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Book – Hillbilly Elegy

Hillbilly Elegy - the book

I read a book - The Hillbilly Elegy by JD Vance - which is very distressing. It's a story about how some people sink into poverty and worse, but others rise out of the poverty. It's distressing because sometimes it's a matter of luck which family you are born into. It's distressing because if you live in an environment where big companies have left to let the small towns die, it's very hard to climb out of the poverty in the absence of jobs. It's distressing because you can graduate out of high school as a valedictorian or salutatorian and still end up with family violence and drug addiction. This book was a story of JD Vance growing up in a poor family in Ohio where screaming fights were common in his family and changing address was an annual event. His grandparents came out of Kentucky in search of a better life but they brought with them the culture of alcoholism and violence. His grandparents were the hillbillies.

The grandparents turned around their behavior only after the children had grown up and left home. But his mom suffered consequences from the childhood violence, and even though she graduated high school as a salutatorian, she somehow drifted into countless boyfriends, annual changes of address , screaming fights, and finally drug addiction. Her sister and brother, though, turned out differently. How did they avoid her fate?

The author says that he could have become a statistic if his grandparents hadn't turned around and later provided stability during his high school years. That stability set him on the path of seeking a college education and going on to a better life.

How do you, when adversity strikes, pull yourself out and go on to a normal life without sinking into despair and worse? It has been eight years since we had that near fatal swoon from the banking industry, leading to massive unemployment. During these eight years, people have moved out of middle class into the poor class. This year was the first time in eight years that the middle class jobs are booming. Eight years!!!! In the meantime, the middle class hollowed out and the companies had rising productivity and thus greater profits to put into their pockets. Unconscionable! How many people have sunk into poverty, violence and drug addiction? There is so much pain there!

So if there are no jobs around, how do you pull yourself up? The author says the situation is complicated: the poor hillbillies are partly to blame and yet it's not 100% their fault. The hillbilly has a violent culture and some of them willingly don't seek out work. But he also says there is a learned helplessness that arises when the despair lasts for years and one does not have a good role model. He was lucky that his grandparents provided stability and stressed a good education.

And these are the people that are supporting Trump. The hillbilly culture stresses loyalty which includes loyalty to American, so they are attracted to the "America First". But they also have suffered economically the last 30 years and so are open to anyone who offers them a way out. (However, I think Trump is conning them.)

So this book offers some insight into the character of some of Trump's supporters. They are not necessarily racists but they desperately need help. They need training to equip them for the new world and they need jobs. But companies need to be willing to explore setting up offices in these towns and creating jobs. Maybe these people have entrepreneurial instincts - that would probably be the best outcome for them. It would make them independent of the big companies that will just send jobs to the lowest wage country.

How do we help these people and how do we avoid their fate?

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