White Poverty and Despair

It’s been awhile between posts. This has been a hard post for me to write. Mainly, I’ve had to get over a near overwhelming sense of indignation, an effort to find a way to write this in a way that does not betray that anger, but rather some sense of concern for the direction of this country.

I didn’t want to write anything else, until I figured this out. I hope I accomplished this aim. I will admit, it’s short on answers, but the answers are really the same ones that we’ve heard all along: whites and people coming together around the things that we have in common – even mutual pain.

While there’s much about which to write aside from the war of words between the Republican and Democratic nominees, I’ve wanted this blog from its inception, to promote meaningful dialogue. I hope its done this. And I want to try and avoid knee jerk political punditry. Politics actually does matter. Policy does matter. And I think that even in this very odd season, we can get around the partisanship and ask policy questions that matter to us and the people we care about.

One of the issues that has had me thinking and rethinking about how to view this election, is, of course poverty and for whom should the poor cast their vote?

Interestingly enough, while it appears by the polls, poor minorities will overwhelmingly vote for Hillary Clinton. Donald Trump’s recent refrain when making his appeal to the black electorate is ‘What do you have to lose?’ And bases this question on how the cities run by the Democratic Party haven’t made that much of a difference in their lives. Leaving aside, for this post, the fact that many, if not most, of our poor urban cities – particularly in the south – happen to be in red states, or the absence of specifics by which Trump intends to make the lives of poor black citizens appreciably better, there is a very interesting irony, regarding Trumps base voters. Trump’s base, is primarily described white men, with a high school diploma or less, from communities suffering from high unemployment and the correlating poverty and the nihilistic attitudes that are the pathology of such neighborhoods: drug abuse, alcoholism, rising mortality rates and subsequent fears that their children’s future is no longer as bright as the American Dream once promised.

In other words, the same issues that have plagued black communities for decades!

Don’t take my word for it. The same question is the subject of several articles in the Atlantic Monthly. Look at some of the titles, The Despair of Poor White Americans: The Original Underclass, All Hollowed Out: The Lonely Poverty of the White Working Class, Who are Donald Trump’s Supporters, Really?

And this passage from ‘The Despair of Poor White Americans…’

“Today, less privileged white Americans are considered to be in crisis, and the language of sociologists and pathologists predominates. Charles Murray’s Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010 was published in 2012, and Robert D. Putnam’s Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis came out last year. From opposite ends of the ideological spectrum, they made the case that social breakdown among low-income whites was starting to mimic trends that had begun decades earlier among African Americans: Rates of out-of-wedlock births and male joblessness were rising sharply. Then came the stories about a surge in opiate addiction among white Americans, alongside shocking reports of rising mortality rates (including by suicide) among middle-aged whites. And then, of course, came the 2016 presidential campaign. The question was suddenly no longer why Democrats struggled to appeal to regular Americans. It was why so many regular Americans were drawn to a man like Donald Trump.”

It is interesting that the exportation of jobs and decent education and the importation of jobs and crime in these poor white communities, mirror the same impact of the same policy driven woes in the black community.

William Julius Wilson, a brilliant African-American sociologist, has outlined the process which has caused so economic suffering in our black urban centers suffer, many years ago.

In his classic work, ‘When Work Disappears’, Wilson talks about the decline of manufacturing jobs, formerly located within the urban core. Jobs which offered good wages, upward mobility within the industry and economic stability for workers. These were jobs that required a high school education and relatively low skills, with the ability of learn.

With the loss of manufacturing jobs came service industry jobs. They required little education or experience. They provided opportunity primarily for women. They were referred to as ‘pink collar’ jobs. With the internationalization of these low skill, low wage jobs, came the flight of manufacturing jobs to foreign countries where low skill, non-unionized labor was prevalent. The collateral damage? Male workers. Both white and black, but for black men, bearing the burden of racism, it was particularly devastating. The results? Hopelessness, negative feelings.  Boys head to the streets. Social isolation. Social networks fall apart. Marriages fall apart. Out of wed births increase. Increased drug dealing and drug addiction. And the spiral continues.

Yet, here’s the thing: when these things were happening for decades in the black community, the cry from the white community was, ‘Pull yourself up by your bootstraps’. The same things were happening undercover in the white community and now its a major crisis in our politics and our society. Now, this pathology calls for  a champion to correct it…Donald Trump.

Still it’s not just poor white communities dealing with the pathologies that have impacting our urban centers for decades. Even wealthier white suburbs are dealing with an epidemic of our failure to win the war on drugs. In a riveting  episode on the subject 60 Minutes, deals with how an area of the rust belt, has been impacted by drugs. Read the conclusion of that episode with one of the mothers whose family has been devastated by the problem…

“Bill Whitaker: I’m sure there are some who would be watching this and would say, “Heroin addicts are junkies and they brought this on themselves, so why should we care?”

“Tracy Morrison: Because we don’t throw diabetics who sit on the couch eating Bon Bons and smoke and they weigh 300 pounds in prison. We don’t belittle them and there’s not a big stigma; we don’t do that to people that chain smoke and develop lung cancer. It’s a chronic relapsing brain disease, period, amen, end of story and we need to accept it– even if it makes people uncomfortable. And if people don’t like that, I’m sorry.”

