To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee is set in Maycomb, Georgia, at a time when the divisions between races (blacks and whites and mixed) is pronounced and prolific; in this novel, the lines between certain types of people are equally pronounced.
Harper Lee does not stereotype all blacks as being one way and all whites another; in fact, the story is so effective, at least in part, because she does not do that. Instead of depicting all blacks as being deferential and kind, she gives us a rather unruly and rude black woman who has the nerve to show up at her own church and treat the visitors (who happen to be the white Finch children) with disrespect. In the same way, she does not characterize all poor, white people as being the same.
Early in the novel we meet the Cunninghams, a white family who is exceptionally poor but who pay their debts the best they can and act honorably when they know they should. We learn by watching Walter Cunningham interact with Atticus Finch that being poor does not mean anything more than not having money. The boy is polite and knowledgeable about things the Finch children are completely ignorant about, and his lack of education is only due to circumstances beyond his control.
The Ewells, on the other hand, are a poor, white family which is not as honorable and upstanding as the Cunninghams. Burris Ewell, for example, is a rude and unruly boy who shows up for school every year on the first day but who does not attend school after that. When Scout asks her father about it, he says:
“Sometimes it’s better to bend the law a little in special cases. In your case, the law remains rigid. So to school you must go.”
He explains to Scout that the Ewells live in a way she can hardly imagine and therefore special measures need to be taken to makes sure the family is able to survive.
He said that the Ewells were members of an exclusive society made up of Ewells. In certain circumstances the common folk judiciously allowed them certain privileges by the simple method of becoming blind to some of the Ewells’ activities. They didn’t have to go to school, for one thing. Another thing, Mr. Bob Ewell, Burris’s father, was permitted to hunt and trap out of season.
This is because Ewell drinks up all the money he gets, and if he were not allowed to hunt, the children would get nothing to eat.
Scout is old enough and bright enough to know that this is not particularly fair or right; however, her father has a point:
“Mr. Ewell shouldn’t do that--”
“Of course he shouldn’t, but he’ll never change his ways. Are you going to take out your disapproval on his children?”
The Ewells and the Cunninghams both represent the poorest of the poor families in this community, yet they are not the same. While the Cunninghams are principled and do the best they can with what they have, the Ewells, particularly Bob Ewell, are people who have to take in order to have anything.
The Ewells are a family that is very poor and is looked down upon.
One of the elderly members of the class answered her: "He's one of the Ewells, ma'am," and I wondered if this explanation would be as unsuccessful as my attempt. But Miss Caroline seemed willing to listen. "Whole school's full of 'em. They come first day every year and then leave. The truant lady gets 'em here 'cause she threatens 'em with the sheriff, but she's give up tryin' to hold 'em. She reckons she's carried out the law just gettin' their names on the roll and runnin' 'em here the first day. You're supposed to mark 'em absent the rest of the year..." "But what about their parents?" asked Miss Caroline, in genuine concern.
Page 19 , To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee
"Ain't got no mother," was the answer, "and their paw's right contentious." Burris Ewell was flattered by the recital. "Been comin' to the first day o' the first grade fer three year now," he said expansively.
The Ewells get special privilages such as the children not going to school, or hunting out of season, because they are pitied. The Law enforment do not bother because the family is beyond poor, and the father spends the money getting whiskey. Without these special prvilages, the Ewells would not survive.
Atticus said the Ewells had been the disgrace of Maycomb for three generations. None of them had done an honest day's work in his recollection. He said that some Christmas, when he was getting rid of the tree, he would take me with him and show me where and how they lived. They were people, but they lived like animals. "They can go to school any time they want to, when they show the faintest symptom of wanting an education," said Atticus. "There are ways of keeping them in school by force, but it's silly to force people like the Ewells into a new environment-"
For more about the Ewells and other characters, visit the enotes.com study guide for "To Kill a Mockingbird" which includes summaries, themes, etc.