Culture, Circumstance, and Agency: Reflections on Hillbilly Elegy


The intractability of poverty has been recognized since at least the time the Deuteronomist wrote, “The poor will never cease to be in the land.” Explanations vary: ill favor of the gods, deficient natural endowments, personal defects, the culture of the poor, external circumstances such as a lack of economic opportunity, some type of oppression—all have been popular options.

In his bestselling new memoir Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance takes a blended view, recognizing the role of economic and personal circumstances in poverty and life dysfunction but also stressing the way that the culture of his own working-class Appalachian tribe has crippled its response to life’s challenges. He comes down firmly on the side of individual agency and the ability of people to overcome obstacles through hard work and adopting the cultural habits of successful groups. He writes, “This book is about something else: what goes on in the lives of real people when the industrial economy goes south. It’s about reacting to bad circumstances in the worst way possible. It’s about a culture that encourages social decay instead of counteracting it.” And: “The truth is hard, and the hardest truths for hill people are the ones they must tell about themselves.”

Vance’s book has hit a nerve by providing a compelling lens through which those appalled by the popularity of Donald Trump in working-class circles can understand his improbable rise. Who are these Trump voters? Hillbilly Elegyoffers an answer.

Vance is a 31-year-old graduate from Yale Law School. Happily married to his wife Usha, whom he met there, he appears to be the perfect embodiment of upper-middle-class success. As it happens, though, he started out in the world of the deeply troubled working class. Vance was raised in Middletown, Ohio, today part of suburban Cincinnati, but his heritage is Appalachian Scots-Irish, and his family originated in Breathitt County, Kentucky—so-called Bloody Breathitt for its history of violent feuds and its military tradition—and is related to the Hatfields of Hatfield-McCoy feud fame. So he really is a legitimate hillbilly, not a pretender.

It’s ordinarily presumptuous for a 31-year-old to write a memoir, but Hillbilly Elegy justifies the exception. Vance provides an honest and powerful account of his toxic upbringing and the long history of Appalachian dysfunction that produced it. His book also positions Vance, a conservative who has contributed to National Review and describes former Indiana governor Mitch Daniels as his “political hero,” as a potential post-Trumpian political figure. In that respect,Hillbilly Elegy is perhaps an aspirational analogue of Dreams From My Father. Vance’s story forms a bridge between the upper middle class, whose values he fully embraces, and the alienated white working class, with which he still claims tribal identity.

Papaw and Mamaw, Vance’s maternal grandparents, moved to Ohio as teenagers after a pregnancy and shotgun wedding. Papaw got a good union job at Armco Steel, and the family was in theory financially prosperous and upwardly mobile. But the problems of Appalachia followed them to Ohio. They were poor money managers, with Papaw buying new cars on impulse. He was also a violent drunkard. Mamaw, with her own reputation for violence, once threatened to kill him if he ever came home drunk again, and, after he promptly transgressed, doused him with gasoline and set him on fire (he survived with only minor burns). At times she was a hoarder. Papaw and Mamaw ultimately separated but remained close.

Their behavior came in part from the values they brought with them and in part from the many Appalachians who followed them along the “Hillbilly Highway” north, looking for work in booming Midwest factories. Though this migration has since radically slowed, cities like Indianapolis retain Appalachian “immigrant” neighborhoods today, some still being restocked with new arrivals.

Vance’s mother Bev fared much worse than her parents, unable to maintain even the semblance of a steady romantic relationship. Vance barely knew his biological father until he was 12. He was adopted by one of his mother’s many husbands, but that fatherly bond proved no more durable than the biological one. He told conservative writer Rod Dreher that his mother had 15 husbands and boyfriends. None of his many brothers and sisters was full-blooded. Indeed, Vance’s family relationships boggle the mind:

One of the questions I loathed, and that adults always asked, was whether I had any brothers or sisters. When you’re a kid, you can’t wave your hand, say, “It’s complicated,” and move on. And unless you’re a particularly capable sociopath, dishonesty can only take you so far. So, for a time, I dutifully answered, walking people through the tangled web of familial relationships that I’d grown accustomed to. I had a biological half brother and half sister whom I never saw because my biological father had given me up for adoption. I had many stepbrothers and stepsisters by one measure, but only two if you limited the tally to the offspring of Mom’s husband of the moment. Then there was my biological dad’s wife, and she had at least one kid, so maybe I should count him, too. Sometimes I’d wax philosophical about the meaning of the word “sibling”: Are the children of your mom’s previous husbands still related to you? If so, what about the future children of your mom’s previous husbands? By some metrics, I probably had about a dozen stepsiblings.

Only his older half-sister Lindsay was a consistent presence. He cried when he learned that she was not his full sister.

