J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis is one of the best books of 2016. A personal story about Vance’s climb from poor, white Appalachia to a Yale law degree and a white-collar career, the book will make you laugh, cry, and think carefully about the importance of culture for economic wellbeing.
Vance argues that lack of economic opportunity has less to do with being born smart and rich and more to do with certain weaknesses of “hillbilly” culture. Although Vance identifies several important factors that contribute to an unhealthy economic culture, the most important is “learned helplessness”: a mistaken belief (derived from the social institutions in which they live) that they cannot get ahead even if they were to try.
For instance, children might not be overtly told they can’t achieve what they want in life, but the educational culture of their upbringing teaches the lesson in a more effective way. Vance explains,
The message wasn’t explicit; teachers didn’t tell us that we were too stupid or poor to make it. Nevertheless, it was all around us, like the air we breathed: No one in our families had gone to college… we knew no one at a prestigious out-of-state school, and everyone knew at least one young adult who was underemployed or didn’t have a job at all.
Vance adds, “Students don’t expect very much from themselves, because the people around them don’t do very much.”
In a state of learned helplessness, people who are suffering consistently feel like something has been done to them, rather than seeing how their economic difficulties can stem from not having done enough for themselves. They may not to want to confront the possibility that their vices prevent them having better lots in life. Vance argues, bluntly, “You can walk through a town where 30 percent of the young men work fewer than twenty hours a week and find not a single person aware of his own laziness.”
But he also states in no uncertain terms that government policies can do little to remedy such entrenched cultural problems: “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.” But if government can’t help, what can?
Vance argues that the habits instilled by local, nongovernmental institutions provide the skills and work ethic that make the primary difference in people’s lives. He explains that family, more than anything else, teaches us not only the skills to solve problems abstractly but also the determination to get things done. Vance says the lessons imparted from his grandmother “might have just saved” him: she taught him to believe in himself (contrary to the explicit and implicit messages of the broader community) and taught him how to overcome problems he encountered.
Perhaps more significantly, the weaknesses of Vance’s childhood family life illustrate that one of the family’s primary social benefits is the provision of a stable environment in which children can learn to be fully-developed, contributing members of society. Unfortunately, Vance illustrates this principle through the negative example in which stability was the exception, rather than the rule: “The constant moving and fighting, the seemingly endless carousel of new people I had to meet, learn to love, and then forget — this, and not my subpar public school, was the real barrier to opportunity.”
In addition to family, Vance identifies other groups — religious associations, for example — that tend to encourage the habits of a healthy economic culture. Vance also credits the United States Marine Corps with having taught him “how to live like an adult.” He explains that “If I had learned helplessness at home, the Marines were teaching learned willfullness.” Still, nothing surpasses the importance of family. Vance notes that “any successful policy program would recognize what my old high school’s teachers see every day: that the real problem for so many of us kids is what happens (or doesn’t happen) at home.”
By underscoring the importance of family, in particular — and nongovernmental associations in general — for building of the habits of a healthy culture, Vance provides the reader with an engaging, emotional, and deeply personal narrative. He reminds us that wellbeing depends not only on legal structure and good policy — it depends also on those institutions of civil society that lay beyond the reach of the state.