I just finished reading Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance. It is an amazing book and, I think, and important one.
I had imagined that Hillbilly Elegy would be a kind of social culture study of the Scots-Irish who came to the U.S. and settled in Kentucky and other parts of Appalachia. However, I was surprised—and then delighted—to see that it was not that. Instead, it was a very personal memoir by Vance, who grew up as part of a hillbilly clan who had migrated from Kentucky to the steel mill town of Middletown, Ohio.
What hit me first was Vance’s personal story. Like him, I grew up in a fractured family without a father and with few male role models, but with a nearby extended family. My mother, my brother, and I lived with my grandparents in a little one-bedroom house that had been meant as a temporary residence, but which had been the family’s home for a couple of decades already when I was born. My grandmother’s brothers and sisters had all bought lots up and down the same street when the local farmer decided to sub-divide, so I was rarely out of earshot of a relative. Down the street was my best friend, whose aunt had married my uncle. It was all family. We were also poor—in the midst of an otherwise healthy middle class neighborhood— something we didn’t talk about. So, it was rewarding to see someone else talk honestly and in detail about growing up in a similarly complex environment.
Vance, who escaped the poverty of his youth to go to Ohio State and then Yale Law School, gives us an insight into the inner workings of this group of Americans—descendants of Scots-Irish immigrants who came to the U.S. in the early 1800s and settled in the coal mining area of Kentucky and whose descendants migrated to the coal and steel towns of what is now known as the Rust Belt. The strong multi-generational family culture, the willingness to fight “outsiders” who threaten that culture, and the traps that tend to keep them from more fully integrating into society are all explored as Vance tells his own story.
Vance also takes time to analyze the white working class culture. He notes that the decline of the blue-collar economy has increased cynicism about the position of working people in American society, but that “there was something almost spiritual about the cynicism of the community at large, something that went much deeper than a short-term recession” (p. 188). Herein lies one timely lesson of Vance’s memoir. It is a culture, he observes, that feels increasingly isolated from the core of an American society that has rejected a commitment to its working people. “If Mamaw’s God was the United States of America,” he writes, “then many people in my community were losing something akin to a religion. The tie that bound them to their neighbors, that inspired them in the way my patriotism has always inspired me, had seemingly vanished” (p. 190).
Vance asserts that the news media and conservative politicians have encouraged working people to look not to themselves but to government to blame for their inability to succeed in today’s economy. “There is,” he writes, citing a Pew Economic Mobility Project study, “no group of Americans more pessimistic than working-class whites” (p. 194).
That pessimism is very likely—and ironically—what has drawn working white men and women to the radical right-wing views expressed by Donald Trump and the “alt.right.” In the mid-twentieth century, labor unions had given steelworkers, miners, and many other occupations a level of financial and social stability that they had never seen. The very term “redneck” comes from the red bandanas of pro-union coal miners in West Virginia. The 21st century, however, has seen a weakening of the labor movement as corporations take jobs out of the country in order to avoid reasonable wages for American workers. Government has chosen not to fight the corporations, leaving workers without support. While it is very strange that workers would turn to one of the most opportunistic corporate leaders in this election, they clearly hear his pitch, however insincere it may be.
The question for all of us must be: how can we provide real opportunities for working people to succeed in the new global information society that has sprung up around us? This was the message of Bernie Sanders. Elements of that remain alive in Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
Politics aside, what should we do? Some thoughts:
We need to move beyond the current Affordable Care Act to a true national health system that guarantees all citizens access to medical services. The issue should not be to make health insurance more easily accessible; it should be to make access to health care a right of citizenship.
We need to tax corporations that move jobs overseas or that move corporate operations out of the country in order to avoid taxes. Corporations that benefit from the American economy must contribute to its health, pure and simple.
We need a minimum wage that allows anyone who works full time to be able to support his/her family.
We need to explore a modern counterpart to the Civilian Conservation Corps to ensure that all Americans have access to work that feeds their families and contributes to the community. The military must not be the only refuge for people who cannot find employment. This might also serve as part of a “year of service” expectation for young people between the time they leave school and when they become full-time workers or move on to college.
Finally, we need to make some level of postsecondary education available as a right of all citizens. This may be a two-year period that would allow someone to gain a license or an associate degree or make a start toward a baccalaureate degree. Today’s economy requires that workers have greater training. Ensuring that our workforce is prepared for the economy is, ultimately, a national security issue.
These solutions are reminiscent of FDR. The key, as I read the implications of Hillbilly Elegy, is to empower people rather than put them on the dole. Underneath it all is the need for government—“of the people, by the people, for the people”—to respect the needs of citizens rather than cater to corporations. It is a “build up,” rather than “trickle down” approach to creating a healthy economy.