Bev continued to spiral downward, attempting suicide at least once, becoming abusive toward Vance, and ultimately falling into severe drug addiction. Vance shuttled between homes, sometimes with his mother, sometimes with his Mamaw, whom he credits as a positive influence. In an underexplored episode of his life, Vance meets and for a time lives with his biological father, who has embraced Pentecostal Christianity and turned his life around. “Dad had built a home with an almost jarring serenity,” Vance writes. “In some ways, I loved living with Dad. His life was normal in precisely the way I’d always wanted mine to be.” He prefers his Mamaw’s folk theology to his father’s intense religion, but recognizes the role that the latter, extreme though he perceives it to be, played in improving his father’s life.

Yet he never feels fully comfortable living with his father. When Mamaw calls and asks him to move back, he abandons this healthy home to return to his previous life of chaos. Throughout the book, Vance displays an obvious and strong matriarchal orientation. He’s emotionally bonded to his deeply flawed Mamaw, whose family name he and his wife adopt when they marry. He idealizes his sister Lindsay and his wife Usha. But he seems unwilling to reflect on this female dependency or understand how it shaped decisions like leaving his father.

Things get better for Vance later in high school, in part because he lives full-time with his Mamaw instead of shuttling back and forth between her and his drug-addicted mother’s various abodes. After graduation, he thinks seriously about going to college. Lacking the funds and recognizing he wasn’t ready, he wisely enlists in the Marines, which proves a transformative experience. Newly fashioned into a stable, functioning adult courtesy of the Corps, Vance enrolls in Ohio State, where he excels while working two or three jobs simultaneously to avoid taking on debt.

He then applies to and is accepted at Yale Law School, where the cultural gulf between his hillbilly upbringing and the American elite first comes into full relief. He discovers the role that social capital, mentors, and connections play in success. One of his professors at Yale, Amy Chua, of Tiger Mom fame, becomes a key advisor and advocate for him. He struggles in settings upper middle-class students would navigate with ease. He spits out sparkling water in disgust and surprise the first time he drinks it. When a law firm takes him to an upscale restaurant for dinner, he has to call Usha, then his girlfriend, to ask how to use the silverware. At Yale, he discovers that he must not just reject the toxic elements of his old culture but also embrace this new one to get anywhere.

The social deficiencies of the working class are under-appreciated by those who never suffered them. I also came from a working-class background. After flying to a job interview in Chicago in college, I didn’t know how to take a taxi and was too ashamed to ask. I tried getting in a cab dropping off passengers; the driver was kind enough to tell me where the cabstand was without humiliating me. I didn’t know how to use chopsticks. I didn’t know the way much of the professional world functioned. And a lot of those things I didn’t know that I didn’t know. I estimate that I started out five to ten years behind those who came from upper middle-class homes in important ways. I’ve heard the same from others of similar origins.

E.D. Hirsch talks about the “core knowledge” every kid must learn. For those with above-average intelligence, knowledge is relatively easy to acquire if you don’t have it. But there’s also a set of core social knowledge and experiences needed to function effectively in educated society. This can be more challenging to obtain, especially without a mentor. Vance illuminates this oft-overlooked aspect of upward mobility.

Hillbilly Elegy has received nearly universal praise on both the left and right, much of it well-deserved. Though Vance may be a conservative, his book has something for everyone.

For the Right, Vance questions the efficacy of war-on-poverty solutions, which he sees as enabling the worst aspects of Appalachian culture. Upscale liberals find it difficult to comprehend why the white working class often despises the welfare programs from which their own communities would purportedly benefit. Vance helps them understand this rejection by describing the challenges of working-class life and how working-class communities can be easily undermined by government benefits. He worked for a time in a tile warehouse, earning $13 an hour for physically demanding labor. That’s a viable if modest living in a low-cost town, but it’s hard to motivate oneself to take such a backbreaking but low-wage job if benefits, even if less in cash value, can be had without working at all.

Another aspect of the book that appeals to non-Trumpian conservatives is also what powerfully attracts it to the Left: its placing of the locus of responsibility for white working-class malaise in its own culture. Intellectuals on the left and right have been aghast at support for Trump from the white working class. Vance tells them what they want to hear: that the travails of this class stem in large part from their dysfunctional and self-destructive culture. Vance acknowledges that the white working class faces legitimate hurdles, such as the decline of union manufacturing jobs, an analysis that resonates with the Left. But ultimately he sees this demographic’s failure to overcome obstacles—as he did, and as President Obama, one of his examples, also did—as stemming from personal and cultural flaws, notably a lack of a sense of agency:

Too many young men immune to hard work. Good jobs impossible to fill for any length of time. And a young man with every reason to work—a wife-to-be to support and a baby on the way—carelessly tossing aside a good job with excellent health insurance. More troublingly, when it was all over, he thought something had been done to him. There is a lack of agency here—a feeling that you have little control over your life and a willingness to blame everyone but yourself.

