By Jeff Wills
J.D. Vance’s book, Hillbilly Elegy, has captured a lot of attention since its release in June. As the current Presidential election has highlighted, the White Working Class (WWC) of this country is in bad shape. Naturally, many are asking why. There’s been a lot academic research into why the WWC is in decline, but Vance’s book isn’t a formal study, it’s a memoir. It’s a personal story, an insider’s view, of a guy who grew up in the rust belt, white working class community of Middletown, Ohio. Growing up in this community left indelible marks on Vance’s soul. This book is about why his people, “Hillbillies,” or in the larger sense the WWC of America, are a culture in crisis. Vance experienced first hand the troubles of this socio-economic group and its mostly self-inflicted misery.
Vance’s family was originally from eastern Kentucky. His maternal grandmother and grandfather moved to Middletown, Ohio, in the mid 2oth century to escape poverty and find work. His grandfather (“Papaw”) went to work for ARMCO Steel in Middletown. Papaw had a good job, with good pay and benefits, thanks to a good company and the steelworker’s union. But as the world economy shifted, industrial jobs began disappearing in Middletown and other rust belt cites in the 70s and 80s. Papaw retired and had a fairly decent pension. But many WWC folks in Middletown (and across the rust belt) didn’t adapt so well to the economic turn.
“When the factories shut their doors, the people left behind where trapped in towns and cities that could no longer support such large populations with high-quality work. Those who could—generally the well educated, wealthy, or well connected—left, leaving behind communities of poor people.”
Not having an abundance of good paying jobs slowly tilted these communities into socio-economic decline. But Vance reminds us that while the economic problems certainly hurt the WWC, the larger problem, ultimately, that kept these communities from adapting, prospering, and improving their lives (then and now) was and still is cultural. Understanding a culture is a challenge—it’s one of the principle reasons Vance wrote this book. Basically culture is a mixture of beliefs, morals, and customs within a population. It is, to use a computer metaphor, the operating software. This makes change very difficult. Culture can be the principle reason for success, as Vance’s grandfather’s and grandmother’s WWII generation of WWC Americans demonstrated, or culture (its sociological and psychological proclivities) can be the central obstruction to progress, improvement, and prosperity.
One of the central threads of J.D. Vance’s book is about describing what it’s like growing up in a broken home and a broken community. His mother had multiple husbands and boyfriends that seem to come and go too quickly for Vance to form any relationships; at one point Vance just avoided getting to know them. His mother and, whoever the current husband/boyfriend was, would sometimes fight intensely, throwing expletives at each other that Vance felt sure people who profess to love each other wouldn’t use. Vance would often end up in the middle of these verbal and sometimes physical sparring matches. He began to fear his own home. In fact, Vance noticed that all around him, in the wider community, these intense conflicts were pretty much the norm: “Seeing people insult, scream, and sometimes physically fight was just a part of our life. After a while, you didn’t even notice it.” He could open his window at night and hear the shouting and witness the police responding to domestic disputes at his neighbor’s homes. The memory of that chaotic, sometimes violent home-life and community still affects Vance today.
“The never-ending conflict took its toll. Even thinking about it today makes me nervous. My heart begins to race, and my stomach leaps into my throat. When I was very young, all I wanted to do was get away from it—to hide from the fighting, go to Mamaw’s [grandmother’s home], or disappear. I couldn’t hide from it, because it was all around me.”
Vance says he was initially a good student, but the constant moving around (his mother moved all around the region) and feeling of fear created by his chaotic home life, took a toll on his grades in school. He couldn’t concentrate in school. He dredged going home at the end of the school day. His health started to decline and he started putting on weight.
In thinking about the connection between home life and school performance, Vance reflects on an episode of West Wing. In the episode the fictional president debates whether he should push for private school vouchers. There is a segment of people who believe one way to cure a failing public school system is to push for more private schools funded by tax payer vouchers. But Vance, a political conservative, reminds us that pushing school vouchers misses the larger point about why many poor or disadvantaged kids from poor neighborhoods aren’t doing well in school:
That [school voucher] debate is important, of course—for a long time, much of my school district qualified for vouchers—but it was striking that in an entire discussion about why poor kids struggled 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 no one wants to talk about the fact that many of them are raised by wolves.” (bolding added)
One of Vance’s themes, a refreshing one to be sure, is that people look to blame the government for their individual and community related problems, when in reality the problem’s root cause rests mostly with individuals, their decisions, and their own failures and not the government institutions. Poor and disadvantaged children may not perform well in school, not necessarily because of the school or its teachers, but because of the conflict and chaos created by the “wolves” (parents) at home. A very common sense point and an important one to remember in the voucher debate.
Vance’s mother became a drug addict (drug addiction and death from overdose have become a big problem in some of these communities) and she almost overdosed on one occasion. This, along with all the other issues, ultimately led to an agreement between Vance’s mother and his grandparents to allow Vance to live most of the time with his grandparents. Mamaw and Papaw (for whom Vance’s memoir is dedicated) would provide “the safe space,” a place free from constant conflict and chaos. His grandparents would provide the parental guidance and nurturing, that played, what Vance believes, was the central role in why he didn’t share the same fate of so many in his community.
All throughout the region Vance witnessed growing poverty and a growing problem in how people reacted to that poverty and adversity. People didn’t tend to struggle against their problems or work hard to overcome them, but instead they would surrender to hopelessness and fall into a cycle of dependency and laziness. Vance observed many poor but able men preferring to game the welfare system instead of working. Vance said he’d seen many “welfare queens,” but in a confession about race and poverty, Vance admits most all of them were white, not black. Vance talks about the fact that many talked about “industriousness” and “working hard,” but then avoided taking a job because it wasn’t what they preferred. They’d rather be home working the system or living off mom and dad. It wasn’t that there weren’t good paying jobs either. It wasn’t, as the excuse he heard one time, the “Obama economy” either. It just appeared that a lot of young men and women just weren’t willing to work. As Vance said, “You can walk through a town where 30 percent of the young men work fewer than twenty hours a week and find not a single person aware of his own laziness.”
Vance describes this collective lethargy as part of a “learned helplessness,” that had seeped into and infected hillbilly & WWC culture. Vance sees a lack of “personal agency” involved: The belief that no matter what you do, no matter how hard you work, you can’t get ahead. The American dream and the good life just aren’t attainable, so why try. It’s not that your personal choices and your decisions or your lack of effort are to blame, it’s the system! What this really is, though, is an excuse. Continue reading “A look at Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance”