Book Review: “Hillbilly Elegy”

I should’ve known from the title: “Hillbilly Elegy.” Really, “elegy”? I had to google that and I’m a soon-to-be college grad….

This book was clearly written by a newly minted member of the American elite, not the J.D. Vance described on the jacket cover: an abused child raised by Appalachia’s struggling middle class.

It’s part memoir, part pseudo-sociology, peppered with political diatribes against liberal welfare policies. Many pages are dedicated to scolding his “hillbilly” neighbors for being lazy and delusional, spewing his bitter resentment for welfare checks and food stamps and preaching the importance of “good” Christian values.

I should’ve flipped to the back panel and read his short bio before I purchased the book. He’s contributed to the National Review and works in finance (as a “principal” for an investment firm in Silicon Valley). Though he never admits this conservative bias, he describes a woman he meets at Yale law school as a living, breathing Ayn Rand protagonist. He immediately falls in love; eventually, they get married. Enough said.

As a rags-to-riches “hillbilly” memoir, I liked it. Only when Vance began citing academic research to propose policy solutions (aka don’t even bother, it’s not the government’s fault) did I want to tear my hair out.

He references all this great sociology research, but twists their findings to fit his political agenda. “All our Kin” by Carol Stacks and “The Truly Disadvantaged” by William Wilson are both studies on urban black poverty. Though he mentions this inconsistency in a passing sentence or two, he doesn’t dwell on it. It’s like it makes no difference that Stacks was studying the role of black women as heads of households and the strong relationships they create with each other, living in close quarters. Only someone who is color-blind, sex-blind and ignorant of place would rely on Stacks’ research to explain white poverty in the suburban Rust belt.

Furthermore, “The Truly Disadvantaged” is the anti-thesis of Vance’s outdated “culture of poverty” argument. It argues that economic forces drove blacks to migrate to northern cities in the early 20th century. Later, the decline of manufacturing along with workers’ unions led to “white flight”, leaving concentrated black poverty behind. To Wilson, urban blacks aren’t stuck being poor because they lack strong social ties, i.e. stable parents and positive role models. Rather, social mobility is hard because there are shifty economic forces at play. Most important, these forces are beyond the poor’s control.

There’s a lot of praise on the back cover of this book from writers of “elite” media outlets like the Economist, the Wall Street Journal and The Atlantic. But so what? Given the number of paragraphs that Vance spends lecturing his fellow “hillbillies” to take responsibility for their dismal lives and do some heavy pulling by the boostraps, it seems his real audience should be working-class whites.

So I’d like to hear what they think about this book and its policy suggestions… if they could swallow Vance’s brutal critique on “hillbilly” culture, or even its uppity title.



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