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Nancy Isenberg discusses how pejorative stereotypes like “poor white trash” have served to stigmatize people as a “breed apart,” attributing their economic position to their own inherent deficiencies. Occasionally, however, the derogatory labels give way to more sympathetic portrayals, some of which can inspire economic reforms.
That was especially true during the Great Depression. In promising a New Deal for forgotten Americans, Franklin Roosevelt focused the country’s attention on poverty in general and Southern rural poverty in particular. He called the South “the Nation’s No. 1 economic problem.”
The Roosevelt administration explicitly rejected the conception of poor whites as a distinct breed, hopelessly confined to a mean and ugly condition by some hereditary weakness.
Secretary of Agriculture Wallace predicted that if at birth one hundred thousand poor white children were taken from their “tumble-down cabins” and another hundred thousand were taken from the wealthiest families, and both groups were given the same food, education, housing, and cultural experiences, by the time they reached adulthood there would be no difference in mental and moral traits.
In his Southern Regions of the United States (1936), Howard Odum supported this view with comprehensive data and sociological analysis. He showed how the Southern states had perpetuated poverty by managing land poorly, tolerating high rates of illiteracy, and depriving citizens of basic services. Among the groups the New Deal targeted for special assistance were tenant farmers, two-thirds of whom were white. They did much of the South’s agricultural labor but owned practically nothing.
The suburban frontier
After the Depression and World War II, the U.S. population was majority urban, and many upwardly-mobile Americans were moving to the new suburbs. Although the large metropolitan middle class may have created the impression of a classless society, “suburbs were turned into class-conscious fortresses. Zoning ordinances set lot sizes and restricted the construction of apartment buildings, emphasizing single-dwelling homes to keep out undesirable lower-class families.” [Early suburbs, like the one I grew up in, also had restrictive covenants in the deeds confining ownership to Caucasions.]
Among the groups left behind in the move into the new suburban neighborhoods were inner-city residents–now mostly nonwhite–and the rural poor. The latter might now be living in mobile homes instead of shacks, but they were still stigmatized as “rednecks” or “trailer trash.”
However, the discontents of suburban living gave an interesting twist to lower-class stereotypes. At a time when many social critics and young people were starting to criticize the suburban lifestyle as too bland and conformist, colorful characters with lower-class origins, like Elvis Presley, could achieve status in popular culture. Their uninhibited, undomesticated and macho personas could have broad appeal, at least in the expanding leisure and entertainment industry.
Varieties of identity politics
Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” programs tried to carry on the New Deal tradition, seeking to uplift rather than stigmatize the poor. As a Southerner himself, Johnson was well aware of how southern elites and politicians kept poor whites in their place, but held their support with appeals to white supremacy: “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.”
Johnson tried to help both the rural poor and the inner-city poor. But he knew that his party’s strong stand on civil rights legislation was going to lose white votes in the South. That gave the Republican Party an opportunity to win over poor white voters who had voted Democrat since the 1930s. Another problem for liberals was that public assistance now carried more of a stigma than it had during the Depression–the stigma of a lazy dependency on Big Government. Republicans could invite voters–rich and poor–to identify with a much more positive image–Nixon’s “‘Silent Majority’ of Americans who saw themselves as hardworking, middle American homeowners dutifully paying their taxes and demanding little of the federal government.” This reinforces one of the main points of the book, that “identity has always been a part of politics.” Different parties just go about constructing social identities in different ways.
Negative stereotypes of the poor persisted, but they were more likely to emphasize a “culture of poverty” than hereditary deficiency. Social scientists no longer thought that poverty was inborn. But they became divided over whether children acquire an impoverished way of life mainly from their families and neighborhoods, or whether they are forced into it by oppressive economic conditions. That is a subject I wish Isenberg had explored in more detail.
The politics of social class
On one level, this is a book about how we stigmatize the poor instead of confronting the class barriers that keep them poor. More subtly, it is a book about how we co-opt the poor by offering them more positive identities to sustain them in the absence of real opportunity. The rebel soldier defending his Southern heritage, the fiercely independent hillbilly in coal country, the low-wage worker claiming to want nothing from government–All these politically enhanced self-images have served systems mainly profiting someone else.
Those who are profiting more than ever, the economic elites who claim an increasing proportion of the national wealth and income, work to channel the resentments of the poor away from actual elites and toward those who question the system. The poor:
…are told that East Coast college professors brainwash the young and that Hollywood liberals make fun of them and have nothing in common with them and hate America and wish to impose an abhorrent, godless lifestyle. The deceivers offer essentially the same fear-laden message that the majority of southern whites heard when secession was being weighed. Moved by the need for control, for an unchallenged top tier, the power elite in American history has thrived by placating the vulnerable and creating for them a false sense of identification—denying real class differences wherever possible.
Donald Trump’s brand of populism is taking the co-optation of the poor and the vilification of liberals to an absurd extreme, hopefully absurd enough to expose the game for what it is. He appeals to poor whites not as low-wage labor in need of economic reforms, but as whites, or men, or Christians, or gun owners, or native-born Americans hostile to immigrants. And he is quick to brand his political adversaries and critics as “enemies of the people,” the people being the folks described above.
This is not a book about economic policy as such. It contains little analysis of what programs would actually uplift the poor today. It is more about the stereotypes that get in the way. What Isenberg wants is a sober class analysis unencumbered by such stereotypes:
…The most powerful engines of the U.S. economy—slaveowning planters and land speculators in the past, banks, tax policy, corporate giants, and compassionless politicians and angry voters today—bear considerable responsibility for the lasting effects on white trash, or on falsely labeled “black rednecks,” and on the working poor generally. The sad fact is, if we have no class analysis, then we will continue to be shocked at the numbers of waste people who inhabit what self-anointed patriots have styled the “greatest civilization in the history of the world.”
Neither stigmatizing the poor nor co-opting them with flattering stereotypes is helpful. As Tevye said in Fiddler on the Roof, “It’s no disgrace to be poor, but it’s no great honor either.” Poverty can become a cultural tradition and a flawed social identity. But policymakers need to see it first and foremost as an economic condition.