BY ANDY REITER
J.D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis” is noble in its intent. The author aims to tell a story of his own life as a window into the white, working-class America found in Appalachia, an America that few people truly understand. In the aftermath of the 2016 elections, there is increased interest and even urgency in trying to gain insight into why a large portion of the American people voted for Donald Trump, and the book has thus found a wide audience. Readers will encounter a compelling personal story; however, the social commentary is wanting, full of unhelpful stereotypes, contradictory arguments and flawed conclusions about a way forward.
Vance describes a family life in constant turmoil from the time he was a young child and details his long journey out of Appalachia through the military, college and law school to his life now as a successful venture capitalist. The reader gets the sense that there were many pivotal points along the way that broke in his favor, or the outcome would have been far less fortunate. There are also key individuals, particularly his grandmother, who play important roles in instilling positive values and providing support and guidance. While reading, one begins to think about the crucial people who have shaped their own life trajectories in meaningful ways.
The story, however, becomes repetitive by the end and, unfortunately, far too self-congratulatory. Vance should be applauded for accomplishing so much in life, but he is by no means the only one to have made it far with a less than promising beginning, as his tone suggests. Vance goes to great lengths to show how “hillbilly” and naïve he is to the point that it feels disingenuous. One is struck by the long, unrealistic discussion of a young Vance still not knowing there were different types of white wine at a dinner where he was being recruited by a law firm. This is despite having attended Yale Law School for several years prior and dating his future wife who had gone to Yale as an undergraduate and, admittedly, knew all of the best spots in town. It is difficult to believe that he had not been in a bar or restaurant with his law school classmates where he saw the word “chardonnay,” not to mention throughout his many travels before arriving in New Haven.
Vance’s efforts to disparage his roots and emphasize his exceptionalism are part of a larger endeavor to argue that only the few hardworking people can rise above a backwards Appalachian culture that is unique in its pervasive laziness and hatred of outsiders.
But Vance’s Appalachia is not unique. The stories he tells about poor diets, teenage mothers, broken homes and drug addictions are found in communities across the country. Many echoed stories from my home town of Dubuque, Iowa and some even from my family. They are present in the white, rural, working class populations here in Western Massachusetts. Indeed, they are present in impoverished areas of the country of all ethnicities and races. While there are some cultural differences, structurally there is little that is exclusive to the region from which Vance descends.
And his story is not unique either. The argument Vance makes is that the people of Appalachia could get out of poverty if only they were willing to work hard like him. The truth, of course, is much more complex. Ambition certainly matters. Some people who find themselves in difficult conditions early in life don’t work hard and don’t make it out. Likewise, some born to privilege fail to take advantage and squander it away. But the systemic marginalization in America often makes ambition irrelevant. Many others in the same situation as Vance work just as hard as he did but without the same opportunities and outcome.
In Vance’s view, part of the culprit is the social safety net of America which incentivizes increased laziness in a people that are inherently lazy already. He unapologetically decries the “welfare queens” of the region who swindle the American government of money to avoid working for it themselves. He concludes by observing that those in Europe now have a greater ability to achieve the American Dream than do many Americans.
Yet Vance stunningly fails to draw the obvious conclusions from this observation. If one is concerned about the decline of social mobility and the erosion of the American Dream, as Vance is, they should look to more and more effective social services, not fewer. After all, the key to the quality of life and social mobility found in Europe is the presence of large welfare states that provide adequate social services to their citizens. Outside of a brief reflection that child services can be improved, Vance largely concludes that the issues that hold down the region, such as boys believing that being good in school is feminine, are impervious to external influences.
Rather than using stereotypes to blame a culture, and argue that its inherent flaws are too deeply ingrained to change, we should try to figure out how to design better social policies to help all working class people improve their prospects, no matter what race they are or in what region they live. Others have figured it out. America can figure it out too.
Andy Reiter is an Associate Professor of Politics and International Relations at Mount Holyoke College.