Hillbilly Elegy – The Culture of White American Poverty

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I’ve written a couple of book summaries on here over the past few months, and this one for Hillbilly Elegy will be the most difficult. J.D. Vance’s autobiography is a sociological summary of Appalachian American culture, and by extension the culture of poverty across America, which uses his own life as a case study. The book is basically a series of linked anecdotes with only occasional introspections thrown in, so I’ll try my best to lay out Vance’s story, and integrate his claims and arguments.

(Note – I listened on audiobook, so my quotes are approximations of real quotes in the book.)

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Introduction

In one of his posts which I’ve since forgotten, Scott Alexander argues that there are three essential explanations for long-term poverty in the Western world – external (either extreme misfortune or oppression), cultural (bad ideas encourage self-destructive behavior), and genetic (HBD). If I had to put Vance’s evaluation into this paradigm, I would say he attributes Appalachian poverty to 10% external, 15% genetic, and 75% cultural.

You know that classic Republican straw man about poor people? It goes something like –

“In the glorious modern American capitalist economy, all people can pick themselves up by their bootstraps and make a good living if they really want to. The only way to fail is to not try hard enough. Poor people are all lazy loafers who would rather take drugs, rack up illegitimate children, and become welfare queens, than work an honest day in their lives. It’s their own damn fault they’re poor.”

Vance argues that this straw man is basically true.

Yes, of course it’s more complicated than that. There are external factors at play that makes the lives of his fellow hillbillies in Appalachia worse, like the collapse of American industrialism. But underlying the depressed economies, high unemployment, underfunded schools, and shoddy welfare networks, are simply a lot of bad decisions made on an individual level.

Early in the book, Vance points to his former co-worker, Bob, as a typical example. Out of high school, Vance worked at a tile company, which offered full-time, heavy physical work for $13 per hour to start plus benefits, and up to $16 per hour with seniority, which was excellent work for the region and depressed economy at the time. Yet Vance’s boss consistently had trouble finding workers. Eventually he found Bob, a 19 year old high school drop out with a 17 year old pregnant girlfriend. The boss was nice enough to not only hire Bob, but offer his girlfriend a secretary job.

Bob missed at least two days of work per week, and his girlfriend would miss three. Both never gave notice, and when they did show up they were usually late. Bob would also take 3-5 bathroom breaks per day which were so long that Vance started a game where he would count the minutes out loud each time, usually going up to 30-40.

Eventually the boss got fed up, and fired both Bob and his girlfriend. Bob responded by nearly physically assaulting the boss, and screaming at him in the warehouse, asking the boss, “how could you do this to me!? I have a pregnant girlfriend! How are we supposed to survive!?”

Everyone gets married young. Women constantly have children without committed men. Men beat and cheat on their partners. Women stay with their abusive partners, at least until the men get bored and leave. Everyone eats junk food and drinks soda for every meal. Everyone screams all the time, or they punch each other. People buy stuff they can’t afford. Everyone heavily drinks. Drug abuse is everywhere, especially of prescription painkillers. Few people want to work, and those who do are terrible employees. Yet nothing is ever anyone’s fault. Or rather, every bad thing is the fault of the economy, the government, Obama, the industrial companies, the Japanese, the Chinese, or some other mysterious malevolent force somewhere in the universe.

Vance goes at lengths to argue that the current economic and sociological analyses of what’s wrong with these communities get a lot right, but they’re always missing a certain something. They can trace the causal lines between employment or income and stable families or grades, or whatever, but past a certain level of analysis, the prime causal factor exists in a murky haze that even he can’t quite articulate. It’s some combination of bad cultural memes, laziness, malaise, and a detached locus of control. At one point late in the book, Vance says that if there was one thing he wished he could change about hillbilly culture, it’s “the feeling that our choices don’t matter.”

Only a very select few hillbillies “make it” in the sense of achieving a stable, middle-class lifestyle. J.D. Vance is one of those few. He starts off the book saying that he feels ridiculous writing a memoir because his “greatest accomplishment” to date was graduating from Yale Law School. Yet, as he walks the reader through his life, it becomes more and more apparent just how amazing that feat is.

