white trash and rednecks (follow-up)

Working my way through Broke, USA: From Pawnshops to Poverty, Inc. – How the Working Poor Became Big Business, I thought of my post recently “white trash and rednecks.” In particular, I thought of the exchange between Christ.tine and I that headed in an unfortunate direction. The idea that people from different background speak different languages interests me. I am always eager to identify key areas of misunderstanding.

In my post (or in the comments), I mentioned a new friend suggesting I “go to a pawn shop.” I described how this left me confused and quiet. Going to a pawn shop is something I’ve never considered. Pretty much my only experience with them is in movies when addicts are desperate for drug money. Similarly, when tenants in the duplex I (used to) own paid with money orders, I always thought that was strange. Why pay a fee to get a money order when the landlord would accept cash? “Broke, USA” shed a lot of light on worlds unfamiliar to me.

One thing I noticed, in addition to an education in the payday loan business, is how the author frequently used the outrageous profits made by the businesses as evidence of their shady character. I thought about how I understood that as a shortcut referring to the progressive/liberal thought that exorbitant profiles equals likely fraud at some level. But I also thought about a few people I know who hear “massive profits” and only think “they’re successful.”

What I wonder is if someone whose background is white collar/professional hears about the massive profits and knows, from experience, how many back room deals that dive far into the grey areas of legality, that those profits probably hurt people along the way. And I also wonder if someone whose experience is blue collar/working class has a view of life that says, “work hard, get rewarded” instead of defaulting to the assumption of cheating; applauding the major income makers because they must be doing something right.

I would love it if anyone who is reading this who has opinions would chime in. Unfortunately but understandably, Chris didn’t want to continue our conversation (after I shut it down, told her to “leave”) because she didn’t think we would get anywhere positive with it (my words). When discussing outrageous profits made by businesses, what is the first thought that comes to you?

19 thoughts on “white trash and rednecks (follow-up)

  1. Speeding through since I need to head to work, but using money orders if one is unable to get/have/use a checking account provides the user with proof they paid the bill should something happen. Problem with cash is what if the person they are paying is unscrupulous and later claims they never received the payment? Money orders can be tracked not as easily as checks but they have similiar functions.

    • Thank you, sweet friend. And that is exactly the sort of thing this recent book explained to me (should’ve mentioned I got answers to those questions :-) — though I will say that I gave receipts for cash. I think he was just in the habit of paying larger bills that way… or, maybe my receipt wasn’t enough. In any case, I’m so happy you commented. I know you’re swamped…

    • Only those assumptions I have inside me. I expected anyone who responded to have their own “first response” based on their own assumptions… Does that make sense? In other words, it was meant to be open-ended and open to wide ranges of interpretations.

      • I get that, but are you saying you assume most working class people trust that if they work hard they’ll be rewarded? My experience is just the opposite: cynicism with regards to the “rewards of hard work” is inversely proportional to income and education level.

        • Interesting, Hope. I always assumed that people who struggle to get by would assume the system is rigged against them. From all I’ve read and talked about (*not* saying this is correct) I’ve been learning that it’s more common for people who are struggling to get by to be of the mindset that working hard is how to get ahead. That was a long sentence.

          In other words, like you, I thought that it was the professional class who believed “work hard = achieve success” and that the working class believed “those ashole rich people get success, but no matter how hard I work I can’t get ahead.” I’ve been coming up against a different line of thinking lately, though (in the last couple years). I mean, you’re the one who recommended Deer Hunting with Jesus to me in the first place. Do you not think the people he described think that working hard is how they’ll get ahead?

          • I’m too far from that book to remember it well enough. I’m thinking of people I actually know, who, in comparison to Bageant’s folks, tend to live closer to cities, so that may be a difference, and they tend to think in both directions that you’re laying down here (I’ll get ahead on my own, and that rich guy’s in my way, which creates some real weird behavior on its own.). Even in South Jersey, where it was much more rural than anyplace else I’ve lived, there was significant suspicion of wealthier people, but again, there was a healthy influx of city/suburban folk in the summer, so maybe that affected people’s attitudes and knowledge about how things worked.

            Granted, there’s always someone buying lottery tickets and talking about “clean livin’ and a grateful heart,” and people pass some really bad ideas down through the generations because there’s little precedent of any better ones. Some people are so used to making do with a horrible situation, they never get a chance to learn (or teach someone else) to head off a bad decision.