Rather than seeing the working class as victims of, say, current economic policies, which would require addressing underlying structural inequities, Vance says that these people are in large part the authors of their own demise. Their predicament thus requires no fundamental change of course economically—a great relief to those prospering under the current regime. This flattering of audience sensibilities, combined with Vance’s immensely compelling life story, helps explain why Hillbilly Elegy has received so much praise and so little substantive criticism, despite some limitations.

As someone who came of age 15 years before Vance, in a very different white working-class milieu, I see problems in the book that deserve more attention. The most significant is Vance’s conflating of his Appalachian Scots-Irish hillbilly world with the white working class generally. Appalachia has been a byword for poverty and dysfunction for generations. Vance’s culture has no living memory of anything else, so it’s natural for him to see the culture of his people as overwhelmingly influential in their fate. But this is not the case for the majority of the white working class. For example, sociologist Robert Putnam had a different experience in his hometown of Port Clinton, Ohio. The Port Clinton of his 1950s upbringing, as related in his book Our Kids, certainly had its share of working class poverty, but it was socially intact and functional—a world away from that experienced by Vance’s family.

I grew up in white, working-class, rural Southern Indiana during the 1970s and 1980s. While it had some Appalachian cultural influence, its demographic and social conditions were different. German was the dominant ethnic background of the area. My family is of mostly German Catholic stock, with one Sicilian grandfather added to the mix. My recently divorced mother, brother, and I moved to Harrison County in 1976, when I was seven. We lived in a trailer on a gravel road. We soon built a house, but our water came from a cistern, we had a party-line telephone, and we burned our trash in a 55-gallon drum. I was a classic case of “poor but didn’t know it.” There was certainly a lot of poverty around. Yet I, too, recall a functional and socially intact, if hardly idyllic, community.

Today, however, both Putnam’s Port Clinton and my Southern Indiana are a lot more like Vance’s Appalachian world than Putnam or I would have believed possible, even after allowing for nostalgia. We face a different question from the ones that confront Vance. We must ask what changed in only a generation or two to damage communities that once did broadly sustain healthy working-class marriages, families, and community life. It’s harder to blame culture entirely here when that same culture was producing respectable if unglamorous success as recently as 30 years ago.

Some answers are easy. Hard drugs are available now in a way they weren’t before. Working-class communities were almost always hard-drinking ones. But the potential for destruction has been greatly magnified by meth, heroin, and prescription opioids—dangers that Putnam and I never had to face growing up. These drugs are devastating many working-class communities today.

Other answers require facing up to unpleasant truths. For the Right, that means acknowledging that the economy has changed in ways that have badly disadvantaged the working class, offering lower pay and less job security than the solid base of union manufacturing jobs that previously anchored these communities. “Creative destruction” is not so great when you’re on the receiving end of the destruction, and when it’s human lives rather than widgets or corporate profits at stake. The scope of this displacement has been far larger than originally anticipated, with the prospect of more to come, thanks to rapidly advancing technology. Trade deals and tax cuts won’t fix the problem.

For the Left, the unpleasant truth is what Vance makes clear if not explicit: the sexual revolution has been a disaster for the working class. No-fault divorce and the diminishment of the stigmas attached to casual sex and single or divorced motherhood have been a liberating dream—or at least a manageable reality—for educated urbanites. But these changes have been a nightmare for the children growing up in a white working-class world, where broken homes and a string of romantic and sexual partners for Mom is the new normal. “Of all the things that I hated about my childhood,” Vance writes, “nothing compared to the revolving door of father figures.”

My own childhood was an early harbinger of bad things to come. I was a child of the first generation of no-fault divorce. But both sets of my grandparents were in lifelong marriages, and my community was mostly shaped by a culture of intact homes. My mother’s Pentecostal faith—similar to that of Vance’s father—shaped her conservative behavior with men after her divorce; I was spared the revolving door of boyfriends that Vance had to endure. Without these advantages, who knows where I would have wound up?

Today, after 40 more years of broken marriages and out-of-wedlock births, far fewer people in my hometown come from intact families. I now see grandmothers, even great-grandmothers, sometimes single and, like Vance’s Mamaw, belatedly trying to make up for major life problems they themselves only recently emerged from, raising children of drug-addicted mothers. There remain some successful, intact families back home, but this new reality exerts a powerful influence on the local culture.

Vance overcame his domestic instability. Many others don’t. Harvard economist Raj Chetty found that when it comes to explaining the variance in upward social mobility across so-called commuting zones, “the strongest and most robust predictor is the fraction of children with single parents.” That observation is likely to prove about as popular among liberals as the Moynihan Report.

