One key takeaway from Elegy is that drug abuse, crime, violence, welfare dependency, and the inability to shoulder the basic responsibilities of raising a family are endemic among poor white people in “Greater Appalachia.” “Thanks to the massive migration from the poorer regions of Appalachia to places like Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Pennsylvania, and Illinois, hillbilly values spread widely along with hillbilly people” (p. 21), and “…it is in Greater Appalachia where the fortunes of working-class whites seem dimmest. From low social mobility to poverty to divorce and drug addiction, my home is a hub of misery.” (p. 4) “This was my world: a world of truly irrational behavior. We spend our way into the poorhouse…. Our homes are a chaotic mess. We scream and yell at each other like we’re spectators at a football game. At least one member of the family uses drugs—sometimes the father, sometimes the mother, sometimes both. At especially stressful times, we’ll hit and punch each other, all in front of the rest of the family, including young children; …. We don’t study as children, and we don’t make our kids study when we’re parents. Our kids perform poorly in school…. We choose not to work when we should be looking for jobs. Sometimes we’ll get a job, but it won’t last. We’ll get fired for tardiness, or for stealing merchandise and selling it on eBay, or for having a customer complain about the smell of alcohol on our breath, or for taking five thirty-minute restroom breaks per shift. We talk about the value of hard work but tell ourselves that the reason we’re not working is some perceived unfairness: Obama shut down the coal mines, or all the jobs went to the Chinese. These are the lies we tell ourselves to solve the cognitive dissonance—the broken connection between the world we see and the values we preach.” (pp. 146-47) In short, socially destructive behaviors that are stereotypically “blamed” on minority and immigrant populations are endemic among the majority white population of the Rust Belt.
A second key point Vance makes is that the hillbillies of Greater Appalachia are unable or unwilling to admit the truth about their own responsibility for their circumstances. “There is a lack of agency here—a feeling that you have little control over your life and a willingness to blame everyone but yourself.” (p. 7) The author contends the cultural inability to admit the truth is a behavior learned as a coping mechanism in childhood. “In a December 2000 paper, sociologists Carol A. Markstrom, Sheila K. Marshall, and Robin J. Tryon found that avoidance and wishful-thinking forms of coping ‘significantly predicted resiliency’ among Appalachian teens. Their paper suggests that hillbillies learn from an early age to deal with uncomfortable truths by avoiding them, or by pretending better truths exist.” (p. 20) He cites a number of examples of people around him manifesting this behavior. “One of our neighbors was a lifetime welfare recipient, but in between asking my grandmother to borrow her car or offering to trade food stamps for cash at a premium, she’d blather on about the importance of industriousness. ‘So many people abuse the system, it’s impossible for the hardworking people to get the help they need,’ she’d say. This is the construct she’d built in her head: Most of the beneficiaries of the system were extravagant moochers, but she—despite never having worked in her life—was an obvious exception.” (p. 57)
Vance is quick to credit his grandparents and the Marine Corps with instilling in him a sense of personal responsibility, and helping him escape the cycle that grips so many of the people in his extended family. But he acknowledges that he was lucky, and that the odds are clearly against children growing up under these circumstances. “For many kids, the first impulse is to escape, but people who lurch toward the exit rarely choose the right door. This is how my aunt found herself married at sixteen to an abusive husband. It’s how my mom, the salutatiorian of her high school class, had both a baby and a divorce, but not a single college credit under her belt before her teenage years were over. Out of the frying pan and into the fire. Chaos begets chaos. Instability begets instability. Welcome to family life for the American hillbilly.” (p. 229)
To his credit, the author resists the temptation to assert that there are any easy solutions to the widespread problems of this part of America. He resists the urge to vilify the people he describes. He credits his success to several key people who intervened and influenced him at important junctures. He never asserts any personal superiority of intelligence or discipline or character. In fact, he claims that the biggest hindrance to success for most of the people he grew up among is the lack of positive encouragement and role models. He loves his family, and he is proud of his heritage. He is, it seems, painfully describing problems he has experienced at a deeply personal level out of a sincere desire to illuminate a complex set of problems and to move us all toward a meaningful constellation of solutions.
One hindrance to implementing meaningful solutions is a political climate that takes advantage of the people of the region by pandering to the myths they want to believe rather than focusing on positive paths out of the current quagmire. “Here is where the rhetoric of modern conservatives (and I say this as one of them) fails to meet the real challenges of their biggest constituents. Instead of encouraging engagement, conservatives increasingly foment the kind of detachment that has sapped the ambition of so many of my peers. I have watched some friends blossom into successful adults and others fall victim to the worst of Middletown’s temptations—premature parenthood, drugs, incarceration. What separates the successful from the unsuccessful are the expectations that they had for their own lives. Yet the message of the right is increasingly: It’s not your fault that you’re a loser; it’s the government’s fault.” (p. 194) Some things that could help Vance’s hillbillies include: (1) a new generation of politicians willing to speak uncomfortable truths; (2) widespread and sustained development of the mental tools necessary to recognize the truth of their circumstances, resources and constraints.