5 stars out of 5
Yes, I'm a little behind the times - this book was released last summer - but it's been on my must-read list ever since I read the description for several reasons, starting with the fact that it's a personal account of growing up in a poor Rust Belt town. I can relate: I've lived near the Rust Belt town of Youngstown, Ohio, for close to 55 years and have seen first-hand the devastation that resulted with the collapse of the steel and automotive industries. Besides that, my pre-college years were spent in a small community not far from Middletown, Ohio, where the author grew up. He even lived for a time in Preble County, Ohio, as did my late parents for a few years, near the one-stoplight burg of New Paris.
The real story here is the author's, of course; he uses his experiences growing up in and around Middletown after his grandparents moved from the Appalachian region of Kentucky to shed light on the struggles of white working-class Americans - struggles that have become worse, not better, over time.
America's white working poor, the official book description notes, have as a group been "slowly disintegrating" for more than 40 years. Calling up interesting and often poignant memories of his own life, the author tells of his experience being born and growing up among these people for whom, sadly, the American Dream doesn't exist. "Working-class whites are the most pessimistic group in America," he writes. "It's about a culture that encourages social decay instead of counteracting it...a willingness to blame everyone but yourself."
This refusal to believe in and deal with reality I've seen first-hand as well. As I oversaw university-based programs to retrain workers permanently laid off by way of steel and auto plant closings, it wasn't unusual for those eligible to refuse to even consider taking any job that paid less than they'd earned on the assembly lines ("I'd sooner go on welfare," was the relatively common refrain). Others would simply opt to wait it out; periodic layoffs in those industries, after all, had been a way of life for them and their parents before them, so no matter what the evidence showed, they had no reason to think the jobs wouldn't come back this time.
Even though my mother came from poor-but-sturdy "hillbilly" stock and my father had been an equally poor "country boy," their childhoods never, to the best of my knowledge, mirrored that of the author. Like his grandparents, who provided perhaps his only encouragement to move up and out, my parents unfailingly believed in the value and future benefits of hard work - as did my many aunts and uncles on both sides of the family. The author wasn't so lucky; just about every one of his days was spent facing psychological, if not physical, abuse from the very people who should have been loving and caring (and were, but only on alternate Tuesdays). Worse, he and his family were not much different from everyone else they knew; it took years before he realized the life he was living wasn't the norm for people in the rest of the country. Sharing the experiences of those around him, he explains how their "deep skepticism" of everyone and everything outside their own realm came about (and continues to grow to this day).
So what's the solution? The author doesn't have one, at least not a one-size-fits-all. "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 it better," he writes.
He does, however, believe that any policy that targets the betterment of youth must involve an issue he says his high school teachers deal with on a day-to-day basis: That no matter how positive the school hours are, at the end of the day the students go back home. Based on what I've heard from the public-school teachers in our family (including my husband and our daughter), I couldn't agree more.
And if he could change one thing about the white working class today? "The feeling that our choices don't matter," he concludes.
The author's life, from that childhood that included a father who willingly gave him up for adoption to the Marine Corps to The Ohio State University to Yale Law School, makes for can't-put-down reading. Interspersed is research that backs up what he's saying (the book ends with a list of resources, linkable on the ebook version). Highly recommended!
Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance (HarperCollins, June 2016); 273 pp.