Book Review

Hillbilly Elegy

“The problem is that I saw at the tile warehouse run far deeper than macroeconomic trends and policy. Too many young men immune to hard work. Good jobs impossible to fill for any length of time. And a young man with every reason to work-a wife-to-be to support and a baby on the way- carelessly tossing aside a good job with excellent health insurance. More troubling way, when it was all over, he thought something had been done to him. There is a lack of agency here- A feeling that you have little control over your life is to blame everyone but yourself. This is distinct from the larger economic landscape of modern America.”

This was a paragraph taken from the introduction of Hillbilly Elegy page 5. The discussion is important. What is happening in “the lives of the poor and the psychological impact that spiritual and material poverty have on their children.” 

It’s a long overdue discussion I think. I see lower and middle-class white American populations having some serious issues myself. I live in an agrarian area, where hops, fruit, vegetables, hay, and beef are all grown and abundance. And yet you see poverty all around you in the white population. These are people unaccustomed to hard work. These are people, including strong, healthy young men who have a sense of entitlement and decided somewhere early on that the world ( i.e. Government, i.e. Tax payers, i.e. You and I) owes them a living. They have no problem being dead- beat dads (or moms), collecting public assistance, or living off of their parents. And yet there are jobs all around us. During the apple picking season alone you will see “help wanted” signs all over town. 

I know a man who actually stood on the street corners like the homeless do with the sign. He carried that sign up and down the road for days and weeks trying to get …not handouts, but, get this: employees. He owns a landscaping business and never has enough hard-working people to fill the needed positions. Seriously. People begging for employees. What?!

This should trouble us.

But it doesn’t. And we don’t bat an eyelash over truckloads of hard working and family-oriented migrant workers who are coming in to do all the jobs that these lazy, unemployed -and in my opinion, feckless white people won’t do.

 I was told last year by an apple orchard owner that it used to be our tradition here just 20 or 30 years ago that people spend their summers off from work and school picking berries and fruit and vegetables. School principals, teachers, parents with their children. Grandparents, keeping the tradition with their kids and grandkids.

What happened? When did we decide we had become too good to work? Is this a symptom of social decay or a result of it?

Why do we encourage this perversion and corrosion of our communities by hand outs for the un-inclined to work? What need have they to take care of their own skins? To support their own children? Why is there rampant drug and alcohol abuse? Depression? Mental illnesses and obesity? If people are so poor and hungry why won’t they work? 

“Idle hands…” and you know the rest of that old saying. I believe it’s true. A people riddled with relative affluence and self- interest and narcissism cannot thrive.

These are thoughts going through my head right now as I read J.D. Vance’s introduction to his memoirs, Hillbilly Elegy. He wrote the book to explain what it feels like to be born into poverty as a culture. I understand that as I was too. Did you know there is a poverty culture different from a middle class or upwardly mobile culture? You can be born to a family in poverty and in a community immersed in poverty. The people knowing nothing else and expecting nothing else.  It’s like a trap. A mental trap. Except there’s a door out of you want it in this country. 

The land of opportunity really is. 

Do you also feel unsettled by this issue or am I on my own with this?


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