The book is an autobiographical account by a lawyer (Yale Law School graduate) and sometime conservative writer who grew up in a poor and chaotic Appalachian household. He’s a hillbilly, in other words, and is not ashamed of the term. Vance reflects on his childhood, and how he escaped the miserable fate (broken families, drugs, etc) of so many white working class and poor people around whom he grew up. And he draws conclusions from it, conclusions that may be hard for some people to take. But Vance has earned the right to make those judgments. This was his life. He speaks with authority that has been extremely hard won.
Forgive the rambling nature of this post. I’m still trying to process this extraordinary book.
Vance’s people come from Kentucky and southern Ohio, a deeply depressed region filled with hard-bitten but proud Scots-Irish folks. He begins by talking about how, as a young man, he got a job working in a warehouse, doing hard work for extra money. He writes about how even though the work was physically demanding, the pay wasn’t bad, and it came with benefits. Yet the warehouse struggled to keep people employed. Vance says his book is about macroeconomic trends — outsourcing jobs overseas — but not only that:
Vance talks about how, in his youth, there was a lot of hardscrabble poverty among his people, but nothing like today, dominated by the devastation of drug addiction. Everything we are accustomed to hearing about black inner city social dysfunction is fully present among these white hillbillies, as Vance documents in great detail. He writes that “hillbillies learn from an early age to deal with uncomfortable truths by avoiding them, or by pretending better truths exist. This tendency might make for psychological resilience, but it also makes it hard for Appalachians to look at themselves honestly.”
This was one of many points at which Vance’s experience converged somewhat with mine. My people are not hillbillies per se, but I come from working-class Southern country white people. Many of the cultural traits Vance describes are present in a more diluted way in my own family. That fierce pride, a pride that would rather see everything go to hell than admit error. This, I think, has something to do with why Southern Protestant Christianity has traditionally been more Stoic than Christian. Real Christianity has as its heart humility. That’s not a characteristic Scots-Irish people hold dear.
Vance talks about the hillbilly habit of stigmatizing people who leave the hollers as “too big for your britches” — meaning that you got above yourself. It doesn’t matter that they may have left to find work, and that they’re living a fairly poor life not too far away, in Ohio. The point is, they left, and that is a hard sin to forgive. What, we weren’t good enough for you?
This is the white-people version of “acting white,” if you follow me: the same stigma and shame that poor black people deploy against other poor black people who want to better themselves with education and so on.
The most important figure in Vance’s life is his Mamaw (pron. “MAM-maw”), Bonnie Vance, a kind of hillbilly Catherine the Great. She was a phenomenally tough woman. She knew how to use a gun, she had a staggeringly foul mouth, she smoked menthols and stood ready to fight at the drop of a hat. And she saved Vance’s life.
Vance plainly loves his people, and because he loves them, he tells hard truths about them. He talks about how cultural fatalism destroys initiative. When hillbillies run up against adversity, they tend to assume that they can’t do anything about it. To the hillbilly mind, people who “make it” are either born to wealth, or were born with uncanny talent, winning the genetic lottery. The connection between self-discipline and hard work, and success, is invisible to them. Vance:
Vance was born into a world of chaos. It takes concentration to follow the trail of family connections. Women give birth out of wedlock, having children by different men. Marriages rarely last, and informal partnerings are more common. Vance has half-siblings by his mom’s different husbands (she has had five to date). In his generation, Vance says, grandparents are often having to raise their grandchildren, because those grandparents, however impoverished and messy their own lives may be, offer a more stable alternative than the incredible instability of the kids’ parents (or more likely, parent).
Vance scarcely knew his biological father until he was a bit older, and lived with his mom and her rotating cast of boyfriends and husbands. Here’s Vance on models of manhood:
This is what happens in inner-city black culture, as has been exhaustively documented. But these are rural and small-town white people. This dysfunction is not color-based, but cultural.
I could not do justice here to describe the violence, emotional and physical, that characterizes everyday life in Vance’s childhood culture, and the instability in people’s outer lives and inner lives. To read in such detail what life is like as a child formed by communities like that is to gain a sense of why it is so difficult to escape from the malign gravity of that way of life. You can’t imagine that life could be any different.
Religion among the hillbillies is not much help. Vance says that hillbillies love to talk about Jesus, but they don’t go to church, and Christianity doesn’t seem to have much effect at all on their behavior. Vance’s biological father is an exception. He belonged to a strict fundamentalist church, one that helped him beat his alcoholism and gave him the severe structure he needed to keep his life from going off track. Vance:
Vance says the best thing about life in his dad’s house was how boring it was. It was predictable. It was a respite from the constant chaos.
On the other hand, the religion most hillbillies espouse is a rusticated form of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. God seems to exist only as a guarantor of ultimate order, and ultimate justice; Jesus is there to assuage one’s pain. Except for those who commit to churchgoing — and believe it or not, this is one of the least churched parts of the US — Christianity is a ghost.
About Vance’s father’s fundamentalism, I got more details about what this blog’s reader Turmarion, who lives in Appalachia, keeps telling me about that region’s fundamentalism. Even though I live in the rural Deep South, this form of Christianity is alien to me. When he went to live with his dad for a time as an adolescent (if I have my chronology correct), Vance was exposed for the first time to church. He appreciated very much the structure, but noticed that the spirituality on offer was fear-based and paranoid. “[T]he 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 … In my new church … 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.”
This was yet another reminder of why so many Evangelicals react strongly against the Benedict Option. As I often say, I have no experience of this extreme siege mentality in Christianity. In fact, my experience is entirely the opposite. I believe that some Christians coming out of fundamentalism may react so strongly against their miserable, unhappy background that they don’t appreciate the extent to which there really are people and forces out to “get” them. When you have lived almost all your Christian life among highly assimilated Christians who generally don’t pay attention to these things, their complacency can drive you crazy. But Vance helps me to understand how someone who grew up in its opposite would find even the slightest hint of siege Christianity to be anathema.
One of the most important contributions Vance makes to our understanding of American poverty is how little public policy can affect the cultural habits that keep people poor. He talks about education policy, saying that the elite discussion of how to help schools focuses entirely on reforming 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.”
And on and on. Vance says his people lie to themselves about the reality of their condition, and their own personal responsibility for their degradation. He says that not all working-class white hillbillies are like this. There are those who work hard, stay faithful, and are self-reliant — people like Mamaw and Papaw. Their kids stand a good chance of making it; in fact, Vance says friends of his who grew up like this are doing pretty well for themselves. Unfortunately, most of the people in Vance’s neighborhood were like his mom: “consumerist, isolated, angry, distrustful.”
As I said earlier, the two things that saved Vance were going to live full time with his Mamaw (therefore getting out of the insanity of his mom’s home), and later, going into the US Marine Corps. I’ve already written at too much length about Vance’s story, so I won’t belabor this much longer. Suffice it to say that as imperfect as she was, Mamaw gave young Vance the stability he needed to start succeeding in school. And she wouldn’t let him slack off on his studies. She taught him the value of hard work, and of moral agency.
The Marine Corps remade J.D. Vance. It pulverized his inner hillbilly fatalism, and gave him a sense that he had control over his life, and that his choices mattered. This was news to him. Reading this was a revelation to me. I was raised by parents who grew up poor, but who taught my sister and me from the very start that we were responsible for ourselves. Hard work, self-respect, and self-discipline were at the core of my dad’s ethic, for sure. There was no more despicable person in my dad’s way of seeing the world than the sumbitch who won’t work. I doubt that I’ve ever known a man more willing to do hard physical labor than my father was. Knowing what he came from, and knowing how any progress he made came from the sweat of his brow and self-discipline on spending, he had no tolerance for people who were lazy and blamed everybody else for their problems. This is true whether they were poor, middle class, or rich (but especially if they were rich).
Anyway, Vance talks about how the contemporary hillbilly mindset renders them unfit for participation in life outside their own ghetto. They don’t trust anybody, and are willing to believe outlandish conspiracy theories, particularly if those theories absolve them from responsibility.
Hence the enormous popularity of Donald Trump among the white working class. Here’s a guy who will believe and say anything, and who blames Mexicans, Chinese, and Muslims for America’s problems. The elites hate him, so he’s made the right enemies, as far as the white working class is concerned. And his “Make America Great Again” slogan speaks to the deep patriotism that Vance says is virtually a religion among hillbillies.
Trump doesn’t come up in Vance’s narrative, but in truth, he’s all over it. Vance is telling his personal story, not analyzing US politics and culture broadly. It’s also true, however, that the GOP elites set themselves up for their current disaster, by listening to theories that absolved themselves of any responsibility for problems in this country from immigration and free trade (Trump is not all wrong about this).
The sense of inner order and discipline Vance learned in the Marine Corps allowed his natural intelligence to blossom. The poor hillbilly kid with the druggie mom ends up at Yale Law School. He says he felt like an outsider there, but it was a serious education in more than the law:
Vance is admirably humble about how the only reason he got out was because key people along the way helped him climb out of the hole his culture dug for him. When Vance talks about how to fix these problems, he strikes a strong skeptical note. The worst problems of his culture, the things that held kids like him back, are not things a government program can fix. For example, as a child, his culture taught him that doing well in school made you a “sissy.” Vance says the home is the source of the worst of these problems. There simply is not a policy fix for families and family systems that have collapsed.
