by Robert D. Francis
A constellation of events over the past few years has brought rural America out of the shadows and trained the national eye on rural place and space. The methamphetamine and opioid crises, which have been concentrated in rural places, have made national headlines, the latter on the verge of being declared a national emergency. In 2015, work by the economists Case and Deaton broke through to mainstream audiences when they found evidence of an increase in midlife mortality among non-Hispanic, white Americans, which the researchers attributed in part to so-called “deaths of despair”: alcohol, drugs, and suicide. And of course, the election of Donald Trump—a man who rode a wave of white, working-class support to the White House—has raised the profile of predominantly white, rural places even higher. Since the election, most major newspapers have run a series on rural places (as has this journal), and hardly a day passes without a headline featuring rural disability or rural addiction. As a May 2016 Wall Street Journal headline declared, “Rural is the New Inner City.”
There are a plethora of rural voices from which to choose if one wishes to understand rural people and places, but perhaps the biggest megaphone has been handed to a previously unknown hillbilly-turned-lawyer-turned-memoirist, J.D. Vance. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, one of the touchstone books of the 2016 election, describes his upbringing in rural poverty, his own family’s struggles with addiction and dysfunction, and his story of upward mobility to the military and eventually to Yale Law School. Elegy—while speaking to the political and cultural moment—also stepped into the longstanding debate about why people in America are poor. Vance makes clear that while rural America has been hard hit by broader economic forces, his diagnosis—as the book’s subtitle stresses—is of “a family and culture in crisis.” Reaction to Vance has largely fallen along the lines of how one answers that larger question about the causes of poverty. For some, Elegy was a “superb new memoir” that empowers conservatives to “encourage the white working class to take responsibility for their conduct and work ethic,” but for others, Vance is a “false prophet” whose “damaging rhetoric” reinforces the policy frame that only the so-called “deserving poor” are worthy of help.
Whether applied to white or black, rural or urban, the meritocratic myth endures. In a sense, Vance already won the debate that culture determines class, at least in the hearts and minds of many Americans.
On September 5, the Brookings Institution brought together Vance and another person familiar with the debate about the underlying causes of poverty, William Julius Wilson. Wilson, a sociologist who, like Vance, grew up in rural poverty, made his name in the 1980s with two seminal books that sought to untangle the causal threads of concentrated urban poverty. The pairing of Vance and Wilson covered many bases: urban and rural, race and class, black and white, conservative and liberal. While the debate about the underlying causes of poverty is not new, the racial and class antagonisms of the 2016 election provide an opportunity to search for new answers to this old problem.
“Tangle of Pathology”
In 1965, an Assistant Secretary of Labor named Daniel Patrick Moynihan issued what was intended as an internal report that, in his later words, was simply to “establish at some level of statistical conciseness what ‘everyone knew’: that economic conditions determine social conditions.” While Moynihan, a sociologist and a liberal who came to Washington as part of the Kennedy administration, might have thought that he was making a structural case for the reasons why the black family was in peril, his report, “The Negro Family: The Case For National Action,” was largely received as a critique of African Americans themselves. Despite devoting attention in the report to the legacy of slavery and other forms of institutional oppression and discrimination, as well as arguing for good jobs and government programs for social uplift, some of Moynihan’s more poorly-chosen phrases came to dominate reception of the report. The notion that the black community was a “tangle of pathology” was understandably seen as victim blaming by many civil rights groups and progressives, and criticism of the report was immediate and lasting. Among sociologists, the report chilled any attempts to talk about the behaviors of the poor, especially any suggestion that those behaviors might be adverse. Even President Johnson, the intended recipient of the report and spokesperson for the War on Poverty that the report was meant to inform, had disowned the Moynihan Report by the end of 1965.
