J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy became a best seller, and the author was a media presence during the 2016 presidential campaign. Hillbilly Elegy blends a story with a message. The story is a memoir featuring a vivid portrait of Vance’s dysfunctional family. The message purports to draw social and political lessons from the memoir.
There is substantial overlap between Vance’s profile and mine. Both of us grew up in Appalachia and have Scotch-Irish ancestry. Our families were poor. (My father was a coal miner.) Each of us was the first in his family to earn a college degree: Vance from Ohio State University and I from West Virginia University. Each of us went on to another more prestigious institution: Vance to Yale and I to Oxford. Both of us left Appalachia after completing our education. Vance has become a venture capitalist in Silicon Valley. I became a Philadelphia lawyer (now retired).
One striking difference between Vance and me is that I did not have a dysfunctional family. Vance’s racy account of his family is entertaining in a cringe-worthy way but will not seem novel to anyone who is familiar with Jesco White and his family, who were chronicled in the videos “Dancing Outlaw” and “The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia.”
One may doubt, therefore, that the family story alone would have landed Hillbilly Elegy on the bestseller list or Vance on the television screen. More likely, it was the political message that made Vance and his book the darling of The National Review and like-minded media outlets. As summarized by Mona Charen in The National Review:
Though the name Donald Trump is never mentioned, there is no doubt in the reader’s mind that the people who populate this book would be enthusiastic Trumpites.
But the book is far deeper than an explanation of the Trump phenomenon (which it doesn’t, by the way, claim to be). It’s a harrowing portrait of much that has gone wrong in America over the past two generations.
The American character has been corrupted by multiple generations of government dependency and the loss of bourgeois virtues like self-control, delayed gratification, family stability, thrift, and industriousness. Vance has risen out of chaos to the heights of stability, success, and happiness.
In other words, government dependency has produced the ills of Appalachia, but Vance’s story shows that such ills can be overcome simply by rejecting the dependency and adhering to “bourgeois virtues.”
I suspect that Vance intended Hillbilly Elegy to be interpreted in that way, but there are internal contradictions. Consider, for example, the following excerpt:
Of course, the reasons poor people aren’t working as much as others are complicated, and it’s too easy to blame the problem on laziness. For many, part-time work is all they have access to, because the Armcos of the world are going out of business and their skill sets don’t fit well in the modern economy.
The more telling contradictions are found in Vance’s personal story. His climb from Appalachian poverty began with a stint in the Marine Corps — a government program. After that, he acknowledges, “the GI Bill [another government program] paid for a significant chunk of my education” at Ohio State. When he was accepted by the Yale Law School, he found that “the financial aid package Yale offered exceeded my wildest dreams. In my first year, it was nearly a full ride. That wasn’t because of anything I’d done or earned — it was because I was one of the poorest kids in school.”
Vance may have “risen out of chaos to the heights of stability, success, and happiness,” as Mona Charen put it, but his talent and industriousness had plenty of government and institutional support. As Vance finally acknowledges:
I had Pell Grants and government-subsidized low-interest student loans that made college affordable, and need-based scholarships for law school. I never went hungry, thanks at least in part to the old-age benefits that Mamaw generously shared with me.
Hillbilly Elegy also notes that Appalachia’s economic woes may not be the result of government programs. For example:
Efforts to reinvent downtown Middletown always struck me as futile. People didn’t leave because our downtown lacked trendy cultural amenities. The trendy cultural amenities left because there weren’t enough consumers in Middletown to support them. And why weren’t there enough well-paying consumers? Because there weren’t enough jobs to employ those consumers. Downtown Middletown’s struggles were a symptom of everything else happening to Middletown’s people, especially the collapsing importance of Armco Kawasaki Steel.
Hillbilly Elegy paints an accurate picture of hopelessness and despair in Appalachia but fails in its attempt to blame that on a culture of dependency created by government programs. It relies on tales of welfare recipients unwilling to work and users of food stamps who have phones that the young Vance cannot afford, an argument that is not unlike Reagan’s citation of “welfare queens” as evidence that abuses by some beneficiaries of a program justify its elimination.
Some reviews of Hillbilly Elegy have been neutral about its message. For example, Jennifer Senior in The New York Times wrote: “Mr. Vance doesn’t have all the answers. But he’s advancing the conversation.” I have found only two reviews in major publications that were hostile to the message — one by Sarah Jones in The New Republic and another by Alec MacGillis in The Atlantic. Jones wrote that the book “is little more than a list of myths about welfare queens repackaged as a primer on the white working class. Vance’s central argument is that hillbillies themselves are to blame for their troubles.” Jones asked, “How do you get off the dole when there’s not enough work to go around? Frequently, you don’t.”
MacGillis was more illuminating, writing that Vance is wrong
that the burden of fixing things falls entirely on his people. The problems he describes—the reasons life in Middletown got tougher for his mom’s generation than it was for Mamaw and Papaw when they came north for work—have plenty to do with decisions by “governments or corporations.” The government and corporations have presided over the rise of new monopolies, the effect of which has been to concentrate wealth in a handful of companies and regions. The government and corporations welcomed China into the World Trade Organization; more and more economists now believe that move hastened the erosion of American manufacturing, by encouraging U.S. companies to shift operations offshore.
The government and corporations each did their part to weaken organized labor, which once boosted wages and strengthened the social fabric in places like Middletown. More recently, the government has accelerated the decline of the coal industry, on environmentally defensible grounds but with awfully little in the way of remedies for those affected.
I agree with Vance that there is a sense of despair in Appalachia, but I vehemently disagree with his diagnosis that government programs are the cause and his implied prescription that government withdrawal would enable Appalachians to throw off their dependency and recover a mythical past of prosperity and happiness.
I wonder whether my disagreements with Vance may be related to another difference in our profiles. I grew up when Roosevelt’s New Deal was lifting the prosperity, spirits and aspirations of my family and our neighbors. Vance experienced the Reagan-Bush-Clinton years when government became “the problem, not the solution.”
Like Vance, I rose from poverty to success and relative affluence. Unlike Vance, I want the ladders he and I used to remain available, and I would provide more assistance to those whose circumstances or condition prevent their using any ladder.