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Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance

December 24, 2016


“My primary aim is not to convince you of a documented problem. My primary aim is to tell a true story about what that problem feels like when you are born with it hanging around your neck.” This is the greatest effect of Hillbilly Elegy, to walk away with an understanding, an empathy for the “white working class.”

I read this book before the election. And although it’s not specifically about the election, it has been said by many that this book explains the election results. It’s about the collapse of mid-size middle American towns and the desperation of white, working-class America. It’s about a loss of hope, a shift in values, a disintegration of crucial support systems—family structures and social networks. It is an empathetic yet harshly critical examination of working-class whites from someone who grew up and out of that world.

J.D. Vance was born in Jackson, a small town in Eastern Kentucky. Like most of Appalachia, it’s a poor area. Many residents live outside of the towns in the mountains. Most are descendants of Scots-Irish immigrants. It is an area that has been written about as a “culture of honor,” where family feuds are common, disagreements are often solved with violence or other means outside of the law.

When I was a senior in high school, I spent a week on a mission trip near Jackson, up “in the holler” as it was described. I sat in the living rooms of a family who was engaged in a violent feud with another family in the area. I saw the poverty first-hand, but I also experienced warmth, kindness and open hearts.  Vance describes it as a place where everyone stops for funeral processions because, as his Mamaw says, “we’re hill people and we respect our dead.”

When he was young, his family moved to Middletown, Ohio, near my hometown. It is a mid-size industrial town, and like many industrial towns in the mid-west, was full of other transplants from Appalachia. Similar to the Great Migration of African Americans from southern agricultural jobs to northern factories throughout the 20th century, mid-western states experienced an influx of white workers from Appalachia as the coal mining jobs dried up. This white migration was nicknamed the “Hillbilly Highway,” and it transformed Midwestern towns small and large. Eastern Kentuckians settled in Ohio cities like Middletown, Centerville, Dayton and Cleveland. The migrants found work in steel, rubber, auto and other factories. But when those industries dried up, or those companies moved jobs overseas, these towns—many of them one- or two-factory towns—were gutted economically. All the standard companions of poverty followed. An increase in drug and alcohol addiction, a rise in crime, a decline in education standards, the disintegration of families and a loss of viable options all led to a loss of hope for many families.

Vance found a relatable description of these trends in the writings of authors like William Julius Wilson and Charles Murray. A great migration followed by the pullout of industry; the evacuation of the best and brightest, followed by the collapse of the community. It was the same story, just on a different timeline, in different cities, involving people of a different color. Wilson and Murray were writing about African Americans in towns like Detroit and Chicago.

Like many families in the faltering urban communities he read about, Vance and his sister grew up in a single-parent household. They were raised by his mother. She was a smart, capable woman, a high school salutatorian, but she got pregnant early and never attended college. Later in life, she fell into drug abuse and bounced from man to man. J.D. and his sister relied on their grandparents for stability. His Mamaw and Papaw played a critical role in his life, and he credits much of his success to them.

But as they provided crucial stability and a connection to traditional values, he saw the values of the community around him erode. He observed a rising consumerist culture—people buying things they couldn’t afford. He saw the feelings of isolation, the anger, the distrust. He saw people learning that they were helpless, that they had no control over the course of their life. All around him, people believed that their actions do not affect the trajectory of their lives.

To the contrary, his grandparents’ values were traditional—quietly faithful, self-reliant and hard-working. When J.D. once lamented having to work over a holiday weekend, his grandmother told him that she too wished he didn’t have to work over the weekend. “But if you want the kind of work where you can spend the weekends with your family, you’ve got to go to college and make something of yourself.” His Mamaw showed him what was possible: “…a peaceful Sunday with the people I loved—and [she] made sure I knew how to get there.”

J.D. eventually enlisted in the Marines, which reinforced the work ethic, discipline and self-reliance his Mamaw had instilled in him. In the Marines, “your destiny is in your hands.” From there he attended Yale on scholarship, where he learned to leverage his personal networks and got great advice from his then girlfriend and his professors, launching a law career.

