A White Trash Manifesto
"I believe those dogs belong at that trailer up Beck Branch. The one with the goat tied up out front and the Confederate flag in the tree."
I typed those words just yesterday on a Facebook post from a friend and neighbor who encountered two stray dogs near her home. I didn't particularly mean for them to sound as funny as they do, but I couldn't help but chuckle as soon as I typed them yesterday, even given their accuracy and their appropriateness at the time.
The thing is, any of us who live in our little corner of the world know the place I'm talking about. I drive by it every day on my way home. I sometimes grumble about their messy yard. I had plenty of editorial commentary the day they hanged that damned flag from a tree branch over the road. My wife and I have been talking about that poor goat regularly as we've watched him grow from a kid into a full-grown billy. She briefly plotted to goat-nap him. Thankfully, she left him be.
The way I have reacted to houses like these has varied over the years. Somehow over the course of my life, I transitioned from somebody who lived in a place like this to someone who resented people who lived this way. Now, though, I can't help but to interpret places like this, and the humans who live there, in a more empathetic way. They are cogs in a broken machine, and I now understand that social, political, and economic forces beyond their control conspire to keep them living there on the side of the road in a broken-down trailer with a goat as a lawn mower.
If you could distill stereotypical Appalachian culture into a single quarter-acre plot, this would be it. There are actually two trailer homes on the property, neither of which would appear livable to most people. Various defunct appliances are scattered in the yard. There's more than one broken-down vehicle in the driveway. Assorted trash litters the yard, including various discarded cans of cheap beer. The one working vehicle has an expired tag. The two dogs mentioned above reside there, as do a few others, and, of course, the goat. Best I can tell, at least three generations of a family live there.
Though I do not know the inhabitants of this particular trailer home, I know people like them. As I said, I was once one of them. When my mother died, she lived in a tiny little trailer on the side of a different road. Her yard was neater, but she faced many of the same problems as others who live their lives in single-wides on the sides of various roads. Most folks only take notice long enough to complain about them and mutter something about them cleaning up or getting a job or getting off welfare.
I understand the people who live like this. They are, in a sense, my people. I know that they've likely never really had much choice but to live like this. It could just as easily be me living there with a goat tied up out front. However, it isn't. And because I have somehow risen to the ranks of the over-educated middle class, through dumb luck, work, and some combination of intelligence and talent, I realize that my job isn't to judge these people, and millions like them in Appalachia, but to work toward a more empathetic interpretation of their lives and the systems that shape them. That's why I continue to write.
My blog has attracted a rather large following for two reasons. First, in my essay titled "Blessed are the White Trash," I expressed my desire to devote a good portion of my own work as a writer and an historian to a genuine and accurate analysis of invisible people who continue to be blamed for their own circumstances. This was, and is, particularly important to me given that it is now more popular than ever on both the political right and the political left to explain these humans and their behavior in unsympathetic terms. Second, in my essay "My Mother Wasn't Trash," I decided I would be vulnerable and tell my own story in a way I hadn't been willing to tell it before. It turns out that I struck a nerve that I didn't even know existed. A bit more than 250,000 people shared one of those two essays via Facebook. About 1,100,000 people read one or both in the year after I wrote them. I wasn't prepared for it. I figured a few dozen people would read the essays. I never imagined that so many people would give a shit about what I had to say, particularly because I write about people most Americans don't seem to have much use for.
One of the folks I met in the months following those two essays is Drew Morgan. You might know him as co-author of the best-selling book The Liberal Redneck Manifesto: Draggin' Dixie Outta the Dark. You might have seen Drew and his co-authors Trae Crowder (of Liberal Redneck YouTube fame) and Corey Ryan Forrester on their live comedy tour. If you haven't, you should. Anyway, their book resonates with me, and in that spirit, albeit with less humor, I have come to realize that it might be helpful to assemble what I call a White Trash Manifesto.
Inevitably, whether I'm giving a public talk or answering emails from my website, people ask what they can do to improve the lives and fates of those I write about. The truth is, that's a tough question to answer. Many point out that poor people in Appalachia tend to vote against their own interests, not realizing that such statements are a form of victim-blaming. I believe that most people who ask this question do in fact mean well, but there are no easy answers. Even for me, someone who grew up White Trash and who now studies and writes about these humans, it is complicated.
