of time and money

I’ve been reading …

White Trash: the 400 year untold history of class in America by Nancy Isenberg (2016)

Hillbilly Elegy: a memoir of a family and culture in crisis by J.D. Vance (2016)

No matter what you call them – crackers, rednecks, trailer trash, white trash – white people who live on the edges of society are there. Often unseen by the rest of us, they live day to day, thinking about where their next meal, rent payment, insurance payment are coming from.

In Hillbilly Elegy, Vance gives us an up close and personal view of growing up in a poor community in southern Ohio. Originally from Kentucky, his family had migrated north in search of jobs. J.D. was lucky to have grandparents, aunts and uncles who pushed him forward, demanding he finish high school and go to college.

Key features of dysfunctional family life:

  • unstable family relationships – teenage mothers, multiple marriages and divorces, frequent fights
  • poverty – even though people worked when they could find a job, these jobs were often as waitresses, day laborers – the lowest paying jobs in the community – they were encouraged by older family members to not take welfare – any type of government support – including SNAP benefits. It does seem that this attitude is changing.
  • children’s living with various relatives – J.D. mostly lived with his grandparents. He spent summers with his grandmother’s family in Kentucky until the great-grandmother died.
  • isolation – when J.D. joined the marines, they helped him with basic adult skills, such as setting up bank accounts, and buying his first car. When he met his girlfriend’s family, he was surprised by the lack of drama. People were kind and resolved issues by talking. To J.D., relationships meant screaming, hitting and running away.
  • drug use – drug use occurs in all communities, but takes a heavy toll on poor people. J.D.’s mother was in & out of rehab. She had nursing training and a decent job until her addiction got the better of her.

The Vance family’s isolation keeps the young people from seeing that there is another way to live. Without help from family members and other mentors, J.D. would never had achieved his goals. He now helps others.

In White Trash, Isenberg traces the history of the poorest people from colonial times to present day. Class structure is alive and well in the United States today. She reveals what most of us know: property ownership was, and is, the dividing line between the underclass and the middle and upper classes.

Great Britain used this new land to off-load their poor. These people arrived as indentured servants, sold for their debts, and transported criminals. Starting with less than nothing, they came to occupy an uneasy place between landed whites and black slaves. Mistreated, poorly fed, and uneducated, improving their economic status was the exception. Many were from cities and knew nothing about farming, although farming was the primary occupation in the colonies.

One population that Isenberg discusses is “clay-eaters” and “sandhillers”. These people lived on the extreme margins, inbred and malnourished. Nutritional deficiencies were the cause of some populations being malnourished. Her description of the clay-eaters – yellow skin, cottony hair, eating clay – are symptoms of chronic hookworm infestation. Hookworm in mothers and babies also leads to mental retardation. It was not until public health measures were taken in the south, beginning in 1910, against intestinal parasites and malaria, did the “clay-eaters” begin to recover from their continuing poverty. Ironically, this effort was funded by the Rockefeller Foundation in an effort to produce more productive factory workers.

Owning property is and always has been the dividing line between the upwardly mobile and the lower classes. The best way today is to obtain an education, which opens the way to a steady job with benefits and the ability to eventually purchase a home.

White Trash is a comprehensive history that sheds light on many of society’s ills. Reading it enhanced my understanding of the difficulty of rising out of poverty. The best gift you can give your children is an education.


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