Broke and Patriotic
Why Poor Americans Love Their Country
Francesco Duina

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Chapter 1

A People's Country

Eddie,1 a fifty-six-year-old African American, lives in Birmingham, Alabama. Once a spelling-bee champion in school and “smart kid” who used to draw and love music, he now aspires to work in food services but earns less than one thousand dollars a month working at informal and irregular jobs, taking life day by day, and hoping—as his grandparents taught him long ago to do—that “maybe tomorrow will be better.” Though he served in the army for three years, he receives very few benefits from the government. He resides in the fifth most dangerous city in the United States, where the poverty rate is more than 30% and robberies, aggravated assaults, and arson attacks are commonplace.2 He knows that incomes for the people in the middle and lower classes in the country have been stagnating and believes that “the top percentage seems to be making all the money.” There are problems in the United States, for sure, and “no society is perfect . . . we have our dark shadows.” Still, despite all the difficulties in his life, he is convinced about one thing: America “is an exceptional country.” Indeed, as he puts it, America is “the last best hope for mankind on earth . . . the last best hope for countries on earth.”

Eddie is like millions of Americans. Many are poor and face serious adversity, and much in their lives is a daily struggle. They have access to very limited social services and support—partly a reflection of the fact that the majority of their compatriots, including those with very little, believe in the fairness of existing class differences. The odds that their children will enjoy a better life in the future are low. They also work very long hours while the gap between themselves and the rest of society, already considerable, continues to widen. On these and other dimensions their situation is lacking in both absolute and relative terms: by many measures, America’s poor are worse off than their counterparts in other advanced countries. To have no money in America is tough in itself, and tougher than being poor in most other rich societies.

And, like Eddie, these millions of impoverished Americans are highly patriotic. Given their predicaments, it could be reasonable to expect them to feel some dissatisfaction, if not resentment, toward their country. With the American Dream eluding them and little in their lives suggesting that things will improve, the American poor—understood in this book as those belonging to the most economically disadvantaged class in societycould understandably be critical of the society in which they live. In some respects, they certainly are. Many believe that, in a practical sense, a lot needs fixing—a sense of disgruntlement that the likes of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders tapped into during their 2016 presidential campaigns.

But their fundamental belief in the country remains unshaken and, indeed, by any measure stunningly strong: 80%–90% of America’s poor (and even more, depending on how exactly we define the “poor” and measure their “patriotism”) hold the United States in high esteem. They are proud of their nation, believe in the greatness and superiority of the United States, and would rather be citizens of America than of any other country in the world. In fact, their patriotism—defined in this book as the opinion that their country is fundamentally better than other countries—is extraordinary. They are more patriotic than the poor in almost all other advanced countries in the world, even though the latter are in many ways better off than they are. In the United States their patriotism exceeds in many instances the patriotism of working-class, middle-class, and upper-class Americans. So, although America’s least well-off have reasons not to love their country, they hold it dear to their hearts and in many ways idealize it.

The sentiment is widespread—cutting across race, gender, political, and religious lines. Patriotism is high among impoverished white, black, and other nonwhite Americans. It is high among poor men and women, liberals and conservatives, religious believers and nonbelievers. While there are certainly variations across regions of the country (in the Middle Atlantic region, for instance, it is less widespread), their patriotism is high in absolute terms in every region of the country. It is also a resilient sort of patriotism: among all classes in the United States, the patriotism of Americans living in poverty has been affected the least by the economic crisis of 2008–2009, and by some measures it has actually increased.

This book is about Americans like Eddie and their patriotic views. It is about impoverished Americans and their intense love of their country. Why are America’s poor so patriotic? Specifically, what attributes do they ascribe to the United States? How do they think those attributes shape their lives? What are the limitations that they see in other countries that make the United States superior to those countries? And, crucially, how do these Americans reconcile—if they in fact do—their own difficult situation with their positive view of the country? This is a book about what sociologists would call the “narratives” of patriotism among the poor: the conceptual threads, images, stories, and visions that the economically worst-off Americans articulate about their country. It is about their stories and perspectives. It is an effort to investigate, hear, and understand firsthand the logic and reasoning of this particular segment of the American population—a segment that our wealthy and extremely powerful society seems to have forgotten in many ways or to have left behind with little consideration.

Why should we try to understand the patriotism of America’s least well-off? Two reasons concern the country’s social and political stability. First, the maintenance of the social order depends on widespread trust and positive feelings toward the public sphere.3 The same can be said for the institutions and practices of successful democratic governance: they, too, require trust and the positive disposition of citizens.4 High levels of patriotism certainly promote (and reflect) such trust and positive feelings. The patriotism of America’s poor contributes to social cohesion and, thus, the peaceful and daily unfolding of life in society. Put in perhaps more dramatic terms, their patriotism may keep them content enough not to seek a major overhaul of society—with implications for the agendas of political parties, the direction of policies, and the continued availability of labor to provide basic services.5 There are certainly concerns in the United States and elsewhere about widespread discontent among America’s most economically challenged people and what this could mean for social stability: “Why aren’t the poor storming the barricades?” recently asked the Economist when reflecting on inequality in America.6 “Why don’t the poor rise up?” wondered Thomas Edsall in his regular column in the New York Times.7 And in the words of former US secretary of labor Robert Reich, “Our incomes are declining, the ranks of the poor are swelling, and almost all the new wealth goes to the wealthiest. So why aren’t Americans rebelling against the system?”8 The patriotism of the poor is likely part of the answer.

At the same time, rather than act as a force for stability, that same patriotism could be leveraged by populist movements looking to bring major changes to society. The recent rise of far-right parties in countries such as France, Austria, and Denmark offers one example of how that might happen. Their agendas, with “a focus on national identity,” have included the rejection of international forums of cooperation, threats of protectionism, and xenophobic initiatives.9 The patriotism of the poor need not necessarily be leveraged in this way, of course; yet the potential for populist appropriations of various kinds is always there. For many observers, the 2016 presidential elections in the United States featured precisely such rhetoric—in particular, Donald Trump’s campaign and its calls to those who have been left behind for big changes in the name of “making America great again.” This is the second reason why we would do well to understand the mind-sets of America’s least-well-off citizens.

Geopolitical considerations should also encourage such an investigation. America’s poor contribute greatly to its military, which is the most powerful the world has ever seen and constitutes a fundamental pillar of American society. As has been the case throughout the decades—consider that 80% of soldiers serving in Vietnam had a high school degree or less10—the majority of American military personnel these days come from the lower and middle economic classes, with only 13%, for instance, having some college education.11 Much less than 10% have a college degree.12 To be sure, in a controversial study in 2008 the Heritage Foundation reported that Americans from poorer neighborhoods (those with household income levels in the lower two quintiles) appeared to be underrepresented in the 2006 and 2007 recruiting years.13 But many other analyses show otherwise: large numbers of recruits reportedly do come from poor neighborhoods (those with income levels in the second- and third-lowest deciles),14 and the military has struggled to meet its target goal of recruits with high school diplomas, with just above 70% of recruits (rather than the desired 90%) in 2007, for instance, actually having those diplomas.15 In addition, base pay for enlisted military members has for decades de facto relegated many military families to the ranks of the poor or near poor.16 The military greatly depends, then, on Americans with limited means to fill its ranks. This need would not be met if America’s worst-off citizens did not have at least some patriotic feelings toward their country. What is the nature of those feelings?

Relatedly, on the international stage, where American power remains unmatched, a sense of national identity, along with a sense of purpose and national unity, shapes how the United States acts in the world and is perceived by others. Surveys and research data alike consistently show over time that much of the world still admires the United States and the values—freedom, individual rights, the pursuit of personal happiness, optimism, equality, and opportunities for all—for which it stands.17 Such international admiration of the United States is predicated, in part, on the perception that Americans stand united, strong, and committed to those ideals. The assumption is justified, since most Americans do appear to subscribe to those values, as recent research and polls by the Pew Research Center and the World Values Survey on optimism, the pursuit of happiness, and freedom show.18 Americans of all stripes need to believe in America’s ideals if the country is to project itself successfully onto the world as a shining city on a hill. Again, we should have a clear understanding of those beliefs.

Two more important reasons should compel us to better grasp the patriotism of America’s least well-off. Being poor affects a large percentage of the American population. The US Census Bureau estimated in 2014 that around 15% of Americans (forty-seven million) live below the poverty line.19 Many are children: UNICEF reported in 2012 that the United States has the second-highest rate of child poverty among the world’s developed countries.20 Their situation is at best stagnant and in fact probably worsening: household income for those in the bottom quintile of incomes, when adjusted for inflation, dropped by more than 15% from 2000 to 2014.21 Indeed, inequality in America is among the highest in the world, is persistent, and has widened steadily over the decades.22 A 2015 Pew Research Center Report showed that the middle class is shrinking.23 Politicians, the mass media, academics, and many members of the public have accordingly called for a deeper understanding of the poor of America: the problems they face, the values they hold, their aspirations, and their preferences.24 Understanding their patriotism seems an essential step in this regard.