Voting for Trump is not going to fix these problems. For the black community, protesting against police brutality on the streets is not going to fix their most pressing problems. It’s not that the problems Trump points to aren’t real, and it’s not that police brutality, especially towards minorities, isn’t a problem. It’s that these serve as distractions from the core realities that keep poor white and black people down. A missionary to inner-city Dallas once told me that the greatest obstacle the black and Latino kids he helped out had was their rock-solid conviction that nothing could change for them, and that people who succeeded got that way because they were born white, or rich, or just got lucky.
Until these things are honestly and effectively addressed by families, communities, and their institutions, nothing will change.
Is there a black J.D. Vance? I wonder. I mean, I know there are African-Americans who have done what he has done. But are there any who will write about it? Clarence Thomas did, in his autobiography. Who else? Anybody know?
I criticized Williamson at the time for his harshness. I still wouldn’t have put it the way he did, but reading Vance gives me reason to reconsider my earlier judgment. Vance writes from a much more loving and appreciative place than Williamson did (though I believe Williamson came from a similar rough background), but he affirms many of the same truths. If white lives matter — and they do, because all lives matter — then sentimentality and more government programs aren’t going to rescue these poor people. Vance puts it more delicately than Williamson, but getting a U-Haul and getting away from other poor people — or at least finding some way to get their kids out of there, to a place where people aren’t so fatalistic, lazy, and paranoid — is their best hope. And that is surely true no matter what your race.
My friend Matt Sitman tweets:
Yes, but the more interesting question, at least to me, is why so many liberals like it — or at least why they are writing to me in droves saying how the interview J.D. Vance did with me deeply resonated with them, and inspired them to buy the book. (By the way, that interview was published two weeks ago today, and it’s still drawing so much web traffic to this site that our servers are struggling to handle it.) I’ll give you a sample below of the kind of correspondence I’m getting (with a couple of tweaks to protect privacy). There’s lots of it just like these below:
Mr. Dreher, this article was fantastic.
I grew up in rural Alabama, proudly declared myself “politically somewhere to the right of Attila the Hun”, and enlisted when I was 17. I had a difficult time getting out at 23 years old, several states away from my family, with a grownup’s bills to pay but an MOS that didn’t match the career I was suited for or needed as a civilian. I spent the next several years desperately poor but “self-sufficient” – as far as I knew, anyway.
In reality, of course, I had zero understanding of how taxes work. I saw about a 28% bite taken out of my paycheck, and didn’t understand that FICA/SS didn’t ultimately go to anybody but me, myself, and I, and that I wasn’t actually paying any income tax. I also had heard of but didn’t really understand or care about things like “every federal tax dollar that leaves SC has three federal tax dollars pass by it coming in.”
Truth be told, I wasn’t just unaware, I actively disbelieved that I wasn’t “self sufficient” at all, and I naively thought that I was paying for the “welfare” that the tiny, tiny portion of the population “poorer than me” was getting. I was also completely unaware that I was “desperately poor” at all. I was making $6/hr and I thought I was middle class! I knew people who made $10/hr, and I thought they were on the low end of upper class!
Eventually I made a real career for myself, started my own business, and spent less time scratching and kicking and fighting just to stay alive. The more time and resources I had, the more I learned about how the world, and politics, worked, and the more progressive I became. I am not, today, someone who would normally read articles from a site called “American Conservative”.
But I read yours, and I’m glad I did. What you and J.D. Vance had to say in that article are exactly what I want to hear from the conservative wing of American politics. Speaking candidly, I’m unlikely to be a “conservative” again – I’m a progressive, and likely to stay that way. But what you and Vance said was thoughtful, and reasonable, and – like I try to very publicly be myself, having “been there and done that” – understanding of the realities of the working poor. It’s the real and sensible ballast that even the best of real and sensible balloons (if you’ll permit the analogy between conservative and progressive, and we can both agree to handwave away the fact that the current DNC is neither as real or as sensible as it should be) needs.
That’s probably way too much to slog through, but seriously: thank you.
I thoroughly enjoyed this article! The conversation is not one that I have witnessed anyone else having. It is so easy to dismiss people as racist without ever considering from where their views and positions are derived. I am certainly going to read Hillbilly Elegy and look forward to reading more of your articles, By the way I am black, liberal, I most often vote Democrat and I don’t like Trump (for Reasons too high in number to state). I enjoy intelligent conversation and debate and have learned to carefully listen to and understand those who I may disagree with, so I might be educated fully on the issue not just entrenched in my beliefs.
Thank you for a refreshing read in a sea partisan sludge.
Another one, this from a reader who mistakenly believed that J.D. Vance’s experiences were mine. Still, his letter is fascinating:
I wandered in on this article today… and couldn’t stop reading. I’m Californian, a progressive and a Sanders supporter, a former Nader supporter, a former UAW organizer, currently a medical
devices engineer in [state], and have a Ph.D. in engineering. I grew up in a town 5 miles north of the Mexican border in south San Diego, and grew up among Mexican immigrants, many of whom were undocumented… they were my neighbors, my friends, my elders. I myself am an immigrant, came here as a kid with my parents, who were liberals who wanted something better than that right-wing dictatorship in [another country].
But I did grow up around the poverty line. My parents fought hard to stay out of welfare, to stay together, and to teach us the value of work. At 43, I have always worked since I was 14, and have always associated these traits with working-class liberal values… and was quite surprised many election cycles ago to hear silver-spooned class enemies in the GOP pick that up. What did these bastards know about real work? But it also pains me to see the elites, especially the East Coast elites, take over the Democratic Party.
I’m sorry to hear about your experiences at Yale Law. And I’m glad that I didn’t go to a private school, or a school in the East Coast. After moving to [my current state] 3 years ago I’ve found that liberals “out east” (east of the Sierra Nevadas) seem to come from privilege, are more dogmatic, disconnected from the working class, and can be super competitive and vindictive. I even remember starting out as an undergrad and scholarship kid at UC San Diego, how I felt the sting of class. I felt disconnected culturally from the liberals. It wasn’t until friends from high school began shipping back from Desert Storm all crazy and screwed up that I found common cause with these liberals.
As with the folks of Appalachia (I was a member of the Southern Baptist Church… it was a big military town), the defense of our neighborhoods was also paramount to us. What south San Diegans were seeing during the 90s was an entire generation deployed to guard oil fields in Iraq while the princelings of Kuwait lived it up in night clubs, and folks in Sacramento setting up laws that attack immigrants as a cheap shot to get elected. Everything was fine at the border until these demagogues (Republicans in this case) started showing up in our town in staged photo-ops.
Trump does have that appeal of at least pretending to listen to the
broken and forgotten. But just as we were about to forget the vengeance we swore against those who hurt our town, Trump comes by and reopens all the wounds, reminding us that while we might hold some conservative values, Republicans will always see us as sub-human.
I do think dialog and empathy are something of a short supply in
American politics today. The neoliberal policies and unfair trade pacts supported by both parties have been crushing our respective beloved hometowns. And we have a lot more in common than what these entrenched political entities say that we do. I’ve read “Rivethead” and “Deer Hunting with Jesus” and felt this familiarity. I will look for your book.
And here’s another one:
I just wanted to write and tell you that I was fascinated by your interview with the author JD Vance, and I speak as a socialist, agnostic, gay white male who’s never voted Republican in all his years! As a lifelong resident of the suburbs of Houston, Texas, it’s long occurred to me how insulated I am from the struggles of poor and working-class folks today; however my family started out poor, with my parents divorcing when I was six. Luckily our mother was strong enough to help us make it out of the hole by excelling in her profession as a nurse. I remember her telling me that in the days when my sister and I were very young, for Christmas she’d spend $20 on each of us at the dollar store, and she always hoped that we enjoyed our presents. That made me love my mom so much more, and I realized how lucky we’d been to have her, given how things might have turned out. In Houston as you probably know there is a staggering number of people of every imaginable type, and my school years were spent among kids from every walk of life, of every ethnicity and persuasion you can imagine. As an outsider myself, being gay and openly agnostic in an environment where neither was considered acceptable (high school was in the late 90s), I can identify with the feeling of seeming hopelessness, isolation, and fear for the future that Mr Vance describes, though certainly on a different level and for different reasons. I also feel a greater understanding now of the appeal of Trump to certain strata within our society…along with a renewed sense of how dangerous he really is to all of us (not to mention the rest of the world)! I would like to feel as hopeful for the future as Mr Vance seems to, but I’m afraid that until November (though hopefully not after!) I’ll be suffering a case of non-stop indigestion. Maybe we could all use a touch of that hillbilly idealism in our lives.
Anyway, that’s enough rambling out of me. Cheers for an excellent interview, and congratulations for gaining a new reader of the blue persuasion!
I could go on and on. I’m getting so many e-mails like these above that I can’t begin to respond to them all. I’m passing every one of them on to J.D. Vance, though. Interestingly, if I’ve received a single e-mail from a conservative about the interview, I can’t remember it.
I’m genuinely surprised and grateful for all these generous e-mails, and I’m sure J.D. is too. What I find so hopeful about it is that someone has finally found a voice with which to talk substantively about an important economic and cultural issue, but without antagonizing the other side. JDV identifies as a conservative, but his story challenges right-wing free-market pieties. And I’ve gotten plenty of e-mails from liberals who either come from poverty or who work with poor people for a living, who praise JDV’s points about the poor needing to understand that whatever structural problems they face, they retain moral agency.