It was not until the 1980s that sociologists revisited the structure-versus-culture debate, largely due to the work of one sociologist, William Julius Wilson. Wilson bookended the decade by publishing two important texts, The Declining Significance of Race (1980) and The Truly Disadvantaged (1987), which permitted scholars to debate the causes of poverty once again. Wilson wrote in response to two works from the mid-1980s, Losing Ground by Charles Murray and Beyond Entitlement by Lawrence Mead, both of which blamed the breakdown of poor families on a welfare system that Murray and Mead argued incentivized unwed childbearing. Wilson had the academic credentials and the personal credibility to suggest a more nuanced approach to poverty that incorporated both individualistic and structural elements. In The Truly Disadvantaged, Wilson grappled with the plight of poor blacks in inner-city America, just as Moynihan had a generation earlier.
Wilson essentially argued that “poverty has primarily structural roots, but cultural values and lifestyles that exacerbate the problem eventually emerge.”
Wilson was bold to acknowledge the existence of conditions in some inner cities that were previously taboo, such as joblessness, drugs, violence, and out-of-wedlock births. However, his story began with economic changes that had impacted the inner-city over the previous decades, draining it of gainful employment. In Wilson’s account, broader economic trends resulted in the decline of well-paying manufacturing jobs, the loss of jobs to the suburbs, and the rise of low-paying service sector jobs that tended to be dominated by women. These structural changes to the economy, especially the lack of jobs with which it was possible to raise a family, resulted in subsequent changes to family structure. With fewer men able to find jobs that could support a family and more women in the workforce themselves, marriage became a less attractive option for some women. There was also an outmigration of men looking for work, which added to the sex imbalances in these communities of concentrated poverty and made marriage less possible. Additionally, the loss of social capital from these communities as those with means left and as cities steered resources to other areas meant that those who remained had limited ability to change the course of their communities. As summarized by Don and Stan Albrecht in 2000, Wilson essentially argued that “poverty has primarily structural roots, but cultural values and lifestyles that exacerbate the problem eventually emerge.”
Wilson revisited this debate in his 2009 book, More Than Just Race, written partially in response to critics who argued he had relegated culture to a by-product of structure, thus sapping it of any autonomy. Wilson attempted to dignify culture, especially the ways in which the behaviors of the urban poor modeled creativity and resilience in the face of significant structural constraints. Seeking to unite structure and culture, Wilson conceded that a unidirectional flow from structure to culture was simplistic, acknowledging the presence of a more complex and sophisticated relationship. Yet despite his reconsideration of culture, Wilson still concluded that “more weight should be given to structural causes of inequality, despite the dynamic interrelationships of structure and culture, because they continue to play a far greater role in the subjugation of black Americans and other people of color.” At least in the eyes of many sociologists, this view has been further vindicated by a spate of recent work on so-called “neighborhood effects,” which substantiate the contention of scholars like Wilson that living in neighborhoods of concentrated disadvantage produces adverse effects on outcomes, independent of the characteristics of the people living in these places. As Patrick Sharkey, another sociologist concerned with mobility, wrote in 2008: “We must conceive of inequality as something that occurs over long periods of time and structures the opportunities available to families over multiple generations.”
Beyond Structure and Culture—to Solidarity
On September 2, 2017, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Paul Ryan tweeted, “In our country, the condition of your birth does not determine the outcome of your life. This is what makes America so great.” Ryan’s simple tweet testifies to the enduring nature of the myth of social mobility in the U.S. While there is arguably some value in holding fast to the aspirational ideal of social mobility, no amount of social scientific evidence to the contrary has dislodged the cultural explanations for poverty prevalent on the political right or among the U.S. populace. As Wilson notes in More Than Just Race, “The ongoing social science debate over the role of social structure versus culture in shaping social outcomes of African Americans has apparently done little to educate Americans on the importance of the relationship between structural inequalities and culture.” Whether applied to white or black, rural or urban, the meritocratic myth endures. In a sense, Vance already won the debate that culture determines class, at least in the hearts and minds of many Americans.
