Those Who Work, Those Who Don't: Poverty, Morality, and Family in Rural America

At last a work that unpacks the reality of US rural poverty, writes Rebekah Peeples Massengill

December 10, 2009

Scrutinising inequality has long been the bread and butter of sociologists, but the discipline has generally focused on urban poverty and its attendant social disorganisation - crime and delinquency, racial violence, family disorder and intergenerational welfare reliance. Rural poverty remains curiously understudied as a result, particularly as ethnographic traditions tend towards a sometimes navel-gazing preoccupation with urban life, social change and the fluid dynamics of race and ethnicity in America's great cities.

This oversight within the social sciences is only one of the many reasons why Jennifer Sherman's ethnographic account of rural poverty feels like such a welcome addition to both scholarly and popular literatures on inequality. Those Who Work, Those Who Don't explores the moral dimensions of rural poverty in the pseudonymous "Golden Valley", a rural California town plunged into hardship in the wake of the 1990 spotted-owl decision, which undermined the community's precarious relationship with the timber industry by declaring Golden Valley's forests the protected habitat of an endangered species. Through interviews and field observations, Sherman recounts not only the financial hardships wrought on families in Golden Valley in ensuing years, but also the moral meanings that her subjects create as they weigh the ethical rectitude of different survival strategies.

Sherman's work adeptly highlights complexities of rural poverty that cannot be fully explained by theories developed to explain social problems in urban areas. For instance, small, homogeneous communities are less diverse and anonymous than urban neighbourhoods, and the morally circumspect outlook of one's neighbours means that those struggling with poverty in a small town must draw from a more limited range of survival strategies.

In a rural environment such as Golden Valley, Sherman thus argues, communities develop mechanisms of stratification that are moral, not material. Golden Valley's residents create a hierarchy based not on who has the biggest house or the flashiest car, but a rival system of social stratification that prioritises the moral virtues of family, small-town values and self-sufficiency through work. Welfare is frowned upon and some of Sherman's respondents confess to driving to nearby towns to use their food stamps. Disability and unemployment insurance are at least tied to past work, rendering these strategies more acceptable in the moral framework of her subjects. Illegal activities - crime and drugs, for instance - do occur, but people take care to condemn those who use these strategies as morally inferior.

How do residents maintain moral survival, then, when the local labour market supports only partial and unpredictable employment? And how did traditional family values persevere when male employment diminished with the collapse of the logging industry, against a comparative increase in rates of employment for women in the community's remaining service and administrative jobs? Sherman answers by describing discourses around work and family that prove remarkably flexible in this changed economic context - men redefine masculinity as active fathering within the home and women couch their paid work in terms that protect their presumed domestic responsibilities. Furthermore, the rural environment offers other avenues for subsistence, such as hunting and fishing, that preserve both masculinity and survival.

This helps to explain the proposed appeal of "moral values" in Republican-voting "red state America" - but for a deeper reason than the superficial values-trumps-economics explanations preferred by pundits (or, for that matter, President Obama's ill-chosen campaign comment about small-town Americans, beleaguered by decades of economic distress, who "cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them" in the wake of their disillusion with the American Dream). As Sherman notes: "When your hunting rifle is a major source of your ability to engage with your children in a masculine activity, reproduce your unique culture and provide for your family, gun control will likely seem a serious threat."

Some readers may think that Sherman should explore more fully the contradictions within the moral discourses created by some of her subjects - illegal poaching, past drug use or abuse that preceded formal employment, or family constellations that don't quite approximate the married, nuclear family model held up for admiration by Golden Valley's residents. But the book's greatest contribution lies in the author's ability to communicate this particular constellation of moral meanings on her subjects' own terms - words that speak to both hope and futility in the wake of economic change that lies beyond the control of human beings suffering its debilitating and unrelenting consequences.

Sherman's work is indeed timely in that it helps to unpack layers of meaning that underlie poverty in rural settings, as well as the depth of moral strategies that her subjects - largely forgotten by academy and country alike - bring to bear on lives constructed around scarcity, survival, family and faith in the virtues of rural American life.

Those Who Work, Those Who Don't: Poverty, Morality, and Family in Rural America

By Jennifer Sherman

University of Minnesota Press

264pp, £37.50 and £12.50

ISBN 9780816659043 and 9050

Published 1 November 2009

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