Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis

Typically, I offer just a short review at the end of my Seven Essential Quotes reviews of books, but this book was so infuriating and so interesting that I thought I’d offer some context for the quotes I’ve selected. Hillbilly Elegy has become one of those books that’s used to explain poverty in America because it fits convenient conservative narratives: that poverty is the result of personal bad choices, not government or corporate policy and that government programs cannot alleviate the hopelessness of some of our depressed areas.

That Vance succeeded in his life, despite real challenges, is commendable, but he seems to ignore advantages that just aren’t the case for many of the nation’s poor. He casually mentions home ownership and an uncle who could send him a spare pair of golf clubs when he was interested in the game almost without realizing that his circumstances were much different than those of many poor Americans.

And the book falls into lazy stereotyping about the poor, couched in the same personal experience that conservatives often use to condemn the poor. That Vance grew up in (very relative) poverty and briefly worked in a grocery store, for instance, offers no more truth to his claim that the poor “game the welfare system” than when Republican politicians talk about lobster and steak being purchased with food stamps.

Reading the book as a person who grew up in challenging economic circumstances, I certainly understood and could relate well to Vance’s history and how that history helped shape him. What I kept hoping for and only getting the briefest glances of, though, were moments of recognition that he was trying to universalize his experience to explain the failure of the poor to escape theirs and a real sense of their needs, not to mention the obligation society has to those trapped in poverty that lends itself to hopeless thinking.

Instead, I identify with the millions of working-class white Americans of Scots-Irish descent who have no college degree. To these folks, poverty is the family tradition—their ancestors were day laborers in the Southern slave economy, sharecroppers after that, coal miners after that, and machinists and millworkers during more recent times. Americans call them hillbillies, rednecks, or white trash. I call them neighbors, friends, and family.

The angry reaction supports the academic literature on Appalachian Americans. In a December 2000 paper, sociologists Carol A. Markstrom, Sheila K. Marshall, and Robin J. Tryon found that avoidance and wishful-thinking forms of coping “significantly predicted resiliency” among Appalachian teens. Their paper suggests that hillbillies learn from an early age to deal with uncomfortable truths by avoiding them, or by pretending better truths exist. This tendency might make for psychological resilience, but it also makes it hard for Appalachians to look at themselves honestly. We tend to overstate and to understate, to glorify the good and ignore the bad in ourselves.

This has occurred for complicated reasons. Federal housing policy has actively encouraged homeownership, from Jimmy Carter’s Community Reinvestment Act to George W. Bush’s ownership society. But in the Middletowns of the world, homeownership comes at a steep social cost: As jobs disappear in a given area, declining home values trap people in certain neighborhoods. Even if you’d like to move, you can’t, because the bottom has fallen out of the market—you now owe more than any buyer is willing to pay. The costs of moving are so high that many people stay put. Of course, the people trapped are usually those with the least money; those who can afford to leave do so.

You can walk through a town where 30 percent of the young men work fewer than twenty hours a week and find not a single person aware of his own laziness. During the 2012 election cycle, the Public Religion Institute, a left-leaning think tank, published a report on working-class whites. It found, among other things, that working-class whites worked more hours than college-educated whites. But the idea that the average working-class white works more hours is demonstrably false.13 The Public Religion Institute based its results on surveys—essentially, they called around and asked people what they thought.14 The only thing that report proves is that many folks talk about working more than they actually work.

For me and Lindsay, the fear of imposing stalked our minds, infecting even the food we ate. We recognized instinctively that many of the people we depended on weren’t supposed to play that role in our lives, so much so that it was one of the first things Lindsay thought of when she learned of Papaw’s death. We were conditioned to feel that we couldn’t really depend on people—that, even as children, asking someone for a meal or for help with a broken-down automobile was a luxury that we shouldn’t indulge in too much lest we fully tap the reservoir of goodwill serving as a safety valve in our lives.

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.

This was my world: a world of truly irrational behavior. We spend our way into the poorhouse. We buy giant TVs and iPads. Our children wear nice clothes thanks to high-interest credit cards and payday loans. We purchase homes we don’t need, refinance them for more spending money, and declare bankruptcy, often leaving them full of garbage in our wake. Thrift is inimical to our being. We spend to pretend that we’re upper-class. And when the dust clears—when bankruptcy hits or a family member bails us out of our stupidity—there’s nothing left over.