When I write about poor people I get mad and I get crass. I cuss, I make awful jokes, and I attempt to infuse my writing about poor people with the familiar voice I spat out at midnight in my best friend’s converted lounge-garage. I know that needs to stop. I know that validating the experience of working class people, who I know dearly, needs to involve code-switching: but how do I do that when I so viscerally care about the bullshit poor people have to put up with that my fellow liberals don’t care about?
I throw around terms like “white trash,” “redneck,” and poor as if everybody understands that it’s coming from a place of love and privilege acceptance. I know that white trash people don’t like being called trash because the term is as systemic and old as other minority slurs, but I also know that the term is not laced with the vitriolic remnants of race based oppression that breeds more hatred toward particular castes than “white trash” ever dared to.
Let’s take drug use as an example. Sometimes I’ll say something about “white trash” and amphetamines, or correlate rurality with drug use. Statistics wise, I’m not necessarily wrong. Over the past few years, people with annual incomes less than $20,000 experienced a 60% increase in opioid use. Nonetheless, people with annual incomes between $20 and $50,000 experienced a 77% increase in opioid use. Real figures are next to impossible to find on poverty and illicit drug use, because almost all of the data is self-reported, doesn’t consider rurality, and fails to address homelessness. But most academics agree: the relationship between poverty and drug use is often causal, such that poverty is often incurred by drug abuse rather than poverty leading to drug use.
Regardless, rich people with graduate degrees are something like 80% likely to drink, whereas the poor are somewhere in the 30 or 40% brackets. So when I say something like, “white trash people are at the center of the drug crisis” I do not necessarily mean they’re more likely and statistically centered in substance abuse. I mean they’re at the front and center: when you think about methamphetamine users, you don’t immediately think of the shocking number of urban, gay men that use meth. You think of Bobby Joe without teeth. Like I said, front and center.
Considering this caveat about my use of vernacular, dialect, and crassness in talking about the Southern poor, I want to make my stance about poverty in the South excessively clear. Poverty in the South is not the same as poverty in a city, in the West, Midwest, or North. Poverty physically and statistically looks different in Southern towns than it does anywhere else in the world. This is the place where my opinions deviate from both popular rhetorics about poverty and Global Southern studies.
As a personal aside, I grew up firmly middle class with parents that were either a teacher, chef, line-cook, or makeup saleslady. Educated and sometimes annoyingly cultured, my family reaped all of the benefits of middle to upper-middle class privilege while being almost permanently cash poor. My extended family, with a few exceptions, is entirely made up of middle-class folk. I grew up in a town where my family was considered rich. The town in question is 40% below the poverty line, and almost all of my close acquaintances as a child were right on the poverty line if not well below it.
People that talk about poverty are overwhelmingly not poor. Rationally and on a fundamental level that makes sense. Poor people don’t have time to write about being poor, no matter how valuable their experiences are. That’s why writers like Sarah Smarsh, Joseph Williams, Linda Tirado, and William McPherson are some of the only poverty journalists I know of that have first-hand experience with poverty. It’s much easier to write about minimum wage, to paraphrase Barbara Ehrenreich, when you ain’t living in it.
My dad helped me with college. I did go through the “college poor” thing, and I found a career that I could manage that led to me making enough to not only get by, but save money like a madwoman. I sold makeup, like my mom, and over four years I scraped and pinched and managed to save enough to get through the first years of graduate school in an non-funded program. For the first three years of working in cosmetic sales, I made next to nothing per hour. Part of that was my fault—I took what they gave me until I financially couldn’t do it anymore. But I’ve worked for minimum wage at Subway, and I’ve also worked for a shit-ton of money per hour. I’ve been on just about every rung of the ladder.
[ For a good time, click this link to read a not-supposed-to-be-funny exposé about working in retail by Joseph Williams. He’s outraged by shit that is so par for the course I can’t believe some people don’t know this is how it is. You’re pissed about bag checks? Welcome to capitalism. ]
I could muckrake about the cosmetic company that likes to work employees full time hours for part time status, or I could tell you this very simply: working nine hour shifts for $10 an hour makes you not give a shit about changing the face of low-wages. I don’t want to make their fragrant rejection of labor laws a thing because I survived on those extra, unbenefited hours. I could not have survived if I had only been given my part-time hours, and I know for a fact other employees had the same experience. The bag searches, pat-downs to exit the stores, and constant video surveillance are their own rights-violation thing, but every store in America probably does this to their employees daily. I had it good—I got raises, as many hours as I wanted, and I loved my job. I wrote what I had to for school, but, like Ehrenreich’s assertion, I could never see myself writing about poverty while working a low wage job. I was tired. Losing my mind in school, at work, and emotionally. I got really sick because I worked more than I could manage while enrolled in college full time. No one would’ve taken me seriously, anyway, so I guess that entire experience doesn’t really matter.
