Saturday, August 3, 2019

Vance's "Hillbilly Elegy"

In 2016, J.D. Vance wrote a memoir as a 32-year old-- what became a best-selling and influential book. As he notes, it's strange for a young man to be encouraged to write an auto-biography. He doesn't seem entirely comfortable with the project; it's funny at times to read him downplaying his uniqueness. And of course, one should be careful in generalizing from one man's subjective experience to broad social/cultural observations. But the combination of his "hillbilly" background and Yale Law School outcome is unusual-- and its implications are important. 

Vance says that he would have squandered it all, except for the impact of a handful of loving people who rescued him-- in particular, his grandparents and esp. his grandmother (2, 23, 46, 138). "Reams of social science attest to the positive effect of a loving and stable home...I know Mamaw was good for me not because some Harvard psychologist says so but because I felt it." (149-150) I don't think he is dissing science here, but merely acknowledging the powerful experience he had, which happens to jive with theory and data. 

Vance is white. But given his background, the idea of "white privilege" for him and other hillbillies is utterly ridiculous. Their disadvantages stem from both geography and ethnicity (2-3). Understanding this is just one more nail in the coffin of "reparations" by ethnicity. Why on earth would one want to take resources from hillbillies to give to President Obama's family? (Maybe this helps to explain why Obama is no fan of reparations.)

Vance sees jobs and "the economy" as part of the problem. But these cannot be anything close to a complete explanation-- which must include the role of culture and individual decisions. In his view, the problems are clearly more self-imposed by individuals and a dysfunctional culture, than caused by institutions or external forces. "It's about reacting to bad circumstances in the worst possible way. It's about a culture that increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it." (7) 

More broadly: "Our elegy is a sociological one, yes, but it is also about psychology and community and culture and faith." (145) All of this points to broader conceptions of "class"-- which go far beyond income (63). "Social mobility isn't just about money and economics, it's about a lifestyle..." (207). 

At a micro level, Vance repeatedly describes poor family dynamics on communication, parenting, instability, etc.-- both generalizations and from his own experience-- that will make most people cringe. His narrative reminded me of Ruby Payne's work on education and sociology, in her efforts to help poor families. And as the research shows, this has a terrible and wide-ranging impact on men (e.g., here on opioids) and communities.

Vance shares the "takeaways" on "marital conflict resolution" that he gained from watching his Mom with a "revolving door of father figures" (88): "Never speak at a reasonable volume when screaming will do..." and so on (71). He was fortunate to see some exceptions (73), but the norms were counter-productive. As he describes his own marriage, he shares how his reflexes still lean in that direction.

In sum (and generalizing), hillbilly "homes are a chaotic mess." (146) Screaming and yelling, hitting and punching, drugs and alcohol, bring in the police and the kids go to foster care, apologize but don't repent. And then in daily life: don't work or don't stick with it; don't encourage kids to study; teach kids about the importance of responsibility but don't walk the walk; succumb to poor eating and exercise habits (146-148). 

When Vance worked at a grocery store, he saw the irony that the poor were more likely to purchase pre-cooked and frozen food-- and "only poor people bought baby formula" (138). He saw how "people gamed the welfare system" and were "content to live off the dole" (139). They would spend their "way into the poorhouse"-- with high-interest credit cards and payday loans (146).

Vance does point to macroeconomic factors-- in particular, the post-WWII migration from Appalachia to the Midwest, for manufacturing jobs that soon began to fade. The next generation was supposed to be upwardly mobile. But it didn't work out that way, given the cultural problems, the decline of manufacturing, and the new "War on Poverty". 

This reminded me of an oft-overlooked truism on timing: when something happens can be more important than the change itself. For example, many countries have come out of colonization. The key difference: when they were freed and the dominant theories of economy and political economy into which they were freed. 

Fortunately, America was freed when people believed in the efficacy of free markets and limited government. Unfortunately, African nations began when faith in government and elites was high-- and when professionals were skeptical about markets. The same holds true for African-Americans and the timing of Civil Rights in the 1960s, as well as Vance's focus on Appalachia immigration to the Midwest post-WWII.  

Vance is focused on Appalachia. But at times, he extends his analysis to all "working-class whites"-- and most broadly, the poor. Their problems are exacerbated when they are concentrated into communities. Among blacks and other ethnic groups in cities (especially with "public housing"), we used to have the term "ghettos". But the impact in more rural areas is essentially the same. He notes that 25% of white children in 1970 lived in neighborhoods with poverty rates about 10%. In 2000, it was 40%. "It's almost certainly even higher today." (51) 

Individuals live in communities that exert profound negative influences on them. This points to the role of sociology and psychology, beyond strict economics or political science. When communities feature out-of-wedlock births, drug use, etc., then individuals become more prone to participate in those activities. (See also: ROGD, anorexia, etc.) One response is escapism: "For many kids, the first impulse is escape, but people who lurch toward the exit rarely choose the right door...Out of the frying pan and into the fire. Chaos begets chaos. Instability begets instability. Welcome to family life for the American hillbilly." (229)

His Mom "avoided abusive or neglectful partners", but Vance "hated the disruption" of so many guys in their lives (88). He also connects the dots between troubles with family stability and trying to do K-12. He provides a brutal quote from a teacher friend: "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." (127) 

And he lays out a gut-wrenching statistic on the percentage of children exposed to three or more maternal partners: Sweden is 2nd in the world with 2.6% and America is #1 with 8.2% overall-- and higher in the working class (228). Brutal! Thanks again to the government and proponents for their War on Poverty...err, the Poor. Outside the mercy of Jesus, may you find a millstone awaiting you in the afterlife. 

