Friday, August 27, 2010

Trash, Bootstraps, and the Undeserving Poor

Over on Scalzi's blog, people are discussing the phrase white trash. Says commenter Lysana at 61:

It’s often easy to spot white trash. One Confederate battle standard or American flag item on the wardrobe and my antennae go up. Sorry you seem to think it matters that some of us know the signs while you don’t.

"Well, sure," says Other Bill, at 63, "I know the signs. Just like we all know the signs for poor black trash and poor puerto rican trash, right?"

At Alas a Blog, we've got a tiff going on in comments about how poor people shouldn't buy nice things, since they've got to save up their money so they can break out of poverty. RonF says at 12:

The desire for better material goods/healthcare/housing/food/etc. is what motivates people to get better education/training and work harder and longer in order to move up to the economic point where they can afford those things.

People who presumably aren't poor, and certainly aren't the poor people in question, feel free to comment on the responsibility of poor people's economic decisions, as Sebastian H says at 14: "Isn’t it kind of a question of which nice things? A TV may or may not be a good example of acting irresponsibly, but a Cadillac almost certainly is."

But these comments come from the same assumption: that we know what poor people want, and it's to escape poverty. They come from another assumption, too: that it's possible for the poor people to escape poverty if they make the right decisions.

But people in generational, grinding poverty, may not share these middle class assumptions and experiences.

I'll let Dorothy Allison speak to both arguments, with excerpts from her short story collection Trash.

From the introduction:

My family’s lives were not on television, not in books, not even comic books. There was a myth of the poor in this country, but it did not include us, no matter how I tried to squeeze us in. There was this concept of the “good” poor, and that fantasy had little to do with the everyday lives my family had survived. The good poor were hardworking, ragged but clean, and intrinsically honorable. We were the bad poor. We were men who drank and couldn’t keep a job; women, invariably pregnant before marriage, who quickly became worn, fat, and old from working too many hours and bearing too many children; and children with runny noses, watery eyes, and the wrong attitudes. My cousins quit school, stole cars, used drugs, and took dead-end jobs pumping gas or waiting tables…. We were not noble,not grateful, not even hopeful. What was there to work for, to save money for, to fight for or struggle against? We had generations before us to teach us that nothing ever changed, and that those who did try to escape failed…

I had sweet-tempered cousins and I saw them get ground down. I had gentle aunts and it seemed they almost disappeared out of their own lives. Is it any wonder that when I set out to write stories, I made up women like my grandmother, like my great-grandmother? Troublesome, angry, complicated women with secretive, unpredictable natures… I wrote to release indignation and refuse humiliation, to admit fault and to glorify the people I loved who were never celebrated…

I originally claimed the label “trash” in self-defense. The phrase had been applied to me and to my family in crude and hateful ways. I took it on deliberately, as I had taken on “dyke”–though i have to acknowledge that what I heard as a child was more often the phrase “white trash.” As an adult, I saw all too clearly the look that would cross the face of any black woman in the room when that particular term was spoken. It was like a splash of cold water, and I saw the other side of the hatefulness in the words. It took me right back to being a girl and hearing the uncles I so admired spew racist bile and callous homophobic insults. Some phrases cannot be reclaimed.


Josh said...

There's also the assumption that we save "taxpayer money" by creating a huge gov't bureaucracy to distinguish the deserving poor from the undeserving poor, no?

Nancy Jane Moore said...

I have never understood why the people with the least money are expected to be the most responsible about managing it. It's not like people who have a lot of money do a better job of spending it responsibly -- they're the ones with the oversized homes and collections of luxury automobiles. Sure, they can afford it, but they're still wasting money.

Anyway, it's not like playing by the rules will allow a lot of people to escape poverty. I suspect many of the people currently on the unemployment rolls are folks who always tried to be responsible with their money and give their employer a good day's work for lousy pay.

I'm also not sure where the person commenting on Scalzi's blog gets the idea that flying the Stars and Bars indicates someone is "white trash". Granted, displaying the Confederate battle flag is a good indicator that someone is a bigot. But bigot and "white trash" are not synonyms -- plenty of rich bigots in the world.

Josh said...

Seconded. Remember that support for Jesse Helms came from the bourgeoisie, not the mill hands. Bugs the heck outta me when people suggest that Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III exemplifies the ordinary Southerner.

Nancy Jane Moore said...

I heard a wonderful story a couple of weeks ago on Selected Shorts: Percival Everett's "The Appropriation of Cultures." In it, an African American man buys -- on purpose -- a pickup truck with a Stars and Bars decal on the window. It goes forward from there.

But until a large percentage of African Americans decide to follow his example, I think you can assume that any Anglo person, rich or poor, who uses Confederate symbols and rhetoric is a racist.

Athena Andreadis said...

There are many ironies here. Good materials last longer, so it's dumb and/or condescending to expect "the poor" to buy shoddy goods. Attached to that is the assumption that poverty also means bad taste, lack of articulate or knowledgeable opinions and general "cavepeople" mentality. Finally, there's the infuriating division between "deserving" and "undeserving" poor, the former being defined by the show of "proper" gratitude (including the willingness to reliquish the status of an independent adult).

As I wrote in The Andreadis Unibrow Theory of Art:

"Most cultures, if not terminally debased, have art woven integrally into the lives of their people. Folk art and craft are often extraordinarily sophisticated both in style and content: clothing, jewelry, utensils, instruments, furniture, dwellings, gardens, cooking, painting, dance, music can all be high art – yet they are part of daily life, not exhibited on museum walls or opulent stagings for the few."

This also holds for the poor, as long as they're not terminally disenfranchised.

Timmi Duchamp said...

@Nancy: "I have never understood why the people with the least money are expected to be the most responsible about managing it."

That part's easy. It's called blaming the victim. Here's a quote from Jessica Benjamin that is apropos:

'The work ethic, or performance principle, is based upon the seeming consistency between individual effort and success. Precisely because of the "nature" of social relations, a competitive framework appears in which the individual seems to be master of her/his own destiny, or seems to be to blame for her/his own fate. For example, class does not appear as a structural relationship (between groups) but as an attribute between individuals who merit their position. It takes the form of a comparison between individuals in their relation to fortune, rather than a mutually conditioning relation in which one group has power over another. Consequently authority-- and authorship-- lies not in a class but in "fortune." No one is responsible for the whole, but everyone is responsible for himself.'

Also? Despite the heavy emphasis on entertainment & shopping in our late capitalist society, the "morally correct" sub-middle class person is supposed to put aside every need & desire to achieve middle-class status. Succumbing to the pleasures advertising & the media tell every human being they should want is supposed to be the reward of achieving that status. Poor people are supposed to suffer deprivation, boredom, and a continual round of twelve-hour work days. If they didn't, there's be no incentive for middle-class drones to do whatever the hell they have to do to do to remain middle-class. Right?

Josh said...

Source of Benjamin quote: New German Critique, No. 13, Special Feminist Issue (Winter, 1978), pp. 35-57. Reprinted in J.M. Bernstein's The Frankfurt School: Critical Assessments (London: Taylor & Francis, 1994).