Oliver Anthony’s blue-collar anthem “Rich Men North of Richmond” is the most-talked-about song in America.
Since debuting on August 7, the song has racked up 45 million views on YouTube (at time of writing), and sits atop the Billboard Hot 100. While tens of millions of listeners clearly love the Virginia native’s hit, it has also taken flak for its economic populism.
The song takes aim at everything from inflation (“the dollar ain’t sh*t”) to high taxes and low wages. But it’s the song’s attack on welfare that has really riled people up.
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
These words did not sit well with many, particularly those in the media.
“Instead of trafficking in easy caricatures and political tropes, we must understand that the plight of our food-insecure neighbors is our plight as well,” said Hannah Anderson in Christianity Today, who shared her own story about being on welfare.
“Anthony really does punch down on the poor,” Kenan Malik wrote in The Guardian.
For many journalists, criticizing welfare is a third rail. Welfare helps poor people, therefore good people support welfare.
There are problems with this logic, and Anthony is not the first country music songwriter to poke at the sacred cow of welfare.
When ‘Welfare Cadillac’ Soared to #1
In 1970, a working-class man named Guy Drake penned a song named “Welfare Cadillac” that became a hit in North America, reaching sixth on US charts and #1 in Canada.
Drake, Slate recently noted, took a non-traditional path to music stardom. While working as a painter in the 1960s, he wrote a tongue-in-cheek tune about a poor family living on welfare in a shabby home while eating high on the hog on government dole and driving a Cadillac. Drake described to a newspaper the inspiration for the song, which came one day while painting high up on a radio tower.
“I looked down,” Drake told a reporter, “and saw this shanty that was half wood and half Holiday Inn sign with a roof made of sawmill slabs, tin cans, and pieces of linoleum. There was a litter of younguns, some of ’em old enough for school, without a stitch of clothes on. I didn’t see any grownups. What really got me was this Cadillac parked in front of the house.”
Drake’s message poking at welfare was as controversial in 1970 as Anthony’s is today. Record labels refused to touch the song, which prompted the 60-plus year-old Drake to release his song as an independent single with $1,500 of his own money.
Despite its controversial subject matter—or perhaps because of it—the song quickly became a hit. But it also came under fire.
Rolling Stone reportedly called Drake’s song “disgustingly racist,” even though there is no allusion to race in the song. (The Atlantic made a similar allegation in 2021 without bothering to cite evidence.) Government officials also attacked the song.
“Its message that welfare recipients are cheap and the rest of us are chumps is a grave disservice,” the Tennessee Welfare Commissioner wrote in a public letter to President Richard Nixon, who loved the song and unsuccessfully tried to get Johnny Cash to cover the hit during his 1970 White House visit.
Drake, much like Anthony, brushed off criticisms that his song was a political screed that mocked welfare recipients.
“If they ain’t on welfare and don’t drive a Cadillac,” Drake told a reporter, “then I ain’t talking about them.”
“I didn’t write this song to make anybody mad,” he added. “I just wanted people to laugh, because I figured if they were laughing they wouldn’t be thinking about their troubles.”
The Economics of Welfare
Like Drake, Oliver Anthony today finds himself accused of racism for attacking welfare, even though there is not a single reference to race in his song.
“Of course, in the US — and particularly in the South — downward-looking class resentment is routinely interlaced with racial animus,” Eric Levitz writes in New York magazine. “This raises questions about what precisely [Anthony] means by ‘people like me and people like you.’”
Levitz concludes that it’s reasonable to ponder “whether a color line divides those who deserve more to eat from those who deserve less, at least in the song’s account.”
This is tortuous logic, frankly. (Readers looking for a far more nuanced review of Anthony’s song should read the review of Jay Caspian Kang, Levitz’s New York magazine colleague.) In truth, a fairer charge of racism could be leveled against those who associate welfare with brown-skinned people.
Indeed, one of the most striking features of Anthony’s song is that it seems to have resonated with Americans of every racial background. A heart-moving video shared by Will Cain shows people responding to Anthony’s song. The most striking part of the clip is not the many people visibly moved to tears; it’s the diverse makeup of the people who get emotional while listening to “Rich Men North of Richmond.”
To attack Anthony’s song as racist or “punching down” is vicious and lazy, and it overlooks a reality about welfare many proponents of the policy refuse to see: Welfare, like any policy, comes with economic tradeoffs.
There’s no question that welfare programs help some people, such as Hannah Anderson, who describes in detail how government assistance helped her family. But there are costs to the policy, and these costs go far beyond the levies on taxpayers who pay for the programs.
Welfare also comes with perverse incentives. It can discourage work—the true vehicle for escaping poverty—and create what economists call poverty traps. This is not some libertarian or conservative fantasy. The left-leaning opinion writer Catherine Rampell described part of this phenomenon several years ago in the Washington Post:
…today’s social safety net discourages poor people from working, or at least from earning more money… you might qualify for some welfare programs, such as food stamps, housing vouchers, child-care subsidies and Medicaid. But if you get a promotion, or longer hours, or a second job, or otherwise start making more, these benefits will start to evaporate…
This is just one way today’s welfare programs harm people. And the truth is the federal government’s War on Poverty has been a colossal failure.
Data show that poverty in the US was plummeting before Lyndon Johnson declared “war” on it, falling from 32.1 percent to 14.7 percent over a two-decade span. Yet since 1966, after ushered in his Great Society, the US poverty rate has barely budged. (The poverty rate today stands at 12.8 percent.)
Why? The answer is perhaps found in a quote attributed to Benjamin Franklin.
“I think the best way of doing good to the poor, is not making them easy in poverty, but leading or driving them out of it,” Franklin once said.
Franklin clearly understood perverse incentives better than journalists today.
Some country musicians seem to understand them a bit better as well, which is evidenced by Anthony’s lines following his quip about “bags of fudge rounds.”
Young men are puttin’ themselves six feet in the ground
‘Cause all this damn country does is keep on kickin’ them down
It’s clear from these lines that Anthony is not mocking anyone, but criticizing a program that has harmed millions of Americans by making them dependent on government largesse.
Many Americans support welfare because they believe that’s what any compassionate person would do. But the Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman reminded us that policies must be judged by their results, not their intentions.
In 1970, when Guy Drake wrote “Welfare Cadillac,” one could argue that we hadn’t yet given welfare a chance. Today, there is no such excuse.