I mentioned the other day that I’ve been reading J. D. Vance’s memoir, Hillbilly Elegy. It’s been on my reading list since late 2016, when it made a stir by explaining why so many people who used to vote reliably Democrat voted for Donald Trump.
I heard about the book when the author gave an Uncommon Knowledge interview. What interested me wasn’t so much the explanation for Trump voters, although that’s interesting. But it explains the value of social capital, and most particularly the value of strong families.
|J. D. Vance (right), screen shot from Uncommon Knowledge|
I appreciate Vance’s ability to identify the social and psychological issues, with a clear, insider’s view of what policies haven’t worked and why. By the end of his Marine Corps service, he was politically conservative. And life—if you can understand it from the inside—probably leads naturally to that viewpoint.
What surprised me much more than I expected about the book is how much his story resonates with me personally. So I’m working through that too.
But I’d like to share a few of Vance’s insights, because I think it’s another support of the Spherical Model, with the political, economic, and social spheres all interrelated.
In his late teen years, J. D. worked at a local grocery store. He handled plenty of people on welfare, and gained some insights:
I also learned how people gamed the welfare system. They’d buy two dozen-packs of soda with food stamps and then sell them at a discount for cash. They’d ring up their orders separately, buying food with food stamps, and beer, wine, and cigarettes with cash. They’d regularly go through the checkout line speaking on their cell phones. I could never understand why our lives felt like a struggle while those living off of government largesse enjoyed trinkets that I only dreamed about.
Mamaw [his grandmother] listened intently to my experiences at Dillman’s. We began to view much of our fellow working class with mistrust. Most of us were struggling to get by, but we made do, worked hard, and hoped for a better life. But a large minority was content to live off the dole. Every two weeks, I’d get a small paycheck and notice the line where federal and state income taxes were deducted from my wages. At least as often, our drug-addict neighbor would buy T-bone steaks, which I was too poor to buy for myself but was forced by Uncle Sam to buy for someone else. This was my mind-set when I was seventeen, and though I’m far less angry today than I was then, it was my first indication that the policies of Mamaw’s “party of the working man”—the Democrats—weren’t all they were cracked up to be (pp. 418-420)[i].
He adds in some outside commentary at this point:
Political scientists have spent millions of words trying to explain how Appalachia and the South went from staunchly Democratic to staunchly Republican in less than a generation. Some blame race relations and the Democratic Party’s embrace of the civil rights movement. Others cite religious faith and the hold that social conservatism has on evangelicals in that region. A big part of the explanation lies in the fact that many in the white working class saw precisely what I did, working at Dillman’s. As far back as the 1970s, the white working class began to turn to Richard Nixon because of a perception that, as one man put it, government was “payin’ people who are on welfare today doin’ nothin’! They’re laughin’ at our society! And we’re all hardworkin’ people and we’re getting’ laughed at for workin’ every day!”[ii]
He goes on to share a bit more of Mamaw’s seemingly contradictory feelings—more like “those hateful Republicans” than the Democrat voter she was:
She’d rant against people we’d see in the grocery store: “I can’t understand why people who’ve worked all their lives scrape by while these deadbeats buy liquor and cell phone coverage with our tax money.”
These were bizarre views for my bleeding-heart grandma. And if she blasted the government for doing too much one day, she’d blast it for doing too little the next….
Mamaw’s sentiments occupied wildly different parts of the political spectrum. Depending on her mood, Mamaw was a radical conservative or a European-style social Democrat…. I began to see the world as Mamaw did. I was scared, confused, angry, and heartbroken. I’d blame large businesses for closing up shop and moving overseas, and then I’d wonder if I might have done the same thing. I’d curse our government for not helping enough, and then I’d wonder if, in its attempts to help, it actually made the problem worse (pp. 223-227).
Even though he wasn’t much of a student in his teen years, he was a curious reader. This section strikes a chord with me:
I consumed books about social policy and the working poor. One book in particular, a study by eminent sociologist William Julius Wilson called The Truly Disadvantaged, struck a nerve. I was sixteen the first time I read it, and though I didn’t fully understand it all, I grasped the core thesis. As millions migrated north to factory jobs, the communities that sprouted up around those factories were vibrant but fragile: When the factories shut their doors, the people left behind were trapped in towns and cities that could no longer support such large populations with high-quality work. Those who could—generally the well educated, wealthy, or well connected—left, leaving behind communities of poor people. These remaining folks were the “truly disadvantaged”—unable to find good jobs on their own and surrounded by communities that offered little in the way of connections or social support.
Wilson’s book spoke to me. I wanted to write him a letter and tell him that he had described my home perfectly. That it resonated so personally is odd, however, because he wasn’t writing about the hillbilly transplants from Appalachia—he was writing about black people in the inner cities. The same was true of Charles Murray’s seminal Losing Ground, another book about black folks that could have been written about hillbillies—which addressed the way our government encouraged social decay through the welfare state (pp. 432-434).
Charles Murray’s book Coming Apart talks about some of the same issues, although more generically about the poor and their behavior that keeps them from social and economic mobility, rather than about blacks in particular. The wealthiest zip codes live a certain way, morally, but they don’t seem to dare share those secrets with the working poor.
