Vance's observation in Middletown, Ohio
Mamaw encouraged me to get a job—she told me that it would be good for me and that I needed to learn the value of a dollar. When her encouragement fell on deaf ears, she then demanded that I get a job, and so I did, as a cashier at Dillman’s, a local grocery store.
Working as a cashier turned me into an amateur sociologist. A frenetic stress animated so many of our customers. One of our neighbors would walk in and yell at me for the smallest of transgressions—not smiling at her, or bagging the groceries too heavy one day or too light the next. Some came into the store in a hurry, pacing between aisles, looking frantically for a particular item. But others waded through the aisles deliberately, carefully marking each item off of their list. Some folks purchased a lot of canned and frozen food, while others consistently arrived at the checkout counter with carts piled high with fresh produce. The more harried a customer, the more they purchased precooked or frozen food, the more likely they were to be poor. And I knew they were poor because of the clothes they wore or because they purchased their food with food stamps. After a few months, I came home and asked Mamaw why only poor people bought baby formula. “Don’t rich people have babies, too?” Mamaw had no answers, and it would be many years before I learned that rich folks are considerably more likely to breast-feed their children.
As my job taught me a little more about America’s class divide, it also imbued me with a bit of resentment, directed toward both the wealthy and my own kind. The owners of Dillman’s were old-fashioned, so they allowed people with good credit to run grocery tabs, some of which surpassed a thousand dollars. I knew that if any of my relatives walked in and ran up a bill of over a thousand dollars, they’d be asked to pay immediately. I hated the feeling that my boss counted my people as less trustworthy than those who took their groceries home in a Cadillac. But I got over it: One day, I told myself, I’ll have my own damned tab.
I also learned how people gamed the welfare system. They’d buy two dozen-packs of soda with food stamps and then sell them at a discount for cash. They’d ring up their orders separately, buying food with food stamps, and beer, wine, and cigarettes with cash. They’d regularly go through the checkout line speaking on their cell phones. I could never understand why our lives felt like a struggle while those living off of government largesse enjoyed trinkets that I only dreamed about.
Mamaw listened intently to my experiences at Dillman’s. We began to view much of our fellow working class with mistrust. Most of us were struggling to get by, but we made do, worked hard, and hoped for a better life. But a large minority was content to live off the dole. Every two weeks, I’d get a small paycheck and notice the line where federal and state income taxes were deducted from my wages. At least as often, our drug-addict neighbor would buy T-bone steaks, which I was too poor to buy for myself but was forced by Uncle Sam to buy for someone else. This was my mind-set when I was seventeen, and though I’m far less angry today than I was then, it was my first indication that the policies of Mamaw’s “party of the working man”—the Democrats—weren’t all they were cracked up to be.
Political scientists have spent millions of words trying to explain how Appalachia and the South went from staunchly Democratic to staunchly Republican in less than a generation. Some blame race relations and the Democratic Party’s embrace of the civil rights movement. Others cite religious faith and the hold that social conservatism has on evangelicals in that region. A big part of the explanation lies in the fact that many in the white working class saw precisely what I did, working at Dillman’s. As far back as the 1970s, the white working class began to turn to Richard Nixon because of a perception that, as one man put it, government was “payin’ people who are on welfare today doin’ nothin’! They’re laughin’ at our society! And we’re all hardworkin’ people and we’re gettin’ laughed at for workin’ every day!”
At around that time, our neighbor—one of Mamaw and Papaw’s oldest friends—registered the house next to ours for Section 8. Section 8 is a government program that offers low-income residents a voucher to rent housing. Mamaw’s friend had little luck renting his property, but when he qualified his house for the Section 8 voucher, he virtually assured that would change. Mamaw saw it as a betrayal, ensuring that “bad” people would move into the neighborhood and drive down property values.
Despite our efforts to draw bright lines between the working and nonworking poor, Mamaw and I recognized that we shared a lot in common with those whom we thought gave our people a bad name. Those Section 8 recipients looked a lot like us. The matriarch of the first family to move in next door was born in Kentucky but moved north at a young age as her parents sought a better life. She’d gotten involved with a couple of men, each of whom had left her with a child but no support. She was nice, and so were her kids. But the drugs and the late-night fighting revealed troubles that too many hillbilly transplants knew too well. Confronted with such a realization of her own family’s struggle, Mamaw grew frustrated and angry.
From that anger sprang Bonnie Vance the social policy expert: “She’s a lazy whore, but she wouldn’t be if she was forced to get a job”; “I hate those fuckers for giving these people the money to move into our neighborhood.” She’d rant against the people we’d see in the grocery store: “I can’t understand why people who’ve worked all their lives scrape by while these deadbeats buy liquor and cell phone coverage with our tax money.”
These were bizarre views for my bleeding-heart grandma. And if she blasted the government for doing too much one day, she’d blast it for doing too little the next. The government, after all, was just helping poor people find a place to live, and my grandma loved the idea of anyone helping the poor. She had no philosophical objection to Section 8 vouchers. So the Democrat in her would resurface. She’d rant about the lack of jobs and wonder aloud whether that was why our neighbor couldn’t find a good man. In her more compassionate moments, Mamaw asked if it made any sense that our society could afford aircraft carriers but not drug treatment facilities—like Mom’s—for everyone. Sometimes she’d criticize the faceless rich, whom she saw as far too unwilling to carry their fair share of the social burden. Mamaw saw every ballot failure of the local school improvement tax (and there were many) as an indictment of our society’s failure to provide a quality education to kids like me.
Mamaw’s sentiments occupied wildly different parts of the political spectrum. Depending on her mood, Mamaw was a radical conservative or a European-style social Democrat. Because of this, I initially assumed that Mamaw was an unreformed simpleton and that as soon as she opened her mouth about policy or politics, I might as well close my ears. Yet I quickly realized that in Mamaw’s contradictions lay great wisdom. I had spent so long just surviving my world, but now that I had a little space to observe it, I began to see the world as Mamaw did. I was scared, confused, angry, and heartbroken. I’d blame large businesses for closing up shop and moving overseas, and then I’d wonder if I might have done the same thing. I’d curse our government for not helping enough, and then I’d wonder if, in its attempts to help, it actually made the problem worse.
Write a brief summary of what Vance observes as a cashier, and what image it depicts of the people in Middletown.
How does Vance’s job at the grocery store shape his views of class difference and welfare?