Source: David Horsey / Los Angeles Times
Preface. I bought “Hillbilly Elegy: A memoir of a family and culture in crisis” because I’d like to understand why anyone would vote for Donald Trump. Before the election, it was well-known that he should have been in jail several times, was a billion dollars in debt because he lied to the banks about what he’d already borrowed from other banks. He was allowed to stay in business because the banks figured that way they’d get some income from his hotels versus nothing at all. It was well-known he was a gangster, a lousy businessman, and stiffed thousands of his employees. Read all about it in the 2016 book “The Making of Donald Trump”.
Many websites say this book is the best one to understand Trump voters. But it isn’t. Instead, it is yet another memoir of growing up in a dysfunctional family and culture. Now I do like these autobiographies, but it doesn’t begin to touch the hardships endured in “Glass Castle” or “A long way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier”.
There are no insights about why hillbillies went from voting Democratic to becoming right-wing Republicans and evangelical Christians who’d like to replace America’s Constitution with Biblical Commandments. For that, you’ll need to read One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America by Kevin Kruse (2016) or my review of this book in post How corporations used conservative religion to gain wealth and power and undo the New Deal.
Or why blacks and Hispanics, who have suffered far more from poverty and dysfunctional families vote for Democrats, not Republicans.
If you really want understand Trump voters, the best book is the highly entertaining book by Joe Bageant “Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America’s Class War“.
For a big picture view of how Trump voters came to exist, then the book for you is “White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America” which goes back to the founding of the U.S. and beyond to the Calvinist Scots-Irish immigrants who came here. It will be a shocking book to many who haven’t read much history, because it shows why and how it came to be that Americans have never been equals, and never will be. If you didn’t own property by 1700, chances are you never would. Unfairness goes back to the very beginning of the United States and the immigrants from Europe.
The main reason given for voting for Trump is that their standard of living is going down, and Trump promised to change that by cleaning out the Swamp. But why is poverty growing? Because we’ve hit the limits to growth of energy and natural resources. Even if we hadn’t, only a certain amount of resources can be extracted per year, and the population is still growing exponentially, which means less stuff per capita, period. So in the end both Republicans and Democrats are absolutely nuts. They both offer the solution of “growing our way out of it”. Obviously, on a finite planet, endless growth isn’t possible. But the parties are different, make no mistake. Republicans are willing to take the brakes off the runaway engine and allow rules protecting the health and wealth of the public to be removed, get rid of the New Deal which basically means stealing from the poor and middle class for the sake of the already rich. On the other side of peak oil people will desperately wish they had leaders that rationed energy and food fairly, it will become a matter of life and death. But if The People vote for Republicans like Trump, or worse, well…
What follows are kindle excerpts from Hillbilly Elegy. And since they’re yanked from various parts of the book, there’s no narrative flow, but it may give you an idea of whether you like his writing enough to purchase the book. If you like hard luck memoirs that may be enough reason. It’s certainly a way better book than “Strangers in their own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right” by Arlie Russell Hochschild written by a middle-class outsider in boring, academic language that bends over backwards to be kind and understanding.
Alice Friedemann www.energyskeptic.com author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report
J. D. Vance. 2016. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. Harper.
I grew up poor, in the Rust Belt, in an Ohio steel town that has been hemorrhaging jobs and hope for as long as I can remember. I have, to put it mildly, a complex relationship with my parents, one of whom has struggled with addiction for nearly my entire life. My grandparents, neither of whom graduated from high school, raised me, and few members of even my extended family attended college.
I was one of those kids with a grim future. I almost failed out of high school. I nearly gave in to the deep anger and resentment harbored by everyone around me. 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. With all due respect to those people, I think that theory is a load of bullshit. Whatever talents I have, I almost squandered until a handful of loving people rescued me.
It was Greater Appalachia’s political reorientation from Democrat to Republican that redefined American politics after Nixon. And it is in Greater Appalachia where the fortunes of working-class whites seem dimmest. From low social mobility to poverty to divorce and drug addiction, my home is a hub of misery.
What is more surprising is that, as surveys have found, working-class whites are the most pessimistic group in America. More pessimistic than Latino immigrants, many of whom suffer unthinkable poverty. More pessimistic than black Americans, whose material prospects continue to lag behind those of whites. While reality permits some degree of cynicism, the fact that hillbillies like me are more down about the future than many other groups—some of whom are clearly more destitute than we are—suggests that something else is going on.
