Hillbillies Coming Apart


The year 2013 brought the publication of “Coming Apart: The State of White America,” in which sociologist Charles Murray argued that the white working class was not only economically challenged but dissolving in an acid of social dysfunction. Poor and working-class whites suffered from a decline in marriage, an increase in out-of-wedlock births, a rise in substance abuse and criminality, and an erosion of the work ethic and male workforce participation. The book was a brilliant and readable work of scholarship, but its graphs, statistics and commentary about methodology made it abstract and of interest mainly to public policy wonks.

This year appeared a valuable counterpoint, “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis.” Author J.D. Vance described growing up in Middletown, Ohio, a town populated largely by descendants of poor Appalachian whites who had relocated there during the post-World War II industrial boom but had fallen upon hard times. The narrative was intensely personal. Vance brought to life a cast of hillbillie transplants: Meemaw his profane, whip-tongued grandmother; Papaw, his hard-drinking grandfather who raised him as a son; his exasperating, drug-addled mother; a distant father who had turned around his life by seeking recourse in evangelical religion; and a whole cast of siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins.

While Vance acknowledges the impact of impersonal forces such as America’s industrial decline, he sees the misery that surrounded him largely as the consequence of poor decisions and a cultural inheritance ill-suited to contemporary society. Vance’s world was one in which families quarreled and screamed with one another incessantly, where women had children out of wedlock, and where men resorted to fisticuffs (and worse) to defend family honor. It was a world in which fathers deserted wives and children, where drugs and alcohol wrecked jobs and drained cash, where people  made impulsive and ill-thought financial choices that left them without reserves to survive inevitable misfortunes.

Vance describes himself as a conservative, and he rejects the anti-poverty nostrums of the left. Take his attitude toward payday loans, for example.

To [Ohio state legislators] payday lenders were predatory sharks, charging high interest rates on loans and exorbitant fees for cashed checks. The sooner they were snuffed out the better. To me, payday lenders could solve important financial problems. My credit was awful, thanks to a host of terrible financial decisions (some of which weren’t my fault, many of which were), so credit cards weren’t a possibility. If I wanted to take a girl to dinner or needed a book for school and didn’t have money in the bank, I didn’t have many options. … A three-day payday loan, with a few dollars of interest, enabled me to avoid a significant overdraft fee.

On the other hand, Vance finds the conspiratorial, anti-government rhetoric of the white working class to be unhelpful as well. “There is a cultural movement,” he says disapprovingly, “to blame problems on society or the government, and that movement gains adherents every day.”

While Vance vaguely alludes to the power of government to both help and do ill, he says people need to take responsibility for their own actions. Their lives will not fundamentally improve until they dispense with self-defeating behavior.

As chaotic as Vance’s life was as a youth, it could have been far worse. He grew up in a lower middle-class family, not a poor one. His mother was a nurse. Her drug addiction was not the result of material deprivation — rather, her relentless search for drugs rendered her unable to care for her children. Vance’s grandfather was a factory worker but, despite his alcoholism, he enjoyed long-term job stability. Many Vance kinsmen owned cars, or had family members with cars, and could afford to visit relatives in eastern Kentucky with some regularity. Ohio hillbillies also were blessed with strong kinship groups that functioned as networks of mutual support. If a parent fell prey to drugs or wound up in jail, there usually were aunts, uncles or grandparents to step in.

Others may read “Hillbillie Elegy” differently, but I came away with the impression that poverty doesn’t cause social dysfunction, social dysfunction causes poverty. Because Vance’s hillbillies are white, we can view their condition more dispassionately than we can African-Americans with their history of slavery, Jim Crow and discrimination. Just as sociologist Charles Murray did in “Coming Apart,” Vance eliminates the variable of race/ethnicity from consideration. The ineluctable conclusion is that culture matters. Culture influences how people respond to the vicissitudes of life.

Ultimately, as Vance proved through life-changing decisions to join the U.S. Marines and then pursue a college education, people can rise above their surroundings. But it sure helps a struggling child to have a grown-up — grandparents, in his case — to provide love, encouragement and guidance.

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16 responses to “Hillbillies Coming Apart”

  1. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    For another perspective on Appalachia, please consider “Blood on the Mountain,” a documentary produced by Mari-Lynn Evans and Jordan Freeman.

    The book explores the social and economic devastation that big companies, especially coal, brought to West Virginia and other parts of the Appalachian coal fields.

    I looked at this issue in my 2012 book, “Thunder on the Mountain: Death at Massey and the Dirty Secrets Behind Big Coal.” After it came out, I was invited to participate in the movie and have been working on it for nearly four years. I am a consultant and a talking head.