Even my own mother was planning to vote for Donald Trump, though she passed before she had the opportunity to do so. Nonetheless, she voted Republican her entire life, even when those she voted for wanted to take away her Medicaid and her Social Security and her SNAP benefits. Understanding why would take asking a lot of hard questions with equally hard answers. However, I believe there are some important things we all need to know about people who identify, or are identified, as White Trash. We can't oversimplify it by saying only that they vote against their own interests. Only when we begin to understand their lives can we begin thinking about their voting habits. By the time you get to that point, you might discover your need to reframe the question and forget about their voting habits to focus instead on your own.
What follows is a list of things I wish more people understood about people like my mother and the goat-keepers down the road. It is shaped both by my lived experience as bona-fide White Trash and by my research as an historian. This is my attempt to reshape the conversation with kindness and with empathy.
1. Understand the power of the term White Trash. I continue to use this term, and I am fully aware of how offensive it is. I have been hurt to the point of tears, particularly as a child, by those who used it to describe me and my family. It was a concept weaponized by many of the kids who picked on me when I was younger. I have begun to capitalize it, because I believe it defines an important segment of the US population, particularly in Appalachia. I continue to get push-back for using this term, just as I am sure I will once I publish this essay. However, I continue to take ownership of this term. I grew up White Trash, and I'm not nearly as ashamed of it now as I once was. That concept, and the biases and preconceived notions about me that accompany it, shaped my life in indelible ways. I'm tired of hiding from it or pretending that my upbringing wasn't defined by my status as White Trash. I don't use it flippantly, and neither should you. You should, however, recognize the power that term holds.
Understand how it has been operationalized as a form of oppression and victim-blaming. Understand that most folks who are called White Trash have had absolutely no control over the circumstances that led to them be lumped into this group. If you do not identify as White Trash yourself, you should probably find another way to describe this population. I don't know that it rises to the level of slur, but I do know that it hurts to be called White Trash. That's why I continue using it, though I don't directly call people White Trash as a pejorative. I believe there's power in forcing people to recognize that this term becomes engrained in the psyches of those who are called White Trash. If you want to come closer to understanding it yourself, read Nancy Isenberg's book White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America. Then, ask yourself how you have contributed, knowingly or unknowingly, to the perpetuation of White Trash stereotypes.
2. Understand the ways capitalism has continued to harm and oppress individuals in White Trash communities. This is going to be the most controversial thing I have ever written, but it's the truth. Capitalism continues to treat poor people in Appalachia as profit centers in ways that entrench their impoverishment. I began to analyze this concept in my essay "Being Poor Ain't Cheap." Though I didn't call it out by name, it is pretty clear that unfettered capitalism is to blame for the predatory practices of those who profit from poverty.
Payday loans trap poor people in an endless cycle of debt, and crony capitalists continue to buy off legislators to prevent them from banning these predatory practices. Rent-to-own retailers prey on poor people who lack the liquid cash to make medium-sized purchases like appliances and furniture. For-profit colleges and universities prey on the vulnerabilities and hopes and dreams of poor people in order to charge them jacked up tuition for coursework toward useless credentials they might not even complete. Coal companies break bodies and pollute the water in impoverished corners of Appalachia for the sake of profit for their out-of-town shareholders and executives while reinvesting virtually nothing in the communities they exploit. Retailers like Dollar General mark up food and household goods at their stores because they know their often-rural customers lack access to more affordable mainstream retailers.
The examples are almost endless. In virtually every category, poor people pay more for the good and services they need than more affluent peers. This is not the "free market" at work. The poor are generally denied access to free markets. In rural communities, just as in inner cities, the poor have limited choices. They are often stuck doing business only with those who choose to operate in their communities, and many of these corporations choose to do business with them because it's so profitable. Even something as simple as toilet paper serves as a good example. My mother used to pay about two bucks for a four-pack of Angel Soft toilet tissue. My wife and I, with our reliable cars and Sam's Club memberships, drive an hour to the city and pay about eighteen dollars for 45 rolls. Compound this by extending it to every household supply, and it really adds up over time.