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Vance’s Story

I won’t go through Vance’s entire family history and life, but here’s the (lengthy) TLDR:

Vance’s family has deep roots in northern Kentucky, making them pure “Borderers” in the Albion’s Seed sense. In the mid-20th-century, Vance’s mother’s parents (“Mamaw” and “Papaw” as he calls them, key figures in his life) moved from Jackson, Kentucky, to Middletown, Ohio, a booming industrial town based around Armco Steel, along with thousands of other ambitious Appalachians. Mamaw was impregnated when she was 13 while Papaw was engaged to another woman, but nonetheless, they achieved a surprisingly successful middle-class life with Papaw working in the steel mill and Mamaw taking care of five kids. They came from nothing and achieved prosperity, so they assumed their kids would continue on the same trajectory… but then the American industrial economy went into decline.

The smartest hillbillies cashed out or moved to the coasts for professional work, but the rest stayed behind. So Vance’s mother grew up in a crumbling industrial façade. Due to some combination of decent parenting and raw ability, many of Vance’s aunts and uncles became surprisingly successfully as they moved out of Middleton and set up businesses elsewhere. But Vance’s mother was the black sheep of the family. Though she was considered the smartest of the bunch, she followed in her own mother’s footsteps, and was impregnated straight out of high school without the fortune of the father staying around. Five years later, she had a second child, J.D. Vance, and his father didn’t stick around either.

Vance was born in 1984 right as Middletown plummeted into an industrial hellscape. What used to be a charming factory town with a Normal Rockwell-esque main street and benevolent corporate benefactor, became infested with drugs, crimes, and most alarmingly to Papaw, the Japanese, who bought out Armco (though Papaw later admitted the Japanese were alright, and China was the real threat). The town itself is just as much a part of the story as Vance, but I’ll focus on him for now.

Vance’s childhood faced a constant struggle between the stabilizing forces of his grandparents (just Mamaw and Papaw, the other two are rarely mentioned) and the chaos of his mother. Vance directly attributes his own successes and failures as an individual throughout his childhood, to which side had more influence on him during any one point in his life.

First there were his grandparents. Mamaw sounds like a fake movie character, but somehow that’s what makes her seem so real. Every time Vance quotes her, “fucking” inevitably shows up in the sentence. Like, “I’ll fucking kill you,” “stop being so fucking lazy,” or “if you’re thinking about putting me in a retirement home, you better take my magnum and put a fucking bullet in my head” (she was not kidding on the last one). She was considered the “toughest, meanest” woman in town, yet she was a constant source of love and support for Vance. Mamaw encouraged his best habits, always gave him a place to stay when his mother was out of control, and was the only real example of a reliable adult in his entire life.

Papaw is a bit less important because he died when Vance was in middle school, but he was also a stabilizing figure. He was a sort of stereotypically good hillbilly who liked fixing cars and never verbally admitted to a mistake, but would always buy gifts for Vance if he lost his temper and gave him some fatherly support. One time, a pharmacy clerk scolded Vance for playing with an expensive toy in his store, so Mamaw began smashing things on the ground, and Papaw told the clerk that he would “break his fucking neck” if he talked to his grandson again.

Papaw and Mamaw didn’t live together when Vance was alive because they had fought with each other non-stop for thirty years. But once they moved to separate homes, there was a reconciliation, and they spent nearly all day, every day together. Somehow they put behind them the fact that Papaw had been such a dire alcoholic, that Mamaw had once poured gasoline over him while he slept, and set him on fire (he miraculously made it to the hospital with only minor burns).

Papaw and Mamaw’s other children also occasionally show up, and despite being rough sorts, they were Vance’s early role models. One was a prolific pot grower, one had moved to California, and the others owned businesses. They were typical “fun uncles” who saw Vance when he visited Kentucky and did lots of outdoor stuff. They also told Vance fun stories, like the time one of his uncles almost beat a man to death for calling him a “son of a bitch” twice. Appalachian men take their mothers very seriously, and the beaten man didn’t press charges.

Vance’s mother (I’ll just call her “Mom”) was a train wreck. We’re never given a precise diagnosis, but I wouldn’t be surprised if she was bipolar and borderline, plus has a strong genetic tendency to addiction. She posses a lot of the worst stereotypes of hillbilly women – unreliable, self-destructive, over-spender, lazy, bounced between men, drug addicted, etc.

The one area where Mom thankfully didn’t fall into the stereotype was her choice in men. Surprisingly, none of the five longer-term boyfriends/husbands in Vance’s young life were abusive (they were far more likely to be abused by Mom). In fact, Vance liked each one of them for different reasons. His birth father had a troubled youth but reformed as a quiet middle-class pastor (albeit a young earth creationist afraid of Magic cards), and eventually re-entered Vance’s life. Vance’s last name was taken from Mom’s first husband, a (literally) toothless hillbilly stereotype who was nonetheless kind to Vance in elementary school. Then there was a cop who often took Vance fishing, followed by a firefighter who Vance thought was the epitome of cool, and finally a mild-mannered dentist who was one of the few examples of adults Vance ever knew who didn’t yell at his wife.

The problem was that none of these men were ever around for more than a few years. Those five were all in Vance’s life for brief stretches from Vance’s kindergarten to his sophomore year of high school. Although the men were nice, Vance learned not to form any real bonds with them, and he barely bothered remembering the names of his dozen-plus step-siblings. Vance treated them all like guests in a hotel. To Vance, the sheer intransigence of it all was the very worst part of his childhood.

For example, Vance moved from Middletown to another city 45 minutes away with his mom when she wanted to live with the firefighter. He left behind his school, local friends, and the comfort of his grandparents living next door. Six months went by of non-stop fighting between Mom and firefighter and Vance assumed it would end any second. But one day, Mom came home and told Vance she was getting married. Vance was surprised and noted out loud that she was constantly fighting, and he wondered if it was a good idea. Mom replied that she was actually marrying her boss, whom she had started dating a month ago. Also, they were moving in with him next week.

And so they did. Vance moved into a house with a new step-father and two new step-siblings he had never met before. Less than a year later, Mom got divorced and they moved out.

But that was just the men… Mom’s problems ran far deeper. Due to the aforementioned mental problems and drugs, she became increasingly unhinged over time, and downright psychotic.

The most harrowing scene in the book describes when Vance was maybe six years old and riding in the car with his mom. A minor argument escalated to Mom gunning the car to 100mph and screaming, “I’m going to crash the car and kill us both.” Vance jumped in the back seat, figuring that he could use multiple seat belts to protect himself. Mom began desperately trying to hit her son, until she got fed up and stopped the car on the side of the road. Vance jumped out, ran across an empty field to a house and screamed at the lady sitting in her pool, “my mom is trying to kill me!” The lady ran in the house with Vance, called the cops, and barricaded the door while Mom tried to smash her way in. Eventually Mom succeeded and dragged Vance out of the house, but the cops showed up just in time and arrested her.

You may have noticed that the book is filled with insane anecdotes like this.

A turning point for Vance was when as a freshman in high school, his mom barged into his room one day and demanded a clean urine sample. At first, Vance was scared, because he had smoked pot recently, but then he remembered to be angry because his mom had absolutely sworn that she would never touch drugs again. But apparently the years of rehab, group therapy sessions, and Narcotics Anonymous meetings hadn’t worked. She was still popping pain pills, and her parole officer would bust her if she didn’t get clean urine by the end of the day. Her own mother was on too many medications to work, so she resorted to her teenage son.

Not long after this day, Mamaw stepped in and demanded that Vance live with her. From about his sophomore year of high school onward, Vance lived alone with Mamaw while his sister got married and had a kid after high school, but miraculously with a good guy whom she lived with. It was during this period that Vance’s life started to turn around. He lost weight, made reliable friends, stopped experimenting with drugs, got a part-time job at a grocery store, grades skyrocketed, he aced the SATs, he graduated from high school, he went to Ohio State University, and he got put on the life trajectory that eventually landed him at Yale Law School.

The period of Vance’s life after high school reads like a 19th century account of a native from one of the dark continents moving to London or Paris and becoming civilized.

Though Vance’s grandma put him on the right track, the biggest turning point was joining the Marines out of high school. The way Vance describes it, the Marines acted like a crash course in middle-class culture. It gave him a reliable authority, enforced discipline, and showed him that he had underestimated his own control over his life. But more than that, his boss literally made him shop around for bank accounts rather than choose the shitty local bank, and forced him to buy a Honda instead of a BMW, and forced him to not take a shitty loan, and made him eat real food instead of soda and cinnamon buns for breakfast. The 13 weeks of bootcamp made Vance a new person, and his description of how his life turned around feels very Jordan Peterson-esque, especially when he describes the beaming pride of giving Mimaw $300 per month for medication – the first time he had supported her instead of vice versa.

After the Marines, Vance went to college at The Ohio State University, and graduated in two years while working multiple jobs on the side. Then he jumped to Yale Law School, cavorted with the elite, married an Indian woman in his class, and ended up in the solid middle-class life he always dreamed of.

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Analysis

The point of Vance telling his story, and the point of me writing it all out here, is that his story isn’t unique (at least up until he joined the Marines). According to Vance, most people he knew growing up had similar lives.

Vance attributes his own success to having a bunch of variables fortunately go the right way for him. Despite his mother’s madness, she instilled in him a work ethic and emphasis on education. His grandparents, sister, and a key aunt acted as reliable support figures, and even the revolving door of men were kind while they were present in Vance’s life. (IMO Vance downplays the importance of his own natural abilities, as his family was full of relatively successful people, and even his mother was a high school salutatorian.) Yet in nearly all of his neighbor’s lives, these variables didn’t fall into place.

But it’s so tough to see how many variables need to line up for even one person to “make it.” Vance consistently stresses that by raw material standards, nobody in Middletown was doing that badly. Yet they were miserable, depressed, addicted, and hopeless anyway.

For instance, when Mom was with her first husband, the toothless hillbilly guy, they could be considered solidly middle-class. Mom was a nurse, her husband was a truck driver, and together they made over $100K per year with two kids in a low-cost-of-living region of America.

And yet financial problems were always one of the biggest triggers of family screaming matches. They were deeply in debt because both Mom and the husband bought multiple new cars per year, they ate out every day instead of cooking, and they purchased a below-ground swimming pool. The house was already mortgaged, but was falling into disrepair due to lack of upkeep, while they repeatedly crashed new cars, and burned through meager savings with credit card fees.

Vance’s family could have been fine. His parents could have lived comfortably, had good savings, and started a college fund. And maybe if they did, the stress wouldn’t have driven Mom and husband to break up, and Mom wouldn’t have turned to drugs, etc. But it didn’t turn out that way.

Throughout the book, I had a question that I wished Vance would have answered directly. Are hillbilly values the problem, or hypocrisy against these values?

The Middletown residents in Vance’s childhood were very proud of their town’s history. They were one of the few American counties to fill their WW2 draft quota with volunteers, and the Armco plant had produced wonderful steel for American-made cars for decades. They were a fierce and proud people.

But Vance points to an HBO documentary about Appalachia where the patriarch of a massive family opines for minutes about “women’s work” that he won’t do. Yet he never addresses what “men’s work” is, which seems more pertinent since despite being a senior citizen, he had never worked a day in his life.

Vance’s neighbor growing up was an obese woman whose favorite pastime was sitting on her porch and railing against Democrats and their stupid welfare systems which the poor greedily leeched off of. Meanwhile, she had multiple kids from different fathers and had lived off of welfare since the day she left high school. When pressed, she argued that she was one of the few people who deserved a little help, while most welfare users were abusive parasites.

Hillbillies love to talk about Jesus and the role of god in their lives. In surveys, they report going to church more than any other population group in the country except Mormons. Yet, when researchers actually look at church attendance records, they find that Appalachian rates rival those of California and New York. Everyone talks about the value of church, but nobody goes to church.

Papaw always said that the measure of a man was how he treated the women in his family. Mamaw encouraged Vance to beat up any boys who insulted his mother and his sister, and she gave Vance a big “atta boy” when he got his ass kicked while trying to fight a guy who dumped his sister, despite the guy being three years older. Vance never got in trouble for these fights because everyone in his town understood the honor code. Yet Papaw cheated on his first fiancé, probably cheated on Mamaw, and was an alcoholic piece of shit towards her for decades. Infidelity and spousal abuse was borderline universal, and screaming matches between spouses was just a way of life.

Speaking of yelling, everyone yells. Vance’s parents yell, his neighbors yell, his teachers yell, everyone yells. Vance remembers opening the windows on either side of his house to catch the details of nightly shouting matches coming from his neighbors. Vance reports literally not knowing any adults who didn’t yell save for one of Mom’s husbands. One of the biggest “civilizing moments” for adult Vance was when his wife sat him down and explained that anytime they had a disagreement, Vance would either go berserk and scream at her, or literally walk away for hours at a time. Vance had never learned another way to communicate with loved ones.

I was aware of all these stereotypes before reading the book, but seeing them so fully fleshed out really brought home how scary it is. These people probably aren’t evil… but a lot of them are kind of bad. Or at least foolish. Or at least make really stupid decisions all the time. Somehow, that’s even scarier than being evil, or at least it’s harder to fix.

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Solutions?

Vance argues that there is no solution to hillbilly culture. The best we can do is try to tip the scales to push a few marginal cases in the right direction.

Vance has an interestingly ambivalent attitude towards government welfare. Basically, it does some good, and a lot of bad, but it’s mostly a neutral force. His family was occasionally supported by parts of the welfare state and he was thankful for that, but he also knew plenty of welfare queens who never even attempted to get a job. While working at a grocery store, Vance regularly saw people use their food stamps to buy soda, sell it outside the store at a loss, then come back in and buy cigarettes and alcohol. He distinctly remembers seeing welfare users talk on their cellphones at the store, while Vance, as a working student, could never afford one.

Likewise, Vance is uncharacteristically optimistic about the public school system. Despite his local school being ranked as one of the worst in the state, he reported always having good, caring teachers, and blames the rankings entirely on the students and their parents. Realistically, no amount of money will get unmotivated students from unstable homes to make an effort at school. Throwing more money at these schools is a waste.

Vance is even skeptical of small-scale charities. Near the end of the book, Vance recalls participating in a charity program where he was supposed to buy toys for local underprivileged children. But using what he remembered from his childhood, he vetoed toy after toy, as he guessed which ones would be stolen or piss off an angry stepfather, or otherwise end up being useless. Vance concluded that the charity itself was just as pointless as the toys he was buying.

So what does work?

Mentorship is one option. Vance attributes much of his success to the positive influence of a handful of family members, and now he tries to do the same for a few teenagers in similar environments. It’s especially useful to give these kids a jump start on the civilizing process, with simple tips like “wear a suit to a job interview” or “don’t curse in front of your boss.”

Religion can also be useful. Hillbillies tend to live hopeless, chaotic lives, and the church can act as an anchor to bring order and stability. Plus, the church can lend direct monetary and social assistance to those in need. The problem is that hillbillies don’t actually attend church, so they end up being about as useful as schools.

Beyond that… Vance is quite grim about the prospect of changing hillbilly culture. He hopes there will be a subtle shift over time with the right forces pushing from within and without, but he fears that the worst elements will always linger in some form.

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Addendum

As a final note, I want to throw in a bit of skepticism about Vance’s credibility.

While reading the book, he came off as entirely earnest and honest to me, but when I checked his Wikipedia afterward, I felt a slight twinge of skepticism. I mean, it’s probably nothing… but within months of the book’s release, Vance got hired by a Peter Thiel-owned venture capital fund, then became a contributor at CNN, then opened his own Ohio-based non-profit, and is now publicly considering a Senate run as a Republican.

Once I read his Wiki, it dawned on me just how clean Vance comes off in his own story. In a tale packed with alcoholics, drug addicts, and philanderers, in a rough part of the country, Vance seems a little too good. He mentions occasionally underage drinking, and smoking pot a handful of times, but no hard drugs. He never once mentions women until he reaches his adulthood in the story. He yells at his eventual wife, but it’s excused by his bad upbringing. Maybe I’m being cynical, but I wouldn’t be too surprised if Vance left out some details just in case he ran for office one day.

So… take of that what you will.

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