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Tuesday, March 17, 2015

"Rich Hill" and the mythological middle class of everyone

Netflix has a couple of watchable new films available*, among them "Rich Hill," a documentary following three poor boys in a rural Missouri town for a year. Although the subjects may not think themselves poor, it seemed clear that the viewers were supposed to think them so. The film has no particular argument to make about the boys' lives; they're just depicted, and some of them are better than others. But afterwards, when I looked up reviews, I discovered that although most people saw that clearly, a number seemed to think that the boys were intended to symbolize "an American story of the struggle to stay in the middle class, and how money changes the dynamics of families, making childhood a fleeting commodity."

Now, I know that everyone in America is middle-class if you ask them, and even that this is a kind of useful unifying national ideology since, when it works, it restrains the excesses of the rich and the poor. But it's hard to watch this movie and think that any of these boys or their families are in even the "lower" middle class. One boy lives with his grandmother, who is on food stamps and seems to be housing many of his cousins as well, because his mother is in prison. Another lives with his mother and at least five siblings on his mother's Pizza Hut wages. The third lives with both parents and a sister, but his mother appears to be addicted to sleeping pills and his father won't take a regular job and prefers to make his living as a itinerant handyman. Even in some halcyon time in the past when the middle class was bigger, or middle class wages were available to those without college or even high school degrees, these are not circumstances conducive to middle-class status since they are not conducive to steady income. These boys are not "struggling to stay in the middle class"; they are simply poor. (The rest of that sentence applies as little to the movie as this part of it, but maybe the reviewer is English and assumes that America is such a wretched place that it's typically middle-class to lack hot water.)

What is quite striking in the movie and not noted in the reviews, at least not in these terms, is that the boy who seems to be the least damaged (in fact, he seems to have quite an admirable character) and to have the best prospects is the one who is, in strictly material terms, the poorest of the three.

*The other good new Netflix movie is "In Bloom," a Georgian coming of age story which was I think the first time I ever heard Georgian spoken. I thought it would sound at least vaguely like Russian, but no, not at all.

19 comments:

Withywindle said...

One of the more useful history books I read was on Britain before World War I, which, after analysis, stated that the "middle class" was at most everyone from (roughly) the 95% to the 75& income brackets, perhaps far fewer; that the vast majority of Britons were poor, and the phrase "middle class" deceptive in that it somehow implied that the median family was middle class. Mutatis mutandis, there is a certain gentry lifestyle in the US which is by no means median; and it is entirely possible that the median family will become poor again, if it is not so already. All this I think at least tangentially relevant to your point!

One of my favorite stories about Stalin is that he read some aspiring linguists theory that the languages of the poor had more in common with each other than they did with the languages of their respective upper classes; i.e., the language of a poor Georgian and a poor Russian had more in common than the language of a poor Georgian and a rich Russian. "This is nonsense," said Stalin, "I know!" And so linguistic Lysenkoism did not become standard in the USSR, and some 'orrible Marxizing linguist was presumably sent to the Gulag for being too clever by half.

Miss Self-Important said...

But wouldn't "poor" have to have some objective meaning (like no hot water) in such an analysis? Or was it that the income curve was extremely skewed or the gini coefficient very high?

My concern with presuming that every poor person of the present was a real candidate for the middle class in the more egalitarian or industrial-wage-jobs past is that (in addition to being wrong), it creates an impossible expectation for present public policy, and dooms it to overreach (or radical expropriation and redistribution). There will remain poor people even where the income or wealth distribution is more equal, just as there were poor people in the postwar golden age of American equality.

Yes, according to Wikipedia, Georgian is not Indo-European, which is quite surprising given Georgia's location.

Phoebe said...

OK, this only further adds to my confusion about what British people mean by "middle-class." How can the same word be a euphemism for "rich" and "destitute"?

Georgian - written especially - is fascinating.

Andrew Stevens said...

I don't think the British use of "middle class" ever had anything to do with the median, which almost everybody prior to WWI would never have thought about at all. (Analysis of statistics being used as a parlor game for pundits is a very recent phenomenon.) The middle classes, therefore, were the classes in between (in the middle of) the aristocratic and working classes, regardless of how numerous any of those classes happen to be.

I think everyone who responded to you (and Withy in this comment) is agreeing that "middle class" in Britain does and has always meant "wealthy." Withy is saying that prior to WWI, the "middle class" represented at best the top quarter of the population (minus the top 5%). The other 75% were "poor." (Here I believe he is making a bit of a mistake due to misleading language. "Working class" does not equal "poor." Though I'm hardly surprised that many people who grew up in the upper middle classes, such as nearly certainly the author of the book Withy read, would think so.)

