A look back in history reveals President Johnson’s War on Poverty was bookended by two very controversial, social-scientific theories. In 1959, Oscar Lewis presented the Culture of Poverty thesis arguing economic deprivation not only entails a lack of material resources, but additionally the marginalization and feelings of alienation combine with the stress of daily survival to create destructive attitudes and practices (crime, substance abuse, etc.) which then become normative in communities that suffer from poverty. The theory rose to national prominence in 1965 when The Moynihan Report misconstrued the thesis by arguing cultures of poverty caused communities to become economically marginalized as individuals abandon American Individualism because the poor are lazy, stupid, violent, drunken, addicted to drugs, etc… This misconstruing of the thesis overlooked how Lewis argued the culture was an almost inevitable outcome of poverty that could be overcome and conquered.
Towards the end of the Great Society policy push, William Julius Wilson wrote his 1978 Declining Significance of Race thesis which argued the Black underclasses of American inner-cities are marginalized first and foremost by economic factors, not racial ones. Wilson argued the lack of jobs in racially segregated urban centers created by the white flight that relocated economic activity and investment to the suburbs created the inner-city poverty and the social problems that accompany it: violence, substance abuse, and a breakdown of institutions like the family, religion and communities more generally. This book incited the caste vs. class controversy that unfolded throughout the next decade as scholars tried to untangle the inter connections between the racial and economic causes and consequences of poverty.
During the 1990s a few scholars further explored these controversial theories connecting culture to poverty by tying the economic marginalization of the Black inner-city communities to masculinity. As the men in these communities find themselves unable to affirm their manhood via their careers that support a family, many gravitate towards other practices like substance abuse, crime and misogyny to meet especially powerful social standards of who and what a man should be. For example, Majors and Billson described how young Black men use Cool Pose, or an overconfident posturing to defend themselves against the indignities of economic marginalization that often overflows into aggression and even violence when challenged by reality. Similarly, Elijah Anderson wrote about The Code of the Street, the informal code of conduct revolving around the gaining and losing of respect that came to dominate the interactions amongst poor Blacks and often resulted in aggression and violence. Yet despite these insightful works, social scientists around the turn of the century generally ignored the connections between poverty and culture.
Yet, with poverty now rising to levels not seen in a generation, many scholars are revisiting the still controversial theories connecting culture to class. Currently the great recession is accelerating the outsourcing and deindustrialization that has been decimating the economic well-being of all Americans for almost a generation. Yet while ongoing economic processes and the United States’ shift from a service to an industrial economy affects all races and classes; the effects are especially pronounced for working-class whites because for the first time in history this demographic group confronts an economic reality where manual labor no longer provides a living wage.
My research on the southern rock revival finds the changes in the economy are drastically altering the culture of working class whites. Concentrated in the southeast of the United States, the revival is an international music scene comprised of musicians dedicated to voicing the concerns of poor, rural, working-class whites. I spent almost a decade within this scene performing as a musician, attending concerts, interviewing over forty musicians, and collecting over 1,000 songs. My analysis reveals white, working-class culture is changing as this demographic group’s economic well-being is undermined Furthermore, as a traditionally patriarchal group; the fact that working class men can no longer affirm their manhood through their careers and breadwinner status in the family is especially noteworthy as more and more of these men reject these masculine practices and roles as they instead turn to other ways to prove to themselves and to others they are men.
For most of our nation’s history, working class men devoted themselves to their crafts; however, with the loss of blue-collar jobs that provide a comfortable living, many now reject a career as a rewarding life course. In the contemporary era of suppressed wages, more and more working class men are unable to find the limited financial rewards and low status of the service sector jobs worth their efforts (that is, if they can find work at all). In an interview one musician told me “the worst part of working in an office with a tie is having a shitty boss and being a wage slave.” This same phrasing of being a Wage Slave is the title of an Alabama Thunderpussy song which describes a man being tempted to commit crime because he has worked hard all of his life and still never got ahead. The theme of both disdaining work and workplace authority is often combined with descriptions of working hard yet still not making financial ends meet is echoed in many songs, including Working Man. Co-recorded by Bob Wayne and Hank 3 (Hank Williams III), this tune describes how a man was forced to take a low paying menial job to support his wife and children after being fired from his construction job.