            • That last bit, by the way, is only in reference to people who had a choice and choose the stinker due to panic/impulse/community pressure, not people who are so swamped by debt and lack of resources that they have no option but to take the worst and probably only path. But again, I get nervous about generalizing, because you could go door to door and find a different explanation for why someone’s life is off the charts hard.

              • “Nervous about generalizing” sums up how I feel talking about any of this. There’s nothing simple about it, so every word feels important because I know any word I use could be “corrected” by someone and they would be right.

                I really don’t see how anyone will get anywhere in terms of change if we can’t talk about class differences and variations and, ultimately for me, different languages. How we’ll ever hear each other if we don’t try talking seems impossible.

                It took a lot to convince me that the underlying theme of (“most” or “many” or “some” etc. will always be assumed when I’m talking about this stuff) working class culture is that work-hard-is-how-to-improve-our-lot despite resentments that may or may not exist about the silver spoon types, etc. Obviously, I have no real life experience to speak of. It’s only what I’ve read about a lot. I think that counts some.

                • My concern for wanting to be thoughtful about the question doesn’t stop me from talking about it–it just makes me think hard about the experiences I’ve had or the experiences of people I know to recognize all poverty/hardship isn’t the same. All I mean is that the problems in Newark aren’t the same as the ones in rural Vermont. Overall they may wind up looking similar, but the details are different and they’re important.

                  In what way did it take a lot to convince you about the work-till-you’re-dead theory? What part didn’t you buy into?

                  • Ah, yes, I wasn’t talking about you. I was talking about how *my* concern for wanting to be thoughtful about all of it prevents me from talking about it. The fact that the problems aren’t the same everywhere (or for everyone) and that those differences are important is *precisely* why it’s difficult (for me) to discuss this. There is almost nothing that I can say (anyone can say) where an exception or correction doesn’t apply.

                    I don’t know what you mean by the “work-’til-you’re-dead” theory…?

                    • My question is about this: “It took a lot to convince me that the underlying theme of (“most” or “many” or “some” etc. will always be assumed when I’m talking about this stuff) working class culture is that work-hard-is-how-to-improve-our-lot”

                      Short-handed to my question because most of the people I know/knew who believed in that idea worked two or three low-paying, hard-ass, physical, sometimes dangerous jobs and wound up with wicked ailments they couldn’t fix, were always scrambling and were so miserable to the core that they scared me. That said, they were otherwise lovely people.

                      Did I misunderstand what you said?

                    • I wouldn’t say you misunderstood what I said. It seems you took what I said and extrapolated away from what I was talking about. I was back at the people who hold the belief that hard work (strong character, I might add if it doesn’t complicate things) is how people achieve success.

                      To answer your question now that I better understand it, I had a hard time believing poor people thought “if I work hard enough I’ll be successful” because, for starters, it was only a few years ago that I ever even thought about what poor people might think. As I started thinking about it, I had only my own experiences and assumptions. To me, the deck is so obviously stacked against them, it seems absurd to think that hard work and strong character alone will overcome the hurdles. What I mean is, I can’t imagine having a job that pays minimum wage and at the same time believing I’ll have a chance to cover the bills for rent, food, healthcare, transportation, utilities, etc. (living). It wouldn’t be possible. It isn’t possible.

                      Or, as my mind wanders, I’ll go over to skilled laborers who might make better money but who (as you described) will kill their bodies and by their, what, 40s? 50s? consider themselves on the ending side of life. I mean, I can see how in that case it might be a little more reasonable to adopt the “work hard to be successful” attitude. Still, I don’t know… I think I just had a hard time believing *anyone* really thinks that it’s hard work alone that is what brings success (in this discussion I’m defining success as economic security, I suppose).

                      My grasping the possibility that working class people might live within a reality where “hard work is how you achieve success” comes from that possibility blowing my mind. It seemed so inconceivable.

                      What changed my mind was probably the brain science work, all that Lakoff and Westen “we think in metaphors” stuff. Realizing that it’s our values (feelings, emotions) not logic or facts that determine our beliefs. Then (see my goodreads list) lots of books about class and society just had this similar theme, and Bageant’s (sp?) definitely does, too. The self-respect despite the absurdly difficult circumstances comes from that “I’m going to work hard” idea. I’m thinking now of Andre Dubus’ “Townie,” as one of the many examples. Or Limbo, back when I started considering these things…

                      Does that answer your question? :-)

  2. When profits are “too high”–like an effective interest rate of 125% on a pawn shop or pay-day loan, rather than just high, like 18% on a credit card–someone is being taken advantage of. When you are the lender of last resort, you can squeeze all you like. Sure, these loans may be very risky for the lender, so maybe 30%. But I’ve seen these things at 300%. At that point, you’d get a better deal from the Mafia loan sharks.

