Commentary: Poor Whites Find Themselves Under the Microscope

Sep 6, 2016

Poor white people have been in the news a lot lately.  Most obviously they are a target voting group and natural constituency for Donald Trump.  But they are also the subject of some interesting recent non-fiction books.  One memoir entitled Hillbilly Elegy by a guy who grew up in rural Kentucky is actually a best seller, and a couple of others have had a real impact on how people think about this very large group of Americans.

The titles of these books tell you much of what you need to know:  One is White Trash by historian Nancy Isenberg, and the other, a bit older but perhaps more relevant now than when it was published in 2010, is Coming Apart by political scientist Charles Murray.

I grew up with a lot of poor whites but this was before the great sorting that segregated Americans by class got underway.  The towns I lived in were small places in the Midwest.  There were either lots of farming or farm-related opportunities or good blue collar jobs.  People worked hard and everyone went to church.  In 1957 96 percent of all Americans said they belonged to a church.  Families were largely intact.  Most children were born to people married to each other.  Lots of whites with modest incomes felt and acted like they were in the middle class.

Everything began to change in the 1960s with the cultural and social upheavals.  This was closely followed by the economic crises of the 1970s – oil embargoes, a stagnant economy, double-digit inflation – and all the established truths and assumptions became suspect.

The Democratic Party of Franklin Roosevelt no longer had answers for many poor whites.  Ronald Reagan provided a temporary home for many, but after his presidency Republicans linked up with Evangelical Christians and moved aggressively to the right in order to fight the Culture Wars.  The national Republican Party did not have much to offer poor whites economically, although it did have a lot to offer wealthier whites, and Democrats began tailoring appeals to wealthier whites too.

Now many poor whites feel besieged from all sides.  They’ve lost their faith in religion.  Their families are fractured.  As Billy Joel sang in Allentown: “The union people crawled away.”  Too many of their relatives have drug or alcohol problems.

Little wonder they are targets of raw populist appeals like those made by Donald Trump.  He comes from a long line of American politicians who challenged the establishment and created a movement with at least superficial white appeal: Huey Long in the 1930s and even Andrew Jackson in the 1820s.

The bad news for Donald Trump is that poor white people don’t vote.   This is one of the great ironies of American politics.  The largest group with a big economic stake in politics – the ones who could make most use of the government safety net – do not see politics as the answer to their problems.

A smaller group with a big economic stake in politics – wealthy white people – empowered by permissive campaign finance laws and Supreme Court rulings, are more than happy to fill the void.

Dr. Terry Smith is a political science professor at Columbia College, and a regular commentator for KBIA’s Talking Politics