It is what many black families have been saying for decades…

Reflecting on the state of affairs in these two all too American communities, challenges me with another thought: why aren’t we working together…indeed fighting together…to bring about the policy changes that can impact our future and those of our children. Of course the most obvious reason is we’ve all had a game played on us. As black Americans, we see racism as a predominant cause – almost to a fault. And while racism is either a result of or cause of much of the divide, poor whites, particularly those suffering from those same pathologies that have impacted black communities for decades, comfort themselves in a threadbare cloak of superiority believing that the pigment of their skin keeps them of society’s bottom rung. In the meantime, there’s a predominant class making off with the goods!

Do we need a new politics? You bet. Do we need more accountability? Right again. Do we need to have better people engaged in our politics and a more informed electorate? Absolutely. All of which will take time and a movement that has more integrity, creativity and political power than we see currently. But whether out of our mutual pain, or politics, or sense of survival, we must come together…before its too late!



Black vs. White Anger…Must We Be Enemies? Can We Be Allies?

One of the things, this time in our history is showing me is the degree to which we all think our circumstances are ‘unique’: blacks and whites, elite and plebiscites, old and young, working class and middle class. We all think we have a more of a grievance than the other guy.

Nowhere is our conflict national played out more starkly than in our politics, and our capacity (or lack there of) to see one another as allies rather than ‘enemies’.

Take for example Donald Trump’s core constituency – the white male without a college degree, which means they have a high school diploma. These are people who, at one time had relatively good paying jobs, and have either lost those jobs through off-shoring, because of technology and because of age, education or lack of training, have little to no opportunity (as they see it) to participate in a new economy. They are experiencing a rising drug abuse problem, one of the surest signs of hopelessness and despair. They pay less and less attention to the impact of religion, aside from the more cultural and communal aspects of faith.

Yet, blacks, Hispanics, the so-called ‘natural constituency’ of Hillary Clinton and the Democrats, say pretty much the same things.

Take a look at this video clip from Saturday morning’s ‘Smerconish’ on CNN. A young man, J.D. Vance who grew up in Appalachia, has written a book entitled,  ‘Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis’ in which he seeks to explain why these people, in terms of culture, in terms of dwindling career prospects and fears of lack of opportunity for their children feel the bitterness, resentment and disaffection that he claims as the rational for supporting Donald Trump.

But, this rationale has been pointed to as the reasons for the poverty within the black community. William Julius Wilson, wrote a book years ago, entitled ‘When Work Disappears’, in which he describes the rise of poverty and the crumbling of society and culture within the inner city…

“There is a new poverty in American metropolises that has consequences for a range of issues relating to the quality of life in urban areas, including race relations. By the ‘new urban poverty’, I mean poor, segregated neighbourhoods in which a majority of individual adults are either unemployed or have dropped out or never been a part of the labour force. This jobless poverty today stands in sharp contrast to previous periods. In 1950, a substantial portion of the urban black population in the United States was poor but they were working. Urban poverty was quite extensive but people held jobs. However, as we entered the 1990s most poor adults were not working in a typical week in the ghetto neighbourhoods of America’s larger cities. For example, in 1950 a significant majority of adults held jobs in a typical week in the three neighbourhoods that represent the historic core of the Black Belt in the city of Chicago — Douglas, Grand Boulevard and Washington Park — the three neighbourhoods of Chicago that received the bulk of black migrants from the South in the early to mid-twentieth century. But by 1990 only four in ten in Douglas worked in a typical week, 1 in 3 in Washington Park, and 1 in 4 in Grand Boulevard. In 1950, 69 percent of all males 14 and over who lived in these three neighbourhoods worked in a typical week, and in 1960, 64 percent of this group were so employed.

“However, by 1990 only 37 percent of all males 16 and over held jobs in a typical week in these three neighbourhoods. The disappearance of work has adversely affected not only individuals and families, but the social life of neighbourhoods as well. Inner-city joblessness in America is a severe problem that is often overlooked or obscured when the focus is mainly on poverty and its consequences. Despite increases in the concentration of poverty since 1970, inner cities in the United States have always featured high levels of poverty, but the levels of inner-city joblessness reached during the first half of the 1990s was unprecedented. I should note that when I speak of ‘joblessness’ I am not solely referring to official unemployment. The unemployment rate, as measure  in the United States, represents only the percentage of workers in the official labour force — that is, those who are actively looking for work. It does not include those who are outside of or have dropped out the labour market, including the nearly 6 million males 25 to 60 who appeared in the census statistics but were not recorded in the labour market statistics in 1990 (Thurow 1995). These uncounted males in the labour market are disproportionately represented in the inner-city ghettos…”

“The disappearance of work in many inner-city neighbourhoods is in part related to the nation-wide decline in the fortunes of low-skilled workers. The sharp decline in the relative demand for unskilled labour has had a more adverse effect on blacks than on whites in the United States because a substantially larger proportion of African-Americans are unskilled. Although the number of skilled blacks (including managers, professionals and technicians) has increased sharply in the last several years, the proportion of those who are unskilled remains large, because the black population, burdened by cumulative experiences of racial restrictions, was overwhelmingly unskilled just several decades ago (Schwartzman 1997). The factors involved in the decreased relative demand for unskilled labour include:

• the computer revolution (i.e., the spread of new technologies that displaced low-skilled workers and rewarded the more highly trained),

• the rapid growth in college enrolment that increased the supply and reduced the relative cost of skilled labour, and

• the growing internationalisation of economic activity, including trade liberalisation policies which reduced the price of imports and raised the output of export industries (Schwartzman 1997; Krueger 1997; Katz 1996).

