It’s hard to review books that hit home. I live in the epicenter of both of these stories. I live in the first county after Appalachia or the one right before it, depending on which director you travel in Ohio on State Road 32. People come here for Amish tourism or drive thru here on their way to Marshall University football. Ohio State is on a different route.
It’s made more personal for me because I’m watching as kids who grew up with mine in this county are living out every aspect of the two books. This pain is what kept me from naming Hillbilly Elegy my must-read book of 2017. There are two problems here: isolated, multi-generational poverty and opiates.
I had no idea that all those clean-cut young Mexican boys driving older Hondas or Camrys were pushing drugs in the ’90s. Well, likely ALL of them weren’t, but many were. In Dreamland we learn about how an isolated section of Mexico, bereft by little opportunity, multi-generational poverty, and feeling they had few other choices, fell into the world of drug selling in the USA. They had a new business model. A nice young man in a decent car who delivered within minutes. And, only to whites. And, preferably in rural or suburban areas. At the same time, pain management clinics were springing up. Oxycontin became the drug of choice, but when prescriptions became difficult to obtain, heroin from the street helped just as much. Today we have an epidemic in poor, white, rural America. Dreamland tells you how this all happened.
Growing up in among all of this was J.D. Vance, a self-identified Hillbilly. It is his Elegy that is making people sit up and take notice of the so-called Rustbelt and the snarkily named fly-over parts of the country (aka Red States). Vance’s family came to Middletown, Ohio, along with many others from their Eastern Kentucky county to make steel. In post-war America, recruiters for companies encouraged whole families or towns to sign on. No more coal dust. No more mines. Vance’s grandparents, or in the local lingo, his Mamaw and Papaw, left the Holler in Kentucky and came north. But the Holler (as a small area in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky is called) never left them. Violence, fighting, hard-drinking, and, yes, hard work that earned a darned good, middle-class living, all followed. And, none of them ever said they were “from” Middletown, Ohio. They were “from” that county in Kentucky–even if they’d not lived a day there.
Fast-forward to J.D.’s life–a mother addicted to men, drink, and drugs. But the factories were closing. J.D. had relative stability for several years. His mother’s problems weren’t so large yet. She took her kids to the library, she made her son into a reader. In that way, she gave him one rope to hang onto when the storms started for real. His father, not really welcome in his life by his mother or grandmother, kept a hand in. He found a decent job and got religion and kept his second marriage and family on an even keel. This, too, helped J.D. But it was the constant, reassuring presence of his Mamaw that helped J.D. to weather the storms of his erratic mother, her constantly-changing men and all that that brought with it. It was his Mamaw who provided “home”–the constant home, who grounded him, who gave him security. She also carried a gun to enforce her rules and he obeyed her.
Just like Ben Carson in the mean streets of Detroit two generations or more earlier, J.D. was given the gift of reading–and not a PlayStation. He had choas, yes; but he had stable “parents” in his Mamaw and Papaw. That ever-present man, Papaw, though he lived apart from his wife, added a lot to this equation as did J.D.’s own father. Our Father Which Art in Heaven helped too. J.D. found religion and held tightly to it for many years, only to give it up and then return again to it as an adult.
All of this got him thru without a police record, and with a high school diploma and perhaps most important–without children. It also helped him to see that other people lived differently. He looked at what they did and followed that example. He joined the Marines, in his words, to learn to be an adult. He knew he needed self-discipline if he was going to change his life to one of success and not drama. Later when he went to Ohio State, he graduated in near-record time. Yale Law School was next. What were the odds of that? Probably like winning the PowerBall his neighbors lined up to waste money on.
What I found most fascinating was how he’s done with personal relationships. He knew only dysfunction in these–violence, shouting, slamming doors, scene after public scene of the strange hillbilly code of honor being played out wherever necessary. I watch this drama day in and day out in the lives of my kids’ high school friends and in our community in general. Those who can just plain leave–maybe returning for their Mamaw’s funeral, maybe not. They leave for the Marines or other branch of the service, for the nearby city with better low skilled job opportunities or even for college.
Those who stay repeat the drama–endlessly. They date guys who don’t want them, they bear children because they had sex, they work at two or three dead-end part-time jobs in Mini-marts and Wal-marts and drugstores and fast food places. They drag the unwanted child from Mawmaw’s to Big Mamaw’s to Aunt Betty’s to their sister’s place in lieu of daycare. They invite guys home and have another child. They take the kids to a Church for a free dinner or to get free diapers. The men? They go free. They work for cash and don’t report it. They just plain don’t respond until a Sheriff’s Deputy pulls up. There have always been, and likely always will be, hillbilly men who are Teflon coated–no job or woman can stick to them.
Drugs and prison are rites of passage for the boys who stay. As is showing up for child support hearings. They “ain’t” working “no” fast-food job. And being qualified for little else they do seasonal construction for cash, if that. Or they get a decent factory job but fail the mandatory drug tests. They give the good men–the Hillbilly men who do nothing BUT work, a bad name. When you add in unscrupulous doctors writing prescriptions for pain pills, unscrupulous lawyers winning disabilities and you see that worthless men are aided by the system. Then, if they really hit the jackpot (oh, and you will find them in every casino and buying lottery tickets in every gas station) they’ll hook a woman who works as a home health aid and can steal pills for them, too. All while the good men go to work day in and day out. It’s the same story in all such isolated pockets of poverty.