Finally, we should recognize that the patriotism of the American poor contributes directly to the country’s understanding of its essential qualities. Modern nation-states depend on shared understandings among citizens of “belonging” and of being part of “imagined” communities.25 National identities, in other words, are not simply given but are instead socially constructed. With this in mind, sociologists have described American national identity as consisting, in part, of the celebration of individualism over the supremacy of the collective (as in communism) or over the imposition of preestablished notions of the good or righteous life (as in theocratic governments).26 In the United States, people can do as they wish, provided that their actions do not infringe on the rights and well-being of others. This combination of beliefs is in turn matched by an unusual sense of exceptionalism, by a conviction that America’s celebration of individual self-determination is unique and unprecedented in history, and that, as a result, America is the greatest nation on earth.27 To work, such a vision of what it means to be American requires the participation of most members of society regardless of rank or place in the social system. It is, perhaps counterintuitively, a collective endeavor. The least well-off are therefore an indispensable part of America and its sense of self.

Much depends, then, on the patriotism of the American poor. Thus, it is rather surprising that few researchers have asked people who suffer from considerable financial hardships why they feel so positively about their country. There certainly is considerable research on American patriotism in general and on the patriotism of categories of people such as women, African Americans, or Native Americans. There is also some research on the principles of group cohesion and why disadvantaged members can at times feel very attached to a group. These works can offer us some potentially useful ideas about the patriotism of the American poor. Yet these remain only untested insights, since they do not focus on America’s poor as a specific group worthy of study and investigation. We simply do not know much about the extent and logic of their belief in their country’s greatness. Thus, this book tackles two questions: Why do America’s poor think so highly of their country? How do they reconcile their economic difficulties with their appreciation of their country?

The best way to answer these two questions is to hear the voices and reflections of America’s poor themselves. Eager to do so, I conducted in-depth, face-to-face interviews (each lasting between thirty and sixty minutes) during 2015 and 2016 with sixty-three low-income patriotic Americans in two areas of the United States that are arguably hotbeds of patriotism among the poor: Alabama and Montana. These interviews yielded nearly nine hundred pages of single-spaced transcribed conversation texts. I discuss in more detail in Chapter 3 the methodology I followed for selecting the sites (Birmingham and Vernon in Alabama, and Billings and Harlowton in Montana), identifying and selecting the interviewees, conducting the interviews, and analyzing the transcripts. I should nonetheless state here that the respondents included people living in cities and rural areas and were of different races, genders, political and religious orientations, and histories of military service. Importantly, my objective going into the interviews was not to generalize about any particular subgroup of America’s poor: in-depth interviewing necessarily limits the sample size of respondents and therefore does not allow for that sort of analysis. Rather, the aim was to have exposure to as broad a number of perspectives as I could, explore those perspectives in great detail, and weave together the most comprehensive portrait possible of the patriotism of America’s least-well-off citizens.

Why are poor Americans so patriotic? The interviews yielded three overarching narratives. First, the people I met shared a firm belief in their country’s promise of hope for every one of its citizens and, indeed, every human being on earth. The American social contract offers to each person deliverance from the ills that have plagued humanity throughout history to this very day. There is something universal and even transcendental about the United States, even if its own history has had troubled moments, with race above all. America’s spirit thus brims with generosity and a readiness to do the right thing in the world. It is an optimistic place, always oriented toward a better future. It is, not coincidentally, also God’s country: from its inception, it has been thought to hold a special place in God’s plans. One need only look at other countries to appreciate the greatness of the United States: most of the interviewees felt that even in the most advanced countries on earth ruthless and arbitrary punishment reigns, and backwardness and poverty deprive their citizens of the essentials for life. America, then, offers incredible hope and, with that, a sense of dignity that no other country can offer. To someone who struggles to end the day fed, clothed, and sheltered, this sense of hope has extraordinary importance.

The second narrative depicted America as the land of milk and honey. The interviewees saw in the United States great wealth, much of it accessible in the form of public goods and services. There are parks, public libraries with free Internet access, electricity, and potable water everywhere. America’s roads, I was told, are paved in gold. The availability of government benefits and private charities helps a great deal. One does not starve in America unless one chooses to. Such abundance of riches makes suffering from very limited resources more bearable. Inequality is not a problem, for anyone can still make it in America: all one has to do is try. Someone is always ready to help, if one is determined to succeed. Indeed, everyone from all over the world wishes to come to this wealthy and beautiful country. With these beliefs in mind, many of the interviewees expressed a sense of contentment. Again, as they told me countless times, all one has to do is look at the deprivations afflicting the poor in other countries. Opportunities are much more limited, people are barely surviving, and economies are depressed. America, then, is the place to be, especially if one has no money.

