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.

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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.

Currently reading…

Reading My Own Story by Emmeline Pankhurst. Here’s her wikipedia one-liner: ‘Emmeline Pankhurst was a British political activist and leader of the British suffragette movement who helped women win the right to vote.’

A book that appeals to my conventional socialist sensibilities, and my conventional reading habits, in general. Sometimes I feel that my book taste could be a bit more adventurous rather than a human interest story whenever I’m not stuck in fiction (rarely). Not to devalue the significant achievements of Emmeline Pankhurst, but I always read books, whether biography or history, that have an emotional focus, or which tells a well-known story from a very personal side. For some reason, I don’t tend to pick up books that are more abstract and that are more about ideas. Big-thinking books tend to escape my shelf.

Anyway, as I recently moved, I decided to join my local library, and this book was the first that I picked up. Not because I am a feminist and respect the suffragettes (I mean, I do, but that wasn’t why I picked up the book), but because of this slightly haunting passage that I read when I flicked through the book (and which then stayed with me):

Mrs Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin,’ was so great a favourite with my mother that she used it continually as a source of bedtime stories for our fascinated ears…[a] thrilling tale was the story of a negro boy’s flight from the plantation of his cruel master. The boy had never seen a railroad train, and when, staggering along the unfamiliar railroad track, he heard the roar of an approaching train, the clattering car-wheels seemed to his strained imagination to be repeating over and over again the awful words, ‘Catch a nigger – catch a nigger – catch a nigger -‘ This was a terrible story, and throughout my childhood, whenever I rode in a train, I thought of that poor runaway slave escaping from the pursuing monster.

Bad quoting: J.K. Rowling releases more juicy HP facts on Pottermore

This one induced a hearty laugh from me.

It is a bit like the return to Hogwarts after the summer break.

J.K. Rowling recently released more details about the Harry Potter universe, including the names of four other magical schools. (You can read about it here). After compulsively going through Pottermore and making sure I was on top of every new background detail released ,way back when I was in the throes of second year law school and probably during a swotvac to boot, I dropped off Pottermore and ignored all emails calling Hufflepuffs to pitch in and help the house win the House Cup. Now that amazing new details have been released, I’m back on. And yes, it is a bit like the return to Hogwarts after the summer break, but where did this quote actually come from?

It comes from Christopher Pyne, now Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science, previously the infamous Minister for Higher Education who was desperate to push through higher education reforms to deregulate university fees. Someone who knew him once said he’s ‘nice but silly’. I would believe that Chris Pyne is more likely to be silly than actually malicious.

Anyway, he likened going back to Parliament to returning to Hogwarts. This I heard while trying to fix our tv so I could stream Insiders on it (we recently moved into a newly built house and don’t have a tv antenna yet).

Bad quoting: The Spanish Poor

Bad quoting is when I take a perfectly fine quote and put it in a bad context because sometimes irony is fun.

Today’s quote:

there are none who understand the art of doing nothing and living upon nothing better than the poor classes of Spain

When I went to Spain earlier this year, I did a walking tour in Madrid. Our tour guide said that the unemployment rate for people under 30 in Spain is 50%. I haven’t done a fact check, but everyone knows that in general the economy in Spain is doing pretty badly right now.

So where does this quote come from? Who dares to make such a politically incorrect claim?

Well, turns out it was Washington Irving, an American author and diplomat who wrote this circa 1829 when staying in the rooms of the Alhambra in Granada, Spain. Back in his day, the Alhambra was in a pretty derelict state and mainly inhabited by vagabonds with their makeshift shelters and claims of ancestral nobility. People were poor, but proud and happy – was Irving’s observation. He loved the Alhambra so much that he decided to move into the actual castle despite crumbling walls, open windows and doors that didn’t close; his admitted being frightful on his first night, but quickly adapted to the romanticism of living among ruins.

Here’s a fuller extract:

Here [in the Alhambra] are two classes of people to whom life seems one long holiday, the very rich, and the very poor: one, because they need do nothing, the other, because they have nothing to do; but there are none who understand the art of doing nothing and living upon nothing better than the poor classes of Spain. Climate does one half and temperament the rest. Give a Spaniard the shade in summer and the sun in winter, a little bread, garlic, oil and garbanzos [chickpeas], an old brown cloak and a guitar, and let the world roll on as it pleases. Talk of poverty! With him it has no disgrace. It sits upon him with a grandiose style, like his ragged cloak. He is an hidalgo [gentleman] even when in rags.