PDA

View Full Version : Hillbilly Elegy: a counterpoint



David G
09-04-2017, 06:46 PM
I was born in poverty in Appalachia. ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ doesn’t speak for me.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/i-grew-up-in-poverty-in-appalachia-jd-vances-hillbilly-elegy-doesnt-speak-for-me/2017/08/30/734abb38-891d-11e7-961d-2f373b3977ee_story.html?utm_term=.2023f7967f39

From a quick glance at my résumé, you might think me an older, female version of Vance. I was born in Appalachia in the 1960s and grew up in the small city of Newark, Ohio. When I was 9, my parents divorced. My mom became a single mother of four, with only a high school education and little work experience. Life was tough; the five of us lived on $6,000 a year.


A self-described conservative, Vance largely concludes that his family and peers are trapped in poverty due to their own poor choices and negative attitudes. But I take great exception when he makes statements such as: “We spend our way into the poorhouse. We buy giant TVs and iPads. Our children wear nice clothes thanks to high-interest credit cards and payday loans. We purchase homes we don’t need, refinance them for more spending money, and declare bankruptcy. . . . Thrift is inimical to our being.”

Who is this “we” of whom he speaks? Vance’s statements don’t describe the family in which I grew up, and they don’t describe the families I meet who are struggling to make it in America today. I know that my family lived on $6,000 per year because as children, we sat down with pen and paper to help find a way for us to live on that amount. My mom couldn’t even qualify for a credit card, much less live on credit. She bought our clothes at discount stores.

Thrift was not inimical to our being; it was the very essence of our being.

With lines like “We choose not to work when we should be looking for jobs,” Vance’s sweeping stereotypes are shark bait for conservative policymakers. They feed into the mythology that the undeserving poor make bad choices and are to blame for their own poverty, so taxpayer money should not be wasted on programs to help lift people out of poverty. Now these inaccurate and dangerous generalizations have been made required college reading.

Here is the simple fact: Most poor people work. Seventy-eight percent (http://www.kff.org/medicaid/issue-brief/understanding-the-intersection-of-medicaid-and-work/) of families on Medicaid include a household member who is working. People work hard in necessary and important jobs that often don’t pay them enough to live on. For instance, child-care workers earn an average of $22,930 (https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes399011.htm) per year, and home health aides average $23,600 (https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes311011.htm). (Indeed, it is a sad irony that crucial jobs around caretaking and children have always paid very little.)

The problem with living in constant economic insecurity is not a lack of thrift, it is that people in these circumstances are always focused on the current crisis. They can’t plan for the future because they have so much to deal with in the present. And the future seems so bleak that it feels futile to sacrifice for it. What does motivate most people is the belief that the future can be better and that we have a realistic opportunity to achieve it. But sometimes that takes help.

Yes, I worked hard, but I didn’t just pull myself up by my bootstraps. And neither did Vance. The truth is that people helped us out: My public school’s guidance counselor encouraged me to go to college. The government helped us out: I received scholarships and subsidized federal loans to help pay my educational expenses. The list of helpers goes on.

Now that so many people have read “Hillbilly Elegy” this summer, I hope they draw this better moral from the story: Individuals can make a difference in others’ lives, and by providing opportunities for all, our government can do the same. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness should be legitimate expectations for everyone, “hillbillies” included.

Breakaway
09-04-2017, 06:52 PM
Just as Vance's assertions are not universal, neither are hers. There are probably fifty flavors of, "Appalachian Poor." Or, " (_____) Poor or Rich."

Kevin

David G
09-04-2017, 06:56 PM
Just as Vance's assertions are not universal, neither are hers. There are probably fifty flavors of, "Appalachian Poor." Or, " (_____) Poor or Rich."

Kevin

Indeed. I think that was her point. He presented his own story (legit, and quite interesting and illustrative)... and used to to make universal diagnoses and prescriptions (not legit).

Flying Orca
09-04-2017, 08:32 PM
I didn't read his prescriptions as universal. Moreover, I think he took great pains to recognize how lucky he had been, compared to many others, to have the relatively stable supports he had (mostly in his grandparents).

David G
09-04-2017, 08:34 PM
I didn't read his prescriptions as universal. Moreover, I think he took great pains to recognize how lucky he had been, compared to many others, to have the relatively stable supports he had (mostly in his grandparents).

I borrowed it from the library, so can't refer back. But I don't recall him offering alternative diagnoses/prescriptions. Do you recall him doing so?

Flying Orca
09-05-2017, 07:23 AM
I borrowed it from the library, so can't refer back. But I don't recall him offering alternative diagnoses/prescriptions. Do you recall him doing so?

To be honest, I don't recall, and the book I read was from the library, too. My reasoning was more along the lines fo recognizing that just because someone offers up a solution, or a set of solutions, to a complex problem, doesn't necessarily mean they think they have offered the only​ solution(s).

Osborne Russell
09-05-2017, 09:49 AM
Just as Vance's assertions are not universal, neither are hers. There are probably fifty flavors of, "Appalachian Poor." Or, " (_____) Poor or Rich."

Kevin

They may not be universal, which few things are, but they describe a type, a trend, a current, a phenomenon. An observed phenomenon.

The flaw in the author's argument is revealed in the title -- the book doesn't speak for me. As if it purported to; as if that were the matter at hand.

One of the main points of the book is the monolithic self-imposed cultural isolation, so pervasive that those subject to it can't even see it, until they perceive the outside world intruding by way of the media, advertising, people moving away and coming back, new people moving in -- all the things that ultimately destroy tribal identity. In order to deflect this constant onslaught, they interpret it as a coordinated assault on them, because that interpretation flatters them -- the tribe, that is. In many cases they skip the intermediate steps and proclaim that they have been chosen by God to fight Satan. There's other ways, but not an infinite number of other ways, and all of them have the theme in common.

And this is independent of attitudes toward self-reliance. I-phone or no I-phone. That's the point. Tribal means tribe first. You, the individual, the supposedly autonomous moral agent, as in "doesn't speak for me", can be different in some ways. There's a circle around it all and if you go outside it you will be punished.