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J.D. Vance’s Straight Talk About Poverty

The J.D. Vance interview [1] really hit a nerve. Over the weekend, so many people tried to read it that the site crashed for a while. It has become by far the most-read piece ever on TAC. If you liked the interview, then by all means buy Hillbilly Elegy, Vance’s book. [2]

The most fascinating correspondence I’m getting from the piece is from liberals who loved it. Here’s an excerpt from a letter I received from an academic whose roots are in Appalachia, and whose professional work is on Appalachian topics. I’ve edited it slightly to protect her privacy:

I do think the way I grew up is why I feel the way I do. My grandparents, who stayed in [Appalachia], worked incredibly hard every day of their lives, but they were poor until the day they died. This is why I get so angry when I hear some conservatives (not all!) suggest that the poor are lazy or, as Trump would say, “losers.” They worked harder than anybody I’ve ever known, but there’s not a lot of money to be made in [their business] — and that’s all that was available for work in that part of [Appalachia] at that time. That’s why I just can’t deal with Trump and the Republicans who endorse a secular version of the prosperity gospel. Hard work is no guarantee of success; sometimes the deck is stacked against you. That is one of the things I really appreciated about Vance’s argument–he acknowledged that while also still recognizing the importance of hard work and the possibilities of individual agency.

The left drives me nuts in some ways, too. Some of the people I work with would look down their noses at my grandparents because they only had eighth grade educations–they’d write them off as “stupid hillbillies.” There is nothing that makes me angrier. They may not have had the opportunities to be highly educated, but they were intelligent. That is true of so many people all over the world. The refusal to talk about individual agency also bothers me greatly, and then of course there’s the bigotry. I cannot tell you how many times I heard, “Must have been a short dissertation!” when I first got my job here and told people that my dissertation focused on [a topic having to do with intelligence in Appalachia]. Now I hear “I guess it’s a short book!” about [my recent book on the same topic]. My colleagues who also do this research feel the same way I do–we all want to punch these people.


I spend most of my time feeling out of place culturally. I’m so sick of being told by some on the Right that I’m a man-hater, that I’m responsible for the destruction of our country, that I indoctrinate our youth, that I’m godless and immoral, etc. I’ve been married to my college sweetheart for over 20 years. I love my daughter and son more than anything in the world. I go to church regularly. I’ve never smoked, done drugs, or been drunk in my life. But I’m also sick of some on the Left who act like I’m an idiot because I believe in God and that evil exists. I get tired of those who pretend that people’s bad lives are always a result of victimization. Yes. maybe they were victimized by “the system,” but their own bad choices played a role, too. No woman should ever be raped, but good lord, I want to shake some of these girls (and guys) and say, “Quit drinking until you’re unconscious!” Sure, in an ideal world you should be able to do whatever you want without having to worry about your safety, but would you rather be “right” or would you rather not be more vulnerable to rape? It’s insanity to me that we (feminists) are silent on the really unhealthy drinking that leaves so many young women easy prey for these sexual predators.


Would you believe that two other liberal correspondents who wrote to praise Vance are black and gay — one of them is an immigrant — and both identified Vance’s discussion about moral agency among the poor as critically important? They both grew up poor, and said this is a factor that does not get discussed.

I love the way J.D. Vance has opened up a space for more honest dialogue about poverty and dysfunction in America. If you think his book is all about blaming the poor people from which he came for all their own problems, you’re simply wrong. But he doesn’t sugarcoat or sentimentalize their lives either. He’s quite explicit in the book that if it hadn’t been for his tough old hillbilly grandmother, who finally took custody of teenage J.D. from his drug-addict mother, and the US Marine Corps, he almost certainly would have been another casualty of his culture. To be specific, he almost certainly would have been a casualty of the behavior of the adults in his culture.

(Readers, please be patient today. Commenting and comments-approval will be slow today. We are moving to a new house.)

58 Comments (Open | Close)

58 Comments To "J.D. Vance’s Straight Talk About Poverty"

#1 Comment By mrscracker On July 27, 2016 @ 11:12 am

Siarlys Jenkins says:

For over a hundred years, this country didn’t have laws against marijuana use, and heroin was sold over the counter in any pharmacy. Because the federal govt. decided to see it differently, didn’t change some folks perception who were used to having these things available. (Whether it is true that George Washington grew marijuana for his personal use is likely to remain debatable and debated for all time.)”
I think it was more about taxes as far as the govt was concerned.
Washington made whiskey too.

#2 Comment By JonF On July 27, 2016 @ 3:57 pm

Re: the current Democratic platform has as a stated goal the repeal of the Hyde Amendment. I was all prepared to sit this election out, but if this is truly the case I’ll be voting for Trump, not because of any illusions about the GOP being “pro-life,” but because the Democratic party seeks to make me pay for abortions.

Party platforms call for all kinds of nonsense–and should be taken with more than a grain of salt. Leftwing groups routinely highlight “awful” stuff in the GOP platforms (and some state level platforms have some real doozies in them) but actual attempts to implement these things are fairly uncommon. Both parties know what things may bring cheers to the base but provoke a storm of controversy if actually attempted, and they behave accordingly.