What do you think, readers? Do you think the runaway success of Hillbilly Elegy, and the powerfully positive response from liberals to a book about class written by a conservative, bodes well for the possibility of constructive engagement around issues of class and poverty? To be sure, I’ve received a handful of letters from angry liberal readers who reject the idea that there’s anything wrong with poor and working class white people that government action can’t solve. I believe, and so does J.D., that government really does have a meaningful role to play in ameliorating the problems of the poor. But there will never be a government program capable of compensating for the loss of stable family structures, the loss of community, the loss of a sense of moral agency, and the loss of a sense of meaning in the lives of the poor. The solution, insofar as there is a “solution,” is not an either-or (that is, either culture or government), but a both-and. From a Washington Post review of the book:
The wounds are partly self-inflicted. The working class, he argues, has lost its sense of agency and taste for hard work. In one illuminating anecdote, he writes about his summer job at the local tile factory, lugging 60-pound pallets around. It paid $13 an hour with good benefits and opportunities for advancement. A full-time employee could earn a salary well above the poverty line.
That should have made the gig an easy sell. Yet the factory’s owner had trouble filling jobs. During Vance’s summer stint, three people left, including a man he calls Bob, a 19-year-old with a pregnant girlfriend. Bob was chronically late to work, when he showed up at all. He frequently took 45-minute bathroom breaks. Still, when he got fired, he raged against the managers who did it, refusing to acknowledge the impact of his own bad choices.
“He thought something had been done to him,” Vance writes. “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.”
Perhaps Vance’s key to success is a simple one: that he just powered through his difficulties instead of giving up or blaming someone else.
“I believe we hillbillies are the toughest god—-ed people on this earth,” he concludes. “But are we tough enough to look ourselves in the mirror and admit that our conduct harms our children? Public policy can help, but there is no government that can fix these problems for us. . . . I don’t know what the answer is precisely, but I know it starts when we stop blaming Obama or Bush or faceless companies and ask ourselves what we can do to make things better.”
The loss of industrial jobs plays a big role in the catastrophe. J.D. Vance acknowledges that plainly in his book. But it’s not the whole story. Anybody who comes to Hillbilly Elegy thinking that it’s going to tell a story that affirms the pre-conceived beliefs of mainstream conservatives or liberals is going to be surprised and challenged — in a good way.
By the way, the viral nature of the TAC interview with J.D. Vance has pushed Hillbilly Elegy onto the bestseller list (more details of which will be available shortly). It’s No. 4 on Amazon’s own list as of this morning. They can barely keep enough in stock. It really is that good, folks. All this success could not have happened to a nicer man. Credit for this spark goes to reader Surly Temple, who gave me my copy of Hillbilly Elegy.
UPDATE: A reader writes to point out:
The Washington Post review you quote states, Perhaps Vance’s key to success is a simple one: that he just powered through his difficulties instead of giving up or blaming someone else.” I think that misses the point of the book. J.D. fully acknowledges the importance of his Mamaw, Marine Corps drill instructors, and wife in changing his outcomes.
My takeaway from the book is that we can help these communities and people, but not from a distance. It takes unconditional, sacrificial love.
He’s right about that, and I shouldn’t have posted that WaPo review without commenting. JDV openly credits his Mamaw and the Marine Corps with making him the man he is today. He does not claim he got there entirely on his own, by bootstrapping it.
RACE, CLASS, AND CULTURE: A CONVERSATION WITH WILLIAM JULIUS WILSON AND J.D. VANCE
THE BROOKINGS INSTITUTION
Tuesday, September 5, 2017
MS. BUSETTE: Thanks Richard. I’m indebted to Richard who had the foresight to invite Bill and J.D. for this conversation well before I arrived at Brookings (…) Today we’re going to be covering some very timely and sensitive topics. Topics that explore who we are as Americans and why we are still struggling with entrenched poverty increasing in equality and the tragic waste of significant human potential; some 30 years after Bill Wilson first published his watershed book, “ The Truly Disadvantaged. ” As we begin this conversation, I want our audience to understand the personal experiences you both bring to your perspectives on poor Americans. Bill and J.D., I’d like each of you to share with us a personal experience from your childhood that had a profound impact on you and your perspectives on poverty, and Bill I’m going to ask you to go first.
MR. WILSON: Thank you. So, in answer to that challenging question, I should point out first of all that “ Hillbilly Elegy ” is a very important book and it also resonated with me in a very personal way because I also experienced the problems of rural poverty. I grew up in a small town in Western Pennsylvania. My father was a coal miner. He worked in these coal mines of Western Pennsylvania and oc casionally he worked in steel mills in Western Pennsylvania. He died at the age of 39, with a lung disease. Left my mother with six kids and I was the oldest at 12 years of age. My father had a 10 th grade education, my mother had a 10 th grade education. My mother who lived to the ripe old age of 94, raised us by cleaning house occasionally. Initially we were on r elief. We call it w elfare now. She got off w elfare and supported us by cleaning house; and what I distinctly remember about growing up in ru ral poverty is hunger. You know, I reviewed a book in the New York Times, Kathy Edin and Luke Shaefer’s book, “ Two Dollars a Day, Living on Almost Nothing in America. ” That book really captured my experiences, and I distinctly remember the times when we went hungry because my mother did not have any money and it was during the winter time and sometimes she had to use her own creativity in coming up with food because she couldn’t draw from the garden.
Now, given my family background, black person, black family in rural poverty; as one of my colleagues at Harvard told me, the odds that I would end up at Harvard as a University p rofessor and capital U on University, are very nearly zero. Like J.D. I’m an outlier. An outlier in — Malcolm Gladwell says in his book “ Outlier, The Study of Success. ” We are both outliers; but it’s interesting that J.D. never talks about holding himself up by his own bootstraps, and that’s something that I reject. I don’t refer to myself that way, because both J.D. and I, were in the right places at the right times, and we had significant individuals who were there to rescue us from poverty and enabled us to escape. We are the outliers being at the right place at the right time, and when I think about your question, that’s one thing I think about; how lucky I was. I had some significant individuals who helped me escape poverty.
MS. BUSETTE: Thank you Bill. J.D.?
MR. VANCE: Well first, thanks Camille, thanks Richard for hosting this. It’s really wonderful to be here and I’m a bit of a fan boy of William Julius Wilson as I wrote Hillbilly Elegy, so it was real exciting to be able to get him to sign this book. I think that the story that stands out to me is, and there’s a bit of a background here which is that you know, I was six or seven years old, and I remember my mom who was trying to get some sort of certification to become a nurse; and eventually after a couple of years, I remember being old enough that she sort of had to test how to draw blood on me, and that was sort of something I volunteered for because I thought it was really cool, because I was a weird kid; and I remember that eventually she made it and she was able to work as a nurse for a couple of years, and this just so happened to overlap with a period w here she was married to a truck driver. A guy who hadn’t graduated from high school, but was able to drive a truck and so you think about those two incomes together, there was this period where I felt like we had genuinely made it where we had this financial stability that was pretty remarkable given the history of my family. And I think the way that it fell apart so quickly and the way that even in the midst of that financial security, life was so chaotic and so unstable and eventually when that very precarious middle – class lifestyle fell apart economically, all of the instability that existed in our home sort of came crashing down upon us; and so, it felt like after this two-year period, we were in an even worse situation than we were going into it. I think you know, one of the things that taught me, and one of the ways I think it influenced the way that I think about poverty and inequality and upward mobility, is that the problems that a lot of poor families face aren’t purely income related. That some of the lessons that you learn, some of the things that you acquire when you are really struggling, they follow you even when you’re not struggling in a purely material sense. And then when a material sense returns, it can make all of those non-material things that much worse off, and I think that way of understanding these problems has really influenced the way that I think about a lot of the problems that I write about in the book.
MS. BUSETTE: Great, thank you very much. Thank you both very much. You know I want to talk a little bit about the place of poverty in the American narrative. And that narrative is complicated. In a recent survey conducted by The American Enterprise Institute and the Los Angeles Times, white Americans linked poverty with laziness and lack of ambition, and when we think of the welfare reform debates from the 1990’s, there were ungenerous terms used to describe the poor. The National Opinion Research Center also released a survey that shows that over the last two d ecades, there has never been such a bigger divide between white Republicans and white Democrats when it comes to the views of the intelligence and work ethic of African Americans. More generally, Americans think of poverty as an individual failure, and i ts opposite financial success is the result of hard work and smarts. I want each of you to reflect on these narratives of poverty and give us your perspective. Bill, I’m going to start with you.