Despite the incredibly apparent predatory nature of these retailers, those who criticize this form of capitalism are branded as liberal/democrat/socialist/communist by those who lack a real understanding of what any of those terms really mean. One is generally called unpatriotic when one criticizes capitalism. There exists in the United States a grave misunderstanding about the connections between democracy and capitalism. The two are not the same, nor does one necessitate the other. The former is a political system, the latter an economic system. However, critiques of capitalism, no matter how fact-based, are criticized as un-American. This is part of the problem. Countries do not have to have implement unfettered capitalism in order to be democratic. In fact, I would argue that those with the most deregulated forms of capitalism are in fact less democratic.
I would encourage those who reject this premise to give thought to this idea: how are concepts of liberty, justice, and pursuit of happiness exercised by those who are given no protection from robber-baron corporations? How can one declare it to be just, for everyone, when a corporation is allowed to prey on the poor for the sake of benefitting the rich? That does not sound very just to me, and this process continues to entrench poverty generation after generation in White Trash communities.
3. Understand the intergenerational nature of White Trash poverty. To understand this, one must first understand the flawed nature of the American Dream myth. This is another controversial point. In my essay "Poverty, Privilege, and the Dead American Dream," I posit that many people lack access to the American Dream. This lack of access means that the American Dream does not, in fact, even exist. We are to believe, as the American Dream narrative dictates, that anyone can rise socioeconomically via nothing but hard work and doing the "right" thing. And yet, we also have to recognize that some are not able to rise out of poverty no matter how hard they work or how many "right" choices they make. These two things, taken together, mean that the American Dream, as we define it, does not actually exist. Nonetheless, it is often used as an excuse to justify doing nothing to address systemic poverty in the United States.
Now more than ever, the single greatest determinant of one's socioeconomic class is the socioeconomic class of one's parents. This is certainly true for those in White Trash communities. For much of my childhood, my mother worked two or three jobs at minimum wage. She did all the right things. She worked from sun-up to well after dark most days. She got her GED, then a diploma in office management from a technical college. She finally got a 9-5 job making a bit better living, but by the time she got there, her body was too broken from a lifetime of shitty jobs and back-breaking work. She needed back surgery and treatment for mental illness, and eventually, the mental and physical anguish she experienced was too much. She couldn't work anymore. Her story is not unique.
My mother grew up in a White Trash household, and she died that way, too. I escaped, though it was as much an accident or dumb luck as anything I did myself. All around me, I see friends and family members and childhood acquaintances struggling to choose the best option from an array of shitty choices. After a lifetime of choosing the least shitty options, they finally realize that no matter how hard they try, things probably aren't going to get any better. There's really no way to explain the hopelessness of this reality. You just have to experience it yourself before you can understand it.
It is this hopelessness that is the hardest part of the White Trash life, and it is the reason that poverty tends to be intergenerational. I do not know a single poor parent who does not dream of something better for their children. However, the sad truth is that most of them lack the resources to lift their children out of poverty just as their parents lacked the resources to lift them out of poverty. It isn't that they don't want better. It's that the system is designed to favor those who are already prosperous, not those who lack prosperity. Therefore, despite doing their best to choose the least shitty option every time, these people continue to be blamed for their circumstances.
Those who believe the American Dream exists can't understand why poor people don't just stop being poor. Those who are poor themselves have been conditioned since childhood to know that, no matter how hard they try, they'll probably die poor, too. The data back this belief. Until you understand this, you cannot understand White Trash culture. They don't start out as broken, and their culture isn't broken. They are broken by an unfair system, and most people who aren't systematically oppressed by this system just don't give a shit.
4. Understand that limited availability of healthy food and lack of access to medical care are major impediments to socioeconomic mobility for those in White Trash communities. A large number of impoverished people have access to food and medical care only because of government programs, yet there is an endless amount of shame and stigma attached to accessing these life-sustaining benefits. Even with access to government assistance for these things, the poor and working poor still end up unhealthy through no fault of their own.