Indeed it is. We’re more socially isolated than ever, and we pass that isolation down to our children. Our religion has changed—built around churches heavy on emotional rhetoric but light on the kind of social support necessary to enable poor kids to do well. Many of us have dropped out of the labor force or have chosen not to relocate for better opportunities.
When I mention the plight of my community, I am often met with an explanation that goes something like this: “Of course the prospects for working-class whites have worsened, J.D., but you’re putting the chicken before the egg. They’re divorcing more, marrying less, and experiencing less happiness because their economic opportunities have declined. If they only had better access to jobs, other parts of their lives would improve as well.” I once held this opinion myself, and I very desperately wanted to believe it during my youth. It makes sense. Not having a job is stressful, and not having enough money to live on is even more so. As the manufacturing center of the industrial Midwest has hollowed out, the white working class has lost both its economic security and the stable home and family life that comes with it.
The problems that I saw at the tile warehouse run far deeper than macroeconomic trends and policy. Too many young men immune to hard work. Good jobs impossible to fill for any length of time.
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. This is distinct from the larger economic landscape of modern America.
Jackson is a small town of about 6,000in the heart of southeastern Kentucky’s coal country. Calling it a town is a bit charitable: There’s a courthouse, a few restaurants—almost all of them fast-food chains—and a few other shops and stores. Most of the people live in the mountains surrounding Kentucky Highway 15, in trailer parks, in government-subsidized housing, in small farmhouses, and in mountain homesteads like the one that served as the backdrop for the fondest memories of my childhood.
I was obsessed with the Blanton men. I would sit among them and beg them to tell and retell their stories. These men were the gatekeepers to the family’s oral tradition, and I was their best student. Most of this tradition was far from child appropriate. Almost all of it involved the kind of violence that should land someone in jail. Much of it centered on how the county in which Jackson was situated—Breathitt—earned its alliterative nickname, “Bloody Breathitt.” There were many explanations, but they all had one theme: The people of Breathitt hated certain things, and they didn’t need the law to snuff them out. One of the most common tales of Breathitt’s gore revolved around an older man in town who was accused of raping a young girl. Mamaw told me that, days before his trial, the man was found face down in a local lake with sixteen bullet wounds in his back. The authorities never investigated the murder, and the only mention of the incident appeared in the local newspaper on the morning his body was discovered. In an admirable display of journalistic pith, the paper reported: “Man found dead. Foul play expected.” “Foul play expected?” my grandmother would roar. “You’re goddamned right. Bloody Breathitt got to that son of a bitch.” Or there was that day when Uncle Teaberry overheard a young man state a desire to “eat her panties,” a reference to his sister’s (my Mamaw’s) undergarments. Uncle Teaberry drove home, retrieved a pair of Mamaw’s underwear, and forced the young man—at knifepoint—to consume the clothing.
Uncle Pet was a tall man with a biting wit and a raunchy sense of humor. The most economically successful of the Blanton crew, Uncle Pet left home early and started some timber and construction businesses that made him enough money to race horses in his spare time. He seemed the nicest of the Blanton men, with the smooth charm of a successful businessman. But that charm masked a fierce temper. Once, when a truck driver delivered supplies to one of Uncle Pet’s businesses, he told my old hillbilly uncle, “Off-load this now, you son of a bitch.” Uncle Pet took the comment literally: “When you say that, you’re calling my dear old mother a bitch, so I’d kindly ask you speak more carefully.” When the driver—nicknamed Big Red because of his size and hair color—repeated the insult, Uncle Pet did what any rational business owner would do: He pulled the man from his truck, beat him unconscious, and ran an electric saw up and down his body. Big Red nearly bled to death but was rushed to the hospital and survived. Uncle Pet never went to jail, though. Apparently, Big Red was also an Appalachian man, and he refused to speak to the police about the incident or press charges. He knew what it meant to insult a man’s mother.
Some people may conclude that I come from a clan of lunatics. But the stories made me feel like hillbilly royalty, because these were classic good-versus-evil stories, and my people were on the right side. My people were extreme, but extreme in the service of something—defending a sister’s honor or ensuring that a criminal paid for his crimes. The Blanton men, like the tomboy Blanton sister whom I called Mamaw, were enforcers of hillbilly justice, and to me, that was the very best kind.
