If you don’t have time to read the Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, I recommend Jennifer Senior’s NY Times review of J. D. Vance’s new bestseller – ‘A Compassionate Analysis of the Poor Who Love Trump.’ I’m not sure what she means by that other than Trump draws support from people like Vance describes – hillbillies who have given in to their misfortune and given up on themselves.
In his ‘elegy’ or lament Vance attributes much of Appalachian or ‘hillbilly/white trash/redneck’ poverty on what psychologist Martin Seligman calls ‘learned helplessness’ – a ‘fatalistic belief, born of too much adversity, that nothing can be done to change your lot.’
It’s his own story growing up in a dysfunctional family network in Middleton, Ohio populated by Kentucky immigrants. However, his observations apply to urban
poverty as well.
It seems to me that in impoverished neighborhoods, whether rural or urban, three things are at work:
- bad luck – being born into poverty
- bad structures – sometimes the government hurts as much as it helps, and,
- bad decisions – perpetuating what Oscar Lewis called the ‘culture of poverty’
Vance escaped the despair of those he left behind with the help of grandparents, four years in the Marines and on to Ohio State and Yale law school. I know several leaders who, like Vance, have an affection for their hillbilly roots even while recognizing with Vance that the culture ‘increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it.’
Looking back he wonders – ‘how much should he hold his hillbilly kin responsible for their own misfortune?’ The answer is ‘a lot.’
Those who serve with compassion and justice ministries know that it is always about intervening to help people overwhelmed with bad luck, bad structures and bad decisions. It is never about blaming the victims or separating the deserving from the undeserving poor.
Senior’s review acknowledges that ‘Mr. Vance doesn’t have all the answers. But he’s advancing the discussion.’ I agree. What think ye?