We Americans like to think of ourselves as an egalitarian, classless society where “all men are created equal.” Thomas Jefferson penned those words in our Declaration of Independence, and while they embody a beautiful sentiment, I wonder whether even he believed them, because the only people who were “created equal” were white, landowning men. The reality is that we are not and have never been an egalitarian, classless society.
Two recent books, a meaty read by a college professor and a memoir by a self-described “hillbilly,” look at our country and see much the same picture. They see a society stratified by culture, education, resources, language, social capital and just about every distinction we can imagine.
In White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, Nancy Isenberg, an American history professor at Louisiana State University, makes the case that glaring class differences have been with us from the beginning.
We all know that women and blacks were pretty much left out of our original Constitution and Bill of Rights. We also all know that our Founding Fathers — think George Washington and Thomas Jefferson — were men of education, sophistication and material resources.
What many of us do not know is that most of our original English settlers were more-or-less refugees, people not wanted in their homeland because they were non-productive drains on the English economy. Some of them walked up the plank and headed for the New World voluntarily, and others were simply deported.
Jefferson’s writings refer to these people as “rubbish.” Since his day, they have been referred to as “crackers,” “Okies,” “hillbillies” and, more recently, “rednecks” and “trailer trash.” All are derisive nouns for the poor white people who have been with us since before our actual founding.
In Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance movingly chronicles his childhood in the Kentucky mountains in a working-class city in Ohio. The first person in his family to go to college, Vance graduated with honors in less than two years and went on to Yale Law School. At 32, he said he escaped a hillbilly culture of violence, drugs, transience, multiple father figures and poor or no work ethic only because his grandparents and several others believed in and supported him when the rest of his young life was in chaos.
Maybe coincidence and maybe not, these two widely-read books burst onto the literary scene at a time when such inequities are becoming more pronounced and when many Americans are deeply concerned about this these issues.
The Pew Research Center reported several years ago that the wealth disparity between America’s upper-income families and middle-class ones is greater than it has ever been across our two-plus centuries of existence. In fact, the top 0.1 percent are now worth more than the bottom 90 percent, with the big slice of the pie continuing to grow and the smaller one still shrinking. In addition, while the Great Recession affected almost everyone, the folks at the top have recovered, but the folks at the bottom continue to struggle.
Other disparities abound as well. Upper incomers have access to and better health care opportunities than those at the bottom. They live longer. They are better educated, and as Vance points out, they practice their religions more often and have fewer marriages.
It is not getting any better for an overwhelming number of Americans. Baby Boomers, my generation, expected to do better than our parents, and by and large, we did. Millennials, people born in the early 1980s, have only a 50 percent chance of doing better than we did, about the same as flipping a coin, according to the Equality of Opportunity’s report released late last year. The report noted that “children’s prospect of achieving the ‘American Dream’ of doing better than their parents have fallen from 90 to 50 percent over the past half century.”
Such statistics do not make for screaming headlines or lead the evening news, but they are quietly and profoundly changing our country. Both Isenberg and Vance acknowledge there are no easy answers to any of this. Both say government policies can play a role in helping people, but at the end of the day, it is up to us to make positive decisions about education, work and family life.
It is all worth thinking about as our new presidency unfolds and as we make electoral decisions in future election cycles.