My husband and I just finished listening to Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance in the car on our various trips. We agreed that it was worth listening to, with engaging stories narrated by the author himself. But I had to keep putting my tablet on pause to vent some of my issues with Vance’s analysis. Yes, I agree, the problems of the group of people he comes from, which he calls Hillbillies, are cultural – that is, learned and handed down. He says, “We spend our way into the poorhouse. We buy giant TVs and iPads. Our children wear nice clothes thanks to high-interest credit cards and payday loans. We purchase homes we don’t need, refinance them for more spending money, and declare bankruptcy. . . . Thrift is inimical to our being,” Betsy Radar, with the same Appalachian background but a thrifty family, takes issue with Vance in her response in The Washington Post.
And so do I. First, because Vance’s background culture is not likely as monolithic as he presents it. And second, because he’s describing pretty much all of American culture, top to bottom, in the sense of making sometimes bad choices, overspending, bad health habits, not doing their share for the environment, not informing themselves with good sources and not participating in democracy--the “freedom from being held accountable for our actions in America”. Why pick on the poor, those who receive government aid for basic necessities, mainly single parent families living in bad housing with bad resources and education opportunities? There may be generations of trauma and racism, as well as lack of social capital – how to navigate “the system” --as opposed to those with plenty of money who drive up housing and health care costs by overspending and not taking good care of themselves. Simply put, irresponsible behavior.
At this time, so many of our health problems are disease of lifestyle – not infection or famine or accidents. Overeating, fast food, overdrinking, smoking, lack of exercise. I’m not fat-shaming here. Some people are just big – and may be perfectly healthy. Someone thin may not be fit at all. But – the extra weight or the lack of exercise – in many cases directly contribute to diabetes, heart problems, high blood pressure, arthritic joints, back pain, etc. This is costly to society in terms of insurance premiums, health care – and work missed.
Addiction in America doesn’t respect social or economic barriers. The opioid crisis may have come out of unregulated pain prescriptions, but comfortably middle-class young people have overdosed at record numbers. Is it really the high? Or, perhaps, emotional pain, uncertainty, a lack of purpose – even from otherwise well off young people?
Money problems. Apparently Americans are not good at saving, either – no matter the income level. For those with greater incomes, the extra spending may be for things they don’t need – mcmansions, big cars, eating out, private schools, children’s sports programs, expensive vacations – fine, until there’s nothing left to retire on. Instead of paying down mortgages, some folks re-finance in order to pay off credit card debt. If they’re lucky, they may get a bump when the grandparents die, but not necessarily--if they have a long or expensive old age. Many folks in nursing homes are average middle class folks who had little saved and now depend on Medicaid – government aid.
As described by Vance, the problems of “hillbillies” are those of attitude as much as circumstance (not related to skin color, language, religion or ethnic customs) – partly related to the Scotch-Irish heritage and “honor culture” of their forbears, forces not well explained. These are, in many instances, problems of their own making – a kind of inability to manage strong emotions of anger and resentment; and a lack of forming communities of mutual support. As Vance sees it, money given to the poor is wasted and won’t change their lot. But not all poor are the same: refugees, immigrants, those affected by past and present racism, escapees from relationship abuse, those who work hard and are thrifty, but cannot achieve a living wage never mind the ability to put money aside. They have actual, concrete reasons for their situation.
There are two problems here: the violent, self-defeating and self-medicating behavior of Vance’s version of Hillbillies. And the overspending and unhealthy behaviors of Americans across the board. Both seem emotional, not rational problems. “Poverty is the new obscenity” I once read. Are the poor too repulsive to look at or consider? Or is a rich nation which picks on its poor that is so obscene?
e to edit.