On a recent trip to Jackson, I made sure to stop at Mamaw Blanton’s old house, now inhabited by my second cousin Rick and his family. We talked about how things had changed. “Drugs have come in,” Rick told me. “And nobody’s interested in holding down a job.” I hoped my beloved holler had escaped the worst, so I asked Rick’s boys to take me on a walk. All around I saw the worst signs of Appalachian poverty. Some of it was as heartbreaking as it was cliché: decrepit shacks rotting away, stray dogs begging for food, and old furniture strewn on the lawns. Some of it was far more troubling. While passing a small two-bedroom house, I noticed a frightened set of eyes looking at me from behind the curtains of a bedroom window. My curiosity piqued, I looked closer and counted no fewer than eight pairs of eyes, all looking at me from three windows with an unsettling combination of fear and longing. On the front porch was a thin man, no older than 35, apparently the head of the household. Several ferocious, malnourished, chained-up dogs protected the furniture strewn about the barren front yard. When I asked Rick’s son what the young father did for a living, he told me the man had no job and was proud of it. But, he added, “they’re mean, so we just try to avoid them.
That house might be extreme, but it represents much about the lives of hill people in Jackson. Nearly a third of the town lives in poverty, a figure that includes about half of Jackson’s children. And that doesn’t count the large majority of Jacksonians who hover around the poverty line. An epidemic of prescription drug addiction has taken root. The public schools are so bad that the state of Kentucky recently seized control. Nevertheless, parents send their children to these schools because they have little extra money, and the high school fails to send its students to college with alarming consistency. The people are physically unhealthy, and without government assistance they lack treatment for the most basic problems.
The truth is hard, and the hardest truths for hill people are the ones they must tell about themselves. Jackson is undoubtedly full of the nicest people in the world; it is also full of drug addicts and at least one man who can find the time to make eight children but can’t find the time to support them. It is unquestionably beautiful, but its beauty is obscured by the environmental waste and loose trash that scatters the countryside. Its people are hardworking, except of course for the many food stamp recipients who show little interest in honest work. Jackson, like the Blanton men, is full of contradictions.
After my cousin Mike buried his mother, his thoughts turned immediately to selling her house. “I can’t live here, and I can’t leave it untended,” he said. “The drug addicts will ransack it.” Jackson has always been poor, but it was never a place where a man feared leaving his mother’s home alone. The place I call home has taken a worrisome turn.
Jackson’s plight has gone mainstream. Thanks to the massive migration from the poorer regions of Appalachia to places like Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Pennsylvania, and Illinois, hillbilly values spread widely along with hillbilly people.
As the economies of Kentucky and West Virginia lagged behind those of their neighbors, the mountains had only two products that the industrial economies of the North needed: coal and hill people. And Appalachia exported a lot of both.
It is certain that many millions of people traveled along the “hillbilly highway”—a metaphorical term that captured the opinion of Northerners who saw their cities and towns flooded with people like my grandparents. The scale of the migration was staggering. In the 1950s, 13 of every 100 Kentucky residents migrated out of the state. Some areas saw even greater emigration: Harlan County, for example, which was brought to fame in an Academy Award–winning documentary about coal strikes, lost 30% of its population to migration. In 1960, of Ohio’s ten million residents, one million were born in Kentucky, West Virginia, or Tennessee. This doesn’t count the large number of migrants from elsewhere in the southern Appalachian Mountains; nor does it include the children or grandchildren of migrants who were hill people to the core. There were undoubtedly many of these children and grandchildren, as hillbillies tended to have much higher birthrates than the native population.
To Papaw and Mamaw, not all rich people were bad, but all bad people were rich. Papaw was a Democrat because that party protected the working people. This attitude carried over to Mamaw: All politicians might be crooks, but if there were any exceptions, they were undoubtedly members of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal coalition.
Still, Mamaw and Papaw believed that hard work mattered more. They knew that life was a struggle, and though the odds were a bit longer for people like them, that fact didn’t excuse failure. “Never be like these fucking losers who think the deck is stacked against them,” my grandma often told me. “You can do anything you want to.
Their community shared this faith, and in the 1950s that faith appeared well founded. Within two generations, the transplanted hillbillies had largely caught up to the native population in terms of income and poverty level. Yet their financial success masked their cultural unease, and if my grandparents caught up economically, I wonder if they ever truly assimilated. They always had one foot in the new life and one foot in the old one. They slowly acquired a small number of friends but remained strongly rooted in their Kentucky homeland. They hated domesticated animals and had little use for “critters” that weren’t for eating,
Hillbilly culture at the time (and maybe now) blended a robust sense of honor, devotion to family, and bizarre sexism into a sometimes explosive mix. Before Mamaw was married, her brothers had been willing to murder boys who disrespected their sister. Now that she was married to a man whom many of them considered more a brother than an outsider, they tolerated behavior that would have gotten Papaw killed in the holler. “Mom’s brothers would come up and want to go carousing with Dad,” Uncle Jimmy explained. “They’d go drinking and chasing women. Uncle Pet was always the leader. I didn’t want to hear about it, but I always did. It was that culture from back then that expected the men were going to go out and do what they wanted to do.
