Telling tough truths: J. D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy”

J. D. Vance is a young Yale law graduate, who rose from what he calls Kentucky hillbilly culture. Hillbilly Elegy is memoir-cum-sociology, aptly titled; an elegy expresses sorrow for human loss.

We’re not supposed to blame the poor for their poverty. Yet that’s just what Vance does, more or less. Though sometimes lyrical in his love for his people, he’s scathing in critiquing their social pathology.

That social pathology is often attributed to the rustbelt’s hollowing out of old time manufacturing jobs. Vance doesn’t buy it. True, the jobs picture is a big problem, but he sees it as greatly worsened by how his people have responded to it.

Some studies say less educated men work more than the educated classes. This too is rubbish, according to Vance. Such data is often based on asking people how much they work — but they lie. Too many of “his people” don’t do much work, Vance says, even if they do have jobs.

The introduction discusses an early job Vance had in a tile warehouse. A fellow employee was “Bob,” nineteen, with a pregnant girlfriend, who was also hired, as a clerical worker. These were good jobs, with excellent health benefits. But the two were chronically late or absent, and Bob spent much of the workday in lengthy “bathroom breaks.” Both were eventually fired. Bob was pissed.

So was Vance. For him, this tale exemplifies the fecklessness of such losers, always blaming others for predicaments really of their own making.

I’ve previously reviewed Robert Putnam’s book, Our Kids, exploring the socioeconomic divide between better educated and less educated Americans, and the difficulties of moving from one milieu to the other. Vance’s memoir illustrates what Putnam was talking about.

A key factor is the decline of stable two-parent families. In past eras, poverty was much worse (like in the Depression, with far less government help), yet even poor people mostly married and stayed married. No longer. Family life among less educated people has become frequently shambolic, with women cycling through parades of often useless men. Vance’s mom did that. He couldn’t even figure out whom to count as siblings. She abused drugs too.

“This was my world,” he writes, “a world of truly irrational behavior. We spend our way into the poor house . . . . [using] high-interest credit cards and payday loans . . . . Thrift is inimical to our being . . . . no investment to grow our wealth, no rainy-day fund . . . . Our homes are a chaotic mess. We scream and yell at each other . . . . At least one member of the family uses drugs . . . . we’ll hit and punch each other . . . . We don’t study as children, and we don’t make our kids study when we’re parents. Our kids perform poorly in school. We might get angry with them, but we never give them the tools — like peace and quiet at home — to succeed . . . . We choose not to work when we should be looking for jobs. Sometimes we’ll get a job but it won’t last. We’ll get fired for tardiness or for stealing . . . . or the smell of alcohol on our breath, or for taking five thirty-minute bathroom breaks per shift. We talk about the value of hard work but tell ourselves that the reason we’re not working is some perceived unfairness: Obama shut down the coal mines, or all the jobs went to the Chinese. These are the lies we tell ourselves . . . . ”

Vance explains how family dysfunction is handed down from generation to generation. It’s more than just people mirroring their parents’ example. There are adverse developmental effects, impairing kids’ later ability to negotiate all aspects of living, particularly in maintaining healthy interpersonal relationships. Violent episodes in childhood trigger classic “fight or flight” responses which, when repeated enough, actually rewire one’s brain, making that stance a default mode — a chronically stressed and prickly mental state with, again, baleful effects on one’s future human relationships.

Vance would have fallen into the syndrome himself, but for “Mamaw” — his grandmother, who pretty much rescued him from life with his mother (her daughter). Mamaw was no paragon of virtue or refinement either, being a foul-mouthed product of the same culture — but of its earlier incarnation. A crucial difference: “I knew even as a child that there were two separate sets of mores and social pressures. My grandparents embodied one type: old-fashioned, quietly faithful, self-reliant, hardworking. My mother and, increasingly, the entire neighborhood, embodied another.” Mamaw gave Vance a stable, peaceful home, and helped him to see clearly a better path. He was able to shun all the kinds of dysfunction he writes about mainly because, with Mamaw, he was happy.

