Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance • Harper • 2016 • 272 pages • $27.99
The best-selling Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance, released in June to mostly positive reviews, was praised for treating lower-income white communities with sympathy—something reviewers believed had been in short supply in our literature. The conservative writer Rod Dreher said that the book “does for poor white people what Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book did for poor black people: give them voice and presence in the public square.” (Though it’s hard to see how poor black people were ever well-represented, or how working-class whites have ever been neglected as a group.)
The book bills itself as a “memoir of a family and a culture in crisis.” Poor and working-class white Americans have been the subject of many alarming reports over the past few years, from the rise of the heroin epidemic across rural, white America to the numerous studies detailing early deaths from suicides and drug overdoses in middle age; the least educated whites are dying at younger ages than the same group of people did a generation ago. (Although African Americans as a whole still have higher mortality rates.) It’s the white working class, especially men, who drove the candidacy and election of the Republican nominee, President-elect Donald Trump. So elites have turned their focus on what they assess to be a bewildering population, regarded alternately with empathy and scorn, that they were previously happy to ignore.
a “bewildering” population, regarded alternately with empathy and scorn.
Vance’s book is, for the most part, a simple, straightforward recounting of his life. His maternal grandparents were economic refugees from Jackson, Kentucky, in the mountainous southeastern part of the state, who traveled the Hillbilly Highway north to the industrial town of Middletown, Ohio, soon after they were married as teenagers in 1947. Lots of other hillbillies made that same journey, creating satellite communities throughout the industrial Midwest. His grandfather worked there at a steel factory called Armco until he retired. Vance’s grandparents had a relationship that involved redneck rows, a divorce, and separate houses. They raised three children in Ohio, one of whom was Vance’s mother, Bev. Bev had several marriages throughout the 1980s and ’90s, and though she was a nurse, her economic security crumbled under the weight of drug addiction. Vance’s Mamaw stepped into the breach to serve as a mother figure to Vance and his older sister. But after graduating from high school in 2003, Vance escaped by joining the Marines, serving in Iraq and then enrolling at Ohio State University and, a coup for any country boy, Yale Law School.
As an author, Vance doesn’t spend much time in Jackson. He talks about his summertime trips to Kentucky to visit beloved uncles or to attend family funerals. He also describes a recent visit, where, during a walking tour, he notices that the town seems to have fallen on hard times. He describes passing a neighbor’s house: “Several ferocious, malnourished, chained-up dogs protected the furniture strewn about the barren front yard. When I asked [his second cousin] what the young father did for a living, he told me the man had no job and was proud of it.”
Vance is not a journalist, and he doesn’t conduct any actual interviews in Jackson. He doesn’t dwell much either on its demographics or character. He simply tells us that it is “a small town of about six thousand in the heart of southeastern Kentucky’s coal country. Calling it a town is a bit charitable.” I, myself, only know Jackson because, for two-and-a-half months, I lived as a reporter in Owsley County, right next door. My own experience with Jackson was that it was, first of all, the biggest town for miles. I interacted with it the way all the people of Owsley County did—when I needed to go to a Wal-Mart, I drove the 35 minutes down country highways to the one in Jackson, and when I had a minor medical emergency, the hospital there was where I sought care. Small as it is, Jackson really is big next to its neighbors, and is also a locus of political power in that tiny spot of southeastern Kentucky. Everything is relative.
Even when it comes to describing his hometown of Middletown, Ohio, a small city of just under 50,000 smack between Cincinnati and Dayton on Interstate 75, where his grandparents moved to raise his mom and her two siblings, he mostly leaves the landscape itself out of the story. Vance described a town that in the 1980s and ’90s was fueled by the factory’s middle-class jobs, company picnics, and well-kept parks that fell into disrepair over the years. Armco merged with a Japanese company in 1989, and so employment at the Middletown plant began to decline.
Vance touches on this and on other big events but without actually delving into them. And, except for a few asides on the occasional relevant study, he doesn’t do much to properly connect his own life to larger contexts and trends. The book is pinned to his mother’s drug addiction to painkillers and then to heroin, but it’s not really about her, and, in fact, we don’t actually hear from her at all. He tosses off observations about neighbors and former friends torn apart by drugs and poverty, but he doesn’t introduce them or interview them, so these asides don’t truly reveal all that much. Vance describes a few harrowing incidents from his childhood, but even then he leaves out important details, and he doesn’t do much investigating to find out more about them from the vantage point of adulthood.
