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Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis - J.E. Vance

This is an interesting and very readable memoir by an author who grew up in small-town Ohio; it gets its name from the fact that his family was originally from Kentucky, and he grew up with a strong connection to Appalachia. It is worth reading for the author’s story, though not so much for the “culture” portion of the subtitle. And to the extent he talks about politics – many readers suspect he’s an aspiring Republican politician, and given his current activities this seems likely – while he talks about the disconnection and disenchantment that led to Trump’s election in a sane way, he fails to offer productive suggestions for the troubled community of his childhood.

Vance begins the story with his grandparents, who moved from Appalachia to Middletown, Ohio, in search of better opportunities. They found them, but isolated from their community, they created a toxic household for their kids – he drank too much and sometimes turned violent; in response she tried to murder him in his sleep. They shaped up only in time to help raise the grandkids when their deeply damaged daughter, with an addiction and a never-ending string of failed live-in relationships, proved inadequate to the task. Vance’s childhood was chaotic, and he made it through high school only because his grandmother stepped up and took him in. But even once he managed to get out, the legacy of poverty and domestic chaos continued to shape his life: he needed the Marine Corps to teach him self-confidence and basic financial literacy, and a patient partner to deal with his total ignorance of how to handle conflict constructively.

The story is well-told, and will be an eye-opener for many who haven’t faced the challenges Vance did growing up. It’s important to remember that poverty isn’t just a lack of money; it’s the lack of educational, social, and emotional resources that people need to make money. Someone who doesn’t believe they can do better, or is completely unaware of need-based financial aid for college, is going to struggle even if they seem from the outside to have options. That said, this does read like a memoir by an aspiring politician; even when it’s candid, it is careful and polished in a way that seems designed to keep political doors open.

But the book doesn’t deliver on its promise of “a memoir of a culture in crisis.” While Vance visits Appalachia frequently, he never actually lives there and so is on the sidelines of its culture. Certainly his white, working-class Ohio neighborhood is in crisis, but the book doesn’t engage much with Vance’s friends, neighbors and co-workers. Understandably, his attention is focused on his own personal and family struggles. The “culture” aspect comes up mostly in his placing blame for the Rust Belt’s economic failures on its culture; he writes about people who talk a good game about “hard work” but never actually perform it, and young parents who spend their days watching TV and receiving government benefits, and then he talks about how “the community” rather than the government needs to solve the region’s problems.

Forgive my cynicism, but this just sounds like abdication of responsibility. Conservatives will like Vance’s message because it’s about less government, and many liberals seems to have liked it as well, perhaps because he points the finger at those very white working-class people who tend to vote Republican, or perhaps just because it puts all of us middle- and upper-class folk, liberals and conservatives alike, in the comfortable position of having no responsibility for this problem. How would we react if the people being blamed here were non-white? Certainly race adds to and compounds all the problems of class, but I don’t think anyone – even Vance – believes that Appalachia and the Rust Belt acquired their economic malaise as a result of a “lazy” culture, rather than the other way round. But once we accept that cultural decay results from a lack of economic opportunity, it seems perverse to blame the people trapped in these disadvantaged areas for the problem.

And there’s a larger question here, which is: who is this “community” that is meant to solve the problems of Appalachia and the Rust Belt, and how are they meant to do it? Do we really think the Ladies’ Garden Club, or the Baptist church with 100 members, is going to create new jobs, or help those who’ve gotten caught up in the criminal justice system due to addiction get their lives on track, or feed three meals a day to the three kids whose single mom can’t afford to work because day care costs more than a public college and she doesn’t have a reliable support system? No, addressing these needs is going to require “the community” coming together in a much more large-scale way, with enough funding to actually make a difference... hmm, this sounds like government, whether it’s involved directly or through providing funding. After all, what other institution can claim to represent the entire community?

But Vance – who at the time he wrote this was living in San Francisco, not working in that “community” onto which he offloaded responsibility – takes the well-worn route of blaming individuals for not being perfect, and then using human weaknesses to justify his argument that government shouldn’t help them. When writing about his teenage job at a grocery store, he takes the opportunity to complain about food stamp recipients: some of them bought steaks (likely meaning they’d go hungry at the end of the month, though he doesn’t mention that), while others “gamed the welfare system” by “ring[ing] up their orders separately, buying food with food stamps, and beer, wine, and cigarettes with cash.” That is how food stamps are supposed to work, by the way: you buy food with them, and non-food items with your own money.

Of course, in a perfect world all poor people would only ever make smart financial decisions, and none would ever indulge in luxuries or have addictions. But, you know, people are human, and I don’t blame them; would you scrimp every penny if you saw no prospect of anything better on the horizon, or would you try to enjoy what you had while it lasted? I understand the teenage Vance’s anger at seeing others receive public benefits while he worked and was still poor (though he doesn’t address whether he and his grandmother qualified for food stamps but opted not to apply, or whether they made more money than their neighbors). But he merely complains about “welfare queens” – trying to make this concept acceptable to liberals by applying it to poor white people – without offering any actual solutions.

In reality, more than a quarter of households receiving food stamps consist of elderly or disabled adults, while 58% of able-bodied, working-age recipients of food stamps are employed when they apply, and 82% within a year. I would guess those numbers are lower in economically depressed areas like the ones Vance describes, where jobs aren’t always available. But simply working isn’t the answer when 45% of retail employees receive some type of government benefits. And of course conservatives also oppose increases in the minimum wage, which might help these people make it through their work alone.

So it’s unclear how Vance thinks poor and working-class people ought to feed their families and otherwise make ends meet, but let’s just focus on a couple of people who from the outside at least look lazy and entitled, and then place blame responsibility on a “community” that we aren’t part of, and we can all go home satisfied. Right? I grant you that he sounds a lot saner than many Republican politicians these days when it comes to questions like why so many people distrust the media or believe Obama isn’t a citizen, but he certainly doesn’t say anything here to convince me that putting him in office would be good for his constituency or the country.

That said, the book is mostly about his story rather than politics; while I don’t want to see him in office (at least not unless he’s able to find more compassion for those outside his immediate circle and propose real solutions), I do recognize his achievements and believe that he has a story worth the telling. So read it if you like, but don’t turn off critical thinking just because he seems more rational than many current politicians.