Vance explains that Middletown’s inhabitants used to view the town as a highly respectable community. These days there are plenty of white people and plenty of black people, Vance writes, and the population is largely conservative, though “cultural conservatism and political conservatism are not always aligned in Middletown,” especially considering the fact that people like Papaw were so committed to the Democratic party, or “the working man’s party.” Although the town was still thriving in the 1980s, it soon embarked upon a steep economic decline. “Today downtown Middletown is little more than a relic of American industrial glory,” Vance writes. He explains that families are trapped in increasingly destitute living situations because of the declining housing market. After Presidents Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush both implemented policies encouraging home ownership, many Middletown residents bought houses that have now accrued so much debt that they’re unable to sell them, since nobody would want to pay off so much of somebody else’s mortgage.
The fact that many impoverished people are now trapped in a declining town furthers the idea of hillbilly isolation and hopelessness. After all, how could a working-class person hope to improve his or her financial situation if he or she can’t even afford to move somewhere else and start anew? This greatly interferes with any form of upward mobility. Vance mentions that this is largely due to the policies of former presidents, a sentiment that foreshadows his eventual condemnation of federal policy and his argument that such measures are incapable of improving the working class’s circumstances.
To make matters worse, with manufacturing moving overseas, the worth of Armco steel plummeted, even when the company merged with Kawasaki, a Japanese motorcycle company that essentially saved the town’s largest employer from having to close its doors. Vance admits that he and his friends were unaware of this economic strife when they were growing up. They appreciated Armco’s influence, since most of their fathers worked there, but did not aspire to work there themselves. Their elders reinforced this sentiment—“Your generation will make its living with their minds, not their hands,” Papaw told Vance. In keeping with this, high school kids came to see Armco as an easy safety net, a place they could always fall back on. This attitude still prevails in Middletown, as one teacher at the local high school informed Vance. “It’s like they can’t make the connection between the situation in this town and the lack of jobs at AK [Armco-Kawasaki],” she told him.
In this section, Vance unearths a sense of complacency at large in the working-class hillbilly community, as young people thoughtlessly assume they will be able to find lucrative jobs without much effort. This complacency also bears with it a lack of foresight and an unwillingness to admit the true economic situation Middletown faces. Part of the population’s inability to attain upward mobility, Vance suggests in this moment, has to do with the fact that they “can’t make the connection between” their community’s financial shortcomings and their own aspirations, which lazily don’t take into account the fact that—unlike their parents’ generation—Armco is no longer capable of providing support and economic stability.
Vance points out a contradiction in the idea that working-class Middletown kids should aspire toward something greater than manual labor. He writes that, though teachers never said so aloud, there was a palpable sense when he was growing up that he and his friends were destined for academic failure. “It was all around us,” he writes, “like the air we breathed.” In order to attain a career and intellectual work, it was necessary to go to college. And Vance knew nobody at all who had attended college. To make matters worse, when a Middletown kid failed to do well in school, there were no consequences. Parents and teachers alike would reason the failure away, saying, “Well, maybe she’s just not that great at fractions.” In this way, a strange narrative emerged that portrayed successful people as either lucky or born with incredible talent. Vance notes that—unfortunately—hard work doesn’t factor into this conception of success.
Vance illustrates that all possibility of upward mobility is curtailed by the contradictory messages the working-class community sends its low-income students. By telling these students to aspire to career-oriented jobs but neglecting to emphasize the importance of academic success, the older generation sets its young people up for failure. This discounts the value of hard work, and the excuses parents and teachers make for academically unsuccessful kids tells the younger generation that their own shortcomings are not their fault. This attitude stands in stark contrast to Mamaw’s advice to J.D. to not act like the deck was “stacked against” him. This is perhaps why Vance was ultimately able to lift himself out of poverty.
When Vance was in first grade, his teacher would choose a number and each student would deliver an equation that equaled that number. One day Vance said, “Fifty minus twenty,” which won him two pieces of candy. As he swelled with pride, he heard another student say, “Ten times three.” Vance was incensed—he didn’t even know what multiplication was. “I didn’t understand the difference between intelligence and knowledge. So I assumed I was an idiot,” he says. Seeing his frustration, Papaw sat him down at the end of the day and taught him multiplication. From then on, they practiced math together once a week. And though Bev wasn’t good with numbers, she took Vance to the public library before he could read, got him a library card, and showed him how it worked. “In other words,” he writes, “despite all of the environmental pressures from my neighborhood and community, I received a different message at home. And that just might have saved me.”
In this moment, Vance underlines the vital importance of education and the effect it can have on kids growing up in environments that otherwise provide very few opportunities. Once again, he shows that, despite his mother’s drug addiction and instability, in some ways she transcended the stereotype of an unreliable hillbilly mother. By revealing both his mother’s positive and negative traits, Vance seems to suggest that people are never just one thing, but rather capable of embodying multiple values at once.