturing city of Middletown, in distinctly un-hilly southwestern Ohio.
Unlike Isenberg, Vance subscribes fully to the notion of the Appalachian Scots-Irish as a distinct breed of low-income Americans who have brought their pugilistic ways with them wherever they have gone. His family fits the bill to the point of straining credulity. His beloved maternal grandmother, Mamaw, once nearly killed a man who stole the family’s cow. His great-uncle forced a man who made a leering comment about the young Mamaw to eat her panties at knifepoint. Later, when Mamaw got angry that her husband, Papaw, had come home drunk again, she set him on fire. (One of their daughters put out the flames.) Papaw was no slouch himself, having once apparently killed a neighbor’s dog by feeding it steak marinated in antifreeze after it nearly bit Vance’s mom.
In Vance’s story, the troubles are embodied above all in one person: his mother. After graduating high school as the salutatorian, Bev became a teenage mother, as Mamaw had also been, and embarked on a string of marriages—five, at last count. She was bright—“the smartest person I knew”—and drilled the importance of reading and education into her son. She checked out library books on football strategy to get him to think more deeply about the game he loved, and revamped his third-grade science project the night before it was due, just like any suburban helicopter mom.
But her marriages were riven by fighting. She drank heavily, and became addicted to the painkillers she could pilfer in her job as a nurse, and later to heroin. Vance and his older sister were raised amid an extreme form of the instability and dysfunction that Charles Murray and Robert Putnam lament: He grew up with three stepfathers, and during one two-year stretch he lived in four houses. At one low point, when he was 12, his mother was taken away in handcuffs after he fled to a stranger’s house to escape a beating from her. At another point, she asked him to pee into a cup so she could use his urine to pass a drug test. “Chaos begets chaos,” he writes. “Welcome to family life for the American hillbilly.”
Vance survives this endless turbulence, thanks in large part to the tough love he receives from Mamaw, living nearby, who sees in him a chance to redeem her parenting failures with Bev. His grades are good enough to get him into the best state colleges in Ohio. But fearing that he isn’t ready for unstructured campus life, he enlists in the Marine Corps, and gets a stint in Iraq and a large helping of maturity and perspective. After finishing his tour, he excels at Ohio State and, to his joyful amazement, is admitted to Yale Law School.
His estrangement often reflects poorly on the echelon he’s joined, whose members, he says with understatement, could do a better job of “opening their hearts and minds to” newcomers. He is taken aback when law-school friends leave a mess at a chicken joint, and stays behind with another student from a low-income background, Jamil, to clean it up. “People,” he writes, “would say with a straight face that a surgeon mother and engineer father were middle-class.” To his astonishment, he is regarded as an exotic figure by his professors and classmates, simply by virtue of having come from a small town in the middle of the country, gone to a mediocre public high school, and been born to parents who didn’t attend college.
He adapts to his new world well enough to land at a Washington, D.C., law firm and later in a court clerkship, and is today prospering as a principal at an investment firm in San Francisco. But the outsider feeling lingers—hearing someone use a big word like confabulate in conversation makes his blood rise. “Sometimes I view members of the elite with an almost primal scorn,” he admits. And questions nag at him: “Why has no else from my high school made it to the Ivy League? Why are people like me so poorly represented in America’s elite institutions?” He is acutely aware of how easily he could have been trapped, had it not been for the caring intervention he received at key moments from people like Mamaw and his sister. “Thinking about … how close I was to the abyss, gives me chills. I am one lucky son of a bitch.” He asks:
How much of our lives, good and bad, should we credit to our personal decisions, and how much is just the inheritance of our culture, our families, and our parents who have failed their children? How much is Mom’s life her own fault? Where does blame stop and sympathy begin?
Vance’s answers read like works in progress: His passages of general social commentary could have benefited from longer gestation, and are strongest when grounded in his biography. He is well aware of the larger forces driving the cultural decline he deplores. He knows how much of the deterioration in Middletown can be traced to the shrinkage of the big Armco steel-rolling mill that, during World War II, drew so many Appalachians—including Papaw—to the town. His tales of the increasingly rarefied world of elite education offer good evidence for why “many people in my community began to believe that the modern American meritocracy was not built for them.”