One of the things that makes me angriest is to hear people complaining about those who use SNAP benefits (food stamps) to purchase food. The average monthly benefit doesn't come close to providing healthy and nourishing meals for benefit recipients, so they are forced to make hard choices at the grocery story. Sure, you might have witness somebody buying something you don't think they deserve with their EBT cards, but your anecdotal evidence does not mean that the system is broken. What it means is that you think poor people do not deserve to eat the same foods as you do, and that, quite frankly, makes you an elitist asshole. What is more likely is that those you see using EBT benefits at the grocery store are trying to figure out how to feed their families for a couple of hundred dollars a month. Occasionally, they decide to splurge for a treat, and that treat you see in their shopping cart usually isn't nearly as nice or delicious as the treats you can afford for yourself on Taco Tuesday.
My mother refused to accept food stamps when I was a kid because she was ashamed to do so. She, like others, including those who receive SNAP benefits, had to figure out how to stretch her grocery budget. Unhealthy food is cheapest, so that's what poor people eat. Soda and mac and cheese and sodium-rich processed meats are the cheapest ways to obtain calories. They are also most likely to make us sick. However, when immune systems compromised by unhealthy diets end up causing poor people to get sick, they also lack access to adequate medical care. It becomes a vicious cycle of lack of nutrition, inability to heal, and long-term unhealthiness.
Many poor people rely on Medicaid to access medical care, and a shocking number of medical practices refuse to accept new Medicaid patients. If you've ever wondered why poor people turn up at the local emergency room because they have a cold, it's because they probably can't find a regular doctor who will accept the only form of payment they have available. It isn't their fault that no one will accept Medicaid, and their choice is often either going to the emergency room or not seeking treatment at all.
Despite these realities, however, the "sanctity of life" party continues to demonize poor people. They regularly call for cuts in benefits, touting imaginary welfare queens as evidence of a broken system. Tax cuts for the wealthy always take precedence over benefits for those who need them most. The irony is that by refusing to adequately provide for the nutrition and healthcare needs of the poor, political leaders are making it even more likely that these folks will remain sick and impoverished. Thus, the cycle continues, and poor people continue to be shamed because they lack access to healthy foods and preventive medical care.
5. Understand that what you see as lack of pride is likely just a combination of hopelessness and exhaustion. Often, I hear some version of this: "well, we grew up poor, but at least we had some pride." This is usually in response to poor people who don't keep up their property in a way that is acceptable to their wealthier neighbors, and it usually comes from somebody who didn't actually grow up poor. For some reason I will likely never understand, many affluent people assume that poor people are lazy. This links, in some ways, back to the bogus idea of the American Dream. If one believes that anyone can attain prosperity so long as they work hard enough, then it seems logical that those who are not prosperous are poor because they are lazy. It's the form of victim-blaming that is most prevalent in discussions about poverty.
Most of the hardest-working people I know are poor. They have to work hard to survive, quite literally, and survival is the best they can hope for. Many of them work two minimum wage jobs, and it still isn't enough. Like my mother, they work from early morning until late evening, but they still barely make ends meet. To argue that they somehow do not work as hard as the hedge fund billionaire class is laughable at best. They are simply working within the bounds of a broken system designed to privilege those who already have resources, as I discussed above.
The result is a special form of exhaustion. When one works 60 hours a week in menial service jobs, one has little inclination to cut the grass or spend time or money on property maintenance. It isn't a priority because it isn't related to survival, and survival is the priority. The ability to spend valuable resources on property maintenance is a privilege denied to most people in White Trash communities. Personally, I think of the goat tied up in the yard of the trailer I mentioned earlier not as trashy but as quite smart. A cheap lawn mower and a goat kid cost about the same. If one buys a lawn mower, one has to spend time mowing and purchase fuel and oil. If one purchases a goat, the goat trims the grass while feeding itself. Sure, there are flaws in the setup, the most important being that goats don't actually like grass and only eat it when there are not other options, but I admire the ingenuity. As a neighbor, if my choice is between the yard being grown up and seeing a goat tied up outside, I'm going to choose the goat every time.
So often, we interpret the world around us through a middle-class lens, particularly if that's where we come from. However, poor people do not live or survive according the the same rules. Until we understand how the world is different for impoverished people, we can't frame their lifestyles or their cultures in proper context.
6. Understand that impoverished people lack access to many of the mechanisms designed for socioeconomic improvement. There are two more things that I hear quite often in my conversations about poverty: "why don't they go get an education?", and "why don't they just move to a place where there are more jobs?" Either of these paths might seem like a logical way to chase prosperity, and while both seem on the surface to be sound ideas, neither are particularly accessible to poor people.