I couldn’t believe that mild-mannered Papaw, whom I adored as a child, was such a violent drunk. His behavior was due at least partly to Mamaw’s disposition. She was a violent nondrunk. And she channeled her frustrations into the most productive activity imaginable: covert war. When Papaw passed out on the couch, she’d cut his pants with scissors so they’d burst at the seam when he next sat down. Or she’d steal his wallet and hide it in the oven just to piss him off. When he came home from work and demanded fresh dinner, she’d carefully prepare a plate of fresh garbage. If he was in a fighting mood, she’d fight back. In short, she devoted herself to making his drunken life a living hell.
Mamaw told Papaw after a particularly violent night of drinking that if he ever came home drunk again, she’d kill him. A week later, he came home drunk again and fell asleep on the couch. Mamaw, never one to tell a lie, calmly retrieved a gasoline canister from the garage, poured it all over her husband, lit a match, and dropped it on his chest. When Papaw burst into flames, their eleven-year-old daughter jumped into action to put out the fire and save his life. Miraculously, Papaw survived the episode with only mild burns.
During her sophomore year of high school, Lori’s boyfriend stole some PCP, and the two of them returned to Mamaw’s to indulge. “He told me that he should do more, since he was bigger. That was the last thing I remembered.” Lori woke up when Mamaw and her friend Kathy placed Lori in a cold bathtub. Her boyfriend, meanwhile, wasn’t responding. Kathy couldn’t tell if the young man was breathing. Mamaw ordered her to drag him to the park across the street. “I don’t want him to die in my fucking house,” she said. Instead she called someone to take him to the hospital, where he spent five days in intensive care. The next year, at sixteen, Lori dropped out of high school and married. She immediately found herself trapped in an abusive home just like the one she’d tried to escape. Her new husband would lock her in a bedroom to keep her from seeing her family. “It was almost like a prison,” Aunt Wee later told me.
Bev (my mom) didn’t fare so well. Like her siblings, she left home early. She was a promising student, but when she got pregnant at eighteen, she decided college had to wait. After high school, she married her boyfriend and tried to settle down. But settling down wasn’t quite her thing: She had learned the lessons of her childhood all too well. When her new life developed the same fighting and drama so present in her old one, Mom filed for divorce and began life as a single mother. She was nineteen, with no degree, no husband, and a little girl—my sister, Lindsay.
Today downtown Middletown is little more than a relic of American industrial glory. Abandoned shops with broken windows line the heart of downtown, where Central Avenue and Main Street meet. Richie’s pawnshop has long since closed,
If you need a payday lender or a cash-for-gold store, downtown Middletown is the place to be. A street that was once the pride of Middletown today serves as a meeting spot for druggies and dealers. Main Street is now the place you avoid after dark.
This change is a symptom of a new economic reality: rising residential segregation. The number of working-class whites in high-poverty neighborhoods is growing. In 1970, 25% of white children lived in a neighborhood with poverty rates above 10%. In 2000, that number was 40%. It’s even higher today.
In other words, bad neighborhoods no longer plague only urban ghettos; the bad neighborhoods have spread to the suburbs This has occurred for complicated reasons. Federal housing policy has actively encouraged homeownership, from Jimmy Carter’s Community Reinvestment Act to George W. Bush’s ownership society. But in the Middletowns of the world, homeownership comes at a steep social cost: As jobs disappear in a given area, declining home values trap people in certain neighborhoods. Even if you’d like to move, you can’t, because the bottom has fallen out of the market—you now owe more than any buyer is willing to pay. The costs of moving are so high that many people stay put. Of course, the people trapped are usually those with the least money; those who can afford to leave do so.
People didn’t leave because our downtown lacked trendy cultural amenities. The trendy cultural amenities left because there weren’t enough consumers in Middletown to support them. And why weren’t there enough well-paying consumers? Because there weren’t enough jobs to employ those consumers.
