Perspective from poor, rural and mostly white America

Seeing this reminded me again of what JD Vance wrote in Hillbilly Elegy. Poor whites in rural America are the sons and daughters of the people who rose into middle class by working in the manufacturing industry.

This social mobility entrenched the belief that diligence and hard work will bring wealth. However, Vance observes that this belief has persisted even as people stopped working hard. Instead of recognising their lack of diligence (or poor life choices), poor whites believe that the reason they’re not getting rich is because of immigration, or globalisation.

But that of course, doesn’t mean these people aren’t victims. Better tax and welfare policies for example would have all lessened wealth inequality. As I said before, poverty seems to be a complicated mix of poor life choices and factors outside of an individual’s control.


Initial thoughts on a Trump presidency

These are some of my initial thoughts because I’m still digesting the many different narratives going off in my head.

Firstly, this is not the time for hubris and self-pity. People lamenting ‘what have we become’ reveal a deep ignorance of some of the biggest issues facing America. Likewise, they have also lost touch with a great part of their country. The ‘America-is-the-best country’ mentality has also played its part in this ignorance and discourages any critical reflection on what is actually happening. People who are claiming they will decant to Canada are not only ignorant of these problems but refuse to engage or deal with them in any way. There has been a loss of American solidarity.

Claiming that these people are stupid, racist, homophobic and sexist also drives a deeper wedge between that part of America that is educated, employed and urban and that part which is poor, rural and left behind by globalisation. It obscures the problem of why these people voted the way they did, and consequently the problem will continue to be ignored.

These attitudes and flash judgments are also no better than racial and sexist prejudices. Clinton supporters bemoan that racists have taken over politics, but many people voting for Trump aren’t primarily doing it because they hate gay and black people, but because they don’t trust the establishment and because no one has done anything about their impoverished, rural community.

Secondly, I am incredibly sad about the result. I recognise that Trump is a misogynist etc. and I realise that to an extent, his presidency will legitimise these attitudes and is a big step backwards. That’s why it’s even more concerning that the people voting for him were willing to overlook this. Some have quoted him as an imperfect deliverer of change in America. Desperate, these people will take Trump as he is, as long as America really does become great again. The silver lining is that maybe this will be a big wake-up call to those who live in areas more like Wall Street and Silicon Valley and less like Middletown, Ohio. It could, conversely, just further divide the country, and that will be a sign that America has not learned its lesson.

Thirdly, (this can be a major player and I’m not just offering it out of consolation) the GOP now controls the Senate and House and having spent the entire campaign distancing themselves from Trump, it’s hard to see how Trump will get many of his promises through Congress.

Hillbilly Elegy

I just finished J.D. Vance’s book Hillbilly Elegy and have three thoughts to offer.

1. There is a strong connection between privilege and social mobility

Social mobility is an equaliser. If it’s easy to move from one social class to another then we might conclude that a society is fairly equal and meritocratic.

However, there is a strong connection between privilege and social mobility, and I mean all kinds of privilege: wealth, educated parents, a loving and stable family and a safe neighbourhood. I identify with Vance on some level because I’m also a child of poor migrants. But I’m incredibly luckier because the statistics were on my side. My parents, though poor migrants initially, are both tertiary educated. They value education and provided a caring and secure family home. Vance on the  other hand is the first person in his family to go to college; his father gave him up for adoption and his mother is a drug addict. He attributes much of his success to the love of his sister and grandmother and the fact that his grandmother (and when she was sober, his mother) cared about his education.

He admits that this is probably the only thing that changed his life’s trajectory. Otherwise he went to the same school, grew up in the same neighbourhood, witnessed the same fights and crises that other kids in his town saw.

Parents should love their kids, but I’m beginning to see that a loving and caring family is almost a privilege in those areas, because when everyone’s parents are poor and uneducated, kids with parents who are still willing to invest in them the only way they can (i.e. by providing a loving family home) will probably go furthest.

The problem is this: can you provide a stable home for your child when you’re a single-teenage parent? Will you love your kids if you’ve never known love from your own parents? Poverty is like a disease in these families; it gets passed down through generations.

2. Pessimism among poor, working class whites results from a complicated mix of poor life choices and factors outside of their control

Vance is still figuring out whether the balance is in favour of the individual or forces outside of their control. He blames his mother for not being able to quit drugs but at the same time he admits that she grew up in a violent household. A lot of people he knew who failed did so because of their own choices, and he cites a guy he used to work with in a tile factory who eventually lost his job because he was always late to work and would take 1 hr toilet breaks. When he lost the job he turned against the boss and said he couldn’t be fired because he had a pregnant girlfriend to look after.

Yet at the same time Vance recognises that there are rarely any examples of happy families to look up to, and rarely anyone in the community to show a kid that if you study hard you will get somewhere. People are disillusioned with hard work because they don’t see the rewards, and they don’t feel like they can control their own lives. This leads to a high level of pessimism among working class whites. For example, working class whites are more likely to believe that their children will do worse than them, compared to African-American and Hispanic parents.

In the end, Vance says that a community can either empower people with a sense that they can control their own destiny or encourage them to take refuge in resentment at forces beyond their control.

3. Politicians have capitalised on this resentment

Politicians like Trump, Farage and Le Pen tap into this resentment and blame the white-working-class-plight on immigration, globalisation and a corrupt political establishment. People are call this the rise of populism, perhaps best defined as a type of politics that

scorns elites and experts. It supposes that the purpose of politics is to act on the will of the people, and it proposes simple solutions to complex problems that require serious and effective policy responses

In the end, these simple solutions are not going to help poor working class whites. We need to communicate that, instead of ignoring their problems because we disagree with its political manifestation. Schemes like vote trading undermine democracy and further belittles the political voice of what is already one of the most disempowered groups in America. We label them stupid, racist, sexist and homophobic. But we don’t recognise that they are just very poor, and no one has done anything about it for too long.