In J.D Vance’s wildly-popular 2016 memoir Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, Vance recounts his childhood experience of Appalachian poverty and makes a sociological argument against government handouts. Speaking from personal exposure to Appalachian poverty, drug-abuse, and crime, Vance expresses his frustration with what he sees as a culture of indolence among Appalachia’s nonworking poor. Vance’s argument that unemployment benefits disincentivize hard work and hinder upward social mobility is clearly conservative. But it is not built upon the common conservative “bad-seed” narrative, which demonizes the unemployed individual and presents their faults as innate. Instead, he paints a compassionate and nuanced picture of hillbilly culture, thoughtfully analyzing the community’s collective tendency towards social decay and helplessness. Though Vance calls for agency in his fellow hillbillies and tactfully presents himself as a success story of ambition, he also recognizes — through both analysis and anecdote — the certain inevitability of hardship that comes from a cultural tradition of poverty. Using pathos-driven tones of compassion that are often associated with liberal rhetoric to make a conservative argument against handouts for the unemployed, Vance speaks in a language that is uniquely-intelligible to both republicans and democrats — a triumph for a hillbilly whose outsider-status always came from the way he spoke.
Vance uses personal anecdotes about the self-sabotaging unemployed as evidence against the liberal argument that lack of opportunities causes poverty, but builds these stories into larger cultural analysis, combatting the conservative view that poverty is an issue of individual character. Vance first introduces the theme of self-induced unemployment with a character, universally-named, “Bob.” Lazy, disrespectful, and chronically late to his good-paying job, only to react with outrage when he gets fired, “Bob” is shining example of what Vance sees as the problem with hillbilly culture: white working class men desperate to “blame their problems on society or the government” (194). Vance compounds this original this original anecdote with many similar ones throughout, using these narratives to develop the reader’s frustration at these men, allowing him to effectively assert that their “status in life is directly attributable to the choices [they’ve] made,” not a result of lacking opportunity (194). However, the novel never comes across as a personal vendetta against these individual men, because each time Vance presents the story of a lazy neighbor “content to live off the doll,” he quickly harkens back to the problems of the community at large (139). Growing up, Vance argues, in a culture of “almost spiritual…cynicism” it is easy feel as though “you were born with the problem hanging around your neck” (8). This cynicism gives hillbillies the sense that they have no shot at upward mobility and their “cultural movement” to blame others prevents them from “asking the tough questions about themselves” which might allow them to move up. In Vance’s chain of logic, this cynicism creates joblessness and joblessness creates poverty (194). The main fallacy in this argument, of course, is the idea that to have a job necessarily means overcoming poverty. This certainly isn’t universally true, but Vance isn’t talking about the universal. He’s talking about hillbillies and, by his own account, Appalachia has many “good-paying jobs..with steady raises” (like the one Bob lost) (6). White, straight, mostly male, and with solid opportunities to climb out of poverty, these Hillbillies have all the cards in the book. The problem, Vance claims, is that they aren’t playing them.
As Vance builds his argument about Appalachia’s nearly-inescapable, cultural cycle of poverty and learned-helplessness, it’s main sticking point becomes, ironically, himself. If Vance managed to escape and better himself, then it must be the individual character flaws of the other hillbillies that prevented them from doing the same. In order to evade this logical extension and continue his cultural analysis, Vance highlights his own luck, citing his “Mamaw” and the military as his saviors, providing him “an environment that forced him to ask the tough questions about himself” (194). Vance states early on that “despite all the environmental pressures from [his] neighborhood and community, [he] got a different message at home…and that saved [him](60).” Encouraged by Mamaw to get a job “to learn the value of a dollar” and to focus on his grades, Vance received thoroughly un-hillbilly messages at home, making his ultimate saving-grace not some extraordinary ability to escape hillbilly culture, but the fact that he was never entirely immersed in it to begin with (138). Vance then uses his own fortunes to discuss the misfortunes of others, conceding that “not everyone can rely on the saving graces of a crazy hillbilly”(243). Never given the tools like parental supervision of “peace and quiet at home” to succeed in school or taught the wherewithal to hold down a job, most hillbillies then fall victim to the “learned helplessness” that Mamaw and the marines instilled in Vance. Furthermore, by placing nucleus of both success and failure firmly within the home, Vance undermines the idea that prosperity hinges upon social programs (163). One of those “resilient children.. [Vance] prospered despite an unstable home because of the social support of a loving adult,” not because of governmental influence(149). Ironically, by crediting the “saving graces” in his own story, Vance highlights the lack of support within hillbilly culture.
Compassionately recounting his poor upbringing in rural Appalachia, J.D Vance dismantles the liberal notion that unemployment is caused by a lack of opportunity while also rejecting the conservative sentiment that it is an issue of individual character. Instead, Vance blames hillbilly culture, his culture. Vance critically describes how hillbillies, the people he loves, sabotage their own opportunities because they feel trapped in the black hole that is Appalachia and are inclined to blame their problems on anyone else: immigrants, the government, society at large. In doing so, he makes an effective case as to why government-based social programs aren’t the answer. One could argue, of course, that this is a shortcoming of Vance’s argument because, though it dismisses the current solution, it fails to provide a new one. However, in Vance’s case, he need not provide a solution, because, by creating one of the first dialogues about hillbilly culture and its resonance throughout America, he is advancing the conversation, a triumph in and of itself.