But he also sees the social decline in personal terms, as a weakening of moral fiber and work ethic. He describes, for instance, working at a local grocery store, where he “learned how people gamed the welfare system”:
They’d buy two dozen-packs of soda with food stamps and then sell them at a discount for cash. They’d ring up their orders separately, buying food with food stamps, and beer, wine, and cigarettes with cash … Most of us were struggling to get by, but we made do, worked hard, and hoped for a better life. But a large minority was content to live off the dole. Every two weeks, I’d get a small paycheck and notice the line where federal and state income taxes were deducted from my wages. At least as often, our drug-addict neighbor would buy T-bone steaks, which I was too poor to buy for myself but was forced by Uncle Sam to buy for someone else.
As Vance notes, resentment of this sort—which surfaces again and again in his book—helps explain why voters in the world he came from have largely abandoned the Democrats, the party of the social safety net.
Vance does not pivot from such observations to a full-blown indictment of social-welfare programs. He isn’t ready to join the Republican chorus that blames the government (and specifically the black president who now heads it) for all ills. But he zealously subscribes to its corollary: The government, in his view, can’t possibly cure those ills. In a summary that borders on the polemical, he exhorts the “broad community of hillbillies” to “wake the hell up” and seize control of its fate.
Public policy can help, but there is no government that can fix these problems for us … Mamaw refused to purchase bicycles for her grandchildren because they kept disappearing—even when locked up—from her front porch. She feared answering her door toward the end of her life because an able-bodied woman who lived next door would not stop bothering her for cash—money, we later learned, for drugs. These problems were not created by governments or corporations or anyone else. We created them, and only we can fix them.
Vance’s intentions here are sincere and understandable. He’s tired of folks back home talking big about hard work when they are collecting checks just like the people they denigrate—tired of “the lies we tell ourselves.” He’s fed up with the quick resort to political blame, like the acquaintance in Middletown who told him that he had quit work because he was sick of waking up early but then declared on Facebook that it was the “Obama economy” that had set him back. “Whenever people ask me what I’d most like to change about the white working class,” writes Vance, “I say, ‘The feeling that our choices don’t matter.’ ”
A case can be made that the time has arrived for a major undertaking in, say, the devastated coal country of central Appalachia. How much to invest in struggling regions themselves, as opposed to making it easier for those who live in them to seek a livelihood elsewhere, is a debate that needs to happen. But the obligation is there, as it was 80 years ago. “We think of the left-behind groups as extinct,” Isenberg writes, “and the present as a time of advanced thought and sensibility. But today’s trailer trash are merely yesterday’s vagrants on wheels, an updated version of Okies in jalopies and Florida crackers in their carts. They are renamed often, but they do not disappear.”
The clustering is intensifying within regions, too. Since 1980, the share of upper-income households living in census tracts that are majority upper-income, rather than scattered throughout more mixed-income neighborhoods, has doubled. The upper echelon has increasingly sought comfort in prosperous insularity, withdrawing its abundant social capital from communities that relied on that capital’s overflow, and consolidating it in oversaturated enclaves.
So why are white Americans in downwardly mobile areas feeling a despair that appears to be driving stark increases in substance abuse and suicide? In my own reporting in Vance’s home ground of southwestern Ohio and ancestral territory of eastern Kentucky, I have encountered racial anxiety and antagonism, for sure. But far more striking is the general aura of decline that hangs over towns in which medical-supply stores and pawn shops dominate decrepit main streets, and Victorians stand crumbling, unoccupied. Talk with those still sticking it out, the body-shop worker and the dollar-store clerk and the unemployed miner, and the fatalism is clear: Things were much better in an earlier time, and no future awaits in places that have been left behind by polished people in gleaming cities. The most painful comparison is not with supposedly ascendant minorities—it’s with the fortunes of one’s own parents or, by now, grandparents. The demoralizing effect of decay enveloping the place you live cannot be underestimated. And the bitterness—the “primal scorn”—that Donald Trump has tapped into among white Americans in struggling areas is aimed not just at those of foreign extraction. It is directed toward fellow countrymen who have become foreigners of a different sort, looking down on the natives, if they bother to look at all.