Tag Archives: working poor whites

‘Hillbilly Elegy’ recalls a childhood where poverty was ‘the family tradition’

Fresh Air podcast:

My guest, J.D. Vance, is the author of the new best-seller “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir Of A Family And Culture In Crisis.” He says the book is about what goes on in the lives of real people when the industrial economy goes south. He writes about the social isolation, poverty, drug use and the religious and political changes in his family and in greater Appalachia. He grew up in a Rust Belt town in Ohio in a family from the hills of eastern Kentucky. Until the age of 12, he spent summers in Jackson, Ky., with his grandmother and great-grandmother. Vance joined the Marines, which helped him afford college. After attending Ohio State University, he went to Yale Law School where he initially felt completely out of place. He has contributed to the National Review and is now a principal at a Silicon Valley investment firm.

J.D. Vance, welcome to FRESH AIR. There’s a paragraph from your new book that I want you to read. It’s on Page 2.

J D VANCE: There is an ethnic component lurking in the background of my story. In our race-conscious society, our vocabulary often extends no further than the color of someone’s skin – black people, Asians, white privilege. Sometimes these broad categories are useful. But to understand my story, you have to delve into the details.

I may be white, but I do not identify with the WASPs of the Northeast. Instead, I identify with the millions of working-class white Americans of Scots-Irish descent who have no college degree. To these folks, poverty’s the family tradition. Their ancestors were day laborers in the southern slave economy, sharecroppers after that, coal miners after that, and machinists and mill workers during more recent times. Americans call them hillbillies, rednecks or white trash. I call them neighbors, friends and family.

Working poor whites have been a neglected minority in the US: Exploited by the religious right and populists like Donald Trump, and scorned and ridiculed by small-government conservatives and liberals.