By Vance’s own account, the confidence, discipline, and work ethic he acquired in the Marine Corps enabled him to overcome a difficult background. But the Marines don’t instill order into the disordered lives of recruits by inspiration or encouragement; they impose it by force. Historically, de facto legal and social controls limited personally and socially destructive choices in many working-class communities (if not Appalachian ones). These norms were undoubtedly repressive and often cruel, but so are drill sergeants. The elimination of these norms—at the behest of the educated, not working, classes—has corrosively undermined the supports that once sustained functional working class communities, particularly when combined with the rise in college attendance that has sucked out the most talented, like Vance, and routed them to metro or neighborhood enclaves of the similarly successful. (Vance currently lives in San Francisco.)  

The major form of social control that we have retained with full vigor is the criminal justice system. So today, problems previously handled through other means now fall into the lap of police and judges, with predictable challenges. We have continued to use traditional social-control mechanisms for some purposes: promulgating gay rights, reducing the use of the Confederate flag, and so on. Until we’re willing to re-embrace similar means to restore a semblance of family stability in poor and working-class communities—white or otherwise—too many children will never stand a chance.

Vance also lacks self-awareness in some areas, especially in his rejection of the idea that talent—that is to say, good fortune—played a major role in his success. He instead attributes it to the character and work ethic he developed in the Marines, and explicitly rejects innate talent as a factor. “Today people look at me, at my job and my Ivy League credentials, and assume that I’m some sort of genius, that only a truly extraordinary person could have made it to where I am today,” he writes. “With all due respect to those people, I think that theory is a load of bullshit.”

But undoubtedly Vance won the genetic lottery for IQ. He got into Yale Law School. Based on the LSAT scores needed for admission there, his IQ is likely north of 140—probably genius-level. No wonder he didn’t think that the people there were any smarter than he was. No amount of hard work can substitute for this. Untold numbers of people have worked extraordinarily hard and yet failed to gain admission to the Ivy League.

Vance even concedes his good intelligence genes. His mother was also the salutatorian of her high school. “Mom was, everyone told me, the smartest person they knew,” he writes. “And I believed it. She was definitely the smartest person I knew.” He describes his cousin Amber as an “academic star” and tells legends of his Uncle Jimmy’s precociousness. But he doesn’t connect the dots.

That’s not to say that his hard work was irrelevant or unimportant. I, too, went to a Big Ten state school, in my case Indiana University. Yet unlike Vance, who emerged from the Marine Corps driven and focused, I initially drifted through life, taking what success offered without much effort, though I was valedictorian of my high school and had a successful corporate consulting career. But while it’s purely speculative as to whether I could have gotten into Yale Law, it’s indisputable that I underperformed my potential, because I was lazy. Vance’s hard work was important, then, but the idea that he could have gone to Yale Law without unearned, innate intellectual talents is highly dubious.

Thus, Vance falls into the trap of too many of today’s winners in a “meritocratic” (his term) system: he believes, in effect, that he morally merits his outsize success because he earned it through hard work. This is the flip side of his cultural condemnation. He understands that he benefitted from encouragement from Mamaw and others, which many kids in his milieu don’t receive: “Whatever talents I have, I almost squandered until a handful of loving people rescued me.” But he fails to recognize the role that unearned merit, in the form of those talent endowments, played in his success. This position is deeply unfair to the half of the population with below-average intelligence—tens of millions of them with significantly below-average intelligence—in a knowledge economy that greatly privileges brainpower over brawn. Someone born into a poor, chaotic community with an IQ below 100 can’t just solve his problems by bootstrapping himself into Yale, not even after a tour in the Marines.

Hillbilly Elegy nevertheless remains remarkable for its first-person portrayal of Appalachian culture from someone who has affection for its people—indeed, still sees them as his people—but also the courage to admit its flaws. The larger problems come less from the book itself than from the way in which educated readers have seized on it to confirm their own negative impressions of the white working class—and, by extension, to flatter the superiority of their own cultural values and their sense of moral entitlement to the success they enjoy.

At the heart of the matter, Vance is right. It’s not a question of either circumstances or culture, but “both-and.” The poor and working class do face challenging, sometimes horrific circumstances. They also have agency in choosing how to respond. Too often, their culture produces bad responses, even when the opportunity exists to choose otherwise. This culture itself may be an inheritance that individuals did not choose. But people can have disabilities for which they are not to blame. That doesn’t change their real-world effect. Unless both the external circumstances and the culture of the working class, of all races, are ameliorated, broad-based change is unlikely.

This piece was originally published by the City Journal.

Aaron M. Renn is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a contributing editor of City Journal, and an economic development columnist for Governing magazine. He focuses on ways to help America’s cities thrive in an ever more complex, competitive, globalized, and diverse twenty-first century. During Renn’s 15-year career in management and technology consulting, he was a partner at Accenture and held several technology strategy roles and directed multimillion-dollar global technology implementations. He has contributed to The Guardian,, and numerous other publications. Renn holds a B.S. from Indiana University, where he coauthored an early social-networking platform in 1991.

Lead photo courtesy of The City Journal.