    I hope Bacons Rebellion readers can see it. It premieres Dec. 9 at Landmark E Street Theater, 555 11th Street, in DC I am supposed to be a panel discussion that evening. It opened in Los Angeles and New York on Nov. 18 and should be available on DVD and on Netflix in a couple of months.

    The following are some links to the trailer, an article in the Daily Beast and a review in the Los Angeles Times.

    So, please, before you buy the idea that Appalachian poverty is the moral fault of residents who do not have self control and encourage dysfunctional families, please give the film a chance.I think it offers a far more realistic and less polemical view.




  2. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Here’s the Los Angeles TImes review:


    Also, the headline on this blog post “Hillbillies Coming Apart” is snarky, classist and very mean-spirited. Its author went to a fancy prep school in DC and grew up in comfortable surroundings. What the hell does he know about “hillbillies?”

    1. There’s nothing snarky, classist or mean-spirited about the headline — it conflates the work of Murray and Vance.

      1. I understood the meaning and origin of your title, Jim. You weren’t the one being snarky, classist, or mean spirited.

  3. LarrytheG Avatar

    I’d be curious to hear folks compare and contrast the white “hillbilly” narrative with the black inner city narrative.

    how about it?

    1. Peter, you attribute the poverty and misery of Appalachia to coal, or more specifically the machinations of the coal industry. But dozens of Appalachian counties have no history of coal mining at all. By your logic, having escaped the depredations of the coal industry, they should be far better off than the coal-mining counties. Are they?

      Furthermore, coal mining had no impact on the economy or society of Middletown, Ohio, where Vance was raised. The hillbillies (as Vance calls them) who settled there brought their culture with them, not their coal mining.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        it’s TRUE it’s not just coal mining – but it would be instructive and informative to make clear what the other job-providing industry WAS and especially so – what kind of education was needed to do those kinds of blue-collar work – versus what kind of industry IS available and cannot find enough workers… and what education levels are needed for that kind of work.

        In other words – get more to the meat of the issue with real facts and not impressions… or speculation.

        I suspect in Youngstown – it was blue-collar manufacturing that did not require much more than a basic 20th century high school education.

        still not understanding what some think the role of govt and k-12 education should be for displaced blue collar workers versus those who live in inner city areas who also seem to lack sufficient education to find work.

        Murray seems to think IQ is in play in some places but apparently not others…

        do others here believe that the plight of the white blue collar or a different and separate issue than the plight of the inner city folks?

    2. There is no meaningful difference other than a history of slavery. Crack is meth, welfare mothers are long term disability recipients, a tenement apartment is a shotgun shack. Yet one group is overwhelmingly conservative and Republican while the other is overwhelmingly liberal and Democratic. Go figure.

  4. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    the panel discussion will be at the theater in DC after the 7:45 p.m. show. That would put it around 9:30. pm.

    I hope you all can make it if you happen to be in the area.

  5. I would also recommend White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg. Lots of history, but a powerful book. Bosun

  6. LarrytheG Avatar

    here’s a map of the geography of claims for disability.

    Much to think about in terms of whether or not there SHOULD be any particular geography associated with disability – but also the fact that the map does not seem to be showing the highest rates as associated with urbanized centers…

    I must say that I find the idea that people should be responsible for themselves – born out in how they tend to vote – but contradicted by their expectation and reliance on the govt to “help”.

    I also wonder if the concept of “bad parents” and “bad teachers” being the cause of low education performance is applied equally to parents and teachers in inner city versus rural..

    sometimes I think ideology gets in the way of the facts and realities and if we allowed it – we’d not be pitting the urban inner city plight as something entirely different from rural plight.

  7. Fascinating map, on many levels — thanks, LG.

  8. LarrytheG Avatar

    to be fair Acbar – Social Security Disability is not an entitlement to anyone. In order to even be eligibile to be considered for it – you must have worked and paid into it. If you did not work and pay into Social Security -you are not eligible for SSD.

    to that end – the map not only shows recipients – it shows people who USED TO HAVE JOBS!

  9. Read “Deer Hunting with Jesus” by Joe Bageant. Based on Winchester Va the book is written by a progressive author. Jim B profiled the book back in the day (2008, I believe). I wrote a comment and ended up in a long e-mail discussion with Mr, Bageant. Joe was a character of epic proportion. After leaving Winchester and then moving back he went to Central America where he tried to live on as little money as possible. I believe he got down to $5,000 per year. It broke my heart to hear that Joe died of an aggressive and virulent form of cancer in March 2011.

    RIP Joe Bageant. Sniveling liberal. Brilliant author. A man who lived the life he claimed everybody should live. I hope to debate you again buddy. Hopefully over many American-brewed beers.

    1. I didn’t realize that ol’ Joe had moved to Central America. Pretty good if you can live on $5,000 a year. More Americans ought to try it — unless they get cancer. Did he move back to the U.S. for medical treatment?

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