MR. WILSON: Okay, that’s a very challenging question and I ‘m going to try to answer it by also pointing out some differences that I have with J.D. It’s really kind of a matter of emphasis. Not that we differ, it’s just a matter of emphasis. First of all, we both agree that too many liberal social scientists focus on social structure and ignore cultural conditions. You know, they talk about poverty, joblessness and discrimination, but they also don’t talk about some of the cultural conditions, that grow out of these situations, in response to these situations. Too many conservatives focus on cultural forces and ignore structural factors. Now J.D. has made the same point in “ Hillbilly Elegy ” and you also have made the same point in some subsequent interviews talking about the book. Now where we disagree and this relates back to your question, Camille, is in the interpretation of these cultural factors. J.D. places a lot of emphasis on agency. That people even in the most impoverished circumstances have choices that can either improve or exacerbate their situation, their predicaments. And I also think that a gency is important and should not be ignored, even in situations where individuals confront overwhelming structural impediments. But what J.D., and I’d like to hear your response to this J.D., wha t you don’t make explicit or emphasize enough from my point of view, is that agency is also constrained by these structural factors, even among people who you know, make positive choices to improve their lives, there are still constraints and I maintain th at the part of your book where you talking about agency, really cries out for a deeper interrogation. A deeper interrogation of how personal a gency is expanded or inhibited by the circumstance that the poor or working classes confront, including you know, their interactions and families, social networks , and institutions, in these distressed communities. In other words, what I’m trying to suggest is that personal agency is recursively associated with the structural forces within which it operates. And here you know, it’s sort of insightful to talk about intermediaries and insightful to talk about people who aid, who help you in making choices, and you do that well in the book. But here’s the point, given the American belief system on poverty and welfare in which Americans as you point out Camille, place far greater emphasis on personal shortcomings as opposed to structural barriers and especially when you’re talking about the behavior of African Americans. I believe that explanations that focus — don’t get me wrong, you don’t even talk about African Americans in the sense, I’m talking about people out there in the general public. Given this focus on personal shortcomings as opposed to structural barriers in a common for outcomes, I believe that explanations that focus on agency are likely to overshadow explanations that focus on structural impediments. Some people read a book, but they’re not that sophisticated, the take away will be those personal factors and you know, I would have liked to have seen you sort of try to put things in context you know. Talk about the constraints that people have. Now this relates to the second point I want to make. In addition, to feeling that they have little control over themselves, that is lack of agency. You point out that the individuals in these hillbilly communities tend to blame themselves — I’m sorry, blame everyone but themselves, and the term you used to explain this phenomenon is cognitive dissonance, when our beliefs are not consistent with our behaviors. And I agree, and many people often do tend to blame others and not themselves, but I think that when we talk about cognitive dissonance, we also have to recognize that individuals in these communities do indeed have some complaints, some justifiable complaints, including complaints about industries that have pulled off stakes and relocated to cheaper labor areas overseas and in the process, have devastated communities like Middletown, Ohio. Including complaints about automation replacing the jobs of cashiers and parking lot attendants. Including the complaints that government and corporate actions have undermined unions and therefore led to a decrease in the wages or workers in Middletown. You know, I just , I’m sorry, I’m going on too far, I’ll let you respond.
MS. BUSETTE: That was interesting. Now, here’s your chance.
MR. VANCE: Sure. So, I’ll make two broad points. One hopefully more responsive to your initial question, second more responsive to Bill’s concerns. So, first this point about culture, which is a really, really, difficult and amorphous concept to define, and one of the things that I was trying to do with “ Hillbilly Elegy ” is try to in some ways draw the discussion away from this structure versus personal responsibility narrative and convince us to look at culture as a third and I think very important variable. I often think that the way that conservatives, and I’m a conservative, talk about culture is in some ways an excuse to end the conversation instead of starti ng a much more important conversation. It’s look at their bad culture, look at their deficient culture, we can’t do anything to help them; instead of trying to understand culture as this much bigger social and institutional force that really is important that some cases can come from problems related to poverty and some cases can come from a host of different factors that are difficult to understand. So, here’s what I mean by that. One of the most important I think cultural problems that I talk about is the prevalence of family and stability and family trauma in some of the communities that I write about; and I take it as a given that that trauma and that instability is really bad, that it has really negative downstream effects on whether children are able to get an education, whether their able to enter the workforce, whether their able to raise and maintain successful families themselves. I think it’s tempting to sort of look at the problems of family instability and families like mine and say the re’s a structural problem if only people had access to better economic opportunities, they wouldn’t have this problem. I think that’s partially true, but also consequently partially false. I think there’s a tendency on the right to look at that and say these parents need to take better care of their families and of their children, and unless they do it, there’s nothing that we can do. And I think again, that is maybe partially true, but it’s also very significantly false. What I’m trying to point to in this concept of culture, is we know that when children grow up in very unstable families that it has important cognitive effects, we know that it has important psychological effects, and unless we understand the problem of family instability and trauma, not just as a structural problem, or problem with personal responsibility, but as a long – term problem, in some cases inherited from multiple generations back, then we’re not going to be able to appreciate what’s really going on in some of these families a nd why family instability and trauma is so durable and so difficult to actually solve. So, I tend to think of culture as in some ways, this way to sum all of the things that are neither structural nor individual. What is it that’s going on in people’s environments good and bad that make it difficult for them to climb out of poverty. What are the things that they inherit. It’s not just from their own families, but from multiple generations back. Behaviors, expectations, environmental attitudes that mak e is really hard for them to succeed and do well. That’s the concept of culture that I think is most important, and also frankly that I think is missing a little bit from our political conversation when we talk about these questions of poverty, we’re real ly comfortable talking about personal responsibility, we’re really comfortable talking about structural problems. We don’t often talk about culture in this way that I’m trying to talk about it, in “ Hillbilly Elegy. ”
MR. WILSON: Can I just —
MR. VANCE : Sure.
MR. WILSON: No, go ahead J.D.
MR. VANCE: (laughing)
MR. WILSON: No, no, I agree. It’s a matter of emphasis, that’s all I’m saying.
MR. VANCE: So this, yeah.
MR. WILSON: And let me also point out, here’s where we really do agree. We both agree that there are cultural practices within families and so on and in communities that reinforce problems created by the structural barriers.
MR. VANCE: Absolutely.
MR. WILSON: Reinforce. Practiced behaviors that perpetuate poverty and disadvantage. So, this we agree. Too often liberals ignore the role of these cultural forces in perpetuating or reinforcing conditions associated with poverty or concentrated (inaudible).
MS. BUSETTE: So —
MR. VANCE: Absolutely. So, the second point that I wanted to make, and I’ll try to be brief is this question of Agency and whether I overemphasize the role of Agency. I think that for me, this is a really tough line to tow because I’m sort of writing about these problems you know, having in my personal memory, I’m not that far removed from a lot of them. I know that myself, one of the biggest problems that I faced was that I really did start to give up on myself early in high school, and I think that’s a really significant problem. At the same time, I understand and recognize the problem that Bill mentions which is that we have this tendency to sort of overemphasize Personal Agency and to proverbially blame the victim for a lot of these problems. So, what I was trying to do with this discussion of Personal Agency in the book, and I may have failed, but this is the effort, this is what I’m really trying to accomplish. Is that the first instance, I do think that it’s important for kids like me in circumstances like mine, to pick up the book and to have at least some reinforcement of the Agency that they have. I do think that’s a significant problem from the prospective of kids who grew up in communities like mine. The second thing that I’m trying to do, is talk about Personal Agency, not jus t from the prospective of individual poor people, but from the entire community that surrounds them. So, one of the things that I talk about is as religious communities in these areas, do they have the, as I say in the book, toughness to build Churches that encourage more social engagement as opposed to more social disaffection. I think that’s a question of Personal Agency, not from the perspective of the impoverished kid, but from a religious leader and community leaders that exist in their neighborho od. So, I think that sense of Personal Agency is really important. One of the worries that I have, is that when we talk about the problems of impoverished kids and this is especially true amongst sort of my generation, so this is — I’m a tail end of t he millennials here, is that we tend to think about helping people, 10 million people at a time a very superficial level, and one of the calls to action that I make in the book with this — by pointing out to Personal Agency is the idea that it can be real ly impactful to make a difference in 10 lives at a very deep level at the community level. And I think that sometimes is missing from these conversations. And then, the final point that I’ll make is that there’s a difference between recognizing the impo rtance of Personal Agency and I think ignoring the role of structural factors in some of these problems, right? So, the example that I used to highlight this in the book is this question of addiction. So, there’s some interesting research that suggests t hat people who believe inherently that their addiction is a disease, show slightly less proclivity to actually fight that addiction and overcome that addiction. So, that creates sort of a catch 22, because we know there are biological components to add iction. We know that there are these sorts of structural non – personal decision – making drivers of addiction, and yet, if you totally buy in to the non – individual choice explanation for addiction, you show less of a proclivity to fight it. So, I think that there is this really tough under current to some of our discussions on these issues, where as a society we want to simultaneously recognize the barriers that people face, but also encourage them not to play a terrible hand in a terrible way, and that’s wh at I’m trying to do with this discussion of Personal Agency. The final point that I’ll make on that, is that the person who towed that line better than anyone I’ve ever known was my Grandma, my Ma’ma who I think is in some ways the hero of the book. She always told me. Look J.D., like is unfair for us, but don’t be like those people who think the deck is hopelessly stacked against them. I think that’s a sentiment that you hear far too infrequently among America’s elites. This simultaneous recogniti on that life is unfair for a lot of poor Americans, but that we still have to emphasize the role of individual agency in spite of that unfairness and I think that’s again a difficult balancing act. I may not have struck that balancing act perfectly in the book, but that was the intention.
MS. BUSETTE: Thank you.
