For the good of the poor and common people: What Hillbilly Elegy gets wrong about Appalachia and the working class

Over at the New Republic, Sarah Jones has a blistering take on J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, the social analysis of Appalachia’s “forgotten” white working class masquerading as a regional memoir and current favored text for understanding the inner lives of economically precarious white voters. Her piece works better than most because it attends not only to the central themes and lessons of Elegy, but also to the media oversaturation of Vance as a white working class whisperer and his eagerness to embrace the role of political analyst during and after the election.

From local papers to the national press, from Fox News to NPR, from the lecterns of state schools and business schools, Vance has served up “straight talk” about the white working class that both conservatives and liberals are eager to consume. For conservatives, Vance’s rags-to-riches story — from his broken childhood in rural Ohio and Kentucky to the heights of Silicon Valley’s venture capital world — is confirmation that the American Dream they’re selling works: that through hard work and bootstrapping all is possible, handouts be damned. At the same time, liberals applaud Vance for demonstrating the dangers inherent in what he characterizes a veil of misunderstanding between coastal elites and rural whites. The problem, as Sarah Jones writes, is that the “media class fixated on the spectacle of white trash Appalachia, with Vance as its representative-and-exile” and stopped looking for any other voices or perspectives. If your goal is to rebuild coalitions of working class whites and win back their votes — and this is the angle that Jones covers — it might be time to consult a new expert, or perhaps just actual working class people. I’ll leave that angle to others, but keep reading, because I have a good recommended text.

The spin that Vance is called upon most often to provide is that which absolves working class whites at large of their racial animus, and he is happy to oblige and draw thin lines of distinction between, for example, individuals who are “actively racist” and those who just don’t believe in “modern notions of equality.” This is an odd position to stake out, as Vance is in the business of holding poor whites accountable for every other social ill that holds them back, from their under-employment to the corporate deception that landed them with inflated mortgages. “People talk about hard work all the times in places like Middletown,” he writes in Elegy, “You can walk through a town where 30 percent of young men work fewer than twenty hours in a week and find not a single person aware of his own laziness.” As Jones points out, his complaints about poor white families that use government assistance to purchase big televisions or iPhones are little more than “a list of myths about welfare queens repackaged as a primer on the white working class.” For those wanting deeper look at problems implicit in that outlook and what it borrows from long-debunked stereotypes of Black families, Bill Turner has some information for you.

Like Jones, people often mistake me for someone who could read such observations and nod along. I’m a white woman from Appalachia who, despite my working class background and own history of holding blue collar jobs, achieved some markers of an ‘elite’ status by earning a PhD and finding a more gentle form of economic exploitation in the academy. People mistake me for someone who should be grateful that a person like J.D. Vance is helping focus the country on the problems faced by Appalachians, who, incidentally, are not all white. People make these assumptions for the same reasons that J.D. Vance does, because they find it difficult to believe that other Appalachians have produced any equally meaningful scholarship, policy, or criticism of their own about the region, and that this work might tell a different story about economic decline and the forces behind it.

Our old copy of They’ll Cut Off Your Project. The newer editions from the University of West Virginia press have an introduction by Dwight Billings.

If you want to understand the contradictions of Appalachia and see the roots of its economic decline in action, don’t read Hillbilly Elegy. If it’s a memoir that you need to connect to the region and its history, take a look at Huey Perry’s account of directing the Office of Economic Opportunity for Mingo County, West Virginia, during the heyday of Johnson’s War on Poverty in the mid-1960s. In They’ll Cut of Your Project: A Mingo County Chronicle, Perry details the life and death of his social assistance program in one of the poorest corners of the region. The Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO), and its extension the Community Action Program (CAP), were schemes created by the federal government, administered locally, to give poor people a voice in the decision making process that determined how the government would allocate new funding earmarked for anti-poverty measures.

By their design, the Office of Economic Opportunity and the Community Action Program acknowledged that existing avenues of support — from traditional forms of welfare like the Aid to Families with Dependent Children of the Unemployed fund, to the efforts of elected representatives and the priorities of regional businesses — were insufficient to combat widespread structural poverty. The OEO and CAP used the principles of community organizing to bring poor people together, and found these principles to be successful. In Mingo County alone, the OEO and CAP supported as many as twenty-six community action groups. Individually, these groups worked toward addressing problems with educational facilities, food scarcity, poor roads, voting rights, political transparency, and unemployment. Starting with Mingo’s African American community, Perry and his staff formed community groups wherever locals were receptive to them. “Participation in a community group,” he writes, “afforded them security for the first time in their lives.”