In 2012, working class whites reported working more hours, but the surveys are "demonstrably false...the only thing that report proves is that many folks talk about working more than they actually work." (57-58) Kids are then raised in a context where work is infrequent and lauded hypocritically. Impressive research by Chetty et. al. indicates the prevalence of single parents and income segregation for limited income mobility (242). Again, the cultural influences on work and family formation are significant. 

All of these problems are prevalent among "working-class blacks" as well. Again, this is far more about class than income-- or certainly, race. Vance found William Julius Wilson's The Truly Disadvantaged and then Charles Murray's Losing Ground. Both books focused on blacks, but they "described my home perfectly." (144) At least Murray is clear that these problems should be expected in any lower-income setting-- independent of race. And while Wilson definitely focuses on jobs, Murray explains that welfare programs necessarily created strong disincentives to work, study, save, and form two-parent households-- for the poor, when elites changed "the rules of the game" for them. 

Vance also helps us understand why "working class whites" weren't fond of Obama. Racism probably plays a primary role for a few people and a secondary role for others. But the larger issues were economic and cultural-- matters of "class". His presidency occurred as dissatisfaction with the economy was bottoming out and not getting better with any alacrity. Beyond that, "The president feels like an alien...for many reasons that have nothing to do with skin color...Ivy League...brilliant, wealthy, and speaks like a constitutional law professor...Nothing about him bears any resemblance...His accent-- clean, perfect, neutral-- is foreign...Obama overcame adversity in his own right-- adversity familiar to many of us-- but that was long before any of us knew him...He is a good father while many of us aren't. He wears suits to his job while we were overalls...His wife tells us that we shouldn't be feeding our children certain foods, and we hate her for it..." (191) 

Given the complexities of the social problems, it's not surprising that Vance reaches sober and limited policy conclusions, especially at the federal level. "Public policy can help, but there is no government that can fix these problems for us." (255) He wants foster laws revisited, so that non-immediate but involved family members would have much easier access to kids in troubled situations (243). But there is no "magical public policy solution...I don't think that solutions (as most understand the term) really exist...maybe you can put your thumb on the scale a little for the people at the margins." (238) 

It's not spending in K-12 schools-- or more access to food or college; "the fault lies almost entirely with factors outside the government's control." (244) "It starts when we stop blaming Obama or Bush or faceless companies and ask ourselves what we can do to make things better." (256) Opportunity lies with the individual, those around him, the community, churches, etc. 

As per Olasky in The Tragedy of American Compassion, it's not simply a matter of getting the private sector involved. The private sector could be more effective, at least on paper; but there are certainly no guarantees, in practice. In his conclusion, Vance uses Christmas as an example of the gap between classes-- and efforts by the upper class to help the lower class. Christmas taught him about tax refunds and were a prominent time for payday loans-- and its gifts served as an opportunity to buy love. Charitable organizations were a mixed blessing-- promoting consumerism, being patronized through assistance, and receiving ridiculous gifts like pajamas (249-252).

Effective welfare programs are unlikely. Effective charitable efforts are difficult. Vance calls his community to be the cure to its own problems. Whether they can do so is debatable. But in his realistic pessimism about external entities bringing true hope and change, the best answer is probably hard work and God's grace-- and to strive for robust community and revitalized civic institutions. 

Other observations: 
-Vance's description of the hillbilly family was, not unsurprisingly, quite similar to the "trustee family" structure described by Zimmerman: loyalty to family and class (15-16); "a robust sense of honor, devotion to family, and bizarre sexism" (41); and an honor-based culture (246). 

-On the importance of the church as a civic institution, Vance connects Christian faith (albeit naive at the time) to saving him from trouble. One of his fathers found Jesus and it made a difference to him directly-- and indirectly through his Dad (92, 94). But Vance notes that there is cultural pressure to identify as religious-- and that attendance and participation is actually quite low, compared to the rest of the Bible Belt (93). 

-Vance describes drug addiction as both disease and an excuse (116). Trying to help his Mom-- and the implicit challenges-- is a recurring theme in the book. At one point, he gives her clean pee to pass a drug check at a job. "And maybe, if we help her this time, she'll finally learn her lesson." (131) Of course, she was learning the lesson-- that people would continue to try bailing her out! At one point, he realizes that "of all the emotions I felt toward my mother, I had never tried sympathy." (231) Her two siblings turned out well enough, so "in some ways, Mom is the Vance child who lost the game of statistics." (232) He concludes that "There is room now for both anger at Mom for the life she chooses and sympathy for the childhood she didn't." (238)

-In the Marine Corps, Vance learned that he had underestimated himself (163). And after seeing a kid in Iraq who was so thankful to get an eraser, he observes: "For my entire life, I'd harbored resentment at the world...I began to realize how lucky I was...I resolved to be the type of man who would smile when someone gave him an eraser." (173-174)

-Vance is fine with payday lenders; they can "solve important financial problems" (185).

-On the prevalence of American Civil Religion in Appalachia: Vance said his Mamaw always had two gods: Jesus Christ and America-- and he cites the patriotism of Breathitt County, including the anecdote that it was the only county in the U.S. to fulfill its quotas for WWI soldiers through volunteers (189)

-Vance discusses the prevalence of means-tested financial aid for colleges, so that smart kids can attend elite colleges, often for less than a state university (198-199). 

-On (true) diversity: "For all of the Ivy League's obsession with diversity, virtually everyone comes from intact families who never worry about money." (203)

-On mobility, Vance notes a small but often-overlooked point-- that one always move to something and from something else (206). Similarly, progress always implies that one wasn't as good at something in the past. 

-Mitch Daniels is his "political hero" (221) and Amy Chua was a key mentor in law school (219).


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