Mountain children on steps of school in Breathitt County, Kentucky, September 1940

Culture, Circumstance, and Agency

Reflections on Hillbilly Elegy

The intractability of poverty has been recognized since at least the time the Deuteronomist wrote, “The poor will never cease to be in the land.” Explanations vary: ill favor of the gods, deficient natural endowments, personal defects, the culture of the poor, external circumstances such as a lack of economic opportunity, some type of oppression—all have been popular options.

In his bestselling new memoir Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance takes a blended view, recognizing the role of economic and personal circumstances in poverty and life dysfunction but also stressing the way that the culture of his own working-class Appalachian tribe has crippled its response to life’s challenges. He comes down firmly on the side of individual agency and the ability of people to overcome obstacles through hard work and adopting the cultural habits of successful groups. He writes, “This book is about something else: what goes on in the lives of real people when the industrial economy goes south. It’s about reacting to bad circumstances in the worst way possible. It’s about a culture that encourages social decay instead of counteracting it.” And: “The truth is hard, and the hardest truths for hill people are the ones they must tell about themselves.”

  • Malcolm Y

    The perfect product of the Manhattan Institute.

    File this under:
    1. Hillbilly escapes the Hills.
    2. Writes book that says their poverty is all the Hillbillies’ fault
    3. Is lauded and rewarded by elite because he agrees with them
    that it’s all their fault.
    4. They’ve rationalized their prejudices and can live happily
    ever after

    • DD_Austin

      5. failed Hillbilly collects 40 silver piece writing “award”

  • simus1

    South Korea underwent centuries of internal and external oppression, was devastated by two major wars and then started out rebuilding again from a poverty stricken agriculture based living standard lower than Egypt’s.
    All they had going for them was tremendous tenacity, an unstoppable work ethic, and a huge respect for education and the opportunities it can bring.

    • Rosenmops

      Just the other day I realized we have a stove, tv, washer, dryer and cell phone all manufactured by Samsung.

  • Daviddowntown

    Harvard economist Raj Chetty found that when it comes to explaining the variance in upward social mobility across so-called commuting zones, “the strongest and most robust predictor is the fraction of children with single parents.”

    • Norman_In_New_York

      It’s a cultural thing that promotes ambition and success through work. My father was still an infant when his father died, and his mother never remarried, but his single-parent household never diminished his drive for success.

  • Rosenmops

    I’ve often heard the poverty in Appalachia attributed to the fact that it was mostly settled by Scots and Irish. But half of Canada was settled mostly by Scots and we don’t have anything equivalent to Appalachia.

    • DavidinNorthBurnaby

      ” we don’t have anything equivalent to Appalachia”. What about Cape Nova Brunswick land?

  • dance…dancetotheradio

    Best pronunciation of Deuteronomy ever.