MR. WILSON: Camille, do you mind if I follow – up because I mean this is an interesting conversation and you just raised a point there about optimism which I think is very, very important. Because you know, one point that resonated with me in your book is that you pointed out, I think it was 2010 – 2011, by the way, I read your book twice you know so (laughter) that’s how I remembered it, and I enjoyed it both times. I’m going to say —
MR. VANCE: That’s good.
MR. WILSON: — it’s a great book. You pointed out that in 2010 or 2011, you were overwhelmingly hopeful about the future, and that for the first time in your life, you felt like an outsider in Middletown, Ohio. And what made you feel like an alien as you put it, was your optimism. And I think that that’s the key. People who have some hope for the future behave differently. And I think that if there were some way to generate hope and optimism among people in Appalachia, or among the Appalachian transplants, you would see a change in their behavior, and this argument applies not only to those in distress rural communities, but also distressed urban communities. And I think immediately of the Harlem Children Zone. The kids who are lucky enough to be a part of — I assume all of you know about the Harlem Children’s Zone. The kids who are lucky enough to be a part of the Harlem Children’s Zone, are kids who develop in the process a hopeful feeling. A feeling that they have a future, and therefore they’re not going to do anything to jeopardize that future. You became optimistic. What factors led you to develop that optimism?
MR. VANCE: Yeah, that’s a good question. I might ask you the same question when I’m done answering —
MR. WILSON: Right.
MR. VANCE: — but you know, the first thing is definitely you know, going back to my grandma. I think if anybody had a reason for pessimism and cynicism about the future, it was her. It’s sort of difficult to imagine a woman who had lived a more difficult life and yet ma’ma had this constant optimism about the future, in the sense that we had to do better because that was just the way that America worked. I mean I think that she was this woman who had this deep and abiding faith in the American dream in a way that is obviously disappearing And in fact, as I wrote about in the book, was I started to see disappearing even you know, when I was a young kid in my early 20’s. So, I think that my grandma was a huge part of that. I also think that the Marine Corp was a really huge part of that, and this is sort of a transformational experience that I write about in the book. The military is this really remarkable institution. It brings people from diverse backgrounds together, gets them on the same team. Gets them marching proverbially and literally towards the same goal, and for a kid who had grown up in a community that was starting to lose faith in that American dream, I think that the military was a really useful way to, as I say in the book, teach a certain amount of willfulness as opposed to despair and hopelessness. So, I think that was a really critical piece of it. You know, at some level, in some cases I think it’s impossible to reconstruct that in the past. I knew that I was a really hopeless and in some cases detached kid early in high school. I knew that by 2010, I was feeling really optimistic about the future and I do sometimes wonder how easy it is to reconstruct what took me from point A to point B, but those two factors are my best guess.
MS. BUSETTE: Did you want to answer his question.
MR. WILSON: You know, even in extreme property, my mother kept telling me, you’re going to college. And my Aunt Janice also reinforced — my Aunt Janice was the first person in my extended family who got a college education, and I used to go to New York to visit her during the summer months, and I said you know, I want to be like Aunt Janice, you know?
MR. VANCE: Sure.
MR. WILSON: Key people in our lives —
MR. VANCE: Absolutely.
MR. WILSON: We are the outliers J.D.
MR. VANCE: Yep.
MR. WILSON: And Malcom Gladwell since.
MS. BUSETTE: Thank you both for that interchange. I think that was incredibly interesting and very illuminating. I want to go back to something you mentioned J.D., which is this question of culture. You know Bill, I know that the term cultural poverty has a very divisive history and still conjures up very vitriolic debates today. But Bill, you have over an extraordinary career, created meaningful distinctions about poverty and within that jargon of poverty and you’ve also situated jobless poverty in particular within changes in the economy. Could you tell us what the experiential differences are between jobless poverty and the employed poor?
MR. WILSON: Well you really see this when you look at neighborhoods. Neighborhoods in which an overwhelming majority of the population are poor, but employed is entirely different from neighborhoods in which people are poor but jobless. Jobless neighborhoods trigger all kinds of problems. Crime, drug addiction, gang behavior, violence. And one of the things that I had focused on when I wrote my book, When Work Disappears is what happens to intercity neighborhoods that experience increasing le vels of joblessness. And we did some research in Chicago and it was really you know, sad, talking to some of the mothers who were just fearful about allowing their children to go outside because the neighborhood was so incredibly dangerous. And I remember talking with one woman and she says — who was obese and she says you know, I went to the doctor he said that I should go out and exercise. Can you imagine jogging in this neighborhood? Because the joblessness had created problems among young people who were trying to make ends meet and they’re involved in crime and drugs and so on. So, I would say that if you want to focus on improving neighborhoods, the first thing that I would do would try to increase or enhance employment opportunities.
MS. BUSETTE: Great, thank you.
MR. WILSON: I have another story. This just reminds me. I was talking with a mother, young mother. Actually, she’s young now from my point of view, middle 30’s and her son had just been shot in the neighborhood, killed. Str ay bullet from a gang fight. She said her son was not a member of the gang, that’s one of the reasons why she was so fearful, so concerned about keeping her children indoors. She said you know Mr. Wilson, no one cared that my son died. His death was not reported in any of the newspapers. It wasn’t reported on the radio, TV. No one cared Mr. Wilson that my son died. And I just keep thinking about these families who live in these dangerous jobless neighborhoods and what they have to endure.
MS. BUSETTE: Thank you. One of the things that comes out clearly from your work Bill, and from your book J.D., is the erosion of social networks and social capital. J.D., your book is really an extended love letter to your grandparents who raised you. Can you tell us a little bit about how the social connections that they had were important to their resilience they showed as parents, as your parents?
MR. VANCE: Sure. So, my grandparents lived in, I think grew up in a little town that had much more robust communities than the town that I grew up in. And so, a lot of the relationships they developed, my grandfather was a 35-year union welder, at Armco. Later, A.K. Steel. My grandmother was a little bit more socially isolated than my grandfather but still had built up a network of friends over that time, and you know, going back to Bill’s point about having diverse networks of people who actually give you a sense of what’s possible and what’s out there, that was really, really, powerful for me, right. So, you know, of my grandparents three kids, one obviously is my mom, but my uncle and aunt were doing pretty well when I was a young kid, and so that gave me this sense of what’s out there, what’s possible. That’s really powerful. My grandfather had a number of friends most of whom were working class like him, but some of whom you know, owned the local businesses or owned local stores or mechanic shops, things like that. So that also gave me the sense of what was possible. And I think ultimately though I went to the Marine Corps and then off to college. I also think the obvious implication is that some of those social networks and connections would have had really powerful economic benefits if I had eventually tried to rely on them. I think that what was so wonderful about my grandparent’s social networks is that they were intact enough for me to still have relied upon them. On the other hand, one thing I really worried about and one thing that I increasingly worried about as I actually did research for the book, is this idea of faith and religion, not just as something that people believe in, but as an actual positive institutional and social role player in their lives. And one of the things you do see, that this is something that Charles Murray’s written about, is that you see the institutions of faith declining in some of these lower income communities faster than you do in middle and upper income communities. I don’t think you have to be a person of faith to think that that’s worrisome. I think you can just read a paper by Jonathan Gruber that talks about all of these really positive social impacts of being a regular participatory Church member. So, you know, I think I was lucky in that sense, but a lot of folks, and when I look at the community right now, it worries me a little bit that you don’t see these robust social institutions in the same way that you certainly did 30, 40 years ago, and even when I was growing up in Middletown. The last point that I’ll make about that, is that (…) these trends often take half a century or more to really reveal themselves and I do sometimes see signs of resilience in some of these communities that I sort of didn’t fully anticipate and didn’t expect when the book was published. So, one of the things I’ve started to realize for example is when we talk about the decline of institutional faith, even though I continue to worry about that, one of the institutions that’s actually picked up the slack are groups like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. They almost have this faith effect. It brings people together. There’s even a sort of liturgical element to some of these meetings that I find really, really fascinating and interesting. So, people try to find and replace community when it’s lost but you know, clearly, they haven’t at least as of yet, replaced it even remotely to the degree that it has been lost which is why I think you see some of the issues that we do.
MS. BUSETTE: Alright, thank you. Bill, I know you have something to say on that —
MR. WILSON: Sure.
MS. BUSETTE: — but I wanted to kind of position the question in a slightly different way than I did for J.D. The economy certainly became significantly since you first penned The Truly Disadvantaged. And what, from your perspective, what effects have those changes had on social organization and poverty?
MR. WILSON: Well, I don’t know if the conditions have changed that much, since I wrote The Truly Disadvantaged. The one big difference is that I think there’s increasing technology and automation that has created problems for a lot of low skilled workers. You know, I mentioned automation replacing jobs that cashiers held, and parking lot attendants held. So, you have a combination not only of the relocation of industries overseas, that I talked about in The Truly Disadvantaged; but now you have increasing automation and technology replacing jobs, and this worries me because I think that people who have poor education are going to be in difficult situations increasingly down the road. You look at intercity schools, not only schools in intercities, but in many other neighborhoods, and kids are not being properly educated. So, they’re not being prepared for the changes that are occurring in the economy. I remember one social scientist saying that it’s as if — talking about the black population. It’s as if racism and racial discrimination put black people in their place only to watch increasing technology and automation destroy that place. So, the one significant difference from the time I wrote The Truly Disadvantaged in 1987, is the growing problems created by increasing technology for the poor.
