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Singlewide: Chasing the American Dream in a Rural Trailer Park

Salamon’s recent book focuses on a population not beloved by other rural people -- families living in rural trailer parks. Around 2000, with her doctoral student Katherine MacTavish, Salamon began a long considered study of poor families raising children in rural trailer parks. It became their joint ethnographic project for over a decade resulting in the book Singlewide: Chasing the American Dream in a Rural Trailer Park. They portray the circumstances of families with school-age children in three distinct ethnic and rural trailer-park sites -- Whites in Central Illinois, Hispanics in Southern New Mexico, and African Americans in Eastern North Carolina. The social, cultural, and economic structure of each region varied, as did the land lease trailer parks where families owned their homes, and rented a home site. The large Illinois park was termed the “Cadillac” of mobile home parks by a member of the Illinois Manufactured Housing Association. The four parks in North Carolina were smaller and considerably more modest than those in Illinois. The six small parks in New Mexico included several low-end parks that visibly represent the economic hardships of resident families in this poor region. Across the three sites some 226 households were randomly selected and surveyed once, while 39 trailer park households with children of around 10 years of age and those with youth around 15 years old, were followed over a year as they chased their dream of a better life while living in a rural trailer park. Owning a mobile home was the housing of choice of none of them, but for many it was the first home owned by anyone in their extended families.

Largely under the national radar, rural trailer parks shelter an estimated 12 million people. It is not known how many trailer parks actually exist in the nation, because the U.S. Census only asks if the household lives in a mobile home, not whether the home is sited in a trailer park. The industry estimates between 50 to 60, 000 trailer parks nationally, mainly in rural areas. The authors were motivated to investigate whether a unique trailer-park culture exists, as the common slur ‘trailer trash’ insinuates. And, they also explored whether children growing up in a trailer park, or their parents, experienced any effects from housing so widely mocked in the U.S.

Rural trailer parks represent a private solution to a pressing public housing need for affordable, unsubsidized housing. Ownership of a trailer home is a hard-won status for a rural family of modest means, and narrow options. They choose this maligned housing form because it is what they can afford and a trailer park because they own no land on which to site their trailer home. And a manufactured home often represents superior housing compared with the available options in rural America of a drafty farmhouse or a rental apartment. Almost all the adults in the study families worked, often minimum wage jobs as craft, sales, or service workers -- such as truck drivers, waitresses, fast food jobs, or laborers. Owning a trailer is pivotal to their expectations for stability, security, accomplishment, and respect in their rural community.
The book details how young, rural working-poor families who own their trailers, view a trailer park as a way-station on a journey toward achieving their uniformly held dream – of moving out of the park and into an owned conventional home. It is a dream challenged by rural families’ necessary engagement with what Salamon and MacTavish term the “mobile-home industrial complex.” As a consequence of this engagement, many become caught in an expensive trap -- when a landless family must obtain financing to purchase a mobile home, and needing to site it on someone else’s land, in a trailer park. Because they are not landowners, for most the only available financing is through a chattel loan (the type used for cars) at 13.5 percent and higher for a property that loses half its value in three years. And such loans range from 15 to as many as 30 years in duration. Mobile home dealers also encourage families to add new furniture or appliances to their already expensive mortgage. Family dreams of moving out and on are only realized by a few, who manage to escape becoming entrapped by indebtedness.
Nationally, trailer parks as a subject represent one of the last vestiges of tolerated political incorrectness. For example, there is the famous insult made by the Democratic strategist James Carville. Commenting on Paula Jones, who had accused Bill Clinton of sexual harassment, saying: “Drag a hundred-dollar bill through a trailer park, you never know what you’ll find,” Carville’s insult implies the “trailer trash” slur that succinctly encapsulates the national contempt for a specific housing form, and those who call it home. Embodied in the slur are fundamental cultural assumptions that people who inhabit trailer parks are simple-minded, drunken, promiscuous, lawless, casually spawning broods of offspring, and indifferent to the very behaviors that label them as trailer trash. Trailer park residents are so conscious of having a stained identity, that they often attempt to disguise their address in the wider community.

Anthropologists consider a slur like trailer trash, toxic —a harmful and pernicious brand that stigmatizes an entire category of people so as to marginalize them from mainstream society. The trailer-trash slur is thus a stigma capable of undermining a working-poor rural trailer-park family’s identity or self-worth, which includes satisfaction with their hard-won life, their sense of accomplishment as homeowners, and the understanding of their place in the small-town where they live.

Salamon and MacTavish uncovered little evidence in their year-long ethnographic field studies for stereotypical trailer trash behavior in the study, land-lease trailer parks. The populations studied took pride in themselves as homeowners, believing homeownership raised them above the poorest of the poor and the bottom of the local status hierarchy. The trailer trash slur is more likely to identify rental parks where residents rent both trailer and site and have no vested interest in protecting property or identity. An important take-away from the book that the authors found is that the whites in the Illinois park along with the whites living in the New Mexico and North Carolina parks all reported hearing the slur used against them. However, neither African Americans nor Hispanics spoke of being identified by the slur. For this reason, the authors argue the trailer trash slur has become a variant of the white trash slur.