Growing up, my friends and I had no clue that the world had changed. Papaw had retired only a few years earlier, owned stock in Armco, and had a lucrative pension. Armco Park remained the nicest, most exclusive recreation spot in town, and access to the private park was a status symbol: It meant that your dad (or grandpa) was a man with a respected job. It never occurred to me that Armco wouldn’t be around forever, funding scholarships, building parks, and throwing free concerts. Still, few of my friends had ambitions to work there. As small children, we had the same dreams that other kids did; we wanted to be astronauts or football players or action heroes. I wanted to be a professional puppy-player-wither, which at the time seemed eminently reasonable. By the sixth grade, we wanted to be veterinarians or doctors or preachers or businessmen. But not steelworkers. Even at Roosevelt Elementary—where, thanks to Middletown geography, most people’s parents lacked a college education—no one wanted to have a blue-collar career and its promise of a respectable middle-class life. We never considered that we’d be lucky to land a job at Armco; we took Armco for granted. Many kids seem to feel that way today. A few years ago I spoke with Jennifer McGuffey, a Middletown High School teacher who works with at-risk youth. “A lot of students just don’t understand what’s out there,” she told me, shaking her head. “You have the kids who plan on being baseball players but don’t even play on the high school team because the coach is mean to them. Then you have those who aren’t doing very well in school,
There was no sense that failing to achieve higher education would bring shame or any other consequences. The message wasn’t explicit; teachers didn’t tell us that we were too stupid or poor to make it. Nevertheless, it was all around us, like the air we breathed: No one in our families had gone to college; older friends and siblings were perfectly content to stay in Middletown, regardless of their career prospects; we knew no one at a prestigious out-of-state school; and everyone knew at least one young adult who was underemployed or didn’t have a job at all. In Middletown, 20 percent of the public high school’s entering freshmen won’t make it to graduation. Most won’t graduate from college. Virtually no one will go to college out of state.
Students don’t expect much from themselves, because the people around them don’t do very much. Many parents go along with this phenomenon. I don’t remember ever being scolded for getting a bad grade
People talk about hard work all the time in places like Middletown. You can walk through a town where 30% of the young men work fewer than 20 hours a week and find not a single person aware of his own laziness.
Of course, the reasons poor people aren’t working as much as others are complicated, and it’s too easy to blame the problem on laziness. For many, part-time work is all they have access to, because the Armcos of the world are going out of business and their skill sets don’t fit well in the modern economy.
Alongside these conflicting norms about the value of blue-collar work existed a massive ignorance about how to achieve white-collar work. We didn’t know that all across the country—and even in our hometown—other kids had already started a competition to get ahead in life.
Mom and Bob’s problems were my first introduction to marital conflict resolution. Here were the takeaways: Never speak at a reasonable volume when screaming will do; if the fight gets a little too intense, it’s okay to slap and punch, so long as the man doesn’t hit first; always express your feelings in a way that’s insulting and hurtful to your partner; if all else fails, take the kids and the dog to a local motel, and don’t tell your spouse where to find you—if he or she knows where the children are, he or she won’t worry as much, and your departure won’t be as effective. I began to do poorly in school. Many nights I’d lie in bed, unable to sleep because of the noise—the furniture rocking, heavy stomping, yelling, sometimes glass shattering. The next morning I’d wake up tired and depressed, meandering through the school day, thinking constantly about what awaited at home. I just wanted to retreat to a place where I could sit in silence. I couldn’t tell anyone what was going on, as that was far too embarrassing. And though I hated school, I hated home more. When the teacher announced that we had only a few minutes to clear our desks before the bell rang, my heart sank. I’d stare at the clock as if it were a ticking bomb. Not even Mamaw understood how terrible things had become. My slipping grades were the first indication.
Even when the house was ostensibly peaceful, our lives were so charged that I was constantly on guard. Mom and Bob never smiled at each other or said nice things to Lindsay and me anymore. You never knew when the wrong word would turn a quiet dinner into a terrible fight, or when a minor childhood transgression would send a plate or book flying across the room. It was like we were living among land mines—one wrong step, and kaboom.
Seeing people insult, scream, and sometimes physically fight was just a part of our life. After a while, you didn’t even notice it. I always thought it was how adults spoke to one another.
Over time, I started to like the drama. Instead of hiding from it, I’d run downstairs or put my ear to the wall to get a better listen. My heart would still race, but in an anticipatory way, like it did when I was about to score in a basketball game. Even the fight that went too far—when I thought Bob was about to hit me—was less about a brave kid who intervened and more about a spectator who got a little too close to the action. This thing that I hated had become a sort of drug.