Miss Self-Important said...

Phoebe: The writer could also be American, even though it's the Guardian. I really don't know; it was just a strange response to a movie clearly about the very poor.

AS: That may well be so, but I'm not sure how it explains this writer's idea of the American middle class. If the English middle class is comprised of university-educated people, then it's even crazier to view this film's subjects as having been squeezed out of this class, since they lack even high school diplomas. Or the author might think the US is more equal than England, and that its middle class is correspondingly so expansive as to include the destitute. But either way, it's kind of bizarre. Since that wasn't the only such review I came across though, my sense is that this view is the result of the pervasiveness of the rhetoric of the shrinking or embattled middle class in American political discourse, and the perception it might create that, just yesterday, everyone was so much better off here.

Raghav said...

Not only are the Caucasian languages not Indo-European, but they're not even all known to be related to one another. You probably saw it already, but Wikipedia has a nice map: http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Languages_of_the_Caucasus#/media/File:Caucasus-ethnic_en.svg

Raghav said...

Also, the author does seem to be an American (or at least, she's been in America since university): https://www.linkedin.com/pub/jana-kasperkevic/51/816/656

Andrew Stevens said...

I assume the author was working off an American definition of "middle class" which, as you correctly pointed out, Americans (unlike the British) usually define to include practically everybody. Whereas Withywindle was dragging in the British definition of middle class which usually means university educated professionals and/or artisans and craftsmen.

That was my entire point; I wasn't really touching on yours. I'd have to watch the film to know whether I'd agree with you that these kids were poor, but based on your description, I assume that I would. (I am generally in agreement that the U.S. definition is far too expansive.)

Andrew Stevens said...

By the way, as for the question of whether the median family is in danger of becoming poor which, if I'm reading both of you correctly, I think you are on one side and Withy on the other, I am strongly in agreement with you rather than Withy. This is for two reasons: 1) simply by observation, it is very obvious to me that the poor and middle class are much better off now than they were forty-plus years ago and 2) I cannot see an intelligent way to read the statistics which don't agree with my observation.

However, I do understand that Withy appears to strongly disagree with 1. And, in light of that disagreement, I'm not sure I can convince him or anybody else with just 2. If you seem to see increasing immiseration and poverty, I imagine it's nearly impossible for anyone to convince you otherwise using just cold, hard numbers. Similarly, if the numbers weren't on my side, I imagine you'd have a tough time convincing me with them that people were worse off now than they were forty years ago, since it seems perfectly obvious to me that this isn't true.

Miss Self-Important said...

Raghav: Yes, I did see that map. But I was surprised more b/c I know Azeri and more broadly the culture of Azerbaijan are closely tied to Iran, and Armenia to Turkey. It seems geographically strange that Georgia would've escaped these major regional influences - Persian, Turkish, Russian - altogether. But I don't know Causasian history at all, so all is possible.

AS: I'm not sure whether I understood Withy's point well enough to agree or disagree. It seems that there are two different ways to define "poor" at work - either relative to some static standard of material well-being, or in terms of intra-national inequality. I don't think many people argue that more Americans are poor now than before by the first standard, since material well-being has increased for everyone. But obviously many people argue that inequality has increased at the expense of the middle class.

Beyond the statistical arguments about this though, I'm not sure I have a settled view, since I think in terms mainly of my own highly-unsettled economic position, but that position is hardly typical of the broader American situation. Increasing poverty and immiseration is an observable feature of academia (exacerbated I think by the extreme paucity of useful employment statistics), and it's easy to extrapolate from your own case, especially when everyone else you know is a similarly-situated grad student or junior faculty. But I do see via Facebook that many of my high school classmates who went into more reasonable fields like accounting, marketing, teaching, even social services are buying homes now and appear to be economically stable. So I can make no sweeping judgment on this question.

Andrew Stevens said...

Withy and I have had this debate before so I'm reasonably sure that he is arguing that masses of Americans are in danger of becoming poor or have already become poor by the first standard, but perhaps I misunderstand him.

