A Look at the Original Underclass

Trailer Park_Black and White

Waste people. Rubbish. Clay-eaters. Hillbillies. Two new books, White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg, a provocative, deeply researched history; and Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance, an affecting memoir, are well timed to help make better sense of the plight of struggling whites in the United States. Both accounts converge on an important insight: The gloomy state of affairs in the lower reaches of white America should not have caught the rest of the country as off guard as it has.

Read the story at ProPublica or The Atlantic, the co-publishers. This well-written, timely read is worth your time.


Blogger-in-Chief here at RetirementSavvy and author of Sin City Greed, Cream City Hustle and RENDEZVOUS WITH RETIREMENT: A Guide to Getting Fiscally Fit.


  1. Interesting article/view point James. When I read it, my mind kept going back to a quote by one of my favorite pundits, James Carville who said, “It’s the economy, stupid.” I can’t remember whom he was directing it to but it was, in my opinion, spot on. Poor economic growth for the past decade has eroded the economic contributions of the middle class, namely white working men and women. When the major economic talking point today is raising the minimum wage, which effects less than two percent of the total labor force, we’ve therefore lost focus on who really drives the economy, that being the middle class, white or black.

    • Thanks for stopping by, my friend. Yep, Carville is always good for a quip that makes you think. Based on everything I’ve read, the problem of economic growth – and its relationship to productivity – goes back long before the last ten years. In fact, most say it goes back at least 30 years. This from the Economic Policy Institute:

      “The typical worker has had stagnating wages for a long time, despite enjoying some wage growth during the economic recovery of the late 1990s. While productivity grew 80% between 1979 and 2009, the hourly wage of the median worker grew by only 10.1%, with all of this wage growth occurring from 1996 to 2002, reflecting the strong economic recovery of the late 1990s.”

      Or this from Pew Research:

      “But after adjusting for inflation, today’s average hourly wage has just about the same purchasing power as it did in 1979, following a long slide in the 1980s and early 1990s and bumpy, inconsistent growth since then. In fact, in real terms the average wage peaked more than 40 years ago: The $4.03-an-hour rate recorded in January 1973 has the same purchasing power as $22.41 would today.”

      I absolutely agree with you that it is the middle-class which drives the economy. Unfortunately, even with increased productivity over the last 30 – 40 years, the purchasing power of most Americans, particularly those in the middle- and lower-class, hasn’t budged. It’s hard to drive the economy when the purchasing power of the primary force (consumers, which account for 3/4 of economic growth) has been significantly eroded.

      This Chart, courtesy of Supporting Evidence, is interesting …

      Individual Income Tax Rates Over Time

      One significant takeaway is that the vast majority of earners (>$16750 2010-equivalent) have had significant marginal tax rate reductions from the 1975 and 1985 levels. Only earners near $17,000 and $70,000 (2010-equivalent) are paying marginal tax rates near 1985 levels.

      Taken together with the information from EPI, Pew, and others, I think it can be said that since at least the mid-1970s, although productivity has increased and the marginal tax rate for the vast majority of Americans has come down, economic growth has stagnated.

      Therefore, it seems to me we have to take a long look at our taxation system – and I don’t believe the answer is to lower them – and find a way to better align productivity and wages. I don’t know what that means as far as a federal minimum wage, but it seems clear that it has to be more than the current $7.25/hour, and in fact, wages need to rise for lots of low-wage workers, not just those hovering around the minimum wage.

      Looking forward to dinner and conversation on Thursday, my friend.

    • I wanted to add another thought.

      The reason that it seems like economic growth and stagnant wages are a relatively new – the last 10 years or so – problem is that the problems have been masked. To overcome stagnant wages and keep consuming (i.e. economic activity) at the same rate, Americans did three things …

      1. In the 1970s and early 80s, as wages (men’s) started to stagnate, more women started entering the workforce. That worked for a while.

      2. Once that proved insufficient, in the 80s and 90s, both spouses began to work longer hours, including more overtime. Since humans can only work so many hours … .

      3. Once that proved insufficient, through the mid-2000s, Americans turned to credit cards and home equity loans.

      And we all know how that ended. Unless there is a fourth trick up the sleeves somewhere, we need to change our policies as they relate to taxation and worker compensation.

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