#3 Comment By Dan On July 27, 2016 @ 4:07 pm

[3]: where did the legitimation and encouragement drug use come from? Where did the ‘sexual revolution’ come from? Not from rural Appalachia.

John has apparently never read [4] by Harry Caudill. I particularly recommend Chapter 21; but elsewhere Caudill ratherly prissily points out that bearing a child out of wedlock has never been a barrier to marriage in his part of Kentucky; and heavy use of the local whiskey goes a long way back.

And what [5] said.

#4 Comment By Dan On July 27, 2016 @ 4:11 pm

And as mrscracker points out above, distilling was and is a great way to reduce corn to an easily-transported, high-value product. It was (is?) considered a valuable skill in Appalachia, and Caudill acknowledges that.

#5 Comment By mrscracker On July 28, 2016 @ 9:54 am

Dan says:
… distilling was and is a great way to reduce corn to an easily-transported, high-value product. It was (is?) considered a valuable skill in Appalachia, and Caudill acknowledges that.”
It was a respectable trade, too. Some of my daddy’s family went legit & operated a commercial distillery. They were considered no less respectable for it.
I’ve read that cash money was scarce in rural communities & whiskey was useful in barter. Small distillery operators exchanged whiskey for corn brought to them by farmers. There was little exchange of currency which is why the tax laws hit them so hard.

#6 Comment By mwing On July 29, 2016 @ 3:56 pm

“Would you believe that two other liberal correspondents who wrote to praise Vance are black and gay — one of them is an immigrant — and both identified Vance’s discussion about moral agency among the poor as critically important? They both grew up poor, and said this is a factor that does not get discussed.”

Um, yeah, of course. That’s what most liberals believe.
The ones in your head are not typical of the species. 😉

But, seriously, congrats- this topic is crashing your server in a GOOD way.

And, speaking as a New England WASP, I should mention that *no-one I ever knew* growing up had an attitude of looking down at/ sneering at Appalachians. None of us had any opinions at all about Appalachians, any more than the average Kentuckian has an opinion about. say, Rhode Islanders. (My family had no TV, so we didn’t even see “Beverly Hillbillies” except in passing at a neighbor’s house.) In a word association, “Kentucky” to me would get you “Derby?” and nothing else. And that was some sort of a horse race. And there was some kind of special cocktail associated with it. And that would be all.

#7 Comment By Ritchie The Riveter On August 9, 2016 @ 7:09 am

We can accept that bad decisions are going to result in never being rich and never being totally health, but I feel the need to *insist* on eliminating all the structural barriers that allow people to get out of these situations, and I have no interest in public punishment for the sin of being born poor and of unexceptional temperament.

Aiding those who need help is not inherently problematic. What makes it a problem is how we are going about it.

Government operatives, being human, lack the insight to differentiate between the truly needy and the merely greedy from the pedestal of bureaucracy … equal protection under the law, especially when leveraged by aggressive lawyers and SJW’s, work to severely limit our government in that regard, as well.

Also, a lot of the problems that lead to the need for aid, have behavioral/ethical components that require the caregiver to “get inside the head” of those who need help, for that help to be effective … which, because of government’s monopoly on the use of coercive force, can seriously threaten civil liberties and freedom-of-conscience.

Bureaucratic inertia, the desire of bureaucrats to empire-build, and politics exacerbate the problem, by perpetuating career-advancing/politically-beneficial but ineffective programs and systems that would otherwise die on the vine.

Bottom line: government is structurally incapable of resolving such individual-specific issues effectively and efficiently … regardless of the amount of virtuous intent on the part of its operatives.

It needs to get out of the compassion business … and not only for all of the above reasons, but because its dominance of the process and its unique ability to coerce funding fosters a “gave at the office” attitude among We the People, who ARE better equipped to deal with such problems …
… because we are closer to the problems
… are more motivated to solve the problems
… lack the blank checks to perpetuate the problems
… and lack the coercive force to become a problem

It’s time to stop outsourcing our responsibility to be our brother’s keeper to a faceless, industrial compassion-delivery system that keeps people locked in it, and go back to something closer to the model of the old barn raising – if we as a nation are truly interested in being compassionate in a sustainable manner.

But that does mean we have to actually help people, instead of outsourcing OUR responsibility to our government and expect it to jam your or my particular socio-economic morality down our throats as The One and Only True Way. That is what our elites have insisted upon since the start of the Great Society … and is why the War on Poverty is a quagmire to this day.

Lack of caring is not the problem. Using the wrong tool for the job, is the problem.

#8 Comment By Margaret Piton On June 8, 2017 @ 1:54 pm

I’m just reading Vance’s book and for me it is nostalgic. I grew up in Columbus, Ohio, went to school with some hillbillies and had some for neighbours. And yes, there definitely was prejudice against them.
My family wasn’t exactly hillbilly because they were Catholic and my parents had attended (but not graduated from) university, but I can relate to a lot of of his book. When I was a kid we used to travel to Kentucky on holidays, staying at the Berea Inn or the Bardstown Tavern. My mother sent our used clothes to a Catholic mission down there for a time. The Little Colonel books were some of my (and my mother’s) favorite reading.
I haven’t been back to Kentucky or Columbus for quite a while, and I am sorry things have become so difficult in Appalachia, a beautiful part of the world.