Although Vance had promised himself to never help Bev again, he was unable to turn her away when she called him asking for his assistance. Her most recent husband kicked her out upon discovering that she’d stolen and sold his family heirlooms to buy drugs. So Vance drove from Cincinnati—where he was living with Usha, whom he’d recently married—and paid for his mother to stay in a motel room. He was frustrated to find himself at a rundown motel filled with drug addicts, but he recognizes that “upward mobility is never clean-cut, and the world [he] left always finds a way to reel [him] back in.” Vance also recently started coming back into the Christian faith, so he was willing to show his mother extra kindness and sympathy.
Yet again, Vance portrays upward mobility as a complicated process that never ceases. And although he doesn’t go into detail about his return to Christianity, he frames religion in this moment as something that can lend a person the strength he or she needs to do the right thing. For a person who grew up surrounded by irresponsible behavior and bad decisions, this moral compass is no doubt empowering.
Vance turns his attention to a question he often receives: is there anything that might “solve” the problems of the hillbilly community? He is skeptical of this question, for he recognizes in it a desire to find a “magical public policy solution.” Public policy, he upholds, is ill-suited to address these sorts of problems, which have to do with “family, faith, and culture.” At best, he thinks governmental policies can put a “thumb on the scale […] for the people at the margins,” helping them ever so slightly to rise out of poverty. He points to a study that showed that places like Utah, Oklahoma, and Massachusetts provided the most amount of opportunity for working-class young people. Vance notes that these findings did not surprise him, considering the fact that these areas of the U.S. tend to have strong communities comprised of cohesive families (think, for example, about the Mormon presence in Utah).
Throughout Hillbilly Elegy, Vance hints at his belief that public policy is an ineffective way of addressing the working class’s problems, but in this section he explicitly makes this point by underlining that what hillbillies are suffering from is a cultural crisis. This, he argues, can only be remedied on a sociological level. Notably, he emphasizes the importance of strong families, relating this notion to religion by saying that it is no surprise that Utah—with its vast Mormon presence—is rife with opportunity for young people seeking upward mobility. As such, he shows his commitment to religion and family values.
Despite the fact that he doesn’t think policy change is the best way to address the problems of the working-class, Vance mentions that there are some small-scale measures that the government can take, like building policies “based on a better understanding of what stands in the way of kids like” him. This would mean, for example, implementing policies that recognize that “the real problem” for most working-class children is not what happens at school, but what happens at home. Vance argues that Section 8 housing would be more successful if the low-income houses were placed into more affluent communities, rather than isolated within already impoverished neighborhoods. Doing so would encourage lower-income kids to “rise up.” Unfortunately, Vance argues, Middletown appears unwilling to adopt this strategy, clearly preferring to keep poor people “cut off from the middle class.”
It is worth noting that even Vance’s suggestion regarding how to improve the efficacy of public policy ultimately hinges upon a sociological understanding of the white working class’s problems. As such, he makes clear that the only way to improve the community’s situation is to fully understand it, which means that politicians must grasp the origins of the working class’s problems. This stance essentially advocates for open-mindedness, insisting that anybody trying to help the poor should be willing to nonjudgmentally assess the circumstances that lead to hillbilly disenfranchisement.
The biggest obstacle standing in the way of working-class upward mobility, Vance asserts, is not a lack of policy but rather an unawareness of the community’s prevailing attitudes. When he was a kid, he explains, everybody around him thought it was feminine to do well in school. If a boy succeeded academically, others called him a “sissy” or a “faggot.” This attitude discouraged hard work, and Vance makes it clear that this terrible situation can hardly be addressed by a “new law or program.” Rather, the community itself needs to find a way to alter the way it thinks about upward mobility and intellectual ability.
Once more, Vance upholds that the hillbilly community suffers from the destructive elements of its own self-narrative. Although the older generations want their children to climb higher than them on the socioeconomic ladder, they fail to see that their anti-academic mentalities make this impossible.
One day Vance was driving with Usha when another car cut them off. At the next stoplight, Vance opened his door and started to get out, ready to go scream at the other driver and, if necessary, fight him. But then he stopped, calmed himself down, and shut the door. Usha was proud of him for resisting the impulse to violently defend his honor. And though Vance himself was glad to have acted level-headedly, he brooded for the next several hours, turning the situation over in his mind. This, he says, is the effect of having lived for 18 years in a community that praised violence in the name of honor.
Vance provides this example to show yet again how much his personality is informed by the hillbilly identity. Decades after having listened to the Blanton men’ stories about honor, loyalty, and revenge, he still finds himself clinging to the idea of “hillbilly justice.” By refraining from getting out of his car, though, he activated his sense of personal agency, empowering himself to shift out of the hillbilly tradition in order to behave in a way that was compatible with his new life.