The lessons he draws from his experience are many. Perhaps they are more novel because of the community he is speaking of—poor white folks—than the lessons themselves, but they are good nonetheless, applicable for communities across the economic spectrum. Chief among them is the importance of a solid, stable and consistent home life. When the nuclear family breaks down, the chance of a kid reaching his or her potential drastically reduces. Additionally, Vance contends that social class in America isn’t just about money. It’s about education and an understanding of what’s possible. It’s about confidence and vision, hope and aspiration. And it’s about the relationships you form, and the networks you can leverage to create opportunity.

Although Elegy has political implications, it’s less about politics than it is about a culture. Vance does weigh in on a few issues, though. He opens the book with the story of a guy who had a child on the way, yet squandered a good-paying job by being lazy. He describes a mindset that allows people to blame failure on outside forces, recalling an acquaintance he runs into in a bar who recently quit his job, then is later complaining on Facebook about how the Obama economy failed him.

He tells stories of people gaming the welfare system. He witnessed people using their welfare checks to buy cigarettes and liquor—a white version of the old “welfare queen”—and grew to resent that he was working hard to support his family, with taxes coming out of his paycheck, to support these people.

He discusses the perception that poor whites resent Obama because they’re racist. It’s not his race, he says. It’s Obama’s whole package that makes him feel like an alien, an outsider. To your average Middletown resident, Obama is “brilliant, wealthy and speaks like a Constitutional law professor…Nothing about him bears any resemblance to the people I admired growing up.” He is confident, urbane, worldly. And he came onto the scene just as people from Vance’s began to believe the modern American meritocracy isn’t for them.

But he blames conservative rhetoric for exacerbating the problem. “Instead of encouraging engagement, conservatives increasingly foment the kind of detachment that has sapped the ambition of so many of my peers…The biggest predictor of success is what one believes is possible for one’s life.” Yet the message of the political right is increasingly “it’s not your fault. It’s the government’s fault. The system is rigged against you.” Statistically, working-class whites are now the least hopeful demographic.

Vance touches on the importance of education as a way to create opportunity, but he sees limits to what the government can do to fix the problem. He recalls a debate over school vouchers in a West Wing episode. “It was striking that in a discussion about why poor kids struggle in school, the emphasis rested entirely on public institutions. As a teacher at my old high school told me recently, ‘They want us to be shepherds to these kids, but none of them want to talk about the fact that many of them are raised by wolves.’”

The sharpest passage of the book, however, is a harangue against the culture of the people he grew up with. I’ll include most of it, because there is power in its length:

We spend our way into the poor house. We buy giant TVs and iPads. Our children wear nice clothes thanks to high-interest credit cards and payday loans. We purchase homes we don’t need, refinance them for more spending money, and declare bankruptcy, often leaving them full of garbage in our wake. Thrift is inimical to our being. We spend to pretend that we’re upper class, and when the dust clears, when bankruptcy hits or a family member bails us out of our stupidity, there’s nothing left over. Nothing for the kids’ college tuition. No investment to grow our wealth. No rainy day fund if someone loses her job. We know we shouldn’t spend like this. Sometimes we beat ourselves up over it, but we do it anyway. Our homes are a chaotic mess. We scream and yell at each other like we’re spectators at a football game. At least one member of the family uses drugs—sometimes the father, sometimes the mother, sometimes both. At especially stressful times, we’ll hit and punch each other, all in front of the family, including young children. Much of the time, the neighbors hear what is happening. A bad day is when the neighbors call the police to stop the drama. Our kids go to foster care but never stay for long. We apologize to our kids. The kids believe we’re really sorry. And we are. But then we act just as mean a few days later. We don’t study as children, and we don’t make our kids study when we’re parents. Our kids perform poorly in school. We might get angry with them, but we never give them the tools, like peace and quiet at home, to succeed. Even the best and brightest will likely go to college close to home, if they survive the war zone in their own home. ‘I don’t care if you got into Notre Dame,’ we say. ‘You can get a fine, cheap education at the community college.’…We choose not to work when we should be looking for jobs. Sometimes we’ll get a job, but it won’t last. We’ll get fired for tardiness, or for stealing merchandise and selling it on eBay. Or for having a customer complain about the smell of alcohol on our breath. Or for taking five 30-minute restroom breaks per shift. We talk about the value of hard work, but tell ourselves the reason we’re not working is some perceived unfairness. Obama shut down the coal mines. Or all the jobs went to the Chinese. These are the lies we tell ourselves to solve the cognitive dissonance. The broken connection between the world we see and the values we preach. We talk to our children about responsibility, but we never walk the walk…We eat Pillsbury cinnamon rolls for breakfast, Taco Bell for lunch and McDonald’s for dinner. We rarely cook, even though it’s cheaper and better for the body and soul. Exercise is confined to the games we play as children…

