Hillbilly Elegy

If I were to ask you what you think of when you think about poverty in the United States what would you say?  If I were to ask you to describe the face of poverty, what would it look like?  Would it be Black, Latino, Native American?  If I were to ask you where you could encounter the most poverty, would you tell me the inner-city, the rural farm land, reservations?

I would wager that the majority of you would describe poverty in our country, in an almost instinctual way, as looking like one of the aforementioned groups, in one of these “predictable” areas.  And up until a few days ago, I would have described poverty in a very similar way.  I have mentioned before how oftentimes in our context we talk about race when what we are really trying to talk about is socio-economic class—when we speak of minorities and social problems, what we are really discussing (whether we know it or not) is the poor and social problems.  This subconscious interchange, however, is completely decimated upon the examination of a population that will shift everything you think you know to be true about our country and poverty: the poor, white, working-class American.

In the memoir Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance we are able to get a glimpse into this world of vicious cycles, drug addiction, learned helplessness, broken families, and a culture in crisis.  J.D. was one of the lucky ones, making it out of the Rust Belt city of Middletown, Ohio to serve in the Marine Corps, attend Ohio State, and ultimately graduate from Yale Law School.  Throughout his book, J.D. credits several factors for his success—the support of his grandparents (Mamaw and Papaw), the modeling of healthy relationships by his sister and his aunt, and the understanding that he could accomplish anything that he set his mind to (a value instilled in him during his time in the Marines).

J.D. walks us step-by-step through his childhood, riddled by plight, pain, and generational poverty, introspectively observing the plethora of obstacles that faced not only him, but the poor, white American population as a whole.  There are the factors such as residential segregation (with the number of working class whites in high poverty neighborhoods growing) that so closely resemble what has happened with minority groups that when reading the work The Truly Disadvantaged by William Julius Wilson, J.D. wanted to write a letter to Wilson, telling him how accurately he had described the plight of the hillbillies from Appalachia.  Except Wilson hadn’t been writing about the transplant of hillbillies, he had been writing about black people in the inner city.  So similar was the struggle that to even J.D., someone who had lived through it, the experience was indistinguishable.

As you begin to get deeper into this enlightening expose, you are struck time and time again by the complexity of poverty and the all-encompassing weight that comes with it.  You are forced to stare head-on into the reality that there is no simple solution (and maybe no solution at all) for the Appalachian poor and that their elegy is a sociological one, but also one of faith and psychology and community and culture.  And that the culture has parts of it that are beautiful.  Like a fierce loyalty, a biting sense of humor, and a resilience to survive that is humbling.  But the culture also has parts that are ugly.  Like the learned helplessness, the lack of personal responsibility, and the use of physical and verbal abuse in the face of conflict.  It is a family, a community, a culture, in crisis.

J.D. and his family at bootcamp graduation.

J.D. Vance sites a variety of studies and statistics to support his anecdotal sharing of the current situation of poor, white Americans.  He references a recent study that found that unique to all other ethnic groups in the United States, the life expectancy of working class whites is going down.  He additionally mentions the study done by The Pew Economic Mobility Project which examines how Americans evaluate their chances at economic betterment.  The study found that there is no group of Americans more pessimistic than working-class whites.  An additional study was published by a team of economists on the topic of opportunity in America.  Not surprisingly, the opportunity for a poor child to rise through the ranks of American society was extremely low (European countries are doing overwhelmingly better at living the American dream than we are).   And more importantly, that opportunity was not equally disbursed throughout the country.  In Appalachia, the Rust Belt, and the South, poor children struggled even more than their counterparts across the nation.  The authors of this study credited the uneven geographical distribution to two main factors: the prevalence of single parents and income segregation (both of which are factors that J.D. experiences in a very real way throughout the course of his childhood).

With his evidence based facts and narrative illustrations, J.D. Vance vividly and heart-breakingly paints for us the mural of the poor, white American.  He matter-of-factly calls out the cultural movement that has shifted blame for all of the hillbillies’ problems onto politicians and society, actively evading any personal responsibility or ownership.  He discusses the powerful motivator of group belief and how those who believe it is in their best interest to work hard are able to outperform those who do not believe, and how all of these things power the wheels of the vicious cycles that are the Hillbilly Elegy.

This book opened my ignorant eyes.  It made me mad.  It made me sad.  It made me feel hopeless.  And then it gave me the smallest sliver of hope.  If J.D. Vance can do it, can break this deeply engrained culture of poverty, so can someone else.  If he possessed the strength and the resources to change his circumstances, so can someone else.  If he could persist and educate the world through his resilience and through his #1 New York Times Bestseller, so can someone else.

So I encourage you today to be educated.  To read Hillbilly Elegy.  To learn about the debilitating poverty that exists in our own backyard.  And to understand that those living in it might look a lot more like you than you feel comfortable with.

If I were to ask you what you think of when you think about poverty in the United States what would you say?  If I were to ask you to describe the face of poverty, what would it look like?


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