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.”

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