MR. VANCE: Bill, could I ask a question —
MR. WILSON: Sure.
MR. VANCE: — because this is something I was you know, looking through your book on my Kendall earlier today, and I kept on coming back to this question, and I’m curious what you think. Which is if the civil rights movement had happened in the early 20th century as opposed to the mid-20th century, do you think that black Americans would be more caught up than they are right now? In other words, do you think that it happened, the civil rights advancements happened at a time when technology was just really starting to hammer the economies that they relied on, and if it happened in an area where there weren’t quite the same premiums on human capital, that maybe they could have caught up a little bit better than they have over the past 50 years?
MR. WILSON: So what you’re saying is that if civil rights movement had happened at this time?
MR. VANCE: Sorry, the early 20th century?
MR. WILSON: Oh, the early 20th century
MR. VANCE: Yeah, that’s right.
MR. WILSON: Right.
MR. VANCE: So, if it had happened when we were just transitioning from the proverbial farm to the factory, do you think it would have had a significant difference?
MR. WILSON: I’m not sure.
MR. VANCE: Right, what else can you say.
MR. WILSON: What do you think?
MR. VANCE: — reading The Truly Disadvantaged today, I was thinking maybe the answer is yes, because part of what happened, with the civil rights movement is that the economy was rapidly changing just to some of these legal structures were you know, as black Americans were freed from some of these legal structures. And I do wonder if the economy — it was in some ways as these legal changes were happening in a very positive way, the economy hit black Americans super hard, and I wonder if those legal structures would have fallen at a time when the economy wasn’t changing so rapidly. Maybe things would be a little bit different today?
MR. WILSON: This reminds me of the point that Bayard Rustin raised in the early 1960’s. He said, you know, it’s great to outlaw discrimination and prejudice, but it’s also important to recognize that if you have a referee in the ring, and you say there will be no discrimination, but one fighter has had all of the training and the other fighter has not, which fighter is going to come out ahead? And so, he says much more emphasis has now got to be placed on dealing with these basic economic problems and he told Martin Luther King, Jr. he said look, he says what good is it to be allowed to eat in a restaurant if you can’t afford a hamburger; so, we’re going to have to address some of these fundamental economic problems —
MR. VANCE: Sure.
MR. WILSON: — that are devastating the community. So that reinforces your point too.
MS. BUSETTE: That is a perfect segue to a set of questions that I want to ask you both. It’s about the question of Race in America. We know that racism and discrimination have a long history in the U.S., and that the effects of that history are still experienced by individuals on a daily basis today. When those experiences are aggregated, we can see large mobility, wealth and income gaps between white Americans and African Americans. We are also hearing, and reading and seeing about the culture of the sphere, the opioid epidemic and the disability culture in rural and Rust belt America. So, I’m going to ask a sensitive question. Are there differences between being black, jobless and poor, and being white jobless and poor? And if so, what are they and why? Bill, I’m going to give you the honor of tackling that first (laughter).
MR. WILSON: You know, that’s a very interesting question because I was just — you know J.D. you wrote in your book about the problems of poor whites and it seems that poor whites right now are more pessimistic than any group, and the question is why. I was sort of impressed with your analysis of the white working class and the age of Trump. You know, you pointed out that when Barack Obama became president there were a lot of people in your community who were really struggling and who believe that the modern American meritocracy did not seem to apply to them. These people were not doing well, and then you have this black president who’s a successful product of meritocracy who has raised the hope of African Americans and he represented every positive thing that these working-class folks that you write about did not possess or lacked. And Trump emerged as candidate who sort of spoke to these people. What is interesting is that if you look at the Pew Research Polls, recent Pew Research polls, I think you pointed this out in your book, the working – class whites right now are more pessimistic than any other group about their economic future and their children’s future. Now is that pessimism justified? I think they’re overly pessimistic. I still maintain that to be black, poor and jobless is worse than being white, poor and jobless, okay? But, for some reason, the white poor is more pessimistic. Now I think with respect to the black poor and working class has kind of an Obama effect you kn ow. I think that may wear off and then blacks will become even more equally as pessimistic as whites in a few years.
MR. VANCE: I’d really like for you to run those numbers right now, and see if the rates among pessimism among working class blacks are changed or inverted relative to where they were a couple of years ago. You know, people ask me what I see as the similarities between working class blacks and working-class whites, and what the differences are, and whenever they ask me what the differences are I always say, talk to Bill Wilson, he’s a lot smarter about this stuff than I am. But the thing that jumps out to me most when I think about the differences, is that housing policy, especially housing policy back in the 50’s and 60’s affects modern day black Americans much more than it does modern day white Americans. Especially the working and non-working poor. What I mean by that is that I think that you know, partially because of research that Bill has done and partially for research that a lot of other folks have done. Concentrated poverty is really bad. It’s worse than just being poor. To be sort of socially isolated in these islands of all the other poor people and I think that’s a much more common experience among black Americans because of the residuals effects of housing policy in the 50’s and 60’s, so I think that to me, if I was going to pick one single factor, that was driving the continued difference, I would probably say housing policy. The sort of question of how to you know, is it better or worse to be working-class or sort of poor, jobless and white, versus poor, jobless and black. I think all things being equal certainly poor jobless and black is sort of worse off if you look at wealth numbers, if you look at income numbers, that’s still the case. I do worry a little bit that we don’t have the vocabulary to really talk about the full measure of disadvantage in the country right now. What I mean by that is that we’re pretty comfortable talking about class, we’re pretty comfortable talking about gender, we’re reasonably comfortable talking about race, but when we talk about things like single parent families, family trauma, concentrated poverty. All of these things that would go into what I would call the disadvantage bucket or the privileged bucket, it’s not those three factors, it’s probably two dozen or three dozen factors. We’re really bad about talking about everything except for race, class and gender. And I think that’s one way that the conversation has really broken down, especially in the past few years.
MS. BUSETTE: Alright, thank you.
MR. WILSON: So, this reminds me of your points J.D., reminds me of a paper that Robert Sampson, a colleague at Harvard and I wrote in 1995 entitled Toward a Theory of Race, Crime and Urban Inequality. A paper that has become a classic actually in the field of criminology because it’s generated dozens of research studies. Our basic thesis we were addressing you know, race and violent crime, is that racial disparities and violent crime are attributable in large part to the persistent structural disadvantages that are disproportionately concentrated in African American urban communities. Nonetheless, we argue that the ultimate cause of crime were similar for both whites and blacks, and we pose a central question. In American cities, it is possible to reproduce in white communities the structural circumstances under which many blacks live. You know, the whites haven’t fully experienced the structural reality that blacks have experienced does not negate the power of our theory because we argue had whites been exposed to the same structural conditions as blacks then white communities would behave – – the crime rate would be in the predicted direction. And then we had an epiphany. What about the rural white communities that you talk about. Where you’re not only talking about joblessness, you’re not only talking about poverty, but you’re also talking about family structure. So, here in Appalachia, you could reproduce some of the conditions that exist in intercity neighborhoods and therefore it would be good to test our theory in these areas because we’d be looking at the family structure. The rates of single parent families. We’d be looking at joblessness, we’d be loo king at poverty. So, we need to move beyond the urban areas and see if we can look at communities that come close to approximating or even worse in some cases, and some intercity neighborhoods. This reminds me, I was reading an interview, excellent interview. Remember I wrote to you that first time I read this interview, it was before I even read Hillbilly Elegy and I went and read the book after reading this interview; or maybe it was in Hillbilly Elegy where you refer to the research of the economist Raj Chetty who did some path breaking research on concentrated poverty, single parent families and mobility.
MR. VANCE: Yep.
MR. WILSON: And the reports in the newspapers focused on concentrated poverty and then talk about rates of single parent families which he also emphasized, you see.
MR. VANCE: Yep.
MR. WILSON: But if you want to capture both, it might be good to focus on rural areas like the ones you wrote about, and see if some of the same factors are reproduced that I read about in The Truly Disadvantaged.
MS. BUSETTE: Oh there’s no second book for you (laughter). So, my colleague Richard Reeves has recently published a piece that demonstrated that there’s a century economic mobility gap between black and white men. So, in a sense, the historically lower rates of upward mobility have delayed the economic ascent of black men by a century. Should we be concerned?
MR. WILSON: Could you repeat that?
MS. BUSETTE: Yeah. The historically lower rates of upward mobility have delayed for black men, have delayed the economic ascent of black men by a century compared to white men. So, the question is, should we be concerned, and do we need differentiated sets of policies to address black economic mobility and on the other hand, white economic mobility?
J.D., I’m going to give that to you first (laughter).
MR. WILSON: You should have sent these questions to us ahead of time (laughter) —
MS. BUSETTE: No, no.
MR. WILSON: — so we could have thought —
MS. BUSETTE: That’s the fun (laughter). Yeah, no fun in that.
MR. VANCE: Well, I think you asked two questions. The first was should we be concerned. My answer to that is yes, and I’ll let Bill take the second question (laughter). So, you know, this question of should we have differentiated policies. I think it depends on what we mean by differentiated right. So, to take Bill’s — something he said earlier, this question of technological change and the way that it’s impacting these communities, I think that requires us to fundamentally rethink the way that we approach higher education. That’s been my persistent frustration, thinking about policy over the past couple of years. Is we have this rapidly changing economy. We haven’t changed our institutions or even our institutional thinking to match up to that rapidly changing economy. But if you’re focused on sort of correcting those gaps or if you’re just basically focused on giving help to the people who need it, then you’re going to have a differentiated application of help because black Americans need it, you know, maybe on average more than white Americans. If we talk about sort of the negative effects for example of concentrated poverty, this is something that I really worry about, and back to Raj Chetty, a different paper that he published show that there are these really interesting positive effects of the Moving to Opportunity Study. But my guess is that concentrated poverty equally hurts black and white Americans, it’s just that black Americans experience it more. So, there’s going to be a differentiated effect if you try to rectify that problem, but not because you say we’re going to try to help black people more than white people, just because you’re going to say, I want to help the problem of concentrated poverty and because they’re suffering from it more. That effect will at least be differentiated. But I don’t know, I haven’t thought about sort of whether you should go into it sort of before the fact and try to apply these things differently. My guess is that that’s probably politically not a great idea, and may not be necessary from a moral perspective either, but I’m curious as to what Bill thinks.
MR. WILSON: I agree. Certainly, in this day and age it’s not a good idea. But, if you ask me, what am I most concerned about right now in addressing problems of poverty and so on. I’m concerned about jobs. Although I wouldn’t phrase it this way, I wouldn’t say that we need public sector jobs for black males, I would say we need public sector jobs for people who live in concentrated poverty and that would apply to white males, not only males, but females as well. As well as blacks. But which group would benefit disproportionately from a public sector’s jobs program. It would be black males, because black males have these high prison records; and therefore because of their prison records, many of them find it extremely difficult because of the incarceration rates, many of them find it extremely difficult to find jobs in the private sector. Therefore, at least as a temporary as opposed to a permanent solution, I would like to see public sector job creation for those who have difficulty finding employment in the private sector. When I speak of public sector jobs, I mean the type of jobs provided by the WPA during the Great Depression. Jobs that would improve the infrastructure in our communities, including the under-funded National Park Service, state and local park districts. I just feel that public sector jobs are very, very important particularly for black adults who have been stigmatized by prison records and who thus find it virtually impossible to find jobs in the private sector. Now, saying that. I’m on to no illusion that these programs and a program like public sector job program would garner widespread support in the current political climate, but I feel that we have to start thinking seriously, about what should be done when we have a more favorable political climate, and when people from both parties are willing to consider seriously policies that could make a difference.
MS. BUSETTE: We have time for one more question, and I’m going to start, J.D., with you. So, in a paper by Richard Reeves and another colleague of mine, Eleanor Krouse, that was released today, the evidence is that rural areas with the best rates of upward mobility are the ones with the highest rates of out migration, especially among young people. Should we just accept that some communities are essentially dying, and focus our efforts on helping people move on to other places with more opportunity, or should we be trying to turnaround these blighted areas?
MR. VANCE: That is a really tough one. So, I’m going to try to judicially split the baby here and I’ll probably fail but — (laughter). When I think about should we try to fix these blighted areas, I think that it depends on how we define area, right? Because my concern with some of these out-migration arguments is that we say, if you can’t find a good job in West Virginia, you should move to San Francisco, California, and they’re two concerns with that. The first is that try to convince somebody that they could afford a place in San Francisco, California when it’s a two-bedroom apartment costs you $4,500 a month. So, I think that again, going back to housing policy, that really makes this out migration pretty difficult. The second thing is that you really do — I think we have to understand there’s a difference between out migration from let’s say Eastern Kentucky to Southwestern Ohio verses Eastern Kentucky to San Diego, California, because the former allows you to preserve some important social contacts and social connections. It is cheaper to move there, it’s less culturally intimidating to move there. I mean I cannot imagine what my grandparents would have said if you would have told them in the 1940’s that they had to move to modern day San Francisco. It really would have been, you need to move to an entirely different country. Maybe an entirely different planet. And I think that’s important. So, the way that I think about this problem is that we have to accept that while out migration has to be a part of the solution, we can’t just say every single person in Breathitt County Kentucky has to leave, and Breathitt County Kentucky gets to close up shop. But if we can regionally develop big cities like Lexington, like Pittsburgh, like Columbus, Ohio, that obviously has downstream effects and that allows you to have out migration to places that isn’t so culturally foreign and enables people to maintain those social connections even as they move to areas with higher employment; and oh, by the way, still play a positive role in the communities back home. I think that’s the way that I approach that particular problem.
MS. BUSETTE: Alright, thank you.
MR. WILSON: You know my colleague at Harvard, Robert Sampson and former student Patrick Sharkey who is at NYU have argued for durable investments in disadvantaged neighborhoods to counter the persistent disinvestments in such neighborhoods, and I was wondering if you use that argument and focus on Appalachia for example, what would investments look like? And I’m going to put this question to you J.D., if you’re talking about investments in these communities, would it include such things as hospitals, clinics, road construction, shopping centers, daycare centers, these kinds of things. Would that be helpful? Would those things be helpful?
MR. VANCE: Yes, so I think it would definitely be helpful. One of the concerns I have with what we’ve seen with regional economic development is that it very often happens through the avenue of let me provide you tax credit so that you can open up new retail, right? I don’t think that’s especially durable economic development, right. I mean, I think we have to think of local economies as sort of a pyramid. You need real industries, manufacturing, then you have retail on top of it, but you can’t really rebuild some of these economic centers with just retail. There is actually an interesting bill that’s moving through Congress right now, that would in some ways place long-term capital investment at parity with short-term capital investment like tax credits. That would allow things like Venture Capital investment and much bigger longer – term patient capital to invest in some of these areas and create you know, more durable jobs in more durable sectors. But I also think, and my thinking honestly has probably changed in the past few years, though maybe change isn’t the right word, as I start to think about this a little bit more seriously. When I look at you know, some of the work David Autor has done about the China Shock and the way that it’s impacted some of these areas. I do think that we’ve been so caught up in thinking about long term well-being as purely as a function of consumption, that we haven’t thought about the fact that if you pay three cents less for a widget at Walmart, but half of your community just lost its job, your purchasing power is slightly greater, but your community has lost something really significant. I think that’s been missing from our conversations about economics in jobs, especially on the right, but I really think across the spectrum we focus too little on bringing good durable, high paying work into some of these areas. And consequently, if you look at just a policy across the board, we’ve congratulated ourselves, because purchasing power, even among the low income has gone up, not recognizing the purchasing power that comes from a government transfer is a lot different from purchasing power that comes from a good job.
MS. BUSETTE: Great. Thank you both very much. We are now going to take questions from the audience. So, (inaudible) from Brookings. So, I’d like everybody to be able to say who they are and the organization they’re coming from, and then ask your question please. Thank you. And I’ll take a couple of these. I’ll take yours first and then we’ll take a few more.
SPEAKER: First thing I want to do is thank both of you for such a thoughtful conversation. I mean Camille asked you really tough provocative questions, so it was a great conversation. I think I want to add to the provocative question list here. We haven’t talked much about our politics going forward and how they may play out in terms of things that you both might be in favor of. Bill, you say you’re for a public jobs program, but obviously that’s politically going to be extremely difficult to convince much of the public including many of the so-called white working class that J.D. has been studying. They don’t like government programs. They don’t like handouts. They want I think, as I read it, the literature, including your book, they want real jobs, not government jobs. In fact, they really dislike a lot that they see in first line government workers. With that background and thinking about you know, where does our politics go from here, I happened to have read this weekend, a new small essay by Mark Lilla who is arguing quite controversially that the Democratic party needs to put less emphasis on identity politics. That means staying away presumably from racial divides and culture and all of that. And, do you have any thoughts about generally how we bring the country back together again politically and specifically this notion that maybe the Democratic party is losing the white working-class by putting too much emphasis on immigrants, minorities, women etcetera?
MS. BUSETTE: I’ll let you Gabby — I’ll let you gather your thoughts there.
MR. WILSON: I’ll take a shot —
MS. BUSETTE: Wow, a brave man.
MR. VANCE: I hope that there’s vodka in this (laughter).
MR. WILSON: So you know, I blurbed Mark Lilla’s book.
SPEAKER: Oh, did you? That’s right, I remember.
MR. WILSON: I blurbed it. What’s the title of the book ?
SPEAKER: The Once in a Future Liberal.
SPEAKER: That’s right.
MR. WILSON: The Once in a Future Liberal. Yeah, I blurbed the book. You know, Mark Lilla and a number of other post-election analysts observed that as you point out that the Democrats should not make the same mistake that they made in the last election, namely an attempt to mobilize people of color, women, immigrants and the LGBT community with identity politics. They tended to ignore the problems of poor white Americans. I was watching the Democratic convention with my wife on a cruise to Alaska, and one concern I had was there did not seem to be any representatives on the stage representing poor white America. I could just see some of these poor whites saying they don’t care about us. They’ve got all these blacks, they’ve got immigrants, they’ve got (inaudible), but you don’t have any of us on the stage. Maybe I’m overstating the point, but I was concerned about that. Now one notable exception, critics like Mark Lilla point out was Bernie Sanders. Bernie Sanders had a progressive and unifying populous economic message in the Democratic primaries. A message that resonated with a significant segment of the white lower-class population. Lower class, working class populations. Bernie Sanders was not the Democratic nominee and Donald Trump was able to, as we all know, capture notable support from these populations with a divisive not unifying populous message. I agree with Mark Lilla that we don’t want to make the same mistake again. We’ve go to reach out to all groups. We’ve got to start to focus on coalition politics. We have to develop a sense of interdependence where groups come to recognize that they can’t accomplish goals without the support of other groups. We have to frame issues differently. We can’t go the same route. We can’t give up on the white working class.