When it comes to education, there are a number of obstacles. The first is lack of preparation for postsecondary coursework. Even those who graduate from high school are often academically under-prepared, meaning that they need remedial reading, English, and mathematics courses in order to register for college-level classes. There are a variety of reasons for this lack of academic preparation, most of which are beyond the control of the individuals. Many school districts in impoverished areas are perpetually under-funded and have poorer student outcomes. This puts these students at a distinct disadvantage as compared to their more affluent peers. Additionally, other factors cause impoverished students to struggle with school even if they are intelligent and academically-inclined.
As noted previously, impoverished people often have poorer health and eat less healthy foods, both of which make learning a challenge. Those impoverished students with learning disabilities lack the family resources that are often necessary to help them persist despite their disabilities. While affluent families can afford drugs and therapy and technological resources to help their struggling children, impoverished people have limited access to these resources. A student from an upper middle class family who has dyslexia will likely have access to assistive software and private tutoring. A student with dyslexia who lives in the trailer park won't. Which do you think has the best shot at college?
Family concerns, too, often impede the ability of impoverished teenagers to complete high school. Many impoverished teenagers are forced to go to work as soon as they are able, and even part-time jobs interfere with their ability to excel in high school. I worked at least 30 hours every week when I was in high school, and I worked nearly 40 hours per week my senior year. Having to work essentially a full-time job as a high school student might have built character and made me appreciate hard work, but it also inhibited my ability to go to college. This was one reason I did not go to college until I was 31. I was able to persist in high school until graduation, but many of my friends who were from similar socioeconomic backgrounds did not. When I was in college in my early thirties, there were two other people from my graduating high school class at my university. Neither of the three of us chose to delay college. The decision was made for us by virtue of our poverty.
Because of these issues, it becomes even more difficult for impoverished people to ever make it to college. Even if they qualify for Pell Grants that will pay for 100% of community college tuition, they are often intimidated and ashamed because of the necessity to complete a GED or remedial classes. They are impeded, too, by the reality that they have to continue earning a living and supporting their families even if they return to school. Very few impoverished families have the resources necessary to send their 18-year-old children to college, and the older one gets, the harder it becomes to ever go back to school. While higher education institutions are getting better at addressing this problem, it persists nonetheless. There are countless impoverished people who would love nothing more than to go to college, even to a technical school to learn a trade, but cannot only because they lack the resources to do so.
The other possible solution - moving to an area with more or better jobs - is just as complicated as going back to school. First and foremost, it is essential to note how condescending it can sound to tell somebody that they should just move. Would you be willing to leave your home and your family and the only support system you have ever known for a job that may or may not exist? I doubt it.
Even if this was a good idea - and it often isn't - most impoverished people lack the resources to pick up their families and move. Consider the earlier argument that poor people pay more for most goods and services. This is true with housing, too. Many rental properties require a safety deposit plus first- and last-month rent. That can equal a couple of thousand dollars, and it isn't realistic to think that those living paycheck to paycheck can afford this. Those who argue that they could "do without luxuries" to save up, quite frankly, are clueless about the realities of poverty budgeting.
Despite what you might think you know based on your own anecdotal experiences or perceptions, poor people do not have luxuries. That smartphone you shame them for having? It is probably linked to prepaid service and the owner probably paid a small amount of money for it. Also, smartphones are not really a luxury today. Everything from banking to public services to employment seeking requires internet access. Many impoverished households lack access to broadband internet or home computers. Those smartphones that you believe to be a luxury are in fact an essential lifeline. Most poor people I know - and I know a lot of them - struggle just to keep the lights on. With unexpected expenses like medicine and car breakdowns, there's little left over for luxuries or to save for a move.
The other major impediment to relocation the loss of family support systems. Many impoverished families function as large extended households that, while they might span more than one actual home, could not function apart from one another. Childcare is a major expense for most families with children, and impoverished people can't afford daycare. They often rely on extended family to take care of their kids while they work. A grandmother or an aunt is often a means of saving hundreds of dollars per month in childcare costs. It would be irresponsible to move away and leave these sorts of resources for the hope of a better job that might or might not exist. The counter-argument is often the condescending notion that they just shouldn't have children. You've perhaps heard the "if you can't feed 'em, don't breed 'em" line. This is almost so offensive when aimed at poor people as to not merit addressing, but I hear it all the time.
