J.D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (HarperCollins, 2016)
Book buyers have made J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy the nation’s number one non-fiction bestseller in part in search of answers to Donald Trump’s upset victory in the November 2016 election. My guess is that many will draw the wrong conclusions. Some will call for increased federal spending on social programs, while others will see Vance’s story as supporting an emphasis on individual responsibility. Vance would reject both.
Hillbilly Elegy is neither an appeal for Washington to intervene nor a paean to the pull yourself up by your own bootstraps mentality. Vance’s personal triumph over the albatross of family dysfunction and cultural disadvantage required him to overcome the absence of a father and life with a drug-addicted mother. Yet, he’d be the first to agree he would not have succeeded without the love and enforced discipline provided by grandparents and other family members. Together they got Vance through his high school years without falling victim to temptations including drugs and the lack of good role models.
Rural America in the Twenty-First Century reflects decisions made over the past five decades from a political mindset that has created as many problems as it solved. Policies such as removing the onus of out-of-wedlock births, divorce, and single-motherhood undermined the family structures and led to a culture of despair.
When coupled with weak community infrastructure, poor schools, lax enforcement of illegal drug traffic, and medical practices that facilitated the widespread prescribing of opioids, families and communities not just in hillbilly country, but throughout the nation, have been unable to withstand repeated social and economic dislocations, starting with the loss of good-paying factory jobs. The result has been high rates of opioid and illegal drug overdoes, suicides, out-of-wedlock births, low educational achievement, poor work ethic, and general lack of confidence that life choices matter. As one data point, Aaron Renn notes in a recent City-Journal article, the state of Indiana averages “more than one opioid prescription per resident per year.”
Some of the factors that undermined strong communities cannot be put back in the bottle. Opioid prescriptions can be restricted, but access to illegal drugs, including easily-manufactured synthetics, will be harder to control. Out of proportion HIV diagnoses in “Trump Country” is testimony to the latter. Who knows how many viewers of Breaking Bad are now cooking their own drugs!
Criticizing standard solutions offered both by Left and Right, Vance identifies government policies that get in the way––policies, for example, that would put a child in foster care instead of finding a way to keep him with relatives or rules that segregate struggling families into Section 8 ghettos. What both sides seem to miss, he argues, is understanding the culture that affects children even before they reach school age, which can put them on a path to failure as an adult. (See Vance’s interview with Genevieve Wood on The Daily Signal.)
Academic and political pundits are searching these days not just to explain Donald Trump’s victory, but to find answers that will enable them to wean his voters back to the Democrat Party. Hillbilly Elegy will not help. Vance points out even when factory jobs are available, by the time they reach adulthood many people lack the educational and social skills to obtain and hold on to them.
Instead, Vance focuses on the need to support local institutions, a recommendation echoed by Aaron Renn in his look into communities in southern Indiana that resemble southern Ohio where Vance grew up. Giving local elected officials the ability to respond to conditions on the ground, for example, can make a difference. The further removed from local, the less likely a program will be from identifying and responding to unique community needs.
Vance admits “solving” the cultural crisis that Hillbilly Elegy documents is a long-term proposition. He is playing his part by setting up an investment entity specifically targeting depressed communities as well as a group (OurOhioRenewal.com) seeking private and public input to help disadvantage kids from poor rural communities see, as Vance once did, that they have a chance to make it.