The result is a book that’s broadly personal without being deeply so, and though it’s allegedly the story of a culture in crisis, it’s written from the point of view of a man who now seems far removed from any crisis at all. It provides the briefest window into the life of a hillbilly who made good. (He now works at an investment firm in Silicon Valley.) When he does make some broader observations about the white working class—which, in this instance, refers more to a rural cultural identity than to an economic one—they sound like clichés. He talks a lot about the hillbilly sense of “honor,” which requires him to go after a guy who breaks his sister’s heart. (What brother, though, wouldn’t pick a fight with someone who was mean to his sister?) As a grocery store clerk, he notices people who he claims “game the system.” And of food stamp recipients, he writes:
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 them 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.
These are observations that are undoubtedly true in the micro sense, and we read and hear them often from conservative commentators. But what do any of these observations reveal? Like many right-leaning writers, Vance makes these broad assertions without spending much time defining them, or considering what, exactly, the alternatives are for someone in a place like southeastern Kentucky or deindustrialized Ohio. These aren’t just small areas with small economies. They’re areas that are losing their populations rapidly as the young and able flood into cities everywhere around the country. Many hillbillies come from the extremely rural areas that had subsistence economies well past the middle of the last century, and never fully transitioned into manufacturing before those well-paying jobs fled the country. They are the people who stayed behind while Vance’s grandparents left and built a middle-class life elsewhere. Even the bigger towns and smaller cities, like Middletown, were dependent on one large employer, and getting those jobs depended on knowing someone who could get you one, leaving out large swaths of the least well-off.
And, even in their best days, jobs in these areas were often limited to the ones only men could get, and white men at that. Working at a steel company, or mining coal, or logging trees, or putting together cars was always back-breaking labor, too, and aging baby boomers and their creaky, blue-collar bodies are a big driver of the increase in the Social Security Disability Insurance program, which is another “dole” conservatives like to complain about.
It is obvious that life in these areas presents important challenges, and that many things aren’t going well for too many people. This brings up several relevant questions about what progressives should do for people in these areas. But there are also considerations about what we shouldn’t do that this election has thrown into sharp relief.
I grew up in a town that is actually smaller than Jackson: Clinton, Arkansas, at the southern edge of the Ozark Mountain range. It now has a population of about 2,600, but was a bit smaller when I was growing up in the 1980s and ’90s, a few years earlier than Vance. During my childhood, Clinton had two factories: a plant that made electrical cords, and a chicken-processing plant, where my grandparents worked. When I was in high school, the cord plant moved to a shiny new building on the hopefully named Quality Drive, which had been newly paved through the woods. And a small boat factory took its old place, for a brief while.
It should be noted that only about 12 percent of the population in the county has a bachelor’s degree. The people I knew when I was growing up who had gone to college were the town’s handful of doctors, lawyers, dentists, one vet, and, of course, teachers, who were overwhelmingly women. Clinton has a small hospital, where my mother works, and a nursing home owned by the same company; both serve the smaller towns around Clinton, too, but the hospital struggles financially and previous owners have come close to closing it and the nursing home in the past.
Jobs are heavily segregated by gender. A handful of women, who usually have some college education, but not necessarily bachelor’s degrees, work as nurses at varying qualification levels. But many of the jobs held by women are the new factory jobs—dangerous, back-breaking, and relatively low-paying for the skills and education they require.
Almost everyone else who works either works at Wal-Mart, in fast food, or owns their own small business. For men, it’s in construction or related supply businesses—my dad was a plumber. Auto shops line the highway. Women, for their part, own beauty salons. There are a couple of clothing stores, one non-Wal-Mart grocery store that has struggled to compete and changed hands at least three times in the past few years, a couple of accountants, a dance school, and a local radio station. No one makes very much money—the county’s median annual income is $31,030, and the poverty rate is 26.5 percent.
Clinton is perhaps an extreme example of small-town life, but the pattern and experience is repeated in southeastern Kentucky, in small-town Ohio, and across the country. The rural population is depleting rapidly nationwide, and 81 percent of the country’s people now live in metro areas. By 2019, the rural population will reach its global peak, and will then start to drop in absolute terms. This is a trend that is clear even in Arkansas, as people my age drain to the urban areas around the state. Cities are thriving, diverse, and provide varied opportunities for jobs and education. They’re also expensive, and getting more so. The poor and the elderly can’t afford to access them, and are trapped in outer-ring suburbs and rural areas where the good jobs are gone. Cities are also where employers want to be.
So growth in jobs and in wages is unevenly distributed, and it’s broken up by geography, as it always has been. There are two economies, and the country’s least educated and poorest are in the worse one. They’re disproportionately African-American and Latino, but in raw numbers they include plenty of whites, too. These people aren’t just missing out because they have less education and training. They’re also missing out because they live in the wrong places. A recent study conducted by economists Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren found that a child’s chance of moving out of poverty was based strongly on where he or she grew up.
