Hillbilly Elegy and Civil Society

Editor's Note: This is a guest column submitted by listener Andrew Vandiver. You can reach him on Twitter here. 

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis is one of the most talked about books in America at the moment. It sheds light on a large segment of society that is oftentimes enigmatic to cosmopolitan types who haven’t spent a significant amount of time in “flyover country."  Further, it is well-written, engaging and hilariously funny despite the dark places that it goes in the author’s life. 

Its author, J.D. Vance, has made numerous appearances on popular news programs including Morning Joe and This Week with George Stephanopoulos.  This had led to a false impression that Hillbilly Elegy is a commentary on politics. This is not the case.  The book is largely autobiographical with only a handful of policy points spread throughout the book.  

Of course, this does not mean that those interested in public policy should not read it.  To the contrary, there is a great deal to be learned from this book.   

One of the fatal flaws of policymakers is the assumption that all social dysfunction can be explained in purely materialistic terms.  Specifically, adopting the right policies on poverty or unemployment will solve the problems facing low income Americans.  

Yet, Vance’s story defies this explanation. Vance’s family was better off than most economically. At one point, his mother, a nurse, and stepfather, a truck driver, were making over $100,000 a year.  Yet, this did not prevent the breakdown of their family or his mother’s future struggles with drug addiction and one failed relationship after another.  

This does not mean that we shouldn’t try to address poverty through public policy.  Vance is not making such an argument. Instead, he is asking us to recognize the limits of government action.  As scripture tells us, man does not live by bread alone.  

A vibrant civil society is needed to reach those facing material, emotional, and/or spiritual poverty.  Unfortunately, the role of civil society has often been downplayed or outright ignored. Instead, as Yuval Levin described in his excellent book The Fractured Republic, many of our leaders seem to believe that public life is a matter of choosing between hyper-individualism or collective action through the federal government.  This view ignores the complex ecosystem of “mediating institutions,” like family, churches, and civic groups that fill the space between the individual and government. 

It is in this space where Vance places hope for future generations of children who will be born into broken families and communities. Vance provides an example of a child named Brian that he encountered.  Brian’s mother died from drug abuse and his father is not in the picture. Vance goes on to say that:

Any chance he has lies with the people around him—his family, me, my kin, the people like us, and the broad community of hillbillies.  And if that chance is to materialize, we hillbillies must wake the hell up.  Brian’s mom’s death was another shitty card in an already abysmal hand, but there are many cards left to deal: whether his community empowers him with a sense that he can control his own destiny or encourages him to take refuge in resentment at forces beyond his control; whether he can access a church that teaches him lessons of Christian love, family, and purpose; whether those people who do step up positively influence Brian find emotional and spiritual support from their neighbors.  

This point brought me back to an article written by New York Times columnist David Brooks on the importance of civil society, which I quote at length below:

The essential truth about poverty is that we will never fully understand what causes it. There are a million factors that contribute to poverty, and they interact in a zillion ways.
Some of the factors are economic: the shortage of low-skill, entry-level jobs. Some of the factors are historical: the legacy of racism. Some of the factors are familial: the breakdown in early attachments between infants and caregivers and the cognitive problems that often result from that. Some of them are social: the shortage of healthy role models and mentors.
The list of factors that contribute to poverty could go on and on, and the interactions between them are infinite. Therefore, there is no single magic lever to pull to significantly reduce poverty. The only thing to do is change the whole ecosystem.
If poverty is a complex system of negative feedback loops, then you have to create an equally complex and diverse set of positive feedback loops. You have to flood the zone with as many good programs as you can find and fund and hope that somehow they will interact and reinforce each other community by community, neighborhood by neighborhood.
The key to this flood-the-zone approach is that you have to allow for maximum possible diversity.

Similar to Brian above, Brooks provides his own example of how civil society might meet the needs of a young person in danger of a life of poverty: 

 Let’s say there is a 14-year-old girl who, for perfectly understandable reasons, wants to experience the love and sense of purpose that go with motherhood, rather than stay in school in the hopes of someday earning a middle-class wage.
You have no idea what factors have caused her to make this decision, and you have no way of knowing what will dissuade her. But you want her, from morning until night, to be enveloped by a thick ecosystem of positive influences. You want lefty social justice groups, righty evangelical groups, Muslim groups, sports clubs, government social workers, Boys and Girls Clubs and a hundred other diverse institutions. If you surround her with a different culture and a web of relationships, maybe she will absorb new habits of thought, find a sense of belonging and change her path.

Now some may be wondering what this all means.  What lessons can we take from Vance’s book or Brooks’ comments on poverty?  

First, political engagement should not be the end of our efforts to address poverty. While governmental action is sometimes necessary, it is not the only, or even the best, way to address community problems. Volunteering, serving as a mentor, or giving to a local charity will have a far larger impact on those in need than your vote in the next federal election.  

Second, we should support public policies that provide space for civil society to flourish. One of the dangers of modern political institutions is their preference for consistency, codification and uniformity. Local communities, churches and civic organizations are oftentimes going to be more responsive to the needs of children like Brian than large bureaucracies. However, they are going to do so in a variety of ways that will not always fit neatly into our ideological boxes.    

Education policy would serve children better if they were given a variety of public and nonpublic school options as opposed to being forced to accept a one-size fits all approach.  Instead of waiting for the secretary of education to formulate a national policy, visionaries at the local level could start and/or support schools that address the unique needs of at-risk students. Will these types of schools work for everyone? No.  But they might mean the difference between poverty and a middle-class life for many students.  

The government should collaborate with religious organizations and not force them to violate their deeply held beliefs as the price of participating in civil society. As Brooks explains in the article referenced above, “[r]eligious faith is quirky, and doesn’t always conform to contemporary norms.”  In fact, this is apparent in Vance’s own story in which his father is inspired to change his life through a conservative evangelical church. Would I agree with all of the teachings of these types of ministries? No.  But for some people it is the difference between a life of addiction and being the parent that they desperately want to be for their children.  

The criminal justice system should adopt restorative justice models which seek to integrate offenders back into their communities and families so that they can positively contribute to society.  While many people would agree with this sentiment, there still needs to be local support systems that do the actual work of transitioning people to a new life. Further, the government cannot give a person everything they need to learn how to be a good parent or a supportive spouse.  Yet, they can learn a great deal through role models who teach them how to resolve conflicts and put the needs of others first.    

These are just a few ideas that I support and would prioritize.  The beauty of a vibrant civil society is that there will be as many solutions as there are people willing to act on their desire to help the larger community. This is what Brian, and the millions of children like him, will need in order to break the cycle of poverty.