Published by Harper Collins in 2016
Book available at Aitkin Library
Discussion to take place Thursday, March 29 at 2:30 pm at Aitkin Library
In Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance documents his cultural migration from an impoverished Appalachian Hillbilly in southeastern Ohio to a law student in the hallowed halls of Yale. Having one foot in each of those worlds puts him in a unique position to elegize the cultural ecology from which hillbillies spring. He chronicles poverty and addiction, honor and obligations, and the troubled heart of rural America. Credited for having his fingers on the pulse of the Trump phenomenon, Vance wrote one of 2017’s most celebrated books.
Opioid epidemics, unemployment, broken homes and despair plague shrinking towns and cities of the Rust Belt from Appalachia to the Great Lakes. It wasn’t always this way. For years, the American Dream was within reach for people with little formal education. People migrated from agricultural jobs in the South to industrial jobs in the North and made a proud living. Americans soon took this Post-War industrial boom as our birthright until globalization and automation interrupted our blue collar prosperity. CEOs shipped jobs to Mexico as they discovered Mexicans are also capable of working hard jobs but at a fraction of the wages. Robots work twice as hard and complain half as much. Politicians from Bill Clinton, to Barrack Obama to Donald Trump tell us they can solve our problems. We’ll put tariffs on the countries that are ripping us off. We’ll raise the minimum wage so fast food workers can support their families. We’ll make drugs illegal so people stop doing them… On and on they promise as the Rust Belt gets rustier and health and financial trends that had been on an upward trajectory for centuries are now on the downhill slope of the race to the bottom.
Against this narrative backdrop, Vance shines the spotlight on rural culture. How did the culture of people who developed a reputation for hard work become a victimhood culture of learned helplessness? How is it the government’s fault that husbands are leaving their wives and single mothers are smoking meth? How can schools educate kids who subsist on Coke and Pop Tarts? How can people be trained to work if they’re unwilling to clean up their yards, brush their teeth or take care of their own dogs? Unlike the politicians with their promises, Vance doesn’t talk about grand solutions. He doesn’t suggest an easy trade war to solve the problems or more government spending. It’s not about Left versus Right. It’s not a self-help book either. There are no step by step solutions to getting us out of poverty but getting our own houses in order is a fine place to start.