The third narrative was about freedom. Only in the United States can one truly determine one’s physical and mental existence. This is the basis of the country—its origins and history. One may not have money, but in America one has freedom—and this is the most precious of things. The ability to own guns is central: Guns represent liberty, for the country began with a violent revolution against tyranny. Guns are needed for hunting, too, which is key for feeding oneself and one’s family—something again of great importance if one lacks other resources. We should always remember that such liberty has come at great cost. Generations have served in the military, and this must be honored. In Alabama, the civil rights struggle was especially present in the interviewees’ minds. No other country on earth, I was told, can boast such commitment to freedom. Deprived of much else, such freedom is of the utmost importance to America’s poor. I encountered a fierce and almost instinctive attachment to it. This narrative took on Confederate flavors in Alabama and libertarian tones in Montana.

These were three grand narratives. In many conversations, after discussing these ideas, I pressed the interviewees to reflect on their own situation and life trajectories and asked them directly if they saw no tension between their steadfast belief in America and their own personal situations. Surely, America may be a great, unique country, but did this not contradict their own life experiences? How did they reconcile their love of country with their poverty—their struggles and difficulties?

I discovered that, in a sense, there is no contradiction or puzzle. The interviewees listed four separate reasons. First, everyone deserves what he or she gets: failure is one’s fault, not society’s. Why blame America for one’s bad choices? Second, the future looks brighter already: better things are coming soon, and there is no reason to lose faith in the country. Third, America is founded on the principle that we are all worth the same. Money is only one, and not the most important, metric: in the most fundamental of ways, because of the American social contract, a homeless person is worth as much as the president. There is nothing, in fact, to reconcile. Finally, some of the interviewees recognized that they indeed lack accurate knowledge of other countries: America is all they know, and it is impossible to entertain alternative possibilities.

Upon reflection, after returning from my travels and spending time analyzing what I heard, it became clear to me that all these themes are tied together by one underlying idea: a belief that while one belongs to America, America also belongs to each American. The Americans I met saw themselves reflected in their country: their images, and those of their ancestors who built the country, are reflected in the Pledge of Allegiance, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the American flag. America is a country of, for, and by the people. Struggling and facing innumerable personal challenges do not diminish one’s faith in the United States; in fact, in the case of the interviewees, they provide grounds for further strength and commitment to the country.

We delve deeply into these ideas in this book. We should start, however, by first considering the dire circumstances poor Americans face and, in turn, their very high levels of patriotism.

Notes

1. The names of all interviewees have been disguised. See the Appendix for a list of the interviewees (by pseudonyms) and their basic demographic background.

2. See Yahoo! News, 2015.

3. Putnam, 1993; Misztal, 1996; Durkheim, 2014; Simmel, 1950.

4. Delhey and Newton, 2005, 323–324.

5. Della Fave, 1980.

6. Economist, 2014.

7. Edsall, 2015.

8. Reich, 2014.

9. Economist, 2016a.

10. Teachout, 2009, 177.

11. Defense Manpower Data Center, 2011.

12. Economist, 2015.

13. Watkins and Sherk, 2008.

14. See National Priorities Project, 2011. The military does not provide data on recruits’ household incomes, so analyses of recruitment patterns rely on other data that the military offers (such as the zip codes of recruits).

15. White, 2008; Jordan, 2014.

16. Consider that in 2015 the basic pay in the army for a new recruit was $18,378, far below the US federal guideline minimum of $24,250 for a family of four if they are to live above the poverty line. See US Army, 2015. For older data, see Schmitt, 1994.

17. See, for instance, the 2015 Pew Research Center survey on America’s global image, showing that a median of 69% of respondents across the world hold a favorable opinion of the United States, with a median 63% believing that the country respects the individual liberties of its citizens. See Wike, Stokes, and Poushter, 2015. A 2013 Pew Research Center survey also found that “respecting individual liberty remains the strong suit of America’s image.” See Pew Research Center, 2013. And a 2001 poll indicated appreciation of America as the land of opportunity. See Pew Research Center, 2001.

18. Keller, 2015; Pew Research Center, 2011.

19. US Census Bureau, 2014a.

20. Abramsky, 2013, 10.

21. See US Census Bureau, 2014b.

22. Economist, 2010; Bloome, 2015.

23. Pew Research Center, 2015; see also NPR News, 2015.

24. Tirado, 2014; Abramsky, 2013.

25. Anderson, 1983; Gellner, 1983; Greenfeld, 1992; Malesevic and Hall, 2005.

26. Greenfeld and Eastwood, 2005.

27. Walt, 2011.