MS. BUSETTE: Okay, J.D., did you want to tackle that or —
MR. VANCE: Yeah, sure I’ll —
MS. BUSETTE: — shall we go for other questions?
MR. VANCE: — I can briefly answer. I mean as a Republican who is deeply worried about the American right, this gives me a great chance to rift on the other side. So, just a couple of thoughts as you ask the question and as Bill was responding. The first is that on this question of identity politics, I think that what worries me is that a lot — it’s not a recognition that there are disadvantaged non-white groups that need some help or there needs to be some closing of the gap you know. When I talk to folks back home, very conservative people, they’re actually pretty open-minded if you talk about the problems that exist in the black ghetto because of problems of concentrated poverty and the fact that the black ghetto was in some ways created by housing policy. It was the choice of black Americans. It was in some ways created by housing policy. I find actually a lot of openness when I talk to friends and family about that. What I find no openness about is when somebody who they don’t know, and who they think judges them, points at them and says you need to apologize for your white privilege. So, I think that in some ways making these questions of disadvantage zero sum, is really toxic, but I think that’s one way that the Democrats really lost the white working class in the 2016 election. The second piece that occurs to me, and this applies across the political spectrum, is that what we’re trying to do in the United States, it’s very easy to be cynical about American politics, but we’re rying to build a multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-religious nation, not just a conglomeration, an actual nation of people from all of these different tribes and unify them around a common creed. I think that’s really delicate. It’s basically never been done success fully over a long period in human history and I think it requires a certain amount of rhetorical finesse that we don’t see from many of our politicians on either side these days and that really, really worries me.
MS. BUSETTE: Okay, thank you both. I ‘m going to take three other questions and then we can answer them. So, this gentleman here, young lady here with her hand up, and then I’ll take yeah, the person right in the back there. Okay, yeah, on this side first.
SPEAKER: Thank you very much. I’ve known Bill Wilson for years, I’ve known J.D. over the telephone (overlapping conversations) all over town.
MR. VANCE: A fellow Middletonian.
SPEAKER: Yes, I tried to catch you at the book fair on Saturday. The line, for those of you who weren ‘t there, stretched all the way out of the DC Convention Center and down (inaudible) Avenue. I’ve never seen anything like it since the Beatles came to town (laughter). But anyway, yes, I’m a fellow middie, and from class of 65, so I went there before you were born. We just had our 50th anniversary reunion here a couple of years ago. I’m delighted by your book. Folks ask me if I ever thought of writing a memoir, and I said my life was too dull, my (inaudible) was too quiet. When I grew up we were an all-American city. You may have read that in your history books. Back in the 50’s we were one of the all-American cities in America. A few years ago, Forbes chose Middletown as one of 10 fastest dying cities in America. This tells you what’s happened over time. So, I have a lot of things I’d love to inject, but I’m just going to ask one question. As you know I’ve talked before about when I came out of Middletown High in 65 I was able to work at the steel mill at Armco, and make enough money to pay my tuition at Ohio University, go Bobcats. For tuition in 1965 at Ohio U was $770. With room and board $1,240. It wasn’t hard for me, the son of a mother who was a cook and a father who was a factory worker to move up to the middle class, thanks to Ohio’s excellent higher education system. Years later of course you went to the Marines to get a scholarship to go to Ohio State —
MR. VANCE: True.
SPEAKER: — and so it was possible, but it certainly is tougher now to go from working class Middletown, we don’t have the steel mill jobs in the summer anymore. The five paper mills that we used to have are all gone. All the industries up and down I – 75, all the way to Detroit, General Motors, Frigidaire, GM, Delco Battery, Huffy Bicycle, National Cash Register, and I could go on and on and on, but what Bill Wilson writes about in the you know they’ve gone overseas or other types of chains have gone on. We were talking about automation back in the 50’s, and the 60’s and of course we see what has happened, and it’s still happening. But my question really is we haven’t talked much about those front row kids like yourself there who had a chance to go to college and found a way there. That route has gotten tougher. Do you think we need to do something to make it easier to get higher education? Some schooling beyond high school?
MS. BUSETTE: Okay great, thank you. This woman here with the red sweater. Please, thank you.
MS. RISER : Thank you gentleman, it’s extremely challenging —
MS. BUSETTE: Can you say your name please.
MS. RISER: I will say my name. It’s Mindy Riser and I have worked and continued to with a number of NGO’s across the world concerned with social justice. My question is about a segment of the American population, you haven’t talked about, and that is the aging baby boomers who come in all colors, shapes and sizes. Some of these folks will have social security, which isn’t very much, some will not at all. We’ve talked about the challenges of jobs. What is going to happen to these people, some of whom will not get jobs and will rely on diminishing social security and that is not exactly assured anymore either. So, I’d like you to address that part of the population whose future does not look all that bright.
MS. BUSETTE: Great, thank you. And then we have one way in the back there. She has her hand up. Thank you
MS. LEO: Hi, my name is Chin Leo and I’m a correspondent from China’s Nu Hahn News Agency. Actually, I have two questions for J.D. One is that you mentioned about (inaudible) which could be the third important element from the personal structural agencies to have those poverties. So, I just wanted to maybe categorize say more about this (inaudible) so what it could include. Because when I just read about your book, first I thought it maybe something related to the peace treaty of American, like those people who used to work in the hill. The mountain or the farmers, but it turns out, maybe there is something more or different from that, so can you just say more about it. And second question is about the globalization. I think both of the speakers just mentioned that the process of globalization just, the country being so large to the poverty or just make it a faster pace, for those working class in America no matter white or black to become obvious problem. So, do you think what could be the solution for this or is it really necessary just like President Trump said that anti-globalization could be one of the solutions or a necessary one. Thank you.
MS. BUSETTE: Thank you. So, we have a question on ways to make it easier to get a higher education, what about job opportunities for aging baby boomers and then a special set just for you, where you can you know, if you’d like to, maybe go into a little more about what you meant by culture, and then for both of you if you want to discussion globalization and its effect on poverty in the U.S.
MR. WILSON: Well I just — to answer your question very quickly, forget the political climate, but I’d like to see us increase the Pell Grants to make it possible for folks who don’t have much income, increase the Pell Grants.
MS. BUSETTE: Okay great. J.D., do you want to address any of these?
MR. VANCE: Yes, so my general worry with the college education in the book at large is sort of two things. So, the first is that, I think we’ve constructed a society effectively in which a college education is now the only pathway to the middle class, and I think that’s a real failure on our part. It’s not something you see in every country, and I don’t think it necessarily has to be the case here. There are other ways to get post-secondary education and I absolutely think that we have to make that easier, and I really see this as sort of the defining policy challenge of the next 10 years is to create more of those pathways; because the second born on this is that college is a really, really culturally terrifying place for a lot of working class people. We can try to make it less culturally terrifying, we can try to make for the elites of our universities a little bit more welcoming to folks like me, and this is something that I wrote about in the book, really feeling like a true outsider at Yale for the first time, in an educational institution. I think that we also have to acknowledge that part of the reason that people feel like cultural outsiders is for reasons that aren’t necessarily going to be easy to fix, and if we don’t create more pathways for these folks, we shouldn’t be surprised that a lot of them aren’t going to take the one pathway that’s there, that effectively runs through a culturally alien institution.
MS. BUSETTE: Thank you. Other questions.
MR. WILSON: Yeah, we have to —
MR. VANCE: Oh yeah sorry. There’s a couple of others so yeah, on the baby boomer question I’ll try to be very quick but I don’t necessarily have a fantastic answer to this, but let me add one thought that I had while you were asking that question, which is that in certain areas, especially in Ohio, Kentucky, West Virginia and so forth. I think the biggest under reported problem for the baby boomers is the fact that they are taking care of children that they didn’t necessarily anticipate taking care of because of the opioid crisis. This is the biggest dr iver of elder poverty in the State of Ohio, is that you have entire families that have been transplanted from one generation to the next. They were planning for retirement based on one social security income, and now all of a sudden, they have two, three additional mouths to feed. I think my concern for the baby boom generation is especially those folks of course because it’s not just bad for them, it’s bad for these children who are all of a sudden thrown into poverty because of the opioid addition of that middle generation of the parents, of the kids and the sons and daughters of the grandkids. And then the very last question, culture, I think of as a way to understand the sum of the environmental impacts that you can’t necessarily define as structural rights, so the effects of family instability and trauma that exists in people, the effects of social capital and social networks in people’s lives, You know, all of these things I think add up to a broad set of variables that can either promote upward mobility or inhibit upward mobility; and again I think we very often talk about job opportunities and educational opportunities,