Hillbilly Elegy, Small Investor Book Club

This month we’re reading Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by JD Vance for the Small Investor Book Club. I’ve always wondered why people stay in places after the jobs have gone, such as people who stay in a mining community after the mines have closed. In Appalachia, there is deep poverty in many little hollows and basins, despite plentiful jobs lying within 100 miles. I’m was hoping this book will help explain why this is so, which it did to some extent, but it mainly was about how culture, which can be destructive, will travel with a people and cause their lives in a new place to resemble their lives in the old place.  Even when several “hillbillies” from Kentucky moved to Middletown, OH and got high-paying factory jobs, their culture caused them to have financial and social difficulties.

Hopefully, you have already gotten a copy and read along.  If you haven’t, pick up a copy and join the conversation.

Hillbilly Elegy is a story of JD Vance’s life and the story of his grandparents and parents.  His grandparents moved to Middletown, OH, attracted to the area when the Amaco Steel Company recruited rural Kentucky residents.  Part of the reason for their leaving was a pregnancy that was a scandal in his small town of Jackson, KY.  Jackson is a beautiful, but very impoverished place.  The population is almost entirely white, born of Scotch-Irish heritage, yet many of the issues they face in rural America are identical to those faced by blacks in Urban America.  Like their black brethren in the inner city, they have terrible schools, drug problems, high rates of unemployment or underemployment, and many families broken by divorce.  Very few of the young adults go to college at all and almost none of them go to college out-of-state.  When they move to Middletown, OH, despite having a good, middle-class income, they continue to see the same issues.

The issues they see are beyond simple economics.  The issues are cultural.  Specifically, while the hillbilly culture, which is very family-centric (although divorce and abuse are widespread), self-reliant, and resourceful serves people well in their small community, the skills needed to survive in a larger economy, such as dependability as a worker and money management, are lacking.  People don’t do the things that are needed to succeed financially, so while there may be plenty of opportunities available just over the next hill, the culture keeps people from succeeding.  An example from the book:

“One guy, I’ll call him Bob, joined the tile warehouse just a few months before I did.  Bob was nineteen with a pregnant girlfriend.  The manager kindly offered the girlfriend a clerical position answering the phones,  Both of them were terrible workers,  The girlfriend missed about every third day of work and never gave advance notice.  Though warned to change her habits repeatedly, the girlfriend lasted no more than a few months.  Bob missed work about once per week, and he was chronically late.  On top of that, he took three or four daily bathroom breaks, each over half an hour.  It became so bad that, by the end of my tenure, another employee and I made a game of it:  We’d set a timer when he went into the bathroom and shout the major milestones through the warehouse–‘thirty-five minutes!’ ‘Forty-five minutes!’ ‘One hour!”

Eventually, Bob, too, was fired.  When it happened, he lashed out at his manager: ‘How could you do this to me?  Don’t you know I’ve got a pregnant girlfriend?’  And he was not alone:  At least two other people, including Bob’s cousin, lost their jobs or quit during my short time at the tile warehouse.”

“The problems that I saw at the tile warehouse run far deeper than macroeconomic trends and policy.  Too many young men immune to hard work.  Good jobs impossible to fill for any length of time.  And a young man with every reason to work–a wife-to-be to support and a baby on the way–carelessly tossing aside a good job with excellent health insurance.  More troubling, when it was all over, he thought something had been done to him.  There is a lack of agency here–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.”

So the issues are cultural.  There are certain cultures that are not conducive to succeeding economically.  The road to security in America starts with working a job consistently so that you can build up wealth.  Many people come from a culture, either a community or simply an individual family, where the value of being a dependable worker is not taught and enforced.  This is not a white issue or a black issue.  It is not a male issue or a female issue.  It is not an urban issue or a rural issue.  It is seen throughout the US and indeed, throughout the world.  Somehow people develop a culture of despair and victimhood that prevents them from succeeding when the tools are within their grasp.

This is not an issue that can be solved through a job training program, a welfare check, or a college education.  It requires training that is more fundamental than that, changing attitudes and core beliefs.  You would need to convince people who believe that they cannot succeed because everyone else is against them that they have the power to change their destiny within their own two hands.  Talk of people being privileged and disadvantaged, as is the current fashion among the liberal elite, does not support making this change.

Note that there are other economically destructive cultures.  One is the middle-class buy-everything-on-credit-to-impress-others mentality.  While the many individuals living with this culture may not be living on public assistance like the hillbillies and inner-city blacks, their economic security is tenuous at best, as was seen in the 2008 financial crisis.  In their case, the road to economic wealth and security is within their grasp, yet their culture keeps them always in debt and living paycheck-to-paycheck.

We’ll continue reviewing Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis in a future post.  If you have read the book, what are some of your take-aways?  Please leave your comments below and join the discussion.

Comments appreciated! What are your thoughts? Questions?

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