A Bit 'o Random Musings on Politics, Religion, and Anything Else That Passes Through My Crazy Head

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Reflections on Hillbilly Elegy

One of my book clubs decided to read Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance as our March selection. Vance's book is a memoir about his self-described hillbilly upbringing in Kentucky and Ohio with a dysfunctional but (sometimes) loving family. The book has been a New York Times Bestseller and is highly acclaimed by many seeking to understand Trump voters and "Middle America." I finished the book a few days ago, and I've been struggling to articulate what it is I didn't like about it. So, I am doing a blog post to see if I can capture some of the reasons I found it problematic.

To start with, I should say that writing a critique of someone's heartfelt memoir is problematic in and of itself. This book was a well-told story of a painful upbringing, and it was written compassionately about people who otherwise might seem crazy. It would be wrong of me to critique someone's life story - it is Vance's lived experience, and I thought he told his truth well. I know much less about Appalachia than Vance, so it is of course presumptuous of me to criticize Vance's experiences. However, I think the book goes awry when it extrapolates Vance's family's experiences to a culture at large, and proscribes "solutions" that involve people just trying harder.

I should also say that there is much that I liked about the book - Vance does a good job of painting the picture of a kid who is a fish out of water at Yale and in the military. I definitely think there are issues that this book illuminated for me, which I wouldn't have thought about otherwise. But, my "hot take" awaits! Here, in no particular order, are some of the things I didn't enjoy about the book. I've tried to use examples that I remember from the book, but I'm bad at finding and citing them, so I do apologize about that.

Poor People Deserve to Be Poor
While not found on every page, in some of the stories that Vance tells, there is a whiff of Social Darwinism. By that I mean, he often ascribes poverty to people's own poor choices. He describes working in a tile warehouse where a young man who was hired was lazy, took long breaks, and was ultimately fired. Vance uses that story as an example of why hillbilly people ultimately don't deserve to prosper, yet within the same story he also admits that most employees of the company have been there for years, which undercuts his claim that it's hard to find non-lazy employees. I don't think he adequately explains the role of luck, which I think has a lot more to do with our success or failure than we care to admit. 

Welfare Queens
Related to the point above, Vance tells some stories about people who game the welfare system. He's understandably frustrated to see people sell their food stamps so they can buy cigarettes and booze, or who have late model cell phones yet use government assistance. Yet I was annoyed that he used this as a sweeping indictment of the welfare system for everyone. Are there people who misuse welfare? Yes, of course! Is that a reason to dismiss all welfare recipients as undeserving moochers? Of course not! These types of judgments allow us to feel morally superior, but don't have a basis in reality, because most studies show a pretty low level of fraud in the welfare system. Not to mention, most food stamp recipients are getting $1 - $1.25 per meal per person, which is hardly enough to get wealthy on!!!

Us Versus Them
The narrative is often driven by a rhetoric of grievance - "coastal elites" versus "hillbillies." While of course there are many many many differences between those groups, I firmly believe that both groups have selfish and selfless souls. Rather than seeking to unite us, the book seems to push the narrative that the snobby elites can never really understand or empathize with the hillbillies. Nor does it seem to acknowledge that many of the problems affecting hillbillies also impact other marginalized groups (immigrants, African Americans, etc.).

It's Up to Us (the Hillbillies) to Fix It
In one anecdote, Vance derides hillbillies who don't or won't recognize that children's teeth rotting from drinking soda is a problem. This is understandably terrible, but I think he fails to recognize the many ways society contributes to this problem. For example, we subsidize corn, which makes corn syrup, used in many sodas, a cheap ingredient, thus making soda very cheap to buy. Vance finishes his book with a declaration of the inadequacy of government solutions, and a call to each of us to think about what we can do to individually to solve this problem: "These problems were not created by governments or corporations or anyone else. We created them, and only we can fix them" (Page 256). I think that analysis is fundamentally flawed in a lot of ways. It lets me off the hook - since I don't live in Appalachia, there is nothing I am required to do to help my fellow citizens.

I posted earlier this week about "big government" and this is one of those areas where I do believe that government can play a role in addressing systemic poverty. We can adequately fund drug treatment and trial diversion programs. We can address housing inequality, an overworked social worker system, gun violence, lack of educational opportunities, inadequate minimum wage, and other barriers that prevent people from rising above their circumstances. To do this, we have to recognize that we are all in the same boat - this is a problem that affects all of us, and we need to come together to find societal solutions. None of this is easy, but to address these problems we need the recognition that there is a problem, and I do think Vance's book helps explain the scope of the problem on a "micro" level.

Some Links
Here are some links that I thought about while reading, or found while looking up points for this post.
Just How Wrong is Conventional Wisdom About Government Fraud? - From The Atlantic
I Drove my Mercedes to Pick Up Food Stamps - OpEd from Newsday
Who's Missing from College Education? Rural Students - From NPR
Living on Food Stamps - A Twitter Thread about the Realities of Being a Food Stamp Recipient (read the whole thing!)
EITC Promotes Work - Report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities on the effectiveness of the "Earned Income Tax Credit"

So, have any of you read Hillbilly Elegy? What are your thoughts? I won't pretend that my opinion is the only one that matters.

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