One morning after Vance spent the night at Mamaw’s, Bev burst in and demanded that he give her his urine, because her employers were drug testing her. This was a blatant confession that she’d started using again, but she showed no shame, instead forcing the responsibility onto her son. J.D. lashed out at her, telling her she was a terrible mother and that she should stop “fucking up her life.” He even told Mamaw she was a “shitty mother,” too. Bev collapsed on the couch, wounded by his words. J.D. pulled Mamaw into the bathroom and told her that he couldn’t provide urine because he’d smoked pot in the past several weeks (pot that he’d found at Ken’s house). She told him that this wouldn’t show up in a drug test, also saying, “I know this isn’t right honey. But she’s your mother and she’s my daughter. And maybe, if we help her this time, she’ll finally learn her lesson.” J.D. recognized this useless logic, but gave his mother the urine anyway.
Mamaw’s hope that Bev would “finally learn her lesson” if she and J.D. helped her exemplifies the tragic kind of loving optimism that ultimately keeps drug addicts from finally going sober. But it also demonstrates yet again Mamaw’s sense of family loyalty. She made this clear by reminding her grandson of their familial ties to Bev, saying, “She’s your mother and she’s my daughter.” Although she didn’t like the implications of helping Bev in this context, Mamaw found herself unable to refuse a family member in need.
After Bev demanded J.D.’s urine, Mamaw informed her daughter that Vance would live with her full-time from that point onwards. As a result, Vance’s grades vastly improved, along with the quality of his overall life. During this time, he got a job at Dillman’s, a local grocery store, and frequently spoke with Mamaw about the problems their community faced. They were both disheartened and frustrated by “America’s class divide,” which J.D. witnessed as a cashier ringing up working-class whites who used food stamps to buy discounted products they later sold on the streets. Every other week, Vance received a paycheck and noticed the amount of money the government deducted for tax purposes. He also noticed his drug-addict neighbor buying T-bone stakes that he was himself too poor to purchase. This infuriated him. He writes: “[…] it was my first indication that the policies of Mamaw’s ‘party of the working man’—the Democrats—weren’t all they were cracked up to be.”
Vance rarely aligns himself with specific political viewpoints in Hillbilly Elegy, but when he does, he adopts a fiscally conservative worldview, meaning that he bristles at the idea that the government should be allowed to heavily tax American citizens. It seems that this viewpoint originally took root in the sense of injustice he felt as a white working-class teenager who made enormous efforts to earn an honest living while other people in the same situation as him abused government benefits. He saw this way of living as deeply lazy and as a direct denial of responsibility and personal agency. As such, he embraces a political mentality that places emphasis on the individual’s ability to empower him or herself rather than relying on government assistance.
Vance explains that Mamaw’s neighbor registered her house for Section 8, a government program “that offers low-income residents a voucher to rent housing” at reduced rates. Mamaw considered her neighbor’s decision to do this a “betrayal” that would surely invite “bad” people into the neighborhood. While J.D. and Mamaw tried to make distinctions between the Section 8 residents and themselves, they had to recognize that they had a lot in common with them. In this way, Mamaw fluctuated between liberal and conservative viewpoints—one moment she would lament the fact that her neighbors were lazily living off the government’s dime; the next, she would sing the praises of government policies that tried to help the poor. Remembering this contradiction, Vance says that he adopted this worldview, taking on both a frustration with white working-class people and a willingness to empathize with them.
The fact that Vance adopted Mamaw’s flexible political outlook is significant because it gives readers a hint regarding how he manages to harbor such appreciation for his hillbilly culture while also harshly critiquing it. The key is his open-mindedness. Just as Mamaw held non-working whites in contempt for their laziness while supporting government policies that helped these same people, Vance allows himself to fluctuate between political viewpoints, an ability that enables him to thoughtfully consider all sides of the working class’s current situation and therefore provide a unique and more comprehensive perspective.
As a high school student earning his own money, Vance was interested in the factors that drove the squalor he saw in his community. He read sociological books that analyzed economic trends—like the decline of manufacturing in Midwestern cities—but didn’t feel they answered the questions he had about people like his neighbor: why she wouldn’t leave her abusive husband, why she spent money on drugs, or why she refused to admit that her behavior was harming her daughter. It took him a long time, he writes, to realize that the problem hillbillies face “is a sociological one, yes, but it is also about psychology and community and culture and faith.” Surveying his community’s weaknesses, he says that children aren’t given the tools to succeed and that people are too content to accept government assistance and unwilling to take responsibility. “We talk about the value of hard work but tell ourselves that the reason we’re not working is some perceived unfairness.”
Vance’s open-mindedness allows him to examine the nuances of the working class’s problems. He makes it clear that economic and political factors ultimately fuel hillbilly poverty, but he also maintains that the problem doesn’t stop here. Rather, it encompasses “psychology and community and culture and faith.” Once again, his comprehensive approach gives him a unique perspective, putting him in a position to recognize that the members of his community often sacrifice their personal agency and chances at upward mobility in order to live a life of complacency, all the while telling themselves that “the reason” they’re not working is “some perceived unfairness” that is beyond their control.