I’m sure that people in rural areas and small cities across the country would like to bring back jobs. But why would an employer locate itself in a city like Middletown, or a place like Kentucky? What kinds of jobs will stay there? The benefits of locating one’s self near a larger city—with an educated populace and the kinds of civic landscapes, vibrant downtowns, and public infrastructure that people want to live in—simply outweigh the costs. So what Trump did for these communities was turn their resentment, their panicked and justified feelings that their way of life was disappearing thanks to an urban, educated, better-off America, into a weaponized hate. As Rembert Browne wrote in New York magazine, he made hate intersectional, and he helped rural Americans direct it at everyone who wasn’t them.
Throughout the 2016 election season, contrary to Dreher, we’ve actually seen no end to the portraits of rural white America, Trump voters, or to the handwringing about their economic angst. This has only accelerated since Donald Trump was elected, in large part thanks to rural America, including a few former Democratic enclaves: states like Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. Democrats, their allies, and various progressives are also obsessed with the white working class, what should be done for them, and how they might win them back to the Democratic coalition. “Donald J. Trump won the White House because his campaign rhetoric successfully tapped into a very real and justified anger, an anger that many traditional Democrats feel,” wrote Bernie Sanders in The New York Times on November 10.
Both he and Elizabeth Warren have pledged to work with Trump if the President-elect really does want to create jobs to help the suffering working- class. This may just be political posturing. So far, Trump’s only plan that would achieve that in any way is an infrastructure plan. The details are hazy, but it will cost $1 trillion and leverage public-private partnerships for rebuilding crumbling infrastructure like roads and bridges. This is a twist of the knife to any liberals that paid attention during the Obama Administration; $1 trillion is around the size of the stimulus plan that some in the Obama Administration wanted for their stimulus package after taking office, when the economy was truly in free fall. Republican lawmakers, howling about the deficit, were determined not to let this pass. The package was, in the end, smaller. So will the Republicans pass something like that now, and then take all of the credit?
On the surface, such a plan would be a no-brainer. Spending money on infrastructure would address the real problems our roads and bridges have, create well-paying jobs, and address rural America’s plight, especially if it included better and easier to navigate roads and newer types of infrastructure, like broadband access. Yet the warnings are already coming. To begin with, as David Dayen wrote in The New Republic, the financing scheme relies on private money in such a way that it would be designed “to funnel money to big investors and contractors by essentially letting them purchase public assets.”
And this is hardly the only concern. Not least among them, what are the real aims behind these plans? What kinds of jobs would be created, and for whom? As Democrats and progressives move to urge cooperation with his Administration on common-ground issues like infrastructure, especially when it comes to helping the rural white working class they apparently feel so tender toward, it’s important to keep in mind the totality of Trump’s proposals, and the totality of his rhetoric. It’s also important to ask why he inspired votes, what truly inspired them, and how he’ll actually be working to satisfy them.
All we know about the electorate, as of this writing, is what the exit polls tell us, and these always come with a lot of caveats. But, according to these polls, voters who made less than $50,000 a year made up 36 percent of the electorate, and 52 percent of these people voted for Hillary Clinton. Overall, turnout among the poorest Americans is never high: Fewer than half of voters in the lowest income brackets turned out in previous elections. Non-college-educated whites who voted this year voted for Trump, but overall, his support came from wealthier white people, especially white men. In fact, Jeff Guo, in The Washington Post, found that Trump improved on Mitt Romney’s 2012 margins most in places where unemployment had also dropped the most. So, truth be told, we don’t really know what the white voters who are suffering the most actually wanted. As is often the case, it was the wealthiest who really made their voices heard.
So why did all of these folks vote for Trump? When asked what they care about most, many voters will say the economy. (Though, according to exit polls, Hillary Clinton won the majority of voters who ranked the economy first among their concerns.) When you drill down further with Trump voters, however, another pattern emerges. Guo quotes Kathy Cramer, a political scientist who wrote a book about rural voters in Wisconsin and found that:
The economic woes people communicated to me. . . . were interlaced with their sense of who they are, who is a part of their community, what their values are, who works hard in society, who is deserving of reward and public support, and how power is distributed in the world. This complex set of ideas is the product of many years of political debate at the national level as well as generations of community members teaching these ideas to each other. This entwined set of beliefs was not something that any one politician instilled in people overnight—or even over a few months.