One day I came home from school to see Mamaw’s car in the driveway. It was an ominous sign, as she never made unannounced visits to our Preble County home. She made an exception on this day because Mom was in the hospital, the result of a failed suicide attempt. For all the things I saw happening in the world around me, my eleven-year-old eyes missed so much. In her work at Middletown Hospital, Mom had met and fallen in love with a local fireman and begun a years-long affair. That morning Bob had confronted her about the affair and demanded a divorce. Mom had sped off in her brand-new minivan and intentionally crashed it into a telephone pole. That’s what she said, at least. Mamaw had her own theory: that Mom had tried to detract attention from her cheating and financial problems. As Mamaw said, “Who tries to kill themselves by crashing a fucking car? If she wanted to kill herself, I’ve got plenty of guns.
Within a month, we moved back to Middletown, and Mom’s behavior grew increasingly erratic. She was more roommate than parent. She had new friends, most of them younger and without kids. And she cycled through boyfriends, switching partners every few months. Though Mom had been many things, she hadn’t been a partier. When we moved back to Middletown, that changed. With partying came alcohol, and with alcohol came alcohol abuse and even more bizarre behavior.
Mom [rarely apologized, but one time] was extra-apologetic because her sin was extra-bad. So her penance was extra-good: She promised to take me to the mall and buy me football cards. Football cards were my kryptonite, so I agreed to join her. It was probably the biggest mistake of my life. We got on the highway, and I said something that ignited her temper. So she sped up to what seemed like a hundred miles per hour and told me that she was going to crash the car and kill us both. I jumped into the backseat, thinking that if I could use two seat belts at once, I’d be more likely to survive the impact. This infuriated her more, so she pulled over to beat the shit out of me. I leaped out of the car and ran for my life. We were in a rural part of the state, and I ran through a large field of grass, the tall blades slapping my ankles as I sped away. I happened upon a small house where Mom found me, broke down the woman’s door and dragged me out. The woman had dialed 911. So as Mom dragged me to her car, two police cruisers pulled up, and the cops who got out put Mom in handcuffs. She did not go quietly; they wrestled her into the back of a cruiser. Then she was gone.
Religious institutions remain a positive force in people’s lives, but in a part of the country slammed by the decline of manufacturing, joblessness, addiction, and broken homes, church attendance has fallen off. Dad’s church offered something desperately needed by people like me. For alcoholics, it gave them a community of support and a sense that they weren’t fighting addiction alone. For expectant mothers, it offered a free home with job training and parenting classes. When someone needed a job, church friends could either provide one or make introductions. When Dad faced financial troubles, his church banded together and purchased a used car for the family. In the broken world I saw around me—and for the people struggling in that world—religion offered tangible assistance to keep the faithful on track.
I was a curious kid, and the deeper I immersed myself in evangelical theology, the more I felt compelled to mistrust many sectors of society. Evolution and the Big Bang became ideologies to confront, not theories to understand. Many of the sermons I heard spent as much time criticizing other Christians as anything else. Theological battle lines were drawn, and those on the other side weren’t just wrong about biblical interpretation, they were somehow unchristian.
I admired my uncle Dan above all other men, but when he spoke of his Catholic acceptance of evolutionary theory, my admiration became tinged with suspicion. My new faith had put me on the lookout for heretics. Good friends who interpreted parts of the Bible differently were bad influences.
As a young teenager thinking seriously for the first time about what I believed and why I believed it, I had an acute sense that the walls were closing in on “real” Christians. There was talk about the “war on Christmas”—which, as far as I could tell, consisted mainly of ACLU activists suing small towns for nativity displays. I read a book called Persecution by David Limbaugh about the various ways that Christians were discriminated against. The Internet was abuzz with talk of New York art displays that featured images of Christ or the Virgin Mary covered in feces. For the first time in my life, I felt like a persecuted minority.
In my new church, on the other hand, I heard more about the gay lobby and the war on Christmas than about any particular character trait that a Christian should aspire to have.
Morality was defined by not participating in this or that particular social malady: the gay agenda, evolutionary theory, Clintonian liberalism, or extramarital sex. Dad’s church required so little of me. It was easy to be a Christian. The only affirmative teachings I remember drawing from church were that I shouldn’t cheat on my wife and that I shouldn’t be afraid to preach the gospel to others.
The world lurched toward moral corruption—slouching toward Gomorrah. The Rapture was coming, we thought. Apocalyptic imagery filled the weekly sermons and the Left Behind books (one of the best-selling fiction series of all time, which I devoured). Folks would discuss whether the Antichrist was already alive and, if so, which world leader it might be.
I remember watching an episode of The West Wing about education in America, which the majority of people rightfully believe is the key to opportunity. In it, the fictional president debates whether he should push school vouchers (giving public money to schoolchildren so that they escape failing public schools) or instead focus exclusively on fixing those same failing schools. That debate is important, of course—for a long time, much of my failing school district qualified for vouchers—but it was striking that in an entire discussion about why poor kids struggled in school, the emphasis rested entirely on public institutions. As a teacher at my old high school told me recently, “They want us to be shepherds to these kids. But no one wants to talk about the fact that many of them are raised by wolves.
I don’t know what happened the day after Mom and I escaped Ken’s to Mamaw’s for the night. Maybe I had a test that I wasn’t able to study for. Maybe I had a homework assignment due that I never had the time to complete. What I do know is that I was a sophomore in high school, and I was miserable. The constant moving and fighting, the seemingly endless carousel of new people I had to meet, learn to love, and then forget—this, and not my subpar public school, was the real barrier to opportunity.
Those three years with Mamaw—uninterrupted and alone—saved me. I didn’t notice the causality of the change, how living with her turned my life around. I didn’t notice that my grades began to improve immediately after I moved in. And I couldn’t have known that I was making lifelong friends. During that time, Mamaw and I started to talk about the problems in our community. Mamaw encouraged me to get a job—she told me that it would be good for me and that I needed to learn the value of a dollar. When her encouragement fell on deaf ears, she then demanded that I get a job, and so I did, as a cashier at Dillman’s, a local grocery store. Working as a cashier turned me into an amateur sociologist.
Some folks purchased a lot of canned and frozen food, while others consistently arrived at the checkout counter with carts piled high with fresh produce. The more harried a customer, the more they purchased precooked or frozen food, the more likely they were to be poor.
As my job taught me a little more about America’s class divide, it also imbued me with a bit of resentment, directed toward both the wealthy and my own kind.
I also learned how people gamed the welfare system. They’d buy two dozen-packs of soda with food stamps and then sell them at a discount for cash. They’d ring up their orders separately, buying food with food stamps, and beer, wine, and cigarettes with cash. They’d regularly go through the checkout line speaking on their cell phones. I could never understand why our lives felt like a struggle while those living off of government largesse enjoyed trinkets that I only dreamed about.
Mamaw listened intently to my experiences at Dillman’s. We began to view much of our fellow working class with mistrust. Most of us were struggling to get by, but we made do, worked hard, and hoped for a better life. But a large minority was content to live off the dole. Every two weeks, I’d get a small paycheck and notice the line where federal and state income taxes were deducted from my wages. At least as often, our drug-addict neighbor would buy T-bone steaks, which I was too poor to buy for myself but was forced by Uncle Sam to buy for someone else. This was my mind-set when I was seventeen, and though I’m far less angry today than I was then, it was my first indication that the policies of Mamaw’s “party of the working man”—the Democrats—weren’t all they were cracked up to be.
Political scientists have spent millions of words trying to explain how Appalachia and the South went from staunchly Democratic to staunchly Republican in less than a generation. Some blame race relations and the Democratic Party’s embrace of the civil rights movement. Others cite religious faith and the hold that social conservatism has on evangelicals in that region. A big part of the explanation lies in the fact that many in the white working class saw precisely what I did, working at Dillman’s. As far back as the 1970s, the white working class began to turn to Richard Nixon because of a perception that, as one man put it, government was “payin’ people who are on welfare today doin’ nothin’! They’re laughin’ at our society! And we’re all hardworkin’ people and we’re gettin’ laughed at for workin’ every day!
At around that time, our neighbor—one of Mamaw and Papaw’s oldest friends—registered the house next to ours for Section 8. Section 8 is a government program that offers low-income residents a voucher to rent housing. Mamaw’s friend had little luck renting his property, but when he qualified his house for the Section 8 voucher, he virtually assured that would change. Mamaw saw it as a betrayal, ensuring that “bad” people would move into the neighborhood and drive down property values.
Despite our efforts to draw bright lines between the working and nonworking poor, Mamaw and I recognized that we shared a lot in common with those whom we thought gave our people a bad name. Those Section 8 recipients looked a lot like us. The matriarch of the first family to move in next door was born in Kentucky but moved north at a young age as her parents sought a better life. She’d gotten involved with a couple of men, each of whom had left her with a child but no support. She was nice, and so were her kids. But the drugs and the late-night fighting revealed troubles that too many hillbilly transplants knew too well. Confronted with such a realization of her own family’s struggle, Mamaw grew frustrated and angry.
