Hillbilly Elegy: J. D. Vance’s Personal Take on White Working-Class America

J.D. Vance’s recent book, Hillbilly Elegy, puts a spotlight on the crisis of white working-class America. It is a memoir of a young man who grew up in a culture of poverty and dysfunction but who, with a little help and some grit, eventually escaped it. The author’s anguished personal story provides insights into the challenges of pursuing success in that world. Unfortunately, it is short on realistic solutions to the underlying social and economic problems that people face there.

Although the book, published in the summer of 2016, does not mention Donald Trump, it describes a climate of anger and frustration that could be easily exploited by a demagogue. In this sense, the book helps to explain Trump’s appeal in places like rural Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin.

The story centers on J.D. Vance’s early life in Middletown Ohio, a community struggling to be middle class. Like many of the town’s inhabitants, his family has its roots in Appalachia–in its own case, the depressed community of Jackson, Kentucky. Accordingly, it must constantly struggle to shake off the self-destructive mindset of a culture of poverty. The book describes in detail Vance’s dysfunctional family life, personified by an unstable mother and multiple live-in fathers. It is a life filled with anger, violence, alcoholism, and drug addiction. Growing up, Vance is thus constantly haunted by anxiety and  a search for authority figures he can trust. After years of chaos, he gets a bracing wake-up call when his addicted mother demands that he pee into a bottle so she can submit a pure urine sample for a job application. To his credit, he refuses and moves in with his grandmother.

Vance attributes his redemption in large part to this elderly substitute mother, whom he calls “Mamaw.” She was no angel herself, a volatile personality, and a bad mother with her own children. But the second time around, she uses some of her hard-won lessons to enforce discipline in the young teenager and instill the importance of education.  The timing of this change of authority was fortunate, comprising Vance’s three final years of high school. An important turning point for him was when she bought a graphing calculator for him for $180, a major sacrifice, to allow him to excel in math. It was the kind of commitment on her part that ignited his own resolve and ambition.

The rest of his story is pure Horation Alger. After high school he spends four years in the Marines, where he gains confidence and learns responsibility. By the time he enters Ohio State University, he is on a tear. He  takes on two part-time jobs and gets through college in two and one-half years. He goes on to Yale Law School, finding his way to the top by listening to mentors, getting onto the Law Review Board, and learning how to develop connections. His ascent into the world of the elite confirms that mobility still works, at least for some, in today’s America.

Vance is very hard on the culture of deprivation he has left behind. People in affected communities seem resigned to despair and find excuses for failure. They typically lack ambition, resolve, or follow-through. Even when they have decent jobs, they often overspend and go into debt. Loyalty to family and a sense of honor still exist, but these attributes are warped by violence and sexism. Rather than facing up to hard truths and taking responsibility for outcomes, many blame outside forces or focus resentment on fellow citizens who take advantage of the system. It is hardly surprising that politicians like Trump attract such voters, who have little commitment to the existing system and little to lose.

Vance’s escape narrative focuses on the importance of personal factors in getting out of the morass: a helping hand (in his case, his grandmother) and the vital role of individual motivation. But, although these factors are undoubtedly necessary for personal success, they are not easily replicated without changes in the underlying social and economic conditions of depressed communities. These the author fails to address adequately.

Vance, who now writes for National Review and holds to small-government conservative maxims, makes a half-hearted reference to public involvement but basically pans it. “Public policy can help, but there is no government that can fix these problems for us,” he states. True, no government can simply “fix” stuff. But it is surely appropriate to recognize that government can bring in funding and raise morale by showing that poor communities have not been abandoned. Public schools, which serve as ideal community-builders, need to be properly funded, early intervention programs for children need to be introduced, jobs need to be lured through well-targeted government initiatives, and so forth.

Even in the worst of circumstances, government does more than it gets credit for. Vance does not consider, or takes for granted, the role of  tax dollars in providing at least base-line support in depressed communities: Social security, Medicaid, Medicare, and welfare provide a fundamental lifeline for their inhabitants. Moreover, he ignores the role of government in his own success. The Marine Corps, which taught him responsibility, is a tax-supported institution. To a lesser extent, so is Ohio State University. Even Yale Law School is funded partially with public dollars and is known for the public servants and justices it has produced.

Vance’s book helps to draw our attention to a problem that has been shrugged off for too long. His own life is an example of how personal initiative allows some to escape it. But to ignore the potential aid that we as a nation can bring to such communities is to condemn the vast majority of their inhabitants to a future of frustration and despair.

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