Here’s an interesting article, a lengthy, in-depth piece by Kihm Winship entitled Malt Liquor: A History. This is not the first time he’s written about malt liquor. In 2005, he did an article for All About Beer magazine with similar themes, entitled A Story without Heroes: The Cautionary Tale of Malt Liquor. They’re both worth a read, though you may need a drink afterwards, so keep 40 ounces of something handy.
Newer article is an expanded version of the 2005 one (there’s much of the 2005 text in the latter one). Good stuff – but there’s another story out there yet to be told about the economics of the low-income folks:
Back in the 70’s, the average street bum (“homeless” wasn’t yet a sociological buzzword & almost all were white) drank cheap fortified wine, which cost <$2/fifth (25.6 ozs). That stuff now is $4+ (w/sales tax added), & choices are minimal – Italian Swiss is long-gone; Gallo's pretty much gone upscale (no more Thunderbird & cheap port/sherry) – their "cheapies", labeled "Livingston", cost around $5 out the door. What's left are Irish Rose & Night Train, which can't be found, except in corner markets. "Winos" don't drink 2 Buck Chuck (which is now $2.49) or Carlo Rossi (Gallo's down-scale brand of dry wine) – they want the big sweet buzz.
40-oz malt liquor is no more than $3 & 24-oz cans are around $2. Further, the "bum" populace surely is larger %-wise relative to the general populace now than then – so "buzz for the buck" has kicked over to malt liquor. Same probably holds true for housed low-income folks.
Bum wine is still available at many major liquor stores in my area. One thing that is interesting is that all bum wine and malt liquor is right at the front of the store near the entrance, presumably to keep the bum from milling around and bothering the more legitimate customers. He can walk in, grab his Mad Dog 20/20 and go to the cashier in less than 20 footsteps.
Of course in the more ethnic areas its widely available, and the more upscale places don’t carry it or if they do its hidden in the back on some bottom shelf and the bottles are usually dusty.