When I wrote a column earlier this week on the Southside-based internet sensation Oliver Anthony and his song “Rich Men North of Richmond,” I thought it was a one-and-done. However, as Al Pacino’s character Michael Corleone said in “The Godfather: Part III”: Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.
I have not seen a song whose lyrics were so scrutinized since Don McLean’s “American Pie” back in the dark ages of 1971. Let’s not mistake this song, or any other, as a public policy statement. On the other hand, Bruce Springsteen once sang “I learned more from a 3-minute record than I ever did in school” and lots of people are taking this song as a public policy statement, and I regularly write about public policy, so let’s examine some of the conversation spinning out of this.
It’s quite possible that this is the most important song of the year, not because it’s a good song (that’s a matter of personal taste), and not because it has generated an internet full of controversy (lots of things can do that these days), but because it has prompted some serious public policy conversations that have engaged both left and right. When was the last time a chart-topping song did that? Jason Aldean’s “Try That in a Small Town” generated controversy, but not the accompanying policy discussion. Anthony’s song has done what a lot of think tank white papers cannot do: popularize economics.
The song basically has four parts.
One part is no different than what Merle Haggard once sang in “A Working Man Can’t Get Nowhere Today” — that workers aren’t making enough money.
I’ve been sellin’ my soul, workin’ all day
Overtime hours for bulls***pay
So I can sit out here and waste my life away
Drag back home and drown my troubles away.
This is a theme that singers both left and right have mined over the years, so there’s really no particular ideology at play here, although plenty to discuss policywise.
The second part is more identifiably conservative because it seems to blame an overbearing — and over-taxing — federal government:
These rich men north of Richmond
Lord knows they all just wanna have total control
Wanna know what you think, wanna know what you do
And they don’t think you know, but I know that you do
‘Cause your dollar ain’t s*** and it’s taxed to no end
‘Cause of rich men north of Richmond
This is really no different than a Republican Party platform put to music, with a little right-wing populism (those “rich men”) thrown in. (Left-wing populism would say “tax those rich men.”)
The third part, which has caused the most controversy, deals with the welfare system:
Lord, we got folks in the street, ain’t got nothin’ to eat
And the obese milkin’ welfare.
Well, God, if you’re 5-foot-3 and you’re 300 pounds
Taxes ought not to pay for your bags of fudge rounds
Then the fourth part, which has gotten the least attention, touches on drug addiction among young men:
Young men are puttin’ themselves six feet in the ground
‘Cause all this damn country does is keep on kickin’ them down.
Of these four parts, the least interesting to me is the second part, about the federal government and taxes. We have elections every few years to debate this, so I’m not hearing anything particularly new here that I haven’t already heard in a standard Republican stump speech.
The main flashpoint for critics is in that third part, about welfare, and whether it was necessary for Anthony (his real name is Christopher Anthony Lunsford) to “punch down” — or to punch at those with large bodies at all.
Some have responded with the usual social media outrage (maybe that’s a redundancy?). Meanwhile, the Richmond-based Virginia Poverty Law Centerissued a public invitation for Anthony to come visit: “Mr. Anthony, we would love to have you visit us here IN Richmond — not too far from Farmville! — and tell you about the people we have helped, what we’re working on, and where we need to go so ‘people like me and people like you’ will have the dignity, respect, and ability to raise their families in a better world.”
That’s a lot more interesting than some troll’s snarky response on social media.
Two of the center’s leaders — Valerie L’Herrou, deputy director of the Center for Family Advocacy, and Cassie Edner, director of Virginia Hunger Solutions — posted a longer critique of the song on the center’s website, addressed directly to the singer:
Your song has successfully raised to the forefront something a lot of people have been feeling for a long time. VPLC has spent more than forty years working to make improvements in people’s lives and to reduce the influence of the millionaires and billionaires whose money talks — giving them the power to sway our elected officials in Washington AND Richmond.
L’Herrou and Edner take a different view of things, though, than Anthony does. Where he sings simply about being “taxed to no end,” they say the problem is that the tax code is unfair to low-income workers, while the disparities between rich and poor have grown:
One reason people feel their wages are unfairly taxed is that those in higher income brackets are not taxed proportionally or have ways to shield their money from taxation. Over the last several decades the inequalities between the top 5% and the middle class have only increased, with the top earners outpacing the earnings of the lower and middle classes. … One thing that could help workers keep more money in their pockets would be to reinstate the expanded and inclusive child tax credits. … Instead, some members of Congress introduced bills to provide tax cuts to the wealthiest of Americans, furthering the gap between the wealthy and middle and lower class.
Like others, L’Herrou and Edner take exception to Anthony’s welfare lines but, unlike others, they offer up some statistics:
Mr. Anthony: you have fallen for that false narrative that people on public benefits such as SNAP (food stamps) and TANF (welfare) don’t work. Over 84% of SNAP households are working and there are strict time limits for individuals who do not work and do not meet an exemption. Those individuals can only receive SNAP benefits for 3 months out of a 36-month period. The requirements for TANF are even stricter: people must work or be in school or job training. Even those who are working cannot receive TANF benefits for more than two years at a time (or five years in their lifetime). These families have their personal lives put under a magnifying glass just so their children don’t go hungry.
Here’s where we run into a conflict between facts and perception. Having lived most of my life in conservative, rural areas, I can testify that many people do not see rich people as the problem, but do see poor people as the problem. One reason may be that the poor are more visible — we see them in the grocery store, and maybe Anthony does, too. You may think this wrong, or immoral, but I’m merely describing the social dynamics. Anthony’s swipe at those on welfare springs from a familiar place. Facts often aren’t persuasive against long-held perceptions.
