Thursday, October 13, 2016

Some comments on Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance

J. D. Vance grew up in a working class area of the "rustbelt" (Middletown, Ohio). His family comes from rural western Kentucky and he declares himself a hillbilly (one of his ancestors is Hatfield of the Hatfields and McCoys). Mr Vance recently published a memoir and commentary on "his people", Hillbilly Elegy.

The book has been getting a lot of press as it is supposed to explain the strong white working class support for Donald Trump. I highly recommend the book as an explanation of a culture which many never see. It also explains the actions and mindset of many of the poor (I'll explain more below).

I'm not going to do a regular review of the book but rather comment on a few things which struck me while reading the book.

First, Mr. Vance brings up an unintended consequence of today's political rhetoric. One of the traditional complaints made by conservatives about the expansion of the government and welfare state since the Great Society is that rather than encouraging poor people to work hard to better themselves, the government came in and said "it's not your fault, it's discrimination, sexism, residual effects of slavery," or something similar." The complaint is that it tells people that the government will fix their problems so they don't have to work hard.

Mr. Vance notices a related effect of today's politics, but it's that poor people have gotten a message from anti-government conservatives: "it's not your fault you're poor or unemployed, it's the [welfare state] government's fault." Political criticism of government has translated into somebody to blame. And the political criticism too often leaves the message that it's not worth trying.

Some of those critical of Mr. Vance's book have said that he could have been writing about any disadvantaged group (blacks, Native Americans, etc). Mr. Vance makes this connection at one point in the book, comparing a book about black migration to cities in the North to his experience, saying the book could have been written about his relations. It should be clear that in many ways the book is not about Hillbillies but instead about America's underclass, the poor and (underemployed) working class.

I ran into similar views on poverty several years ago when I attended a seminar about a program Bridges out of Poverty. This program says many of the same things Mr. Vance says in his book about his "hillbilly" family. The Bridges out of Poverty seminar I attended didn't define poverty in terms of income. Rather, it defines poverty in terms of lifestyle. It describes people who won't save, don't plan ahead, and are constantly broke because of some unexpected expense. Their lifestyle is often chaotic, stressful, and unstable. Their children don't grow up in stable homes, often repeating the process generation after generation.

These are the people J. D. Vance is writing about. In good times they often do well. With stable, reasonably well paying employment and benefits things go well. As society changes and life isn't always stable these societies decay and we have today's rust belt economy.

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