The two books I chose to read recently—Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance, and Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn—deal with the same cultural trend in America and both pose a question that divides American politics: to what degree is poverty a structural and systemic problem, versus the result of personal choices? However, as common in our current political environment, the authors come at it from opposing views.
“Today downtown Middleton is little more than a relic of American industrial glory.” That’s how J. D. Vance begins to unravel the environment in which he grew up. He recounts his family’s struggles with poverty and domestic violence; his mother, a drug addict with countless boyfriends; his lack of a male role model; and his neighbors, many jobless and on welfare. Vance himself escaped poverty by joining the Marines and serving in Iraq. Without knowing how to fill out a school application form, thanks to his steadfast determination he ended up attending Ohio State and Yale Law School. After a corporate legal career, Vance now works as an investor at a leading venture capital firm. He is a devoted father and husband. Rod Dreher, a conservative columnist, wrote that Hillbilly Elegy “does for poor white people what Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book did for poor black people: give them voice and presence in the public square.”
Vance seeks to understand, and partially explain through his own story, the socio-economic phenomenon of poverty and whether it is an individual choice. Ultimately, Vance says, “social mobility isn’t just about money and economics, it’s about a lifestyle change,” and praises the pursuit of education to improve ourselves economically and culturally. How much should he hold his “hillbilly” kin responsible for their own misfortunes? His answer is that “[e]conomic insecurity accounts for only a small part of [his] community’s problems,” and concludes that it is largely personal responsibility and better choices that improves one’s standing.
However, how does a hungry and deprived child, exposed to drugs, violence, and abuse, without a single book in his unsafe home environment, stand a chance to make those better choices? Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn offer a different perspective to Vance’s on the question of social poverty in America. In Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope, they argue that it isn’t laziness that’s destroying “hillbilly” culture, but despair. Their book examines the effects of abuse, alcoholism, suicide, and violence through personal stories from low-income communities in America. In very few of the stories were people able to turn their lives around and break the cycle. Kristof and WuDunn compare the American context with that of Europe, and suggest that our American state of affairs could be improved by a number of reforms: in criminal-justice system (e.g., holding white collar criminals responsible; limiting incarceration for petty crimes), changing the approach to the war on drugs, increasing taxes, providing universal health care, addressing homelessness, and investing in early education, including sex education. Some of their proposals are middle-grounded and bipartisan.
Comparing the two books, Tightrope largely ignores the impact of what Vance calls “hillbilly culture,” the cultural perspective which “increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it.” Part of this I can chalk up to a difference in scope. Hillbilly Elegy is a memoir, a form which naturally focuses on the individual even as it situates him within larger social structures, whereas Tightrope looks at policy. But Tightrope does take great care to tell the stories of individuals as well. And in those stories, the role of personal willpower is obscured, or taken as a foregone conclusion.
No book can have all the answers, but these two open a dialogue worth having. As a reader, both books enriched my understanding of our communities, and brought home to me the difficulties we face in a lot more detail. And right there is something I just noticed, one small change. Instead of referring to them, I found myself speaking about us.