My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Subtitle: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis
The November 2016 election showed me I’m out of touch with middle America. I’ve been reading books this winter and spring to help me get a more accurate view of the problems facing the this group. This book, along with Thomas Friedmans “Thank You for Being Late”, and Sam Quinones’ “Dreamland” are other pieces to the puzzle.
J.D. Vance provides a brutal and personal overview of life in America for the working and non-working poor. As he says in the first few pages, “I want people to understand what happens in the lives of the poor and the psychological impact that spiritual and material poverty has on their children.”[p 2] Vance shows us “a culture that increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it.”[p 7] Vance was able to escape this cycle of poverty and eventually graduated from Yale law school. It’s almost a miracle he made it.
Vance’s grandparents moved out of Appalachian Kentucky into Ohio following work. But the work wasn’t long lasting; “As millions migrated north to factory jobs, the communities that sprouted up around those factories were vibrant but fragile: When the factories shut their doors, the people left behind were trapped in towns an cities that could no longer support such large populations with high-quality work. Those who could – generally the well educated, wealthy, or well connected – left, leaving behind communities of poor people. These remaining folks were the ‘truly disadvantaged’ [quoting William Julius Wilson’s book of that name] – unable to find good jobs on their own and surrounded by communities that offered little in the way of connections or social support.”[p 144]
These generations of poverty create a different environment. Domestic instability. Vance never really knew his biological father; his adoptive father left, and his mother went through a string of boyfriends who had no positive effect in J.D.’s or his sister’s lives. of the picture.
As kids we learn what is acceptable from our parents; in much of poor America, domestic violence is acceptable. “Mom and Bob’s problems were my first introduction to marital conflict resolution. Here were the takeaways: Never speak at a reasonable volume when screaming will do; if the fight gets a little too intense, it’s okay to slap and punch, so long as the man doesn’t hit first; always express your feelings in a way that’s insulting and hurtful to your partner; if all else fails, take the kids and the do to a local motel, and don’t tell your spouse where to find you – if he or she knows where the children are, he or she won’t worry as much, and your departure won’t be as effective.”[p 71] Vance’s mother took the familiar path we read about in Dreamland: She starts out as an alcoholic, becomes addicted to pain killers, and eventually shoots black tar heroin. “Psychologists call the everyday occurrences of my and Lindsay’s life ‘adverse childhood experiences,’ or ‘ACE’ ”ACE’s are traumatic childhood events, and their consequences reach far into adulthood. The trauma need not be physical.”[p 226]
It’s obvious that the deck is stacked against the children in this situation and there is no wondering why it happens generation after generation. You learn what is “normal” as a child. If this is normal, then keep doing it. People lose the belief that their actions can bring about change in their lives. Luckily J.D. Vance had a small opportunity for a way out and he was able to make the most of it. He left his mother to live with his grandmother (Mamaw) who provided love, stability, and structure, which, in turn helped J.D. graduate from high school. “Psychologists call it learned helplessness’ when a person believes, as I did during my youth, that the choices I made had no effect on the outcomes in my life. From Middletown’s world of small expectations to the constant chaos of our home, life had taught me that I had no control. Mamaw and Papaw had saved me from succumbing entirely to that notion, and the Marine Corp broke new ground. If I had learned helplessness at home, the Marines were teaching learned willfulness.”[p 163]
J.D. Vance’s takeaways are not the usual liberal tropes; he had a part-time job as a young adult and “every two weeks, I’d get a small paycheck and notice the line where federal and state income taxes were deducted from my wages. At least as often, our drug-addict neighbor would buy T-bone steaks, which I was too poor to buy for myself but was forced by Uncle Sam to buy for someone else. … it was my first indication that the policies of Mamaw’s party of the working man’- the Democrats – weren’t all they were cracked up to be.”[p 139]
So how do we fix this problem? While Vance shows the problems with many of the current “solutions”, he doesn’t really answer that question – which I think is the biggest drawback. He sums things up by saying “I don’t know what the answer is, precisely, but I know it starts when we stop blaming Obama or Bush or faceless companies and ask ourselves what we can do to make things better.”[p 256] He’s right of course. but these problems are so large, and so entrenched that we can’t expect the poor to simply fix their problems themselves. Those problems are endemic; most have never learned the skills, or acquired the belief they can make a difference. And, as Thomas Friedman points out, it’s only going to get worse. The pace of changes from climate change, technology, and a global market (Mother Nature, Moore’s Law and the Market in Friedman’s shorthand) are increasing. Where once low skill jobs could bring relatively high wages – like those jobs provided by the factories that left Middletown – those days are gone and aren’t coming back.
Vance argues these problems may not be fixable; the best we can do is “put our thumb on the scale” to help them out. One example of putting the thumb on the scale “would recognize what my old high school’s teachers see every day; the real problem for som many of these kids is what happens (or doesn’t happen) at home. For example, we’d recognize that Section 8 vouchers ough to be administered in a way that doesn’t segregate the poor into little enclaves.” [p 245]
I’m willing to come down off my liberal high horse to engage the problem; but we have to develop new strategies to get that thumb on the scale.
As an aside, you can get a quick look into this problem by listening to Tom Ashbrook’s On Point broadcast of June 29, 2016 entitled “Poverty, Religion, and American Frustration”. We listened to it last summer on our road trip – which is how this book originally came to be on my bookshelf.