From that anger sprang Bonnie Vance the social policy expert: “She’s a lazy whore, but she wouldn’t be if she was forced to get a job”; “I hate those fuckers for giving these people the money to move into our neighborhood.
She’d rant against the people we’d see in the grocery store: “I can’t understand why people who’ve worked all their lives scrape by while these deadbeats buy liquor and cell phone coverage with our tax money.
These were bizarre views for my bleeding-heart grandma. And if she blasted the government for doing too much one day, she’d blast it for doing too little the next. The government, after all, was just helping poor people find a place to live, and my grandma loved the idea of anyone helping the poor. She had no philosophical objection to Section 8 vouchers. So the Democrat in her would resurface. She’d rant about the lack of jobs and wonder aloud whether that was why our neighbor couldn’t find a good man. In her more compassionate moments, Mamaw asked if it made any sense that our society could afford aircraft carriers but not drug treatment facilities—like Mom’s—for everyone. Sometimes she’d criticize the faceless rich, whom she saw as far too unwilling to carry their fair share of the social burden. Mamaw saw every ballot failure of the local school improvement tax (and there were many) as an indictment of our society’s failure to provide a quality education to kids like me.
Mamaw’s sentiments occupied wildly different parts of the political spectrum. Depending on her mood, Mamaw was a radical conservative or a European-style social Democrat. Because of this, I initially assumed that Mamaw was an unreformed simpleton and that as soon as she opened her mouth about policy or politics, I might as well close my ears. Yet I quickly realized that in Mamaw’s contradictions lay great wisdom. I had spent so long just surviving my world, but now that I had a little space to observe it, I began to see the world as Mamaw did. I was scared, confused, angry, and heartbroken. I’d blame large businesses for closing up shop and moving overseas, and then I’d wonder if I might have done the same thing. I’d curse our government for not helping enough, and then I’d wonder if, in its attempts to help, it actually made the problem worse.
Mamaw could spew venom like a Marine Corps drill instructor, but what she saw in our community didn’t just piss her off. It broke her heart. Behind the drugs, and the fighting matches, and the financial struggles, these were people with serious problems, and they were hurting. Our neighbors had a kind of desperate sadness in their lives. You’d see it in how the mother would grin but never really smile, or in the jokes that the teenage girl told about her mother “smacking the shit out of her.” I knew what awkward humor like this was meant to conceal because I’d used it in the past. Grin and bear it, says the adage. If anyone appreciated this, Mamaw did.
The problems of our community hit close to home. Mom’s struggles weren’t some isolated incident. They were replicated, replayed, and relived by many of the people who, like us, had moved hundreds of miles in search of a better life. There was no end in sight. Mamaw had thought she escaped the poverty of the hills, but the poverty—emotional, if not financial—had followed her. Something had made her later years eerily similar to her earliest ones. What was happening? What were our neighbor’s teenage daughter’s prospects? Certainly the odds were against her, with a home life like that.
I was unable to answer these questions in a way that didn’t implicate something deep within the place I called home. What I knew is that other people didn’t live like we did. When I visited Uncle Jimmy, I did not wake to the screams of neighbors. In Aunt Wee and Dan’s neighborhood, homes were beautiful and lawns well-manicured, and police came around to smile and wave but never to load someone’s mom or dad in the back of their cruiser.
So I wondered what was different about us—not just me and my family but our neighborhood and our town and everyone from Jackson to Middletown and beyond. When Mom was arrested a couple of years earlier, the neighborhood’s porches and front yards filled with spectators; there’s no embarrassment like waving to the neighbors right after the cops have carted your mother off.
As millions migrated north to factory jobs, the communities that sprouted up around those factories were vibrant but fragile: When the factories shut their doors, the people left behind were trapped in towns and cities that could no longer support such large populations with high-quality work. Those who could—generally the well-educated, wealthy, or well connected—left, leaving behind communities of poor people. These remaining folks were the “truly disadvantaged”—unable to find good jobs on their own and surrounded by communities that offered little in the way of connections or social support.
Wilson’s book spoke to me. I wanted to write him a letter and tell him that he had described my home perfectly. That it resonated so personally is odd, however, because he wasn’t writing about the hillbilly transplants from Appalachia—he was writing about black people in the inner cities. The same was true of Charles Murray’s seminal Losing Ground, another book about black folks that could have been written about hillbillies—which addressed the way our government encouraged social decay through the welfare state.