Statistically, the only group whose median real wages have declined for the last forty years are white males without a high school diploma. They have done terribly. But let's think about that group. When I was a kid, my best friend's father was an eighth grade dropout. His father had died at that time and somebody had to support the family so he dropped out of school and went to work. This did him no real harm. He wasn't very book smart and was never going to be a "knowledge worker" anyway (neither was his son). He was incredibly clever with his hands though, so he worked in manufacturing and was a shift supervisor. His wife was a housewife and they lived a fairly comfortable living with their own home, a couple of cars, luxuries like a riding lawnmower, and so forth. I doubt his manufacturing job exists anymore, but I still think he'd do fine for himself in today's world, probably as a department head at Home Depot or something. But the key point is that I seriously doubt, in today's world, that he'd have been a high school dropout. The social safety net would have kicked in and today his mother would make sure he graduated from high school, whether this actually helped him in life or not.

We used to have high school dropouts like him, but that's not the case any more. The only people who don't graduate from high school (or get a GED) now are people with very serious problems. So when we compare the two groups, we're comparing a much more select group now to then and we're comparing people today who would have been at the bottom of the earlier group. I'm not even convinced that white men without a high school degree have genuinely gotten worse off; they've just moved up the educational attainment ladder. I also believe this scales up. The reason why it appears that at least some college is necessary for economic success now is simply because it's so easy to get some college and the culture values it, so many more people do. Even when we think we're comparing apples to apples, we're often comparing apples to oranges.

As I said in the earlier argument, I do not dispute that things have gotten worse in academia. I've heard many people report this and I take them at their word. Just as things have gotten worse in other select industries such as automotive manufacturing and so on.

Withywindle said...

This is all far more involved a response than I had imagined ... briefly, the point of the history book was that by the time it was written, people already took middle class to mean median, and that it was definitely not true of Britain before WWI. Poor not meaning destitute and miserable all the time, but, even at the best, lacking the security and amenity of middle class existence. Poor including most steadily employed working class, therefore. "If it is not so already", talking about modern Americans, was meant to gesture at the notion that middle-class Americans have already become poor--not so much to endorse it, as to embrace the reader who already believed such. No, I don't think the American median family is poor, yet!, but I was trying not to make a sticking point about that--I wasn't trying to create a new sticking point. Sorry if that was unclear.

Andrew Stevens said...

Fair enough. I probably wouldn't have made much of it except for our prior conversation about this regarding social mobility. There are at least some people who seem to believe the majority of Americans are becoming poorer and more miserable. I think this view is self-evidently crazy (which is not to say that the people who hold it are crazy; they are not), but it does exist.

educatedwhinge said...

A professor of mine is learning Georgian, and the verb system is bewildering. Apparently verb morphology takes into account both the subject and the object of the verb, which does not make any sense to me at all.

Alex said...

We took your recommendation and watched this last night. These families are definitely poor, and did not become that way after taking a bad turn at being middle class.

I agree that Andrew (right?) is more admirable than the rest, but not that he is the poorest of the three. They all seemed to live in pretty bad conditions. I guess the one's grandmother didn't live in deplorable conditions, but he only lived with her because his mom is in jail, so that's not really an upgraded standard of living. And the third kid maybe had hot water but seemed to literally live in a trash heap.

I do hope some rich person watches that movie and offers a college scholarship to Andrew.

Miss Self-Important said...

Educatedwhinge: How is that possible? Do the verbs change form based on multiple noun genders or number or what?

Alex: Yes, Andrew was the admirable one. The one whose mother is in jail obviously has no money at all, but none of them do if you take them individually. I meant by poor in material terms that the conditions in which Andrew lived seemed to be the worst, not that his family situation was the worst. The grandmother had a decent, clean house complete with all utilities and sufficient food, and the kid with the uncertain number of siblings and extremely messy house seemed also to have this. Andrew's family didn't have a house and couldn't seem to afford more than two months' rent at a time, so they kept having to skip town to avoid paying. But I agree that family-wise, Andrew's situation was the best. His was the only family shown that was not full of resentment and recrimination and constant cursing. That's actually what I found so strange - they had the fewest material resources, but their kids seemed the least damaged by this lack, whereas the other two boys had worse family situations and (somewhat) more money and were psychologically worse off.

Alex said...

Yeah, his whole family was very gentle and loving with each other. I'm not sure it's that strange- psychological and physical abuse is definitely worse than material deprivation. Although moving every two months is a form of psychological abuse for a child.

educatedwhinge said...

To be honest, I have no idea how it works, but apparently it's a linguistic phenomenon that is not unique to Georgian.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polypersonal_agreement#Georgian

(Your alma mater is one of the few schools in the country that offers Georgian, by the way.)

educatedwhinge said...

As I write that, I realize that a language I know does this: Biblical Hebrew. But the Hebrew verb morphology is not complicated at all (and the object suffixes don't really change how conjugation works), so it's not much of a comparison.