Vance considers politics and the economy in Hillbilly Elegy for two reasons. The first is to accurately depict the circumstances that lead to Appalachian poverty and hillbilly disenfranchisement. The second is to examine what can be done to address these difficulties. Regarding the latter, Vance believes that what the hillbilly community faces is primarily a social problem rather than a governmental problem, and he believes the dilemma ought to be handled as such. Policy reform, he insists, is not going to improve the lives of the Appalachian working class.
Vance explains the hillbilly migration from Eastern Kentucky to Middletown, Ohio—a migration in which his grandparents took part. A steel company named Armco opened in Middletown and actively recruited in nearby Eastern Kentucky, promising residents a better life in Ohio, where they could work in the mills. This promise turned out to be true, and many Kentucky families found stability in Ohio as part of an industrial community. Mamaw and Papaw—Vance’s grandparents—came to Middletown to “get out of Kentucky and give their kids a head start.” While the older generation worked in the steel factories, they encouraged their children to aspire toward career-oriented jobs. Papaw once told Vance, “Your generation will make its living with their minds, not their hands.” In this way, Vance’s generation was told to aim higher than their parents and grandparents, but weren’t given the resources to properly do so. Vance suggests that his generation often took for granted blue-collar labor without making the necessary efforts to live a different kind of life. Or, if they did make the necessary efforts to attain a different career, they often had no model to follow, since most teens would be the very first members of their families to go to college, if they even made it that far in the first place.
Eventually, Middletown residents found themselves trapped in a town that was in steep economic decline. As manufacturing became less and less lucrative, large companies (not including Armco) left Ohio, significantly limiting the job prospects in Middletown. But because the government had encouraged home ownership for nearly three decades (including policies instated by President Jimmy Carter and, later, George W. Bush), many Middletown residents found themselves with pricey mortgages to pay off, meaning that nobody would want to buy their houses because the cost would include the debt the residents had accrued as the housing market declined. Therefore, if young people wanted to seek careers, not only would they need to go to college (thereby far surpassing their parents’ achievements), they would also need to somehow leave Middletown completely, a task that now proved economically difficult. Vance upholds that the working class tends to embrace cynicism when faced with these staggering challenges; “The Great Recession, and the not-great recovery that followed, had hastened Middletown’s downward trajectory. But there was something almost spiritual about the cynicism of the community at large, something that went much deeper than a short-term recession.” Instead of rising to overcome the economic and cultural disadvantages they faced, young Middletown residents accepted a narrative of defeat, making peace with the idea that if they were to succeed, they would need to be either lucky or naturally talented—and since most young people assumed they were neither, they excused themselves from even trying to improve their circumstances.
Vance asserts that working-class poverty and complacency is primarily a social problem, one that needs to be addressed organically on a small scale. “The most important lesson of my life,” he writes, “is not that society failed to provide me with opportunities.” He then goes on to list the strengths of his elementary and middle schools, along with other government-funded resources that were available to him (though not abundantly so). “These programs are far from perfect, but to the degree that I nearly succumbed to my worst decisions (and I came quite close), the fault lies almost entirely with factors outside the government’s control.”
According to Vance, official policies can’t solve certain societal problems. For example, he outlines an unfortunate phenomenon at play in his hometown when he was a kid; “As a child, I associated accomplishments in school with femininity. Manliness meant strength, courage, a willingness to fight, and, later, success with girls. Boys who got good grades were ‘sissies’ or ‘faggots.’ I don’t know where I got this feeling. […] But it was there, and studies now show that working-class boys like me do much worse in school because they view schoolwork as a feminine endeavor. Can you change this with a new law or program? Probably not.” Since students are turning away from education because of what their immediate societal influences tell them about its usefulness, they shortchange themselves. The only attitude left, then, is one of cynicism and scorn, and this attitude enables people to refuse to take responsibility for their own circumstances, thereby short-circuiting any personal agency they may have. The only way to address this, Vance suggests, is by working with the society itself to change the narratives it hands down to its youngest members.
Politics and the Economy ThemeTracker
Politics and the Economy Quotes in Hillbilly Elegy
For starters, a remarkable stigma attached to people who left the hills of Kentucky for a better life. Hillbillies have a phrase—“too big for your britches”—to describe those who think they’re better than the stock they came from. For a long time after my grandparents came to Ohio, they heard exactly that phrase from people back home. The sense that they had abandoned their families was acute, and it was expected that, whatever their responsibilities, they would return home regularly. This pattern was common among Appalachian migrants: More than nine in ten would make visits “home” during the course of their lives, and more than one in ten visited about once a month. My grandparents returned to Jackson often, sometimes on consecutive weekends, despite the fact that the trip in the 1950s required about twenty hours of driving. Economic mobility came with a lot of pressures, and it came with a lot of new responsibilities.
Even at Roosevelt Elementary—where, thanks to Middletown geography, most people’s parents lacked a college education—no one wanted to have a blue-collar career and its promise of a respectable middle-class life. We never considered that we’d be lucky to land a job at Armco; we took Armco for granted.
Many kids seem to feel that way today. A few years ago I spoke with […] a Middletown High School teacher who works with at-risk youth. “A lot of students just don’t understand what’s out there,” she told me, shaking her head. “You have the kids who plan on being baseball players but don’t even play on the high school team because the coach is mean to them. Then you have those who aren’t doing very well in school, and when you try to talk to them about what they’re going to do, they talk about AK. “Oh, I can get a job at AK. My uncle works there.’ It’s like they can’t make the connection between the situation in this town and the lack of jobs at AK.”
One of our neighbors was a lifetime welfare recipient, but in between asking my grandmother to borrow her car or offering to trade food stamps for cash at a premium, she’d blather on about the importance of industriousness. “So many people abuse the system, it’s impossible for the hardworking people to get the help they need,” she’d say. This was the construct she’d built in her head: Most of the beneficiaries of the system were extravagant moochers, but she—despite never having worked in her life—was an obvious exception.
I remember watching an episode of The West Wing about education in America, which the majority of people rightfully believe is the key to opportunity. In it, the fictional president debates whether he should push school vouchers (giving public money to schoolchildren so that they escape failing public schools) or instead focus exclusively on fixing those same failing schools. That debate is important, of course—for a long time, much of my failing school district qualified for vouchers—but it was striking that in an entire discussion about why poor kids struggled in school, the emphasis rested entirely on public institutions. As a teacher at my old high school told me recently, “They want us to be shepherds to these kids. But no one wants to talk about the fact that many of them are raised by wolves.”
As my job taught me a little more about America’s class divide, it also imbued me with a bit of resentment, directed toward both the wealthy and my own kind. The owners of Dillman’s were old-fashioned, so they allowed people with good credit to run grocery tabs, some of which surpassed a thousand dollars. I knew that if any of my relatives walked in and ran up a bill of over a thousand dollars, they’d be asked to pay immediately. I hated the feeling that my boss counted my people as less trustworthy than those who took their groceries home in a Cadillac. But I got over it: One day, I told myself, I’ll have my own damned tab.
I also learned how people gamed the welfare system. 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 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.
The problems of our community hit close to home. Mom’s struggles weren’t some isolated incident. They were replicated, replayed, and relived by many of the people who, like us, had moved hundreds of miles in search of a better life. There was no end in sight. Mamaw had thought she escaped the poverty of the hills, but the poverty—emotional, if not financial—had followed her.
We choose not to work when we should be looking for jobs. Sometimes we’ll get a job, but it won’t last. We’ll get fired for tardiness, or for stealing merchandise and selling it on eBay, or for having a customer complain about the smell of alcohol on our breath, or for taking five thirty-minute restroom breaks per shift. We talk about the value of hard work but tell ourselves that the reason we’re not working is some perceived unfairness: Obama shut down the coal mines, or all the jobs went to the Chinese. These are the lies we tell ourselves to solve the cognitive dissonance—the broken connection between the world we see and the values we preach.
One Friday morning I dropped off my rent check, knowing that if I waited another day, the fifty-dollar late fee would kick in. I didn’t have enough money to cover the check, but I’d get paid that day and would be able to deposit the money after work. However, after a long day at the senate, I forgot to grab my paycheck before I left. By the time I realized the mistake, I was already home, and the Statehouse staff had left for the weekend. On that day, a three-day payday loan, with a few dollars of interest, enabled me to avoid a significant overdraft fee. The legislators debating the merits of payday lending didn’t mention situations like that. The lesson? Powerful people sometimes do things to help people like me without really understanding people like me.
The Great Recession, and the not-great recovery that followed, had hastened Middletown’s downward trajectory. But there was something almost spiritual about the cynicism of the community at large, something that went much deeper than a short-term recession.
As a culture, we had no heroes. Certainly not any politician—Barack Obama was then the most admired man in America (and likely still is), but even when the country was enraptured by his rise, most Middletonians viewed him suspiciously. George W. Bush had few fans in 2008. Many loved Bill Clinton, but many more saw him as the symbol of American moral decay, and Ronald Reagan was long dead. We loved the military but had no George S. Patton figure in the modern army. I doubt my neighbors could even name a high-ranking military officer. The space program, long a source of pride, had gone the way of the dodo, and with it the celebrity astronauts. Nothing united us with the core fabric of American society. We felt trapped in two seemingly unwinnable wars, in which a disproportionate share of the fighters came from our neighborhood, and in an economy that failed to deliver the most basic promise of the American Dream—a steady wage.
We can’t trust the evening news. We can’t trust our politicians. Our universities, the gateway to a better life, are rigged against us. We can’t get jobs. You can’t believe these things and participate meaningfully in society. Social psychologists have shown that group belief is a powerful motivator in performance. When groups perceive that it’s in their interest to work hard and achieve things, members of that group outperform other similarly situated individuals. It’s obvious why: If you believe that hard work pays off, then you work hard; if you think it’s hard to get ahead even when you try, then why try at all?