At least partially explaining all the social pathology is what Vance refers to as “learned helplessness.” (A concept developed by psychologist Martin Seligman.) People like “Bob” (of the tile job) act as they do because they don’t really see themselves as making choices. Instead it’s as though what happens to them is fate, beyond their control, so there is no point in making any kind of effort or resisting any inclination. Again, it’s blaming others, or the cosmos, for what befalls them. Overcoming this psychology, and developing a sense of personal agency, was a key element in Vance’s own rise to a better life.

Here’s another factor Vance discusses. Love of country — seriously — loomed large in his people’s lives. But that tie that bound them together as a community, akin to a religion, has been fraying too, succumbing to a deep distrust toward the nation’s institutions. Vance wrote before the 2016 election but these passages have great resonance for understanding today’s political picture. President Obama was seen as an alien; quintessentially the product of a social system that’s not working for Vance’s people. Indeed, Obama’s personal success was a mirror to their own failure. Conspiracy theories about him (like birtherism), and other such nonsense, gain credence when the mainstream media is one more societal institution no longer trusted. Politicians too, of course, are distrusted; while many of them promote the idea that the economy is rigged as well and, on the right, the idea that it’s all the government’s fault. A toxic contrapuntal. “You can’t believe these things,” Vance says, “and participate meaningfully in society. Social psychologists have shown that group belief is a powerful motivator in performance.” Vance’s people have lost their sense of belonging and loyalty to the American project.

We can yearn for some magic bullet to fix this; some government initiative perhaps. But Vance rejects that fantasy. Indeed, he sees past government efforts as part of the problem, talking about how hard-working people watch their tax dollars go to support, in these communities, an awful lot of others who don’t work, even buying things with food stamps those working folks can’t afford. This too undermines communitarian social solidarity; and Vance cites it as a key factor in his region’s political shift away from Democrats.

It all feeds into a basic attitude of existential pessimism. Most blacks and Hispanics, Vance notes, report optimism about their future; working class whites, not so much. And he sees that as something of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So this is a tale not of progress but of its opposite, regress. The humanist and optimist in me, looking at the broad global picture, over the centuries, sees a great human capability to progress, and great progress actually achieved. But it’s never locked in. We also have ample capability for squandering it and regressing.

So we come back to the question we started with.  How much, in the end, is people’s own fault? It’s the old question of luck versus pluck. I did a lot right in my own life, and could say it was brains and character, yet realize that having those characteristics was just luck. Vance confronts the issue with particular regard to his mother. He recognizes all the demons to which his mother was exposed. “But at some point . . . you have to stop making excuses and take responsibility.” That’s what he did with his own life. His book is powerful testimony to how hard it can be. Yet it also makes clear that Vance is not unique. Not seeing ourselves as hapless victims is the best of being human. We do not succumb; we surmount. 

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2 Responses to “Telling tough truths: J. D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy””

  1. Lee Says:

    We have to ask whether the hillbillies would have had better results if they had followed your recipe. Getting married and being on time for work doesn’t help if your annual income is going to be only $15,500 annually (minimum wage) even with that steady job. In other words, is Vance right to call it “learned helplessness” or is it an “actual helplessness” to make more than an insignificant difference in ones life? If it is going to be the poorhouse either way, then why try to follow the rules?

    You didn’t explain how Vance made it to and through Yale Law School. Were there good scholarships involved? Could it be that the most significant difference between the failures and the successful people is that the latter had resources: money to get through school without having to work 40 hours per week at the same time, a nest egg to start a business with, books to learn from, someone to bail you out of your inevitable mistakes, a well-connected mentor, etc.?

    Sure, we can’t be Santa Claus every time somebody needs something, but we can do better than we are doing. Cutting income tax rates isn’t going to help people who aren’t earning enough to be taxed.

  2. Paul Landsberg Says:

    One thing that strikes me is that if Vance is right, the prospect for a solution is dim. How does a segment of society regain a work ethic? How does personal responsibility suddenly get instilled? Ugh.

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