Having sex or children is not some luxury that should only be reserved for the privileged. It is a natural part of humanity. While I certainly believe people should be prudent in family planning, the reality is that the very people screaming about how poor people shouldn't have kids are the same people who are opposed to responsible sex education and family planning services. Often, these are the same people who claim to honor family values. Ripping apart families because of broken socioeconomic systems does not indicate a commitment to family values. To purport to be pro-family-values yet say that poor people should move away from their homes and families in search of better jobs is to believe that family values only matter for privileged families.
The fact is, there are tangible steps that can and should be taken to restructure economic systems so that they are fairer and more equitable, and education is an important part of that. Everyone should have an equal opportunity at education regardless of their socioeconomic status, and this can only happen when all students are healthy, have access to nutritious food, and have families who are not struggling to survive. When everyone has an opportunity to seek higher education, whether it be college, a university, or a technical school, moving in search of a new job looks completely different and seems substantially more possible and responsible.
7. Understand that while your sympathy and charity might be welcomed and appreciated, only systemic changes will ever truly help impoverished people. Understand, too, that many impoverished people continue to reject help from strangers and outsiders because this help has so often come with condescending advice or unacceptable strings. I cannot stress this enough: poor people do not want to be your pet projects. They do not want to be paraded around in order to make you feel better about your philanthropy. There's a significant amount of shame attached to poverty, and that shame is often compounded when poor people have to ask others for help. Poor people do not want or need to be "fixed." Please honor and respect that.
Perhaps the most important thing one can do to understand impoverished people is to understand that they are cogs in a broken machine. The system is not designed to lift them out of poverty. Quite often, it is designed to do the opposite. While your financial gift to a charity that supports impoverished communities can do some good, what can do more good is for you to understand the ways the US economic system works to oppress these people and fight for changes.
Perhaps the thing that would bring most immediate and dramatic change to impoverished communities is an increase in the minimum wage. When the minimum wage was implemented, it was meant to be a living wage. It was designed so that no person working a full-time job would be impoverished. However, minimum wage has not kept up with inflation and there exists no zip code in the United States where the minimum wage is a living wage. Despite what some would have you believe, the minimum wage was never designed to be temporary or to apply only to jobs worked by teenagers. None of that nonsense is historically correct.
Had the minimum wage kept pace with inflation, it would be about $11 today, not $7.25. More importantly, had minimum wage kept pace with increases in productivity, it would be nearly $20/hour. The lowest-paid US workers are doing more work now than ever for wages substantially lower than they deserve. If the minimum wage were increased to match inflation and tied to the rate of inflation with automatic increases each year, tens of thousands of the nation's most impoverished people might have a better shot at escaping poverty or, at the least, not falling farther behind each year.
There are other systemic changes that could help poor people, too. Lawmakers could tell their wealthy corporate donors to buzz off and pass real consumer protection laws banning immoral practices like payday lending. They could design a tax code that offers incentives to traditional banks who agree to serve this portion of the population with more ethical and responsible banking products. Between a living wage and an end to predatory practices that disproportionally harm impoverished people, a number of obstacles to upward mobility would be eliminated over time. There will always be impoverished people, but systemic changes could foster a system that is more fair and equitable for all people in the US. Those who come from places of privilege have substantially more political capital than most impoverished people, and they could spend some of that political capital working for a more just and ethical economic system. That would do substantially more good than condescending advice or hasty judgment or small and temporary handouts.
Every time I write an essay like this, I get emails asking how I propose to fix the problems I write about. Sometimes when I offer solutions, as I have at times in this essay, I am criticized for being too radical or accused of not understanding economics. I don't think anything I have proposed here is particularly radical, and I can assure you that I do not lack an understanding of economics. I have studied and written about economic history for years. There are few things about which I claim to be an expert. Economic history is one of them. It is the cornerstone of my work as a scholar and a writer. I know how the system works, which is why I know that it is designed not to serve impoverished communities but to exploit them for profit.