He goes on. The genius in this passage is the first person plural point of view. Only someone raised in such an environment can level such a critique. Imagine an outsider being so critical of any group. He is flat-out attacking their fundamental character. It makes me uneasy. But this is his group, his people, so he has every right to call them out. Whether his generalization is fair or not is hard to say, but his underlying point is that this issue is a cultural issue. Any solution will require a cultural shift. The government can help, but it can’t solve the problems of the white working glass. The biggest issue is the feeling of helplessness, the belief that the actions of the person are not tied to the outcome. That it doesn’t matter how hard you work—you’re still not getting anywhere. Social mobility is often framed in economic terms, but it also requires a move away from a certain set of values and beliefs.

Vance recently published an op-ed in the New York Times in which he writes about the empathy sorely lacking in American politics. He writes that Clinton and Trump occupy two separate countries. He says he predicted Trump’s nomination, and although he was surprised by Trump’s victory, he understands it. But he is very concerned about what it means for a country divided. He worries about a black friend whose kid suffered racial taunts at school. He is hopeful, if not optimistic, that Trump will “show as president the empathy he so often failed to show as a candidate.”

Although Vance is often critical of his people, what Hillbilly Elegy does is paint an empathetic portrait of the white working class. It has been lauded as prescient, a key to understanding the Trump victory. But it is powerful because it is personal. It is not a study, it is a story. And that can also be its weakness.

Hillbilly Elegy is mostly anecdotal. The danger lies in the assumption that because Vance can eloquently elucidate the plight of his people, he can also accurately diagnose the problem and offer solutions. That because he is of a demographic, he is qualified to solve their problems. He is a good voice to have, for sure—thoughtful, level-headed, reasoned, empathetic—but because he had his finger on the right pulse at just the right moment, Vance has been elevated as a spokesperson for the white working class. Not everyone is buying it. A recent review (written by someone who, like Vance, grew up in poor, white Appalachia) criticizes Elegy as “little more than a list of myths about welfare queens repackaged as a primer on the white working class.”

It’s clear that these are real problems, and that they’re getting worse. But it’s less clear what the solution is. Vance is a rare individual—against all odds he was able to rise above his class, make something of himself. But his message that poor white folks need to “buck up and take responsibility” will do no more than when an African American commentator says the same of failing inner city black communities. Yes, a strong nuclear family is key to success, and that cannot be legislated. That is a fundamental value, passed down over generations. But it is also true that families fail en masse in response to economic collapse and the societal ills that comes with it. It may not be a government program, per se, but there needs to be change in economy, education and opportunity so that hope can be realized. A revitalization of community will be required, and that relies on more than just a plucky attitude, determination and hope. We desperately need this in our failing communities of every color, so that there can be more J.D. Vances. What he has done is laid bare the needs of this oft-overlooked swath of America. They are not the only ones in need, for sure, but at least there is a conversation. Now the question is, what are we going to do about it?

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