Home / General / If Your Friends Cite Hillbilly Elegy Favorably, You Should Mock Them

If Your Friends Cite Hillbilly Elegy Favorably, You Should Mock Them


I do have to respect one thing about J.D. Vance: he’s got a hell of a grift going on. After all, being the conservative that explains white Trump voters to liberals who really want to understand those strange places like southeastern Ohio and West Virginia without ever speaking to anyone from those places. But Vance is doing nothing but pushing a line of propaganda that–amazingly!–fits the policy preferences of people such as his boss, actual vampire Peter “Nosferatu” Thiel and other leading Republicans. He operates in Appalachian stereotypes that liberals are more than willing to internalize which then serve to reinforce the cultural problems that are only fixed by “pulling yourself by your bootstraps” and of course tax breaks to the upper 1%. Vance’s bullshit does not fly with people who actually spend time in these areas, not to mention grew up there. Such as Betsy Rader, who is from near when Vance grew up and is now running for Congress as a Democrat.

From a quick glance at my résumé, you might think me an older, female version of Vance. I was born in Appalachia in the 1960s and grew up in the small city of Newark, Ohio. When I was 9, my parents divorced. My mom became a single mother of four, with only a high school education and little work experience. Life was tough; the five of us lived on $6,000 a year.

Like Vance, I attended Ohio State University on scholarship, working nights and weekends. I graduated at the top of my class and, again like Vance, attended Yale Law School on a financial-need scholarship. Today, I represent people who’ve been fired illegally from their jobs. And now that I’m running for Congress in Northeast Ohio, I speak often with folks who are trying hard but not making much money.

A self-described conservative, Vance largely concludes that his family and peers are trapped in poverty due to their own poor choices and negative attitudes. But I take great exception when he makes statements such as: “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.”

Who is this “we” of whom he speaks? Vance’s statements don’t describe the family in which I grew up, and they don’t describe the families I meet who are struggling to make it in America today. I know that my family lived on $6,000 per year because as children, we sat down with pen and paper to help find a way for us to live on that amount. My mom couldn’t even qualify for a credit card, much less live on credit. She bought our clothes at discount stores.

Thrift was not inimical to our being; it was the very essence of our being.

With lines like “We choose not to work when we should be looking for jobs,” Vance’s sweeping stereotypes are shark bait for conservative policymakers. They feed into the mythology that the undeserving poor make bad choices and are to blame for their own poverty, so taxpayer money should not be wasted on programs to help lift people out of poverty. Now these inaccurate and dangerous generalizations have been made required college reading.

Here is the simple fact: Most poor people work. Seventy-eight percent of families on Medicaid include a household member who is working. People work hard in necessary and important jobs that often don’t pay them enough to live on. For instance, child-care workers earn an average of $22,930 per year, and home health aides average $23,600. (Indeed, it is a sad irony that crucial jobs around caretaking and children have always paid very little.)

But solving those problems won’t buy Peter Thiel more blood of the young! Those solutions might mean raising taxes on the rich. No, better to blame the poor for their own poverty. It’s not like liberals are going to know any different. After all, those people voted for Trump, so they must be complete morons irredeemable to any good policy to begin with. Why, they likely lack teeth!

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