If you are noting that this review is long and twisted it’s for a reason: The problem is long and twisted. That Vance, a Yale lawyer, owes his good fortune to a gun-toting granny with a profane mouth is an only in America happening. That a solid middle class income, with retirement, health care and all the rest, did not remove the values of the Holler is the important thing here. For everyone like J.D. who saw and studied how happy, successful people lived and worked to copy them–there are many, many others holding on tightly to the old ways. Families who are now multiple generations out of the Holler, with maybe even two white collar generations, are now seeing a reversal thanks to drugs. As heroin eats away progress things are slipping. Drug addicts in families, come by stealth and steal anything of value from wealthier family members. It all starts over again. Each child born to a drug addict parent will most likely repeat the cycle. It doesn’t end.
There is no difference between this poverty and the poverty of the old city Housing Projects of African American urban communities, except these folks are white until they open their mouths. The substandard speech, the different cultural norms, the ease with which they take offense and feel a “slight” that was never meant–these mark them as a culture apart from middle class white America–no matter what the tax return reads. The men are in and out of work, in and out of their children’s lives (mostly out), in and out of prison. Education is a feminine thing, if it even happens. Becoming a parent is a rite of passage. This is not a culture that plans–they don’t plan for tomorrow, they don’t plan children, they don’t plan for emergencies, they don’t plan for how to deal with disagreement. It is fatalistic. Even if you get a college degree, “ain’t no jobs anyhow.”
I’ve been in a juvenile prison in this area–parents smuggled dope in to a kid. The Parents did. Think about that for a while. Dreams of getting out are done in by a cultural norm–a girl carrying condoms is “asking for it” she’s a “slut”. It’s ‘ok’ to get carried away by passion–especially if you’re the guy and get to walk free. Filling out a financial aid form for college might as well involve locating the Rosetta Stone first. Even when workshops are offered, people don’t come. They don’t want to be seen as ignorant. They don’t ask for help. If they sign up for college it is likely to be with a fly-by-night for profit rather than with a legitimate state university. Why? They felt special the way the for-profit wooed them. Asked what they want to do, they say the few things they’ve heard of : doctor or nurse, lawyer, teacher. Vance says this is mostly why he became a lawyer–albeit a lawyer in a very, very different league.CPA? What’s that? An engineer? An actuary? Who knows what those do.
It’s the same with medical care. Even if their job offers health care they wouldn’t go using it for Prozac. Nicotine is the Prozac of the uninsured. Except they add alcohol. And, today they add heroin. Yet children are born daily into this mess. The lucky few go to state-subsidized daycare and get a schedule and boundaries and regular food. Another tiny minority will ride the little bus to the Head Start Center and get similar treatment. The rest will be born, passed from caregiver to caregiver, will grow up eating whatever the gas station sells and will receive obscenely expensive junk for birthdays and Christmas–much of it bought on Rent to Own. Show me a house without a big screen tv or a game system–go on, try. I dare you. Show me a house with books. They can be found, but it is tough. Look at children’s grades and you’ll see the plummet after the rite of passage birthday or Christmas that awards the PlayStation or Xbox.
A few will find religion and that will be a stabilizing force. Another few will find a decent partner and learn from their patient example as J.D. Vance has done Some, in spite of themselves, will be promoted at work and be forced to adopt different cultural norms at least at work. They will learn to work an 8 hour day without two 30 minute (“15 Minute”) smoking breaks. Others at 35 or 40 or 45, will have their guts full of dead-end jobs and try again to go back to school–a few will even make it. No surprise, it is usually the women. Tired of three part-time jobs and making diaper cakes or birthday party cupcakes or selling makeup on the side (more likely all of the above) the woman will finally want ONE JOB. Then when she gets it and settles into a good, new life, the whole cycle will repeat when her daughter or granddaughter gets carried away and ends up pregnant. I watch this part of the cycle at work every day. The students are black or white, it is an equal opportunity disaster.
This cycle is so toxic. It is ANY isolated impoverished culture–black, white, Mexican, Cambodian–you name it. Born here, legally arrived here as refugees or immigrants, or illegals– if they are isolated with only their own kind this is what happens. Without jobs that pay a living wage, without mixed incomes and people around them working day in and day out, they revert to the lowest moral denominator. Marriage is thrown out, education is ignored, self-sufficiency is only the illegal kind and whatever they can find to live on with no work is “enough”.
After Hurricane Katrina, in the anniversary news stories, various “victims” were shown successful in new lives–lives they would not have accepted if they’d been offered them before the storm. But forced out of the community they and their families knew and had roots in, they had to find ways to cope. They had no one to turn to but those in the resettlement group or in their apartment building or on their new job. Many had nice housing for the first time ever. Some had never held a job or really known anyone who had, they discovered work felt good–gave a sense of accomplishment. Some had a chance to go back to school while working. I have often wondered if offering a one-time grant (probably with a felony attached for misuse!) wouldn’t get a few people out of the dark holes they live in in communities out in the sticks. But then I remember–it took the hurricane to get these people to true freedom. To pride, self-respect and a savings account.
So what IS the solution? Welfare didn’t fix it? Free college won’t–most would get free college now thru Pell Grants and other grants. Mandatory school to age 18 didn’t fix it. Computers and wifi haven’t fixed it. Rent to Own doesn’t fix it. Sex ed, DARE, Abstinence-Only, Head Start, daycare subsidies, Cash For Clunkers–none of them solved it. Can it be solved?
In Peace Corps I saw that only sustainable initiatives worked. They had to have local buy-in, locally made parts, locally-serviceable machinery, local cultural norms. All of those mattered way more than money. It took the women to get it started, but for it to succeed it had to prove of value to the men. Example–women’s microloans. When the women quit asking men for money to educate the kids because they made enough on their own, then more kids went to school and fewer kids went hungry because the man drank the food budget.
What is the magic bullet for the rural white community? The return of factories? Micro-enterprises for women? One-time moving grants? Longer school days and longer school years? I don’t know.
Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance