In 2003 I left my home in Berkeley, California, to relocate to Golden Valley,1 a remote logging town in the northern forested region of the state. I would spend a year living in this isolated community of just under 2,000 people, surrounded by forests and mountains, and cut off from most of the urban conveniences to which I’d grown accustomed. Golden Valley, like many small towns in the Pacific Northwest, had been reliant on the timber industry for its economic base for nearly a century. However, like many other logging towns, its economy had collapsed in the mid-1990s, in large part due to the 1992 spotted owl ruling that resulted in a ban on timber harvesting in the region to protect the owl’s habitat. In the years following the ruling, logging jobs quickly evaporated in the area and local sawmills closed one by one. The last sawmill in Golden Valley closed in 1996, taking 150 of the most stable and best paying men’s jobs with it. Too isolated and remote for a tourist industry, Golden Valley was left to fend for itself with almost no economic prospects.
As a sociologist and ethnographer, I came to Golden Valley to study the impacts of job loss and poverty on rural families and communities. I was motivated by a series of questions that focused on how families survive troubled times. I spent my year there doing in depth interviews and participant observation with longtime residents, getting to know and understand the place and its people. What I found in Golden Valley was a community struggling to make sense of itself in the wake of economic, social, and personal upheaval. Its struggles and victories gave me a deep and intimate understanding of the interactions between structural conditions and cultural norms in the rural Pacific Northwest.
I chronicle my findings in my 2009 book, Those Who Work, Those Who Don’t: Poverty, Morality, and Family in Rural America. In it I explore the different ways in which individual families and the community as a whole adapted to the changes they had been through. Much of the book focuses on how people made sense of their lives in the dramatically altered environment, and in particular how they continued to conceive of themselves as personally successful despite losing their livelihoods and dearly held way of life. I discovered in Golden Valley neither hopelessness nor despair, but rather a thriving new set of understandings and discourses around economic survival and provision, family life and gender roles, and most importantly around morality.
At the time of the spotted owl ruling, many people assumed that timber-dependent towns like Golden Valley would simply empty out, their populations scattering to places with healthier economies and labor markets. Although Golden Valley did experience some out-migration immediately following the timber industry’s collapse, such dire predictions failed to anticipate the deep ties to place, environment, family, and community that held its residents there. The majority of those with longer histories in the community remained, calling upon existing cultural norms and new understandings of morality to help redefine themselves as good workers, parents, and community members, despite often experiencing both unemployment and poverty.
Although I did not come to Golden Valley looking specifically for discourses around morality, I discovered that deeply entrenched belief systems around work ethics and family values greatly influenced people’s lives in the aftermath of the economic collapse. In the book I explore the ways in which discourses on these subjects structured both individual decisions and community-level reactions. I employ the concept of “moral capital” to help explain how moral understandings operated in the community, and the ways in which they provided both positive and negative influences on and control over people’s lives. The idea of moral capital is that outwardly exhibiting one’s moral worth can result in opportunities that are denied to those who appear to lack it. In the case of Golden Valley, morality manifests most clearly not with regard to religious doctrines and beliefs, but more commonly in the sense of uniquely American frontier values such as independence, self-sufficiency, hard work, and “family values.” I discovered that in this community being able to illustrate your moral fortitude in the face of struggle was as important as having a high income.
Why did morality come to be so important? My research suggests that for people living on the margins of U.S. society, struggling with both poverty and job loss, there is still a desire to conceive of themselves as inheritors of some version of the American Dream. To this end, conceptions of morality can help create new understandings of what it means to be successful.
In Golden Valley, notions of proper work ethics and morally acceptable activities helped create those definitions of success. At the same time, these moral understandings also influenced the choices people made about how to best survive unemployment and poverty, dictating proper behaviors and coping strategies, many of which might be surprising to people unfamiliar with small, cohesive, rural communities like Golden Valley.
As the local economy deteriorated, many residents feared that the community’s former workers would increasingly turn to welfare for their survival. In the decade that followed the spotted owl ruling, the opposite actually occurred. Despite widespread concerns about its use, welfare receipt in the community actually dropped in half from 1990 to 2000.2 For many residents, the community’s moral norms, which included a strong stigma around means-tested programs like welfare, convinced them to find other ways to survive. For example, George Woodhouse, who had worked in the mill for 30 years before losing his job, explained why he and his wife chose subsistence activities like hunting and fishing to supplement their diet, rather than utilizing means-tested government aid programs:
We don’t try to get food stamps or welfare or anything like that. I mean, basically, we probably could. But I don’t know—we were always brought up that you worked for what you got, you didn’t have welfare and stuff like that. If you didn’t work, then you cut back on what you was eatin’ until you got a better job.
Rather than relying on the government to provide for them, Golden Valley residents relied heavily on the local environment and their own physical labor. In this new economic landscape, a man might no longer have a job, but he could still manifest his work ethics in other ways, often through informal work. Among the most respected of these informal survival strategies were those tied to the land, including hunting, fishing, gardening, and cutting one’s own firewood. Continuing to manifest one’s work ethics through these sorts of activities, even when lacking a paying job, signaled to others in the community that you were still an upstanding moral citizen, rather than a lazy, immoral “freeloader.” As a local woman explained, “You want people to think you’re a hard worker,” whether or not you can find paid work.
In this community, ties to morality through independence and hard work became a form of symbolic capital, tradeable for both economic benefits and social status. In such a small community, most people’s activities were visible and known. For those who manifested their work ethics and moral values through acceptable work activities—including paid jobs, subsistence work, and even through the receipt of “earned” government aid like unemployment insurance—there were payoffs in terms of both social support and economic opportunities. The community’s few remaining jobs, as well as the limited social and economic support it could muster for those in need, were reserved for those believed to be hard workers and thus “deserving” of help. For those who failed to properly illustrate their moral worth, either through the receipt of welfare or through involvement in illicit activities like drug dealing, both the labor market and the community’s informal charity were generally unavailable. As a result, the majority of Golden Valley residents did their best to avoid stigmatized coping strategies, regardless of how badly they might need them. Thus morality was both a positive force, helping people to access social and economic capital, and a negative control that helped discourage behaviors that were seen as damaging to the community and its families. Moral discourses also helped families to make sense of their lives in less concrete ways, including prioritizing family life and making sense of changing gender roles.
While the moral discourses upon which people based their understandings and decisions were based in preexisting cultural norms of the community, they included many new understandings and adaptations. Some of these new moral understandings, including judgment and stigmas around drinking, drug use, and domestic violence, undoubtedly helped protect Golden Valley residents from some of the worst problems associated with poverty. In other ways, however, moral principles resulted in increased struggles for the poor. For example, I found that in Golden Valley federal poverty alleviation programs like welfare were underutilized by those in need, who would rather suffer with hunger and low incomes than accept help that came with moral judgments attached. Programs with some tie to past work experience were preferred, not because the benefits were better, but because the moral implications were better. Similarly, informal help from friends and family was preferred to government-based aid, even though it might be limited and sporadic.
The case of Golden Valley provides an insight into the ways in which poverty and unemployment are experienced by rural populations, versus the urban ones that are more frequently studied by sociologists. It illustrates the importance of understanding social stigma and its power in different contexts. The research also illustrates the ways in which culture and community setting interact with public policies. The 1996 welfare reforms were designed with assumptions that jobs exist, but that poor populations lack a desire to work. The program ends up being ineffectual in a place like Golden Valley, where work ethics abound but jobs are scarce.
Thus our current poverty alleviation programs fail to help many hardworking rural families survive poverty or to improve their lives in any meaningful way. A program crafted with a better understanding of the norms of rural places would be able to more successfully address their needs.
Instead, Golden Valley, like remote rural places across the Pacific Northwest and across the nation, was left to fend for itself through a devastating economic crisis. What was perhaps most surprising about my time there was that this isolated community met its challenges with resilience and optimism. Although it may be struggling to survive and rebuild, Golden Valley continues to defy trends and predictions in its refusal to disappear. Its residents love their land and their community, and have not given up on themselves or their home. As our economic crisis deepens and encompasses more and more rural places like Golden Valley, the nation must respond with policies that address their needs with more informed understanding. Our charge is to not forget the people of Golden Valley and the struggles they endure to achieve their unique version of the American dream. Instead, we must recognize that their poverty is not of their own making and thus cannot be alleviated by punishing them for it, assuming they will leave in search of better prospects, or simply leaving them without the resources to improve their economy on their own. In learning to better serve the people of forgotten rural places like Golden Valley, we will make an important step toward creating a more equal nation.
1. All names of people and places have been changed in order to protect the confidentiality of research subjects.
2. A similar trend occurred across the United States, in large part due to welfare reform and the new restrictions that the 1996 law placed on the receipt of TANF, the replacement for AFDC.
Jennifer Sherman is an assistant professor of sociology at WSU Tri-Cities.