It would be years before I learned that no single book, or expert, or field could fully explain the problems of hillbillies in modern America. Our elegy is a sociological one, yes, but it is also about psychology and community and culture and faith (p. 435).
In Vance’s case, he manages to graduate from high school, spend four years in the Marines, graduate from Ohio State, and then Yale Law School.
It turns out that, for someone of his income level, Yale Law School is not only a better education, but a cheaper option than anything else he might have tried. They have needs-based financial aid available just for such cases. But students like him have no way to know that. As he says, “That first year at Yale taught me most of all that I didn’t know how the world worked” (p. 626).
An earlier example is the picture of him and his grandmother, near the end of his high school years, trying to fill out financial aid forms, being asked about his father’s income. But his legal father had been totally absent from his life for over a decade. Obviously, the form wanted to know what other resources the student had, and clearly his father wasn’t a resource. But, to them, puzzling through something they have no experience with, they’re trying to figure out how to get this unknowable piece of information in order to comply to the powers that be.
This was so familiar to me. Back in junior high (7th-9th grades) I was earning straight As, but at that point in my life, I was completely unaware that there was any possibility I could ever go to college. The message I got was, people like us (i.e., lower-middle-class people like our family) don’t get those kinds of lives.
By 9th grade my friends planted the idea that, of course I could go to college; I just needed to get a scholarship. I thought that meant I had to be the one, smartest, highest GPA student in the high school, and once we combined with another junior high for high school, I didn’t believe that could be possible. (Fortunately, even when I thought that, I didn’t give up. Eventually I got scholarships—after filling out all the forms myself—that covered more than half my tuition, and I graduated, paying my own way through, without debt.)
When I asked about college at home, I was told, “Why would you want to do that? You’re just going to be a housewife.” And, “You’ll have to pay for that yourself, because we’re not paying for it.” Also, I wasn’t allowed to work unless my mother decided to be willing to drive me to and from—walking alone as a girl was not allowed. There was also a slightly more subtle, class-based discouragement: “People that go to college think they’re so smart. They just want to look down on people.”
There’s a lot about my story that is simply about my mother’s psychological issues. But some of the discouragement stems from a lower-middle-class farm and labor environment. I’ve wondered about the Scots-Irish connection, which does appear in that family line. But I think it’s more a matter of living without the understanding of what’s possible.
Vance talks a little bit about solutions—and the difficulty of finding them:
People sometimes ask whether I think there’s anything we can do to “solve” the problems of my community. I know what they’re look for: a magical public policy solution or an innovative government program. But these problems of family, faith, and culture aren’t like a Rubik’s Cube, and I don’t think that solutions (as most understand the term) really exist. A good friend, who worked for a time in the White House and cares deeply about the plight of the working class, once told me, “The best way to look at this might be to recognize that you probably can’t fix these things. They’ll always be around. But maybe you can put your thumb on the scale a little for the people at the margins.”
There were many thumbs put on my scale. When I look back at my life, what jumps out is how many variables had to fall in pace in order to give me a chance (p. 711-712).
In his favor were his grandparents’ constancy. And, among the “revolving door of would-be father figures,” at least his mother never chose abusive men. There was his sister, his aunt and uncle, good teachers, and friends.
Remove any of these people from the equation, and I’m probably screwed. Other people who have overcome the odds cite the same sorts of interventions.
He lists several. Here’s what they had in common:
They had a family member they could count on. And they saw—from a family friend, an uncle, or a work mentor—what was available and what was possible (p. 721).
I’ve often discussed with my husband the people I was surrounded by that made a difference in my life. As I’ve written before, I grew up in Utah, at a time when the community was pretty safe, and families were large and strong. Despite the message I got from home that the happy successful world wasn’t available to someone like me, I had teachers and friends, and mentors from church, who told me otherwise.
I was also blessed that, because we were Mormon, there was no drinking in our house. The most negative person in my life was always sober. And I had examples all around me of people living the lives of civilization to good effect.
While there was a lot of discouragement and uncomfortable angst in my home (and probably less verbal expression of love than J. D. had), I wasn’t in a neighborhood that kept my possibilities limited. Until quite recently, I didn’t recognize how different my growing up experience was from so many friends around me; when you’re a fish swimming in the water, you don’t realize you’re wet. I see now that I was lucky to have gone on to thrive. That thumb was on the scale for me.
As Vance points out about the results of one study, “I wasn’t surprised that Mormon Utah—with its strong church, integrated communities, and intact families—wiped the floor with Rust Belt Ohio” (p. 724).
The problems Vance sees with his community, and maybe other similar poverty pockets, aren’t really about programs. As he says, “the fault lies almost entirely with factors outside the government’s control. It’s what happens at home” (p. 731).
Here’s Vance’s conclusion:
As a cultural emigrant form one group to the other, I am acutely aware of their differences. Sometimes I view members of the elite with an almost primal scorn….But I have to give it to them. Their children are happier and healthier, their divorce rates lower, their church attendance higher, their lives longer” (p. 752).
That’s the message we need to find a way to share with anyone who’s willing to hear it.
[i] I used an e-reader edition, which identified page numbers when I saved my notes. However, the print edition is listed as having 288 pages, so my page numbering seems to relate more to location within the book than to actual pages. It looks like there are around 770 digital pages.
[ii] Rick Perlstein, Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America (New York: Scribner, 2008