Both liberals and conservatives have praised J. D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy” as a sensitive memoir of rural folk, of his overcoming disadvantages, and as helping to explain white working class and rural support for Donald Trump. Understandably, conservatives who blame the poor and uneducated for their plight are the most enthusiastic since Vance peddles a soft-core version of blaming the victim.
What surprises are progressive media (New York Times, New Yorker) anointing Vance, an affluent Silicon Valley executive, a spokesman for “hillbillies” and missing his underlying assumption of a genetically-based culture of poverty.
Vance grew up in Middletown, Ohio,raised by his maternal grandparents. Pawpaw, unlike the work-avoiders Vance insists populate Appalachia, gained steady work at Armco Steel. The two elders, although colorful, rough and violent, gave him the moral compass he did not get from his drug-addicted mother. With their support he made his way out and up, through college, the marines and Yale Law School. His affection for them runs deep.
Until he was 12, he spent summers with Mawmaw visiting relatives in a Kentucky holler near Jackson in Breathitt County, one of Appalachia’s poorest. He observed working-class and poor Appalachian whites, reacting “to bad circumstances in the worst possible way” because they inherited a culture “that increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it.”
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Vance tells readers that mostly Scots-Irish settled the mountains bringing with them an unchanging culture of poverty (“a family tradition”). But for decades Appalachian historians have shown that Scots-Irish constituted a minority of settlers; many were English, many German, some were African-Americans.
Unaware of the long-standing ethnic diversity of Eastern Kentucky, Vance also does not know that the poverty of the Breathitt County area extends back to the 19th century and its exploitation by local elites. He never mentions the generations of wealth extraction from the region by industries controlled by outsiders, coal, timber and others, nor the collusion of local elites in the export of wealth and the impoverishing of their people.
Unaware of Appalachia’s past, Vance knows little of its recent realities. Claiming he wants to understand “what goes on in the lives of real people when the economy goes south,” he never mentions how mechanization of mining lost thousands their jobs, or the ongoing devastation of their environment by mountaintop removal. Many mountain children grew up drinking teeth-rotting Mountain Dew because their family’s water supply was poisoned and Pepsico promoted it heavily through the region.
The lax regulation of coal companies and the poisoning of rivers and wells have led to high rates of birth defects and cancer. Toxic air pollution causes one in 10 Kentuckians to suffer from asthma; the state has ranked No. 1 in lung cancer and has had the highest death rates from respiratory disease. These ills are concentrated in the mountain counties. The dirty air does not come from Scots-Irish culture; nor did the flood of opioid pain-killers into the region.
Drug abuse tragically affected Vance personally but he is unaware of how Purdue Pharma in the late 1990s began pumping OxyContin into Appalachia and other poor regions from Maine to Mississippi. The firm engaged in an unprecedented marketing campaign promoting the drug for use with minor pain and with unwarranted claims that it had virtually no chance of becoming addictive. Not until 2010 did Purdue Pharma modify the pill to prevent abuse, after it had raked in billions.
Vance knows out-migration has drained off young and capable people (who by his thesis are doomed to poverty wherever they go) but knows nothing of continuing out- and in-migration, with too many of the latter lacking work or education. They come from a variety of ethnic backgrounds.
For a long time the poverty of Eastern Kentucky has resisted efforts to eliminate it because the economic and political structures perpetuating it have been ignored. Vance declares, “Public policy can help, but there is no government that can fix these problems for us.” Try telling that to the hundreds if not thousands of organizations, civic leaders and activists who have mobilized to move the region and the state to a post-coal economy.
As the foremost historian of modern Appalachia, Ronald D. Eller, put it, they must confront age-old problems government failed to address: “an inadequate tax base, a low-wage economy, environmental abuse, absentee landownership, and corporate irresponsibility.” (“Uneven Ground: Appalachia Since 1945,” 2008.) But while in the popular mind Appalachia continued to represent “the other America” (as in Vance’s mind), modern Appalachia, Eller wrote, “increasingly reflected the social divisions and the divergent dreams of the larger society.” The uneven ground of Appalachia “was no longer the other America. It was America, and the region’s uncertain destiny stood as a warning to the rest of the nation.”
Ron Formisano is the author of “Plutocracy in America: How Increasing Inequality Destroys the Middle Class and Exploits the Poor” (Johns Hopkins, 2015).
At issue: “J.D. Vance’s memoir made him ‘hillbilly guru’ for a unique political movement” by Cheryl Truman, Oct. 31.