It is eerie and depressing to read Vance’s account of his mother”“a drug addict in and out of rehab, with a series of husbands and boyfriends rotating in and out of the house. He describes a close relative as “a classic welfare queen.” He writes about 9-month-old babies being fed Pepsi in their bottles, and the abuse of food stamps he saw as a cashier at the local grocery store. All of these things were clichÃ©s deployed by Ronald Reagan, and dismissed by liberals, when he railed against poverty and welfare in 1980. But the conservative belief that the underclass was caused by federal antipoverty programs is clearly insufficient too. Vance makes it clear that the problem is profoundly cultural, a consequence of wanton commercialism, the loosening of moral standards and a lack of rigorous training for young men. Vance was saved by the Marine Corps and the support of a single loving adult, his grandmother.
Hillbilly Elegy makes the current political dialogue seem fatuous. Both parties are incapable of discussing the real sources of our national dyspepsia, or how to deal with them. Forces like the global economy, racism and federal programs that cultivated dependency have all been part of the problem. But what we have now is something different: a bottom-up crisis of individual responsibility, largely beyond the reach of public policy. Indeed, some of the “solutions” proposed by each of the parties are likely to make things worse.