The surprising best seller Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis has become something of a cause célèbre on the grounds that it explains the appeal of Donald Trump to the white underclass (from which author J.D. Vance emerged). Writing in the American Conservative, Rod Dreher aptly notes that the book "does for poor white people what Ta-Nehisi Coates's book did for poor black people: give them voice and presence in the public square."
The book should also be required reading among those of us in education policy. It reminds us of the roles that institutions play (and fail to play) in the lives of our young people, and further suggests that education reform cannot be an exclusively race-based movement if its goal is to arrest generational poverty. Poverty is a "family tradition" among Vance's people, white Americans of Scots-Irish descent who were once "day laborers in the Southern slave economy, sharecroppers after that, coal miners after that, and machinists and millworkers during more recent times."
Vance emerges as something of an emissary to elite America from Fishtown, the fictional composite of lower-class white America that Charles Murray described in his 2012 book Coming Apart. This growing segment of American society is marked not just by economic poverty, but also by social and cultural poverty: the decay of bedrock institutions like marriage and organized religion, as well as the erosion of cohesive social standards like the two-parent family. Still, the more apt comparison might be to Random Family, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc's 2003 book about two young women caught up in a suffocating web of destructive relationships, teen pregnancy, drugs, crime, and general dysfunction in the South Bronx.
If the connective tissue between the urban poor and downwardly mobile working-class whites is lost on pundits and policy makers, the same isn’t true of Vance, who describes being deeply struck by William Julius Wilson's book The Truly Disadvantaged. "I wanted to write him a letter and tell him that he had described my home perfectly," Vance writes. "That it had resonated so personally is odd, however, because he wasn't writing about the hillbilly transplants from Appalachia—he was writing about black people in the inner cities." Ditto Charles Murray's Losing Ground, "another book about black folks that could have been written about hillbillies—which addressed the way our government encouraged social decay through the welfare state," he notes.
Watching an episode of The West Wing on television, Vance is struck that "in an entire discussion about why poor kids struggled in school, the emphasis rested entirely on public institutions. As a teacher at my old high school told me recently, 'They want us to be shepherds to these kids. But no one wants to talk about the fact that so many of them are raised by wolves.'" The characterization is unkind, but Vance is unsparing in his analysis of the people he loves and the culture they have created. It can include "an almost religious faith" in hard work and the American dream; yet he describes his town as one "where 30 percent of the young men work less than twenty hours a week, and not a single person [is] aware of his own laziness."
Vance comes from "a world of truly irrational behavior." His family, friends, and neighbors spend their way into poverty. "And when the dust clears—when bankruptcy hits or a family member bails us out of our stupidity—there's nothing left over. Nothing for the kids' college tuition, no investment to grow our wealth, no rainy-day fund if someone loses her job. We know we shouldn't spend like this. Sometimes we beat ourselves up over it, but we do it anyway," he writes. Domestic life is a chaotic mess of failed relationships, drug abuse, and self-sabotage. "We don't study as children, and we don't make our kids study when we're parents," Vance acknowledges. "Our kids perform poorly in school. We might get angry with them, but we never give them the tools—like peace and quiet at home—to succeed." It is only when Vance enjoys a few years of relative stability—living full-time with his "Mamaw" (grandmother), herself a tough, foul-mouthed, and violent character—that he is able to begin to turn his life around.
One must be richly skilled in cherry picking, or else deeply in denial, to see clear public policy solutions to the problems illumined in Hillbilly Elegy. While Vance may see personal behavior rather than policy as exerting a greater influence on life outcomes, public institutions—the Marine Corps and Ohio State University most particularly—played a prominent role in arresting his otherwise inevitable march down the road to nowhere. If Vance's hillbillies' lives are chaotic, their politics are incoherent. "Mamaw's sentiments occupied wildly different parts of the political spectrum," Vance writes, ranging from radical conservative to European-style social democrat depending on her mood or the moment. "Because of this, I initially assumed that Mamaw was an unreformed simpleton and that as soon as she opened her mouth, I might as well close my ears.” Eventually, he perceives wisdom in his grandmother's contradictions: "I began to see the world as Mamaw did. I was scared, confused, angry, and heartbroken. I'd blame large businesses for closing up shop and moving overseas, and then I'd wonder if I might have done the same thing. I'd curse our government for not helping enough, and then I'd wonder if, in its attempts to help, it actually made the problem worse."
If there is any theme that has emerged from the fractious state of our political and civic lives in 2016, it is not how divided we are, but rather how deeply and stubbornly obtuse we are about one another's lives. There is a tendency among refomers to sentimentalize the lives of the poor, or to infuse poverty with a note of tragic heroism. Vance seems aware of this himself, noting in his preface that his object is not to argue that working-class whites "deserve more sympathy than other folks" but that he hopes readers "will be able to take from it an appreciation of how class and family affect the poor without filtering their views through a racial prism."
My first attempt to read LeBlanc’s Random Family failed. The despair it conveyed was bottomless, and it took over a year before I was able to return to it. A similar grimness at times weighs down Hillbilly Elegy. It is only the foreknowledge of how Vance's story ends, with a slot at Yale Law School and a job at a Silicon Valley investment firm, that allowed me to keep turning the pages. But none of this makes his story less essential. I used to assign Random Family to graduate students who were first-year Teach For America corps members; I still view it as required reading for anyone teaching low-income, inner-city children. For education reformers, I would now bookend that recommendation with Vance’s memoir. Both books force us to confront simpleminded views of the ills we seek to address, and to be humble about over-optimistic schemes to set things right. For education reformers, I do not recommend reading Hillbilly Elegy. I recommend studying it.
Editor’s note: This post was originally published in a slightly different form in U.S. News & World Report.