“Whereas the increased output of export industries aids skill workers, simply because skill workers are heavily represented in export industries, increasing imports, especially those from developing countries that compete with labour-intensive industries (for example, apparel, textile, toy, footwear and some manufacturing industries) hurt unskilled labour (Schwartzman 1997), and therefore would have significant negative implications for American black workers. For example, 40 percent of the workforce in the apparel industry is African-American. But, inner-city workers in the United States face an additional problem — the growing suburbanisation of jobs. Most ghetto residents cannot afford an automobile and therefore have to rely on public transit systems that make the connection between inner-city neighbourhoods and suburban job locations difficult and time consuming.”

Granted, while black unemployment improved throughout the ’90’s, the reasons for unemployment and poverty is are virtually the same. Certainly the results are. Yet, white anger around these issues is considered almost ‘righteous indignation’, while black anger is considered to be a type of rage of an ‘unworthy’ class.

Why aren’t we allies?

There is clearly an election year effort to divide our country along race and class lines. There always is. It appears to be working…again.

Elizabeth Warren made reference to a speech made by Martin Luther King in which he spoke of the origins of the efforts of a more affluent white class to divide poor blacks and whites, along race and class lines. The speech was actually given at the end of the 1965 Selma to Montgomery March, that ultimately led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act.

Here is the excerpt that contains the actual quote in context…

“Racial segregation as a way of life did not come about as a natural result of hatred between the races immediately after the Civil War. There were no laws segregating the races then. And as the noted historian, C. Vann Woodward, in his book, The Strange Career of Jim Crow, clearly points out, the segregation of the races was really a political stratagem employed by the emerging Bourbon interests in the South to keep the southern masses divided and southern labor the cheapest in the land. You see, it was a simple thing to keep the poor white masses working for near-starvation wages in the years that followed the Civil War. Why, if the poor white plantation or mill worker became dissatisfied with his low wages, the plantation or mill owner would merely threaten to fire him and hire former Negro slaves and pay him even less. Thus, the southern wage level was kept almost unbearably low.

“Toward the end of the Reconstruction era, something very significant happened. That is what was known as the Populist Movement. The leaders of this movement began awakening the poor white masses and the former Negro slaves to the fact that they were being fleeced by the emerging Bourbon interests. Not only that, but they began uniting the Negro and white masses into a voting bloc that threatened to drive the Bourbon interests from the command posts of political power in the South.

“To meet this threat, the southern aristocracy began immediately to engineer this development of a segregated society. I want you to follow me through here because this is very important to see the roots of racism and the denial of the right to vote. Through their control of mass media, they revised the doctrine of white supremacy. They saturated the thinking of the poor white masses with it, thus clouding their minds to the real issue involved in the Populist Movement. They then directed the placement on the books of the South of laws that made it a crime for Negroes and whites to come together as equals at any level. And that did it. That crippled and eventually destroyed the Populist Movement of the nineteenth century.

“If it may be said of the slavery era that the white man took the world and gave the Negro Jesus, then it may be said of the Reconstruction era that the southern aristocracy took the world and gave the poor white man Jim Crow. He gave him Jim Crow. And when his wrinkled stomach cried out for the food that his empty pockets could not provide, he ate Jim Crow, a psychological bird that told him that no matter how bad off he was, at least he was a white man, better than the black man. And he ate Jim Crow. And when his undernourished children cried out for the necessities that his low wages could not provide, he showed them the Jim Crow signs on the buses and in the stores, on the streets and in the public buildings. And his children, too, learned to feed upon Jim Crow, their last outpost of psychological oblivion…”

It is interesting to me that the party of individualism and self reliance is actively courting the votes of those who perceive themselves as ‘victims’ of ‘the system’. It’s ‘the man’ keeping them down in other words. They are blaming the government for their children turning to drugs (whatever happened to “Just say ‘No’?). And what’s the difference in jobs leaving to go overseas and jobs leaving communities and moving to the hinterlands where public transportation doesn’t go?.

It seems like poor and near poor whites have much more in common than separates them from poor black people. They would appear to be natural allies. Yet they and their interests are being pitted against one another. And yet the answer for one group is that the government will fix your problems. The answer for the other group is ‘pull yourself up by your own bootstraps. And both are being told someone else is to blame for their lot in life.

Anyone see anything wrong with this picture?