In Elegy, when Vance speaks to folks about the government, it is clear that he, and the people he talks with, think of it as something that creates dependency where it wasn’t previously, and that compounds poverty rather than reduces it. Of a friend who quit his job because he was tired of waking up so early—and later took to Facebook to complain about Obama’s economy—Vance writes:
[F]or him to make better choices, he needs to live in an environment that forces him to ask tough questions about himself. There is a cultural movement in the white working class to blame problems on society or the government, and that movement gains adherents by the day. . . . What separates the successful from the unsuccessful are the expectations that they had for their own lives. Yet the message of the right is increasingly: It’s not your fault that you’re a loser; it’s the government’s fault.
Government becomes a shorthand way for many people to refer to those who receive any sort of assistance from it. This includes many of these folks’ supposedly lazy neighbors. But it also includes, and has for at least 40 years, people in faraway cities they also characterize as lazy, largely African Americans and new immigrants. Trump made that clear when he said African Americans are “living in hell” and claimed, wrongly, that the black youth unemployment rate was at 58 percent. Talk of the “government” also denotes single moms in rural, conservative communities who, it is believed, should have gotten married or not had children. “Government” and “the dole” become, also, a shorthand for the kind of polyglot, humanitarian democracy that may have inspired many Clinton voters. When Donald Trump spewed hate, he threw it, indiscriminately, at all of these groups. And that is also what his voters voted for.
Even Warren—progressive champion Elizabeth Warren!—has come to the defense of Trump voters when, in a speech to the AFL-CIO, she said: “There are many millions of people who voted for Donald Trump not because of the bigotry and hate that fueled his campaign rallies. They voted for him despite the hate.” What cold solace is that? If voters didn’t embrace his bile, a claim I think some are accepting a bit too credulously, either these voters did not understand that what he said was racist—along with all of the other –ists and -ics that can be attributed to his public statements—or they didn’t care about it. Either way, the result is effectively the same.
Warren is far from the only person on the left to call for people not to vilify Trump supporters, suggesting that we try to understand them instead. But many have also asked: Are we really vilifying someone when we plainly state what they have actually done? Well, to that I would answer: If you comb the rural counties across the country and see how they voted, you would see that there are rare cases in which Trump won nearly 100 percent of the vote. Across deep red states that bent heavily Republican, like West Virginia and Mississippi, he won about 80 percent of votes in some counties, but only in those places where he had the biggest margins.
Even in my little home county, 21.7 percent voted against Trump. But that’s still something. My county is around 96 percent white, and so the 1,547 voters who cast their votes against hate almost certainly include white voters. They are certainly witnessing the same level of economic devastation as their neighbors. And yet they did not compromise their morals to “send a message to Washington.” Add up the voters like this in each town across the country just like Clinton, and they must total hundreds of thousands of people. They are a minority in these places, but their votes count no less than those cast against Trump in New York or California. I think we would be doing a disservice to them if we were to sugarcoat the gravity of what their neighbors did.
It’s worth noting that Vance himself basically elides race entirely. About the only time he touches on it is to dismiss it. “Many of my new friends blame racism for this perception of the president,” he writes about hillbilly distrust of Obama. “But the president feels like an alien to many Middletonians for reasons that have nothing to do with skin color.” He describes Obama as part of an urbane elite: exactly what rural America has come to loathe. But nearly every sociologist and political scientist who’s researched the voting habits of working-class whites in rural and depressed parts of the country has found that their views on race, elitism, class, and their own financial well-being are so tightly intertwined that they are hard to separate.
That is to say that all of the tender portraits of these workers shouldn’t shade what happened in November. With any effort to alleviate real suffering in these communities, progressives must also bear in mind that Trump’s election has made life tangibly worse for Muslim and Latino communities, for African Americans, for LGBT communities, and for women, whether they voted for Trump or not.
If progressives compromise on any plan that sounds good in theory, like an infrastructure plan, which would undoubtedly help rural America, they should be obligated to keep the big picture in mind. They should ask themselves how various communities will experience the benefits of better roads, or good jobs, if they’re being arrested and sent to jail after Trump doubles down on the worst policing practices his advisor, Rudy Giuliani, practiced in New York City. Or how much good jobs will help Latino and Muslim communities if their families are being harassed, deported, or investigated. Or whether women will benefit from any of it if protections against workplace harassment are diminished and reproductive rights come under assault.
The Southern Poverty Law Center counted more than 200 hate crimes in the three days after the election, and more have occurred since. After Trump is sworn in in January, we will continue to hear calls from those who tell us he is our President and we have to work with him. We will see Democratic lawmakers and their progressive allies trying to seek common ground. Many will do so in the name of the working-class whites experiencing economic anxiety, and in a cynical bid to try to bring those voters back into the fold. They may offer up numbers and theories to justify this bipartisan cooperation. The numbers and theories may be technically correct. But until all Americans, especially the historically disenfranchised, can feel safe, any such compromise will also be morally untenable.