This brings me to my point about Southern poverty: despite my experience in high school and college, being so completely cash poor, my experience of cash-lack was not, by any means, the same thing as poverty. Does it make me certifiably capable to talk about raising the minimum wage? Hell damn yeah. But I didn’t have bad teeth. I didn’t have to make myself sick donating plasma. I didn’t have a quadrillion percent higher risk of becoming pregnant or increased risk for amphetamine addiction (although I acknowledge college students are getting up there). I didn’t have food deserts, a sickeningly widespread condition of poor nutrition, or marginal increase in disease and obesity. I have always had insurance and a place to live. I wasn’t blasted across the face with Southern Evangelicalism or conservative ideology, which, without a doubt, marks the Southern working class more than any other factor. Southern poverty and poverty in general are not the same things as “college poor” or middle-class cash poor. There are too few writers willing to acknowledge and nuance these differences. Poor people are not a monolithic block, and assuming they are does nothing for working class people.
This is my final agitation. It’s perhaps my most angering opinion and one that I can’t shut up about. You all know I’m a radical socialism-loving liberal. Y’all know I shut down conservatism in a heartbeat and have no tolerance for bigotry, capitalism, religious zealots, or any other topic dear to Paul Ryan’s heart.
Liberals have given the fuck up on poor people. Liberals continue to fail the poor and condemn them while they do it. Liberals write off the working class as garbage faster than they’d burn a copy of Atlas Shrugged.
Let me give you some statistics via Sarah Smarsh’s article, “Dangerous idiots: how the liberal media elite failed working-class Americans:”
Trump voters are middle class. 53% of white women voted for Trump. The majority of Trump voters were not “clinging to jobs perceived to be endangered.” The median household income of Trump voters was $72,000, and 44% of his voters had college degrees. (Stats via Smarsh)
If you condemn Alabama for making Trump happen as a monolithic swarm of deplorable people hooked on amphetamines with little or no interest in politics besides dead babies and their bible, you must take into consideration that 47.5% of Michigan residents voted for Trump in 2016. Yes, Michigan has an inordinate number of Rednecks, but when the liberal media paints a portrait of a Trump voter, it is the toothless, dusty coal miner clinging to a lost cause South and a portrait borrowed from James Agee’s Let us Now Praise Famous Men. It is not the Michigander. The final loss of Michigan as a swing state with 16 electoral votes was not the South’s fault, and every liberal journalist that paints it as such needs to take a serious look at their party alignment. If you hate poor Southerners so much, I suggest you join the Republican party—they make a pretty good platform out of hating and punishing poor people.
Where I diverge from some leftist ideology a bit is at the racism and religious zealotries of the South. So many people writing about the “New South,” whatever the fuck that means, try to make it sound like Alabamians aren’t still racist, and religion doesn’t impact nearly every facet of the average Deep Southerners life. When I was in eighth grade a boy in my class had the shit beat out of him because somebody found out his parents were Atheists. Can’t for the life of me remember his name, but let’s all stop trying to make the South into “we’re not all like that.” I know we’re not all like that, and many like-minded progressives come out of the South. My entire immediate family and every close friend I have from the rural South is a progressive anti-bigot.
But in trying to make our rhetoric “not all Southerners,” we’re missing the point. Racism and religious zealotry are systemically rooted in the South’s history. See George Wallace, the Civil War, and Jim Crow if you need a refresher. Attempting to excuse that away, by Southern progressives, reduces the experience of minority groups struggling to live in the South. Racism and hate crimes have increased since Trump’s inauguration, and you are kidding yourself if you believe the animosity toward race and religion hasn’t gotten worse in the South this year. Does that mean kale-drinking East Coast liberals are right to condemn every person living in a red state for what liberals believe that poor people single-handedly did to America?
No. Because it just ain’t like that. Liberals, stop hating poor people and start acknowledging your own status set’s complicity in this shitstorm of a year.