A look at Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance
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, by 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 20th 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 were 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 tells us that while economic problems certainly hurt the WWC, the larger problem, ultimately, that’s 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’s, 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 (and its sociological 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 to form any strong 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 dreaded 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” 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 that allowed 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 says there is a lack of “personal agency”: 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.
Besides personal agency, Vance witnessed many other factors that combined to push these communities into decline. One of the larger factors, Vance believes, being the decline of religion. A number of people in WWC America may describe themselves as evangelical christians, but many of them don’t attend church and seem to make little effort at assimilating the tenets of their faith into their everyday life. It’s more about cultural (or group) identification now than a set of beliefs that animate their daily lives. Besides its spiritual significance, Vance sees religion as providing important sociological benefits and its decline having broad negative effects.
Regular church attendees commit fewer crimes, are in better health, live longer, make more money, drop out of high school less frequently, and finish college more frequently than those who don’t attend church at all. MIT economist Jonathan Gruber even found that the relationship was causal: It’s not just that people who happen to live successful lives also go to church, it’s that church seems to promote good habits.
Along with the decline of religious influence on individual lives, Vance notes that evangelical churches have become too politicized. Instead of being about building moral character and the personal demands of living a good christian life, it’s became more and more about what you’re against or what social malady you should refuse to participate in as a christian. This made being a christian too easy in Vance’s view. Here’s Vance talking about his biological father’s evangelical church he attended:
In my new church…I heard more about the gay lobby and the war on Christmas than about any particular character trait that a Christian should aspire to have…Morality was defined by not participating in this or that particular social malady: the gay agenda, evolutionary theory, Clintonian liberalism, or extramarital sex. Dad’s church required so little of me. It was easy to be a Christian.
The larger sociological point, Vance notes, is that these churches are focusing their followers outward and this only further deteriorates the individual’s needed sense of personal agency. The focus of faith’s work should be, first, on personal salvation and the personal work needed to attain it, not casting one’s attention and energies on a fallen world. You have no control, no vote, over how the fallen world will turn out, but you do over your own life and own soul. Start there.
So Hillbilly or the WWC are a culture in crisis for many reasons: economics, poverty, drugs, family breakdown, community decay, the declining influence of religion, etc, etc. And while Vance sees all of these issues as precipitating the decline, he also talks about how and why he was able to escape it.
Because of Mamaw and Papaw taking over the job of raising him and providing him with a safe environment, Vance improved in school and ultimately got accepted to Ohio State University. But in reflection he decided that he wasn’t ready for college, so he joined the U.S. Marine Corps. Vance could see early on that life in Middletown wasn’t a ticket to the better life he wanted. He needed to adapt and to move to where better opportunities existed. The first stop was learning to be self-assured and independent, and the Marines would be the best place for that. The Marines taught Vance discipline and to think strategically and, even more importantly, to give it his all in everything he did. Nothing, the Marines taught Vance, was impossible if you pushed yourself. In one of the more emotionally telling passages of the book Vance talks about a teaching moment:
…the reason Middletown produced zero Ivy League graduates [Many in the Hillbilly culture believed] was some genetic or character defect. I couldn’t possibly see how destructive that mentality was until I escaped it. The Marine Corps replaced it with something else, something that loathes excuses. “Giving it my all” was a catchphrase, something heard in health or gym class. When I first ran three miles, mildly impressed with my mediocre twenty-five-minute time, a terrifying senior drill instructor greeted me at the finish line: “If you’re not puking, you’re lazy! Stop being fucking lazy!” He then ordered me to sprint between him and a tree repeatedly. Just as I felt I might pass out, he relented. I was heaving, barely able to catch my breath. “That’s how you should feel at the end of every run!” he yelled. In the Marines, giving it your all was a way of life.
After getting out of the Marines, Vance completed his Bachelors degree at Ohio State University and was able to get accepted to Yale University Law School. He’d come a long way from Middletown. Yale law school opened many doors for Vance. One of the most critical things he learned at Yale was just how important networking is. Getting to know well positioned and successful people, socializing with these people and letting them get to know you, opens doors of opportunity. That’s just the way life is. Being isolated and parochial, whether as an individual or as a community, doesn’t open doors for you and it stunts those important adaptive capacities. To thrive economically in the new world you have to be actively engaged, and even more importantly, flexible.
Vance would leave Yale, get married, and end up at a firm in San Francesco, California. He felt successful and was thankful for the new life he had. It was a real blessing. Reflecting back on where he’d come from, made Vance want to go back to understand what he’d come from and why so many others hadn’t escaped. These thoughts were the driving force behind this fascinating memoir.
Vance has written a number of journalistic pieces since the publication of his book. He elaborates on his key themes. The plight of the WWC isn’t something that can be solved, at least in large part, by government programs. Sure, Vance thinks well structured and administered government programs can help these communities improve. But the main issue is cultural. Individuals in these communities have got to take responsibility for their communities, their families, and their personal behavior. The real solutions will be from the inside-out.
In the current political environment, Vance sees Donald Trump as charlatan and con man extraordinaire who offers nothing but rhetorical opioids to people with real problems:
The great tragedy is that many of the problems Trump identifies are real, and so many of the hurts he exploits demand serious thought and measured action — from governments, yes, but also from community leaders and individuals. Yet so long as people rely on that quick high, so long as wolves point their fingers at everyone but themselves, the nation delays a necessary reckoning. There is no self-reflection in the midst of a false euphoria. Trump is cultural heroin. He makes some feel better for a bit. But he cannot fix what ails them, and one day they’ll realize it.
The solution to the problems of the WWC mostly lie within their own communities. Individuals need to take an active responsibility for improving their own lives. They need to take responsibility for their children and their children’s welfare. They need to stop blaming others or the government for their problems. They need to adapt to changing economic circumstances. They need to seek to improve themselves, get educated, and be willing to move out of those areas to seek better opportunities. Cultural change doesn’t happen over night, and the plight of these communities won’t improve immediately. But the only salvation they will ultimately have will come from their own personal determination to make their lives better. No one, especially Donald Trump, can do that for them. Eventually they’ll wake up to this.
We should have sympathy for these WWC communities and the problems they face. And we should help as much as we can. But in looking at the problems and listening to the grievances of these communities, we must consider one of the central questions of Vance’s book: “Where does blame stop and sympathy begin?”