Meditations on a Hillbilly Elegy


I have been keen to read Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance. Why? Because rural America and the working class played such a pivotal role in this year’s election – despite being overlooked by the Old Guard of both major political parties.

I want to share with you some of my impressions from this thought-provoking book. (Which made Economist magazine’s “Books of the Year 2016” list.)  Indeed, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis provides critical insight into the plight of America’s rural poor and working class.

Hillbilly Elegy is part autobiography and part cultural analysis; it traces Mr. Vance’s own odyssey as a descendant from ‘hillbilly’ ancestors to a graduate of Yale Law School. He accomplished this despite being raised in a less-than-nurturing environment by single mother struggling with addiction. Vance’s story is poignant, but it also presents a larger narrative about the rural poor and America’s working class. I categorize these groups as the America Forgotten and the America Left Behind.

Here are some takeaways and key points.

  • Striking parallels between the rural poor and the inner-city poor – terrible conditions that transcend racial and geographic lines: the lack of positive male role models and nurturing fathers. Rampant drug and alcohol addiction. Children raised primarily by grandparents due to absent or impaired parents. Poor education and unhealthy diet. Too many poor choices. Hopelessness and giving up. Traumatic stress brought on by continuous exposure to violence. The list goes on.

However, the urban poor are considerably more visible, while rural poverty is largely hidden: out of sight and out of mind. This is: The America Forgotten.

  • Unraveling of the American Dream – at the close of World War II, the United States was the only manufacturing power left standing. Returning veterans benefited from free college tuition and special financing for homes, thanks to the GI bill. A burgeoning middle class emerged. There were no limits to what America – and Americans – could accomplish. The nation enjoyed decades of prosperity.

Then, in the 70s, fissures appeared in the Great America Dream: oil embargoes, Watergate and the fall of Vietnam. The 1980s saw massive deindustrialization and intensified global competition. The 1990s brought the dotcom boom but also extensive global outsourcing. Corporations grew more bottom-line oriented and cost-cutting became relentless. Then came the devastating Great Recession, the most severe economic downturn in four generation. Those fortunate enough to hang onto jobs, houses and investments prospered during the ensuing years but, millions of Americans have yet to participate in this ‘recovery’. They are The America Left Behind.

  • Decimation of the working class and the hollowing out of the middle class – two generations ago, it was quite possible for those with a high school education to secure a well-paying job in manufacturing, with benefits and pension. Today, pensions have all but disappeared in the private sector. In the wake of deindustrialization and the Great Recession, we have become an increasingly stratified nation economically. Upward mobility and dreams of advancement are getting squashed.
  • The poor warrant compassion but many game the system – Mr. Vance relates the story of working as a grocery store checker during high school. At the store, he witnessed welfare and food stamp recipients in the check-out line, talking on their cell phones; a cell phone was not something he could afford on his grocery store paycheck. (This was back in the ‘90s when cell phones were truly a luxury item.) There are age-old (and largely unanswered) questions: What kind of aid causes more harm than good? Which type of aid truly empowers the recipients? Good intentions are not enough. Witness the billions of dollars poured into the War on Poverty in the 60s versus its muted impact. Or how the thousands of NGOs working in Haiti have proven largely ineffective.
  • Importance of ‘social capital’ – a lesson Mr. Vance learned at Yale: the vast benefit of knowing the right people. While most of us are not privy to the ‘Old Boy Network’, networking wherever (and whenever) we can does pay significant dividends.
  • Making a difference in someone’s life. In his early teens, Mr. Vance was getting poor grades and experimenting with alcohol and drugs. Then his grandmother (Mamaw) took him in. providing a stable, secure environment he had lacked most of his life. She provided nurturing and ‘encouragement’ – frequently in the form of swift kicks to the derriere. Many of us can credit someone for making a difference in our lives. For me, it was Mrs. Parker, my high school math teacher, who scolded me for putting off applying for that scholarship to engineering school. Go make a difference: one life at a time.

Note: This book contains crude language that may not be appropriate for younger readers.

P.S. Billy Joel’s 1982 recording Allentown very succinctly sums up the demise of American industry. Click here to listen.

P.P.S. I want Frugal, Wealthy and Wise readers know that I did not actually purchase a copy of Hillbilly Elegy. I had hoped check out the book or audio recording from the library over the Thanksgiving weekend. Unfortunately, the book is in great demand and the waiting list is weeks out. Then my wife gave me this brilliant suggestion: sign up for a free 30-day trial of Audible and download the audio recording, which I did. (Audible permits you to download two audio books during the 30-day trial, but you can only ‘play this card’ once. We spend a fair amount of money each year at Amazon for non-book items, so I don’t feel we’re freeloaders.)

© 2016 Paul J Reimold





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