Work

I heard it growing up, and I know that lots of others did, too: this idea, common among working-class Southerners, that there are whole populations out there who lay around and take handouts, while “decent” people earn their living. Among these proclamations from the idea’s work-a-day adherents, George Wallace articulated it this way in a now-infamous quip aimed at hecklers during his failed 1968 presidential campaign:

You come up when I get through and I’ll autograph your sandals for you. That is, if you got any on . . . You need a good haircut. That’s all that’s wrong with you. . . There are two four-letter words I bet you folks don’t know: ‘work’ and ‘soap.’

But hippies were only one of many targets. Back in the 1980s, I heard it most often with respect to communism, when my working-class father insisted that people in Russia had no reason to work hard or do a good job, because everybody got the same paycheck. Later, we heard it during welfare-reform efforts in the 1990s, whose proposed work requirement was meant to answer the pervasive myth that there were people out there who did nothing but have babies and cash checks. (As a reminder of the Southern roots of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, it was a signature achievement of a House speaker from Georgia and was signed into law by a president from Arkansas.)

The presence (or perceived lack) of a work ethic has long been central to identity in the South. Probably the second question that any newly introduced adult gets asked, after one’s name, is “What d’ya do?” Other examples include the man who proudly says, “Nobody ever gave me nothin’,” or the teacher who calls parents because Junior “isn’t doing his work.” In the article “Work Ethic of the Plain Folk,” which was published in the Journal of Southern History then re-published in Best American History Essays, 2006, scholar Carl Osthaus told his academic audience: “Work was an essential part of plain-folk identity; here was the core of southern life.” Using the words “essential” and “core,” Osthaus strikes at many Southerners’ fundamental need to be seen as people who earn – and thus, deserve – what they have.

It’s not surprising that this once-frontier culture – the Old Southwest – evolved with an insistence on the value of work. In his 1986 book Rural Worlds Lost, historian Jack Temple Kirby explains the hardships of living in a rural culture that required constant hard work, whether it involved crops on a farm, lumber in a forest, or machines in a factory or mill. He also wrote about the virtual disappearance of that way of life by 1960.  Yet, today, sixty years after Kirby’s end date, relics of a belief system built on that culture remain. Among those relics are the belief that hard work and good decisions are paramount. i.e. “personal responsibility and work opportunity.”

These beliefs helped to shape the Southern identity, and they also created narratives about who is deserving and who isn’t. Political ideologies aside, it has to be acknowledged that many people in the South work very hard but tend not to get far, socially and economically. Some of the roughest, dirtiest, and most physically demanding jobs pay the lowest wages and offer the fewest opportunities, a fact that flies in the face of the myth that hard work and good decisions lead to success, or at least to stability. There is also the myth and its accompanying narrative that poverty is caused by laziness. This, too, is contradicted by an examination of what it means to be “working poor,” a condition all too common in the South. 

As an editor, I’d be interested to read submissions from people who have firsthand experiences with these beliefs, myths, and narratives. Academics and foundations can draw up reports from studies that use statistics and other data, but on a human level, my question is: what does it mean for our lives when ideas like these about work shape our culture? 

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