In Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance outlines his rise from the poor working class to the more affluent middle class. In doing so, he considers the notion of upward mobility, portraying it as always possible yet deeply complicated. He emphasizes that a hillbilly’s economic success greatly depends upon his or her sense of personal agency. Although all the resources that lead to upward mobility may not be available to a working class kid living in poverty, Vance demonstrates that climbing the socioeconomic ladder is possible so long as a person is determined to make full use of the opportunities he or she does have. At the same time, he also sheds light on how difficult it can be after a person achieves upward mobility, making it clear that cultural complications often arise when somebody moves from one class to another. Despite his knowledge of how hard it can be to succeed in Appalachia, though, he chastises his hillbilly community for adopting complacent and cynical attitudes that quickly turn people away from even trying to climb the socioeconomic ladder in the first place.
Vance illustrates that, with very few resources, people living in Appalachian poverty must eagerly pursue the opportunities that do arise for them. He laments the seeming laziness of his hillbilly community, which he sees as growing increasingly complacent. For example, the summer before Vance attended Yale Law School, he desperately needed money, so he took a job at a nearby tile distribution business. The work was physically exhausting and the hours were long, but the pay was respectable and included health benefits. While he was there, a nineteen year-old boy came looking for work in order to support his pregnant girlfriend. The boss kindly offered him a job and even gave the boy’s girlfriend an administrative position. Despite the decent pay and respectable health benefits, both the boy and his pregnant girlfriend took the job for granted, often arriving late and even neglecting to come in at all several times per week. First the girlfriend was fired, because she missed more work than the boy. Not long after, the boy was fired too. He was indignant, responding, “How could you do this to me? Don’t you know I’ve got a pregnant girlfriend?”
Vance uses this story to depict the extent to which young Appalachians refuse to take responsibility for their own lives. “There is a lack of agency here,” he writes, “a feeling that you have little control over your life and a willingness to blame everyone but yourself. This is distinct from the larger economic landscape of modern America.” The fact that the boy asked how his boss could “do” this to him shows his unwillingness to recognize that he should be held accountable for his own actions. His behavior also lacked another important quality when it comes to upward mobility: foresight. Unwilling to own up to his mistakes and unable to see the correlation between doing poor work and getting fired, he put himself in a position from which it actually was impossible to succeed. Personal agency and responsibility, then, emerge as vital to social mobility—qualities a person must have in order to overcome the preexisting setbacks of poverty.
Vance is interested in the relationship between circumstance and agency. He asks: “How much of our lives, good and bad, should we credit to our personal decisions, and how much is just the inheritance of our culture, our families, and our parents who have failed their children?” As somebody traumatized by his mother’s drug addiction and the instability it led to in his childhood, the odds were against Vance when it came to upward mobility. Worse, there was a narrative—partially based on statistics—about the impossibility of rising out of Appalachian poverty; “Surrounding me was another message: that I and the people like me weren’t good enough; that the reason Middletown produced zero Ivy League graduates was some genetic or character defect. I couldn’t possibly see how destructive that mentality was until I escaped it.” All around him, upward mobility was cast as impossible, and this feeling of hopelessness gravely threatened his efforts to improve himself. Vance writes, “whenever people ask me what I’d most like to change about the white working class, I say, ‘The feeling that our choices don’t matter.’” As such, Vance attempts to reassert the importance of taking responsibility for one’s actions. Any positive change, he implies, happens as a result of conscious work, not random chance and complacent thinking.
Despite the possibility of upward mobility and the importance of personal agency, Vance also reveals the ongoing difficulties that come as the result of moving from one class to another. “Upward mobility is never clean-cut,” he writes. Rather, it requires one to navigate the intersection of two cultures. For somebody from working class Appalachia, this means confronting the strong sense of hillbilly loyalty. For example, when Vance saw a woman in Appalachia wearing a Yale shirt, he asked her if she attended the school. She told him that her nephew did, and asked him the same question—suddenly he felt trapped because he was “still uncomfortable admitting that [he’d] become an Ivy Leaguer.” He felt in that moment like he had to make a decision: “Was I a Yale Law student, or was I a Middletown kid with hillbilly grandparents?” In the end, he decided to lie, telling her that he didn’t go to Yale; “This wasn’t one of my prouder moments, but it highlights the inner conflict inspired by rapid upward mobility: I had lied to a stranger to avoid feeling like a traitor.” In failing to explain to the woman that he is both an “Ivy Leaguer” and a “Middletown kid with hillbilly grandparents,” Vance inadvertently implied to himself that hillbillies are fundamentally unsuited for Ivy League education—that somebody could never be both an Appalachian and a Yale Law student. This is, of course, a conclusion Vance no doubt finds ridiculous, but he nonetheless can’t help but personally feel this clash of two cultures when thrown into the tricky gray area of upward mobility, a term that he notes “necessarily implies a sort of movement—to a theoretically better life, yes, but also away from something.”
