As a scholar studying working-class and rural whites, I have written about this subtle but consequential divide. I have also lived it. I grew up working-class white, and I watched my truck driver father and teacher’s aide mother struggle mightily to stay on the “settled” side of the ledger. They worked to pay the bills, yes, but also because work set them apart from those in their community who were willing to accept public benefits. Work represented the moral high ground. Work was their religion.
We lived in an all-white corner of the Arkansas Ozarks, so my parents weren’t fretting about the Black folks Ronald Reagan would later denigrate with the “welfare queen” stereotype. They were talking about their lazy neighbors. They called these folks “white trash,” the worst slur they knew.
Though Vance described this divide in Hillbilly Elegy, readers unfamiliar with the white working class may not have picked up on it. Vance’s beloved grandparents, Mamaw and Papaw, represented hard work. Papaw had a steady job at the Armco steel mill—one good enough to draw him and hundreds like him out of the Appalachian Kentucky hills to Middletown, Ohio. Indeed, it was such a good job that Mamaw could stay home and take care of the kids. Though they were crass and unconventional by polite, mainstream standards, Papaw and Mamaw’s work ethic positioned them in the settled working class.
From that perch, Vance’s grandparents harshly judged neighbors who didn’t work. They even judged their daughter, Vance’s mother, Bev. Though she’d trained for a good job, as a nurse, Bev’s drug use and frequent churn of male partners led to the instability associated with the “hard living.” Indeed, at one point Vance uses that very term to refer to his mother: “Mom’s behavior grew increasingly erratic,” Vance writes. “She was more roommate than parent, and of the three of us — Mom, [my sister], and me — Mom was the roommate most prone to hard living” as she partied and stayed out ‘til the wee hours of the morning.
Given the childhood trauma associated with his mother’s behavior, it’s perhaps not surprising that Vance came to emulate his grandparents’ judgmental stance toward the hard living. This is illustrated by his condemnation of shirking co-workers at a warehouse job and those who used food stamps (SNAP) to pay for the groceries he bagged as a teenager. (It seems that Vance also inherited his family’s pugilistic tendencies, which have come in handy with his conversion to Trumpism; words like “scumbag” and “idiot,” which readers of Hillbilly Elegy can easily imagine coming out of Mamaw’s mouth, have become staples of Vance’s campaign vocabulary).
Ultimately, of course, Vance traveled far from his modest roots to graduate from Yale Law School and become a venture capitalist. For this success, he credited the hard work and boot-strapping mentality he learned from his grandparents. What Vance didn’t credit — not explicitly, anyway — were the structural forces that benefitted him and his grandparents. For Vance, these included an undergraduate degree from an excellent public university (Ohio State) and opportunities in the military. For his grandparents, these included that good union job at Armco Steel—even as Papaw complained about the union. (A significant faction of workers believe that hard-working people like themselves don’t need unions, that unions simply protect slackers from hard work. My own father’s pet peeve was unionized loading dock employees whose generous breaks delayed getting his truck loaded or unloaded and thus back on the road earning money. The naming of “right-to-work” laws plays to this mindset.)
Like Vance, settled white workers tend to see themselves living a version of the American dream grounded primarily — if not entirely — in their own agency. They believe they can survive, even thrive, if they just work hard enough. And some of them are doing just that. Because they lean into the grit of the individual, they tend to downplay structural obstacles to their quest to make a living, e.g., poor schools and even crummy job markets, just as they downplay structural benefits. They also discount “white privilege” because giving skin color credit for what they have achieved devalues the significance of their work. This mindset is also the reason that when Obama said in 2012, “if you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that,” the remark landed so badly among the settled working class. They’re not accustomed to sharing credit for what they have — perhaps especially when they don’t have much.
Vance and my parents are mere anecdotes, yes, but scholars have documented the phenomenon they represent. Kathryn Edin of Princeton University, Jennifer Sherman of Washington State University and Monica Prasad of Northwestern University have studied folks like them in both urban and rural locales. What “settled” and “hard living” express as cultural phenomena, Edin and colleagues express quantitatively as the second-lowest income quintile dissociating from the bottom quintile — the very place from whence many had climbed. Edin described that disassociation as a “virulent social distancing” — “suddenly, you’re a worker and anyone who is not a worker is a bad person.”
Journalists have also brought us illustrations of the settled working class. Alec MacGillis did so in a 2015 New York Times essay, introducing us to Pamela Dougherty of Marshalltown, Iowa, a staunch opponent of safety net programs. As a teenaged mother who divorced young, Pamela’s own journey had been rocky, and she had benefitted from taxpayer-funded tuition breaks at community college to become a nurse. But at the dialysis center where Pamela worked and where Medicare covered everyone’s treatment regardless of age, she noticed that very few patients had regular jobs. Pamela resented this. She thought the patients should have “hoops to jump through” to get the treatment, just as she’d had to keep up her grades when she was getting assistance with college. She thought they should have some skin in the game.
Atul Gawande brought us a similar tale in a 2017 New Yorker article about whether health care should be a right. He introduced us to Monna, a librarian earning $16.50 an hour in Athens, Ohio. After taxes and health insurance premiums were deducted, Monna was taking home less than $1,000 a month, and her health insurance annual deductible was a whopping $3,000. It was her retired husband’s pension, military benefits, and Medicare — all benefits considered earned, not handouts — that kept them afloat. In spite of this struggle, Monna didn’t support health care as a right because it was “another way of undermining responsibility.” Noting that she could quit her job and get Medicaid for free like some of her neighbors were doing, Monna explained that she was “old school” and “not really good at accepting anything I don’t work for.”
Exit polls from 2016 also reflect this division, with the lowest-income voters supporting Clinton—and therefore safety-net programs associated with Democrats—by the greatest margin, 53 percent to 41 percent over Trump. It was folks earning $50,000 to $99,000, those who depending on region and family size might be considered settled working class, who preferred Trump by the greatest margin of all income brackets — 50 percent to 46 percent.