What about the essence of Anthony’s song — that working people don’t make enough money? This is the subject on which we can have the most robust policy debate, because both left and right say they want working people to do better, they just have different ways to go about it.
The British folk singer Billy Bragg, who is sometimes better known for his political activism than his songs, has weighed in with a rewrite of Anthony’s song. Bragg’s version is “Rich Men Earning North of a Million.” His solution to Anthony’s economic predicament is simple: He should join a union.
Join a union
Fight for better pay
You better join a union, brother
You’ll see where the problem really lies
When the union comes around
Rich men earning north of a million
Wanna keep the working folk down
I would not make a good class warrior because I’m not a big fan of the whole “rich people want to keep the working folk down” viewpoint. I’m sure there are some somewhere who do, but that’s not been my personal experience. I suspect Bragg would see many of the folks on the state’s GO Virginia economic development councils as those “rich men earning north of a million,” yet the whole purpose of that GO Virginia initiative is to create jobs that raise a region’s median income. I realize that’s harder to sing about, though. A union might well help individual workers laboring for a specific company but that’s not going to change the fundamental structure of the economy to create higher-paying jobs, which is what GO Virginia is trying to do.
If part of the liberal response to Anthony’s economic concerns is that he should join a union, then part of the conservative criticism — and yes, there’s been conservative criticism — is that if he’s working for “bulls*** pay,” then it’s his fault for not finding a different job. Mark Antonio Wright wrote in the conservative National Review that Anthony’s criticism of Washington is misplaced: “If you go home and spend all night drowning your troubles away — either on TikTok or by drinking too much — my friend, that’s your fault, not Washington’s. Not that Washington is helping any — it’s not. But when we waste our lives, it’s still our own fault.”
This is a classic conservative message of individualism, rather than the collective action that Bragg advocates: “I wish Oliver Anthony the best and I’ll give his next single a listen,” the National Review writer says, “but he should consider singing about what makes America a great land — a land of opportunity, not of guaranteed success.”
Anthony, in a Facebook post, said that he was a high school dropout who later went back and earned a GED. Statistically speaking, that’s not helping him. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median weekly earnings for those with a high school diploma are $853 a week. For those with some college but no degree, the median is $935 a week. I can’t tell whether that would cover credentials from a community college — the data’s not organized that way — but that’s still an extra $4,264 per year. For those with an associate degree, the median is $1,005 a week. I’m surprised that someone from the Virginia Community College System hasn’t tracked down Anthony to have him record a promotional song: Tired for working for bulls*** pay? Get into a credentials program and increase your earning power.
Make that rhyme and you could have a jingle. Maybe:
Tired for working for bulls*** pay?
Try the community college way
(And this is why I’m in Fincastle writing political commentary and not in Nashville writing country songs.)
Regardless, Anthony would fit the classic profile of a community college student — most are adults who have already been in the workplace and want to earn a credential to expand their job opportunities, not teenagers straight out of high school looking for a cheaper path to a four-year college.
The fourth part of the song has drawn some chatter for its indirect reference to what we assume are various addictions, but not so much for the gender reference. How, exactly, are young men being kicked down? Here’s one way: There’s a growing educational divide between men and women. A Brookings Institution report found: “In 1970, just 12 percent of young women (ages 25 to 34) had a bachelor’s degree, compared to 20 percent of men — a gap of eight percentage points. By 2020, that number had risen to 41 percent for women but only to 32 percent for men — a nine percentage-point gap, now going the other way. That means there are currently 1.6 million more young women with a bachelor’s degree than men.”
To the extent that education translates into income and opportunity, young men are finding themselves shut out of those opportunities by their lack of education. Now, you might say that’s their own fault. Or you might say the problem is there aren’t enough jobs for men with limited education. I’m reading a lot into a little, but the economy is clearly changing, and not in ways that help those with only a high school diploma, be they male or female. Anthony — or at least the protagonist of his song — is finding that out the hard way.
Anthony’s song never gives a sense of place — other than those “Rich Men North of Richmond” — but it shouldn’t be lost that he’s from a rural place, even if we’re not quite sure where. He calls Farmville “my hometown” but it’s unclear whether that’s where he grew up or where he lives now. He owns land in Dinwiddie County. Either way, he’s not in an urban area. That also limits his earning potential because there are fewer job opportunities in a rural area.
Rural areas are right to feel abandoned. Some on the left seem to have lost interest because those communities often vote overwhelmingly Republican, and Democrats have no realistic prospect of changing that. Some on the right, though, have also shown what to me is a pretty shocking lack of interest in rural economics. When Donald Trump was president, he gave an interview to The Wall Street Journal in which he said that those in rural areas who can’t find work should simply move. “I’m going to explain — you can leave,” he said. Surely there’s a better solution than that, right? Will depopulating rural areas really make America great again?
Now, for some hard facts:
Here’s what the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis lists as the per capita personal income in each of the places with which Anthony has been associated:
Prince Edward County, Virginia, where Farmville is: $38,883
McDowell County, North Carolina, where he once lived: $42,960
Dinwiddie County, where he now owns land: $47,335
All these places are below the state average (for Virginia, that’s $66,305, and for North Carolina, that’s $56,173) and the national average ($64,143).
Think what you want of Anthony blaming the poor, or the obese, or even rich men north of Richmond — or rich men anywhere, for that matter. Think, too, what you want of Anthony not joining a union or dropping out of school and getting a GED. The reality is he’s been living in low-wage communities. That’s not his fault that their income levels are lower than the state or national averages. It’s not really the fault of rich men north of Richmond, either. The question is how we can change that without having to load up a moving van. That might not make a good song but it would make for good public policy.