    • Hi Jerry! Yeah, that’s what this book was about. And the way you describe it is how I react to the “too high” profits, too. There are many who think of “too high” profits as a “successful business” when you and I immediately assume there’s something bad going on.

      Now, because of what I read in this book, I realize the payday loans and related businesses have been and are verging on using criminal behavior. But, I’m curious to know what you mean by “someone is being taken advantage of.” (I think I know what you mean, but I’m interested in hearing it spelled out because it seems common sense to me, but it certainly doesn’t seem like common sense to everyone. Lots of people think that kind of profit, if they can get it, is “success.”)

  3. My first thought about outrageous profits, and this after skipping the comments stream, is that they are good and they are short-lived. If you come up with something that’s valuable to people and can get outrageous profit out of it, good for you! Get it while you can because someone will see that and come up with a means to compete. Profits will decrease but competition will improve the results and the general welfare will improve, as a good is now produced that didn’t exist before.

    Now to check-cashing companies and the like, they are taking advantage of people whose situation prevents them getting checking accounts. This makes it even harder to be poor. That sucks but the service they provide really should be a temporary one for anybody. I can see needing the service for a few months. But if it becomes necessary to your lifestyle then no amount of regulation is going to protect you from yourself. Let the market decide.

    For me, that’s the bottom line. We can go on about right and wrong but what matters is the output of the discussion: What is to be done. That means law and regulation, and that should be governed by the principle that everyone is free to make their own profits and their own mistakes. We can them help them as we wish, but the law should lay lightly.

    • It’s amazing what the companies do to draw people back in (calling every week, every 30 days, inviting them back in, etc.). I really enjoyed the book because it explained the different tactics used that most people (not all) would find abhorrent. For so much of the book I was thinking, but, damn, I now know what it’s like to have $7 in my bank account and maybe not enough for gas to get my daughter to school and thank god I have rice and beans in the cupboards, etc. and I can totally understand the appeal of getting a loan that works out to a 300% or more APR. Then again, having just come out of bankruptcy, I know the seduction of having money I don’t really have and how quickly it becomes impossible to pay off debt.

      I’m thinking if you read the book you might be distracted by how the author used the massive profits as a short cut for describing the shameful behavior of the businesses. I do think some people have in the back of their mind a cheerleader saying, “yeah, those guys must be evil!” if they hear a lot of money was made and other people have, “well, good for them!” instead.

      Thanks for reading/replying, Don. :-)

  4. WP won’t let me reply in the stream anymore, but I get what you’re saying. If I remember correctly this is where Bageant made a good point. Tribalism plays a huge role in all this, I think. That attitude gets passed down through the generations –“Uncle so-and-so did fine working for the mine/cab company/subway, and so will I (even though that was fifty years ago) — because there’s no other viable option offered. Then when the mine closes, everyone’s left to scramble, but for the next twenty years everyone will talk about what a good job grandpa had. Well, yeah, he did, right up until he was killed in an accident on the job (But he worked hard. He was a good man. And that’s what we remember, instead of what a crappy job he had to do.).

    Or there’s that fear of betraying a community: Trying to find a way to get a college degree implies that you think the people around you who didn’t go aren’t “enough,” and if you take off and flame out, you might find yourself friendless when you come back. You think can’t afford that, so you act like it doesn’t matter that you don’t do well in school, or that all the money you make at your job has to go back to your family and you can’t leave because you have to take care of them.

    Then they’ve got you–lenders, credit card companies, etc. You’re stuck, because your loyalties and fears of being abandoned in their various forms won’t let you walk away. The essential point of his book for me was that he left and came back and had a chance to see that weird logic and how powerful it is from a different angle. People always wax lyrical about community–how people who are strapped stick together–but sometimes community’s a bad thing when it makes you think you only have one option and that option stinks.

    • I love that term, “tribalism.” I can’t afford to get back into the discussion much at the moment, but I wanted to acknowledge your reply.

      As I said in an email to you, I’ve recently started to realize why I find this topic so fascinating. Not just because it’s relevant for living in the world today, or because I’m generally interested in communications cross-culturally, but because of the isolation I realize my father (and mother in different ways) held us in so we would only be a part of… let’s see, one tribe? Not really… but there were family dynamics that made things both murkier and, even more relevant for me, unnaturally clear cut.

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