Although not a long book, I took my time with this one, digesting it in bits and pieces so that I could think about some of the ideas presented here. The basic concept is an underlying look at an underclass that American’s do not want to recognize: poor white’s who live in semi-rural society who are one paycheck away from total poverty and disaster. In some circles they would be considered rednecks, in others white trash and in others still, hillbilly’s.
The reality is that despite our claims to egalitarianism and the ability for anyone to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, those sentiments no longer apply in the twenty first century and by continuing to make that assertion there are swathes of communities in America that we are choosing to ignore. America is a society with castes – elites, middle class, underclass and poor. Urban, rural, suburban and semi-rural divides. All spectrum’s of color occupy all areas but the focus here is on the white underclass.
Although the book is set in Winchester, Virginia any reader from any state in this nation will be able to immediately pick a town in their state that qualifies. Such a town will be populated largely by whites with a fringe number of migrants. The primary employer will be either a large industrial concern like mining or one of the last companies that continue to manufacture here (perhaps a textile company or manufacture of plastics) or a prison. There may be the last vestiges of family farms but they will constitute only a small number.
The workers will earn minimum wage or slightly above but still need both spouses working, possibly even more than one job to make ends meet. Groceries, clothing, guns, ammunition and almost everything else consumable will be purchased at a Walmart which will have virtually wiped out the rest of the town’s economy.
Going to church on Sunday and the local tavern or service club on a Friday or Saturday night will constitute the main entertainment. There will be a high rate of high school dropouts with people opting for GED’s or jobs. In many cases, there will be those who join the military because even with the possibility of death, there is provided structure, a steady pay check and the chance to venture out into the world.
Debt will be high, credit ratings low. People will struggle financially except for a small circle who run the town. Primary residences will consist of small, older homes in disrepair or newer double wide trailer homes or manufactured homes. For many of these communities, there is a high rate of alcoholism as well as a prescription drug epidemic with people using and abusing hillbilly heroin (Oxycontin.) There is usually a black market economy that deals in drugs, moonshine and guns.
Many of these communities, and this one in particular, are comprised of Scots Irish. This group is clannish and is almost single-handedly responsible for the creation of what we now think of as Appalachian culture. However, it is no longer confined to one part of the country due to cultural diaspora. Families are tight and extended.
There will be a high number of health issues: smoking will lead to high rates of emphysema. High blood pressure, cholesterol and obesity will prevail due to a diet that is high in processed food. Why? Because processed food is much cheaper, more plentiful and easier to acquire from Walmart which is the primary grocery source. Diabetes, dental health issues, heart attacks and shorter life expectancies are the norm.
The author of this book returned to his home town to live after going out in the world and establishing himself in a comfortable, middle class style. He returned to write about what he found and to provide a starting point for people to consider that not everyone who is white is blessed with privilege and that in fact, there are large numbers living an existence that teeters on the brink of abject poverty. More than a few tip over into it if they live long enough.
This book is though provoking. There are aspects I disagree with and there are lots of statistics batted out there. Anyone with an internet connection will find stats to support whatever their position. The author’s objective is to provide a window into this class of people. They are the ones who vote Republican even if it goes against their interests personally or economically. They are the ones who cherish gun ownership and use as almost a religion. They are quite conservative for the most part and church attendance is high as they look for a source outside themselves as the moral authority of the community. The church also acts as an important cultural touchstone in their Scots Irish heritage.
There is some humor here too. But there is sadness. There is an attempt to explain why some people who became newsworthy for all the wrong reasons, were shaped by this background.
If nothing else – there is a look at the human condition and even in the face of all the things occurring in their community, there is a sense that there is hope that things can always get better. This is a book that should be read by those who do not understand how this class influences the political agenda. This is the class who may bring us Donald Trump. Read this before it’s too late.