Then came the 2016 election. While Speaker Ryan still believes in the American Dream, there is reason to suspect that many poor and working-class Americans are having their doubts. New Census data shows that men who have not obtained a college degree—those working-class folks for whom Vance is presumed to speak—have not seen a pay increase in decades. So much for doing the right thing. And while working-class economic dislocation has been overplayed as the master narrative for the 2016 election, there is no denying that most Americans find themselves in the same sinking boat. New research from the economists behind the Equality of Opportunity Project provides additional evidence: pre-tax income growth for the bottom 50 percent of the population has been 1% since 1980, compared with 42% growth among next 40 percent of the population (P50-P90) and 121% growth for the top 10 percent over the same time. Perhaps more powerfully, even post-tax income growth for the bottom 50 percent is a modest 21% over that time (but 113 percent for the top 10 percent), challenging another myth of the right that safety net largess atones for pre-tax inequality. The white working class is probably not reading working papers from Ivy League-educated economists, but they know these truths in their paychecks and communities. The question, of course, is whether gut-level knowledge can be funneled into political action that addresses the root causes of this predicament.
While some have urged Democrats to abandon the white working class, my work among this group has me hopeful of the possibility of an interracial “rainbow coalition” that unites the poor and working classes.
While the structure-culture debate will undoubtedly continue in the halls of the academy, perhaps the public need not be convinced to change their minds for there to be lasting policy change that addresses social mobility and uplift. Taking a page from Suzuki’s essay on this site from earlier this month, it is the debate between structure and culture itself that provides an excuse to avoid intervention. Suzuki writes, “the poor cannot be saved by respecting their cultural identity. What they need is money.” My own research takes me to rural places to talk with mostly younger, white men about their lives. In a forthcoming work in Socius: Sociological Research for a Dynamic World, I describe how these men—many of whom voted for Trump—accounted for their votes in the 2016 election. Contrary to narratives about white (male) rage, most of these men were reluctant about Trump, and some even praised Obama for the economic recovery and the ways Obama-era policies had benefited their lives. Had Clinton not been even more disliked than Trump by these men (a story I further unpack in that piece), at least some of them may well have supported the Democratic nominee. As it was, some stayed home or voted third party, while others rolled the dice with Trump as the better of two undesirable alternatives—hardly the picture of Trumpian zeal.
While some have urged Democrats to abandon the white working-class, my work among this group has me hopeful of the possibility of an interracial “rainbow coalition” that unites the poor and working classes. Perhaps economic solidarity in the face of growing inequality might even reduce racial tensions as the poor and working class see their common predicament. The exact means by which such a movement will emerge is unknown, but it is a goal not to be abandoned. For Wilson’s part, he sees promise in just such an inclusive, broad-based strategy: “We’ve go to reach out to all groups. We’ve got to start to focus on coalition politics. We have to develop a sense of interdependence where groups come to recognize that they can’t accomplish goals without the support of other groups. We have to frame issues differently. We can’t go the same route. We can’t give up on the white working class.”
Robert D. Francis is a doctoral student in Sociology at Johns Hopkins University and affiliate of the Johns Hopkins Poverty and Inequality Research Lab. His research interests include poverty, inequality, and social policy. Currently, his primary project involves an examination of the declining labor force participation rate among prime-age, working-class men in rural America.
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 This history is primarily based upon two sources: Massey, Douglas S. and Robert J. Sampson. 2009. “The Moynihan Report Revisited: Lessons and Reflections after Four Decades.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 621(1): 6-27. And Albrecht, Don E., and Stan L. Albrecht. 2000. “Poverty in Nonmetropolitan America: Impacts of Industrial, Employment, and Family Structure Variables.” Rural Sociology 65(1):87-103.
Moynihan, Daniel Patrick. 1996. Miles to Go: A Personal History of Social Policy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. p. 170.
 Albrecht, Don E., and Stan L. Albrecht. 2000. “Poverty in Nonmetropolitan America: Impacts of Industrial, Employment, and Family Structure Variables.” Rural Sociology 65(1):87-103. Quotation on p. 91.
 Wilson, William Julius. 2009. More than Just Race: Being Black and Poor in the Inner City. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. p. 135.
 Wilson. More than Just Race. p. 136.