Hillbilly Elegy - J. D. Vance

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“You will not read a more important book about America this year.” – The Economist

Hillbilly Elegy is a the (unwritten) story [in memoir form] about poor, rural, working-class America. It may surprise you to find out that this part of America is overwhelmingly white. It may also surprise you that white working-class Americans are the most pessimistic demographic in America: while “well over half of blacks, Latinos, and college-educated whites expect that their children will fare better economically than they have,” only 44% of working-class whites share that expectation. And “42% of working-class whites report that their lives are less economically successful than those of their parents.”

The way Vance tells the story, ‘hillbillies,’ as they affectionately call themselves – in Vance’s case specifically from the Appalachian region, but indeed across the nation – take pride in their rural mannerisms, things like ‘defending your family’s honor,’ while they look down upon academic achievement. 

This misbegotten sense of pride extends to all aspects of life, e.g. over reporting working hours and church attendance. In 2012, a think tank’s report found that working-class whites worked more hours than college-educated whites, but this report was based on perceptions of hours worked; in fact, working-class whites work less. Similarly, in a recent Gallup poll, Southerners and Midwesterners reported the highest rates of church attendance in the country, “yet actual church attendance is much lower.” It also leads to what Vance calls a ‘fear of imposing.’ Conditioned to feel that he couldn’t depend on people or even himself because of his rough childhood, Vance learned early on to not ask for help when he needed it. This is a crucial point, and psychologists would call it learned helplessness, and I believe if there’s one message Hillbilly Elegy makes clear it’s that these dual senses of pride/overconfidence and helplessness are common characteristics among working-class whites.

The consequences of this are clearly disastrous; they’re what got Trump elected. They’re what has created a class of working-class whites who are too proud to work towards social mobility (that would involve them moving away from their hillbilly roots). They’re what has created a class of working-class whites who are too proud to see that they’re the reasons they lag behind their non-white counterparts in terms of socio-economic development. They’re a class of people who are looking for any excuse outside themselves to move socially up – without moving themselves. What does that mean? Everyone else has to move down.