However, it should be noted that songs about supporting wives and families are rare in the southern rock revival given that more and more working class men are rebelling from this social institution by abandoning the breadwinner role. Whereas historically working class men take pride in providing for a family, they increasingly see the breadwinner role as both constraining and as a way for women to exploit men. During interviews many musicians described leaving their partners because they were not “family men,” a few even taunted me during my participant observation for “being whipped” because I followed a traditional life course of marriage and career. Songs also reflect critiques of family. For example, Unknown Hinson protests becoming a father in Pregnant Again and I Won’t Live In Sin With You; in Jail to Hell he says prison is not much different than family life.
Unknown Hinson’s mentions of both sin and hell are also noteworthy because whereas traditionally working class whites have degrees of religiosity (especially in times of economic hardship), a growing proportion of the working class is abandoning this social institution. In our interview one musician told me “everything I read was just telling me everything if you smoke a joint you’re going to hell, if you listen to Ozzie you’re going to hell. Rock is kind of a rebellion against all that.” Thus, in addition to outright lyrical critiques of Christianity songs like Nashville Pussy’s Lazy Jesus or Scott Biram’s Church Babies, part of rebelling from religion is describing deviant behaviors southern rockers engage in religious terms. For example, in Two Tickets to Hell the Legendary Shack Shakers describe a couple engaged in rambling and sinning despite knowing the consequences in the afterlife. In They Don’t Make Folks Like They Used to, Those Poor Bastards sing about how their cocaine habit and visits to prostitutes were not considered evil in an earlier era.
The ways more and more working class men celebrate “sinful” behaviors also exemplifies how, like other groups of economic marginalized men, more and more working class whites are turning to deviance to affirm their masculinity. In addition to lyrically glorifying drugs and alcohol, songs like Hank 3’s Whiskey, Weed and Women also describe sex in ways that objectify women’s bodies. However, similar to the Code of the Street or Cool Pose documented by other researchers, I find working class men increasingly use violence and the threat thereof to substantiate their masculine identities. As described in the Nashville Pussy song Hate and Whiskey, use of aggression to affirm manhood often occurs via the long-held southern tradition of drinking and brawling.
The changes I documented in working class culture speak to the controversial hypotheses about the connections between class and culture. Since most of the research these theories are based on was conducted on marginalized racial groups that have historically suffered from economic marginalization, there was always the “chicken or the egg” question about which came first; economic deprivation or the cultures of poverty that entail many behaviors and pessimistic outlooks that perpetuate class disadvantage. However, with working class whites, a culture of poverty is being institutionalized within a population that was not only once economically secure, but were also exemplars of American moral and economic values. Thus, my research provides evidence that culture is influenced by economics; and thus presumably most cultures of poverty and the social problems that accompany them could be overcome with an expansion of economic opportunities.
Furthermore, the fact that working class whites are members of the dominant racial group in the United States also provides evidence that cultures of poverty can and do develop in groups not subject to racial prejudice and discrimination. Rather, race exacerbates and intensifies economic marginalization as racial prejudice and discrimination further undermine the economic opportunities available to this group. This also means that arguments like those made by Charles Murray in his book The Bell Curve that poverty and the behaviors that grow out of poverty are inseparably attached to any particular racial or ethnic minority should be set aside.
However, as the theories connecting class and culture are reassessed, care must be taken to ensure these works are not misinterpreted in ways that scapegoat the groups who suffer from economic marginalization. For example, Charles Murray’s new book argues the changes in culture of working-class whites as noted by a decline in the rates of marriage, employment and church attendance explains why this group is increasingly suffering economically. While many take issue with Murray’s statistics, my research implies his math may be correct as my qualitative techniques have also documented changes in the way working class whites relate to social institutions like the economy, the family and religion. Rather, Murray’s mistake is theoretical; he reverses the casual sequence of the relationships as my research reinforces what common logic dictates; the economic marginalization of this community is eroding of these social institutions.
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