Review: Hillbilly Elegy

The current political landscape has provoked conversations on the plight of the white working class. Many have been astonished that a billionaire like Mr. Trump has captivated the passions and anxieties of this group: some polls show him winning the support of two-thirds of white voters without a college degree. 

A recently released memoir by J.D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, paints a harrowing picture and tough-love analysis of white working class America. It provides a civil, sobering discussion of complex and grim issues in a year of chaos and rage. Since its release, the book has received a great deal of publicity.

On paper, J.D. Vance seems like he has had it all: he served in the Marine Corps for several years, graduated from Yale Law School, where he edited the prestigious Yale Law Journal, and currently works alongside Peter Thiel as a principal at a Silicon Valley investment firm.

Upon arriving at Yale Law School, however, Vance felt like an outsider: he had emerged from a chaotic hillbilly Appalachian family to the world of “the elites,” as his friends from back home call it. At one law firm recruiting dinner while at Yale, Vance is confused when offered sparkling water—he had never heard the term before.

Vance was born in Appalachian Kentucky to a family of Scots-Irish descent.  “Poverty is the family tradition,” he writes. Many of his ancestors worked physical jobs—sharecroppers, coal miners, machinists, and millworkers. Many of these jobs had since vanished, leaving Vance’s beloved hometown “a hub of misery,” and forcing his family and his neighbors to relocate.

Vance’s father, whom he still doesn’t know, abandoned the family when Vance was young. His mother cycled through multiple boyfriends and struggled with opioid addiction, moving in and out of several rehabs. As a result, Vance was raised by his grandmother and, at times, his own sister.

Unfortunately, growing up in conditions similar to the author’s is not uncommon. Issues such as domestic violence, alcohol and drug abuse, detachment from work, and familial dysfunction are rampant in many working class communities, Vance notes.

To find work, Vance’s family was forced to relocate to Ohio, home to multitudes of industrial factories. Armco Steel was the lifeblood of his vibrant yet fleeting hometown of Middletown. It employed thousands and allowed those who lacked education to earn good wages. But when Armco merged with a Japanese company, these jobs vanished and Middletown, Ohio, became “little more than a relic of American industrial glory.”

Despite the decline of industrial jobs that served as the backbone of Middletown and other similar communities, Vance argues that the main cause of poverty among working class Americans is cultural, not structural.

“People talk about hard work all the time in places like Middletown,” he writes. “You can walk through a town where 30 percent of the young men work fewer than twenty hours a week and find not a single person aware of his own laziness.” In addition, Vance argues that many working class people have embraced a mindset that psychologists call “learned helplessness,” or the belief that one’s decisions have no impact on the outcome in one’s life. This leads to believing the worst about their society, he explains, that the news, politicians, and their universities are rigged against them. One of his friends quit his job because he was sick of waking up early, and subsequently complained on social media about the “Obama economy.”

While working as a cashier through high school, Vance developed an acute frustration with the nonworking white poor. He writes: “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 order separately, buying food with food stamps, and beer, wine, and cigarettes with cash.” It frustrated him to see this large minority of poor whites live off of the dole.

Vance refers to a study conducted by a team of economists including Stanford economist Raj Chetty—concluding that economic mobility was the worst in the South, Rust Belt, and Appalachia. The economists decided that the most important factors were the prevalence of single parents and income segregation (poor people only living around other poor people). States like Mormon Utah with integrated and cohesive communities and intact families had far more economic mobility for the poor than Appalachia.

Vance doesn’t offer a simple explanation as to how he escaped, although he credits two forces in his life with helping him—his grandmother’s influence provided a social support, and his joining the Marines, which he says prepared him for adulthood. The Marines, especially, challenged the “learned helplessness” that he absorbed from his culture. “If I had learned helplessness at home, the Marines were teaching learned willfulness,” he writes.

For all of the culture’s flaws, he praises some of its strengths—notably, a certain acquired toughness. He hopes they can channel this toughness to build stronger communities.  He believes that only they, and neither governments nor corporations, can fix this.