But there were problems. Mingo County’s political establishment — both elected officials and businessmen who commanded political clout — often opposed this work. “In old England,” one of Perry’s staff commented, “if a king didn’t like you, he would cut off your head. Now if they don’t like you, they’ll cut off your project!” Mingo’s political establishment hoped it could do what elected officials and businessmen in neighboring McDowell County had done, which was to siphon off federal funding — as much as two million dollars — and use it for their own purposes, most often to buy votes or sweeten business arrangements and thus ensure patronage. When it became clear that Perry was a formidable firewall for practices of this sort, the local power structure invested itself in destroying Perry’s organization. As an aside, the McDowell County mentioned above is the same McDowell County that often appeared in the press during the election cycle as “the heart of Trump Country,” a phenomenon I recently wrote about. When people ask, “Why do Appalachians always vote against their own interests?” here we see that, historically, a very compelling and simple answer to that question was voter fraud.

When J.D. Vance discusses getting back to community, what he really means is getting back to traditional conservative values: intact families, old-fashioned white masculinity, Christianity, sobriety, and common sense. Historian Bill Turner, mentioned above, argues that Vance’s mandates sound torn from the pages of the Moynihan Report. He writes, “Moynihan argued more than half a century ago that the ‘deterioration of the Negro family is the fundamental source of the weakness of the Negro community.’ Substitute the keywords with ‘deindustrialization’ and ‘globalization’ and you have the tangle of pathology that affects the white working class.” For Huey Perry, a West Virginia native and history teacher, getting back to community looked very different. It meant union building and mutual aid. It meant labor and pupil strikes. It meant co-operative grocery stores. It meant confronting political corruption head on and working to ensure fair elections. It meant holding business operators accountable for providing their employees with adequate wages and safe working conditions. It meant, according to one OEO worker quoted in Perry’s memoir, “rubbing heads with dedicated folk for the good of the poor and common people.”

Those who enjoy local color about “mountain folk” will find plenty in They’ll Cut Off Your Project. Half of Mingo County thought Huey Perry was a communist, and his memoirs are filled with many close encounters with religious fundamentalists, undercover FBI agents, corrupt politicians, and feisty mountain women who attack other feisty mountain women. One of Perry’s last stunts before his project was indeed cut off is organizing an 800-person funeral procession to the office of the governor in Charleston after his funding is threatened. Although Perry does eventually lose the OEO, he finds some satisfaction in seeing his political enemies indicted for fraud and voter suppression.

Johnson is greeted at the Huntington, West Virginia, airport.

This is not to say that Perry’s strategies are timeless or have effortless direct application forty years removed from their original context. Added to that are the very valid reasons that the War on Poverty failed. The most significant of these reasons is that reformers behind most anti-poverty policies believed, according to historian Ronald Eller, that “what the disadvantaged needed to lift themselves out of poverty . . . were educational opportunity, not political confrontation,” and as such focused their efforts on “behavior modification and job training programs, rather than redistribution of wealth or political restructuring.” In other words, demanding swift results that would assimilate poor Appalachians into the mainstream often doomed the economic policy of the 1960s. Nope, this is only to say that if you’re invested in arguing that Appalachians are trapped in the past — and especially if you make a name or living from it — it seems disingenuous to not find out what people in the past actually did to address poverty and inequality.

Vance recently announced that he is in the process of creating an as yet to be defined education-oriented non-profit in Ohio with Jai Chabria, the former political advisor of Republican Governor John Kasich and current manager of union-busting strategy firm Mercury. Although details are scant, this development is consistent with other strategies casually floated by Vance to repair what he calls the broken pipeline to the middle class. These strategies include enticing individuals with degrees from “elite” universities and business upstarters to make their home in Appalachia or the Rust Belt. This might be another area where historical perspective is useful. There’s quite an extensive array of literature on cultural hegemony and its problems in Appalachia, which is a fancy way of saying exactly what Vance proposes: that, for the good of the country, Appalachians should support the capitalist or free market endeavors of our betters and lend our region to their economic experiments. This hasn’t worked in the past, and it’s doubtful to work in our new and volatile political climate.

I’ll conclude with where I seem to find agreement with Vance, and that is, to many, the United States is a rigged system, designed to benefit those at the top at the expense of those at the bottom. If we accept that as true, though, there’s limited utility in teaching individuals to improve themselves to achieve moral clarity about their failures. There’s limited utility in presenting old ideas that didn’t work in new wrapping. It’s far more useful to teach them, as Huey Perry did, to struggle better. And in that regard, Appalachian history has much to offer, if folks would listen.


Originally published at elizabethcatte.com on November 19, 2016.