In gaining financial, intellectual, and social mobility, Vance estranges himself from the circumstances of his upbringing. Of course, this doesn’t mean that he condemns the process of upward mobility. Rather, he further highlights the difficulty of rising out of Appalachian poverty by showing that the complicated process of social migration never truly ends.
Upward Mobility and Personal Agency ThemeTracker
Upward Mobility and Personal Agency Quotes in Hillbilly Elegy
Today people look at me, at my job and my Ivy League credentials, and assume that I’m some sort of genius, that only a truly extraordinary person could have made it to where I am today. With all due respect to those people, I think that theory is a load of bullshit. Whatever talents I have, I almost squandered until a handful of loving people rescued me.
That is the real story of my life, and that is why I wrote this book. I want people to know what it feels like to nearly give up on yourself and why you might do it. I want people to understand what happens in the life of the poor and the psychological impact that spiritual and material poverty has on their children. I want people to understand the American Dream as my family encountered it. I want people to understand how upward mobility really feels. And I want people to understand something I learned only recently: that for those of us lucky enough to live the American Dream, the demons of the life we left behind continue to chase us.
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.
Within two generations, the transplanted hillbillies had largely caught up to the native population in terms of income and poverty level. Yet their financial success masked their cultural unease, and if my grandparents caught up economically, I wonder if they ever truly assimilated. They always had one foot in the new life and one foot in the old one. They slowly acquired a small number of friends but remained strongly rooted in their Kentucky homeland.
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.
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.
Every time the drill instructor screamed at me and I stood proudly; every time I thought I’d fall behind during a run and kept up; every time I learned to do something I thought impossible, like climb the rope, I came a little closer to believing in myself. Psychologists call it “learned helplessness” when a person believes, as I did during my youth, that the choices I made had no effect on the outcomes in my life. From Middletown’s world of small expectations to the constant chaos of our home, life had taught me that I had no control. Mamaw and Papaw had saved me from succumbing entirely to that notion, and the Marine Corps broke new ground. If I had learned helplessness at home, the Marines were teaching learned willfulness.
For all my grandma’s efforts, for all of her “You can do anything; don’t be like those fuckers who think the deck is stacked against them” diatribes, the message had only partially set in before I enlisted. Surrounding me was another message: that I and the people like me weren’t good enough; that the reason Middletown produced zero Ivy League graduates was some genetic or character defect. I couldn’t possible see how destructive that mentality was until I escaped it. […]
I’m not saying ability doesn’t matter. It certainly helps. But there’s something powerful about realizing that you’ve undersold yourself—that somehow your mind confused lack of effort for inability. This is why, whenever people ask me what I’d most like to change about the white working class, I say, “The feeling that our choices don’t matter.”
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?
We do know that working-class Americans aren’t just less likely to climb the economic ladder, they’re also more likely to fall off even after they’ve reached the top. I imagine that the discomfort they feel at leaving behind much of their identity plays at least a small role in this problem. One way our upper class can promote upward mobility, then, is not only by pushing wise public policies but by opening their hearts and minds to the newcomers who don’t quite belong.
Though we sing the praises of social mobility, it has its downsides. The term necessarily implies a sort of movement—to a theoretically better life, yes, but also away from something. And you can’t always control the parts of your old life from which you drift.
In my own head, I was better than my past. I was strong. I left town as soon as I could, served my country in the Marines, excelled at Ohio State, and made it to the country’s top law school. I had no demons, no character flaws, no problems. But that just wasn’t true. The things I wanted most in the entire world—a happy partner and a happy home—required constant mental focus. My self-image was bitterness masquerading as arrogance. A few weeks into my second year of law school, I hadn’t spoken to Mom in many months, longer than at any point in my life. I realized that of all the emotions I felt toward my mother—love, pity, forgiveness, anger, hatred, and dozens of others—I had never tried sympathy. I had never tried to understand my mom.