Day 9 – The White Underclass

To coffee or not to coffee? That’s always the question when I wake up at an odd hour and I look at the clock and I’ve had less than my usual amount of sleep. Do I resign myself to being awake for the day and get myself some coffee, or do I hope that I will fall back asleep soon. I woke up about an hour ago. I managed to fall back to sleep for about forty-five minutes, so I guess it’s coffee now.

There was an interesting article on the City Journal website the other day. I like reading the City Journal because it’s one of the few outlets truly interested in making life in the cities work well that leans towards being conservative. It’s not healthy that much of the interest in our cities comes only from the left. When that happens, assumptions can calcify into truisms and approaches that have failed to work continue to be repeated. So, even when I disagree with it, I find the City Journal to be a breath of fresh air. It’s also healthy for conservatism because the people writing for it take seriously issues and populations that conservatives often dismiss.

So the article in mind is “Culture, Circumstance and Agency: Reflections on Hillbilly Elegy” by Aaron M. Renn. It touches on several of the themes that often swirl around in my head regularly.

I hesitated to read the article because I thought it was going to be another empathy challenged, morally superior strutting self-aggrandizement like David French’s defense of Kevin Williamson. In fact, I was quite wrong.

Hillbilly Elegy, the book Renn reviews, is a memoir. The New York Times calls it “a compassionate, discerning sociological analysis of the white underclass.” The Times continues:

“Hillbilly Elegy,” in my mind, divides into two components: the family stories Mr. Vance tells — most of which are no doubt better experienced on the page than they were in real life — and the questions he raises. Chief among them: How much should he hold his hillbilly kin responsible for their own misfortunes?

In Mr. Vance’s estimation, the answer is: a lot. Economic insecurity, he’s convinced, accounts for only a small part of his community’s problems; the much larger issue is hillbilly culture itself.

Renn makes more than a few excellent points in the discussion, or at least I like them because they echo thoughts I’ve had. Often, when I ramble about these subjects to my mother, she asks me where I get my ideas and if anyone else has them. That always leads me to feel as if there is something perhaps a bit wrong with my thoughts. If I’m the only one who’s seeing something, I’m either extremely insightful or terribly wrong. So, it’s always with a bit of a relief that I find echos of my own thoughts elsewhere.

The Times’ review describes the author of the memoir, J. D. Vance, as a conservative. Renn writes:

He comes down firmly on the side of individual agency and the ability of people to overcome obstacles through hard work and adopting the cultural habits of successful groups.

Hillbillies are descended from the Scottish/Northern English. The best description of the origins of this cultural group was written by David Hackett Fischer in his highly influential book Albion’s Seed. The former senator Jim Webb, who ran for the Democratic nomination during these last primaries, has written about this group as well. They moved to the mountainous region of Appalachia and formed a distinct subculture within the United States. They have generally been despised by the larger culture, exemplified by the movie Deliverance.

Vance grew up in a horribly dysfunctional family. Regrading his maternal grandparents, Renn summarizes:

They were poor money managers, with Papaw buying new cars on impulse. He was also a violent drunkard. Mamaw, with her own reputation for violence, once threatened to kill him if he ever came home drunk again, and, after he promptly transgressed, doused him with gasoline and set him on fire….

His mother, if it can be believed, was even more dysfunctional;

He told conservative writer Rod Dreher that his mother had 15 husbands and boyfriends. None of his many brothers and sisters was full-blooded. Indeed, Vance’s family relationships boggle the mind…

He did not know how many siblings he had or how to count them since many were half-siblings and step-siblings. Making matters worse, his mother is a drug addict.

He then applies to and is accepted at Yale Law School, where the cultural gulf between his hillbilly upbringing and the American elite first comes into full relief. He discovers the role that social capital, mentors, and connections play in success.

Renn takes a look the appeal of the book:

Another aspect of the book that appeals to non-Trumpian conservatives is also what powerfully attracts it to the Left: its placing of the locus of responsibility for white working-class malaise in its own culture. Intellectuals on the left and right have been aghast at support for Trump from the white working class. Vance tells them what they want to hear: that the travails of this class stem in large part from their dysfunctional and self-destructive culture. Vance acknowledges that the white working class faces legitimate hurdles, such as the decline of union manufacturing jobs, an analysis that resonates with the Left. But ultimately he sees this demographic’s failure to overcome obstacles… as stemming from personal and cultural flaws, notably a lack of a sense of agency….


Rather than seeing the working class as victims of, say, current economic policies, which would require addressing underlying structural inequities, Vance says that these people are in large part the authors of their own demise. Their predicament thus requires no fundamental change of course economically—a great relief to those prospering under the current regime. This flattering of audience sensibilities, combined with Vance’s immensely compelling life story, helps explain why Hillbilly Elegy has received so much praise and so little substantive criticism, despite some limitations.

I mentioned that Renn echoes thoughts I’ve had myself. One of these is the way arguments about cultural dysfunction take one segment of society and make it stand in for many other segments. U.S. society gets divided into two groups, one symbolized by the uppermost level of the upper middle class, and the other by the lowest end of the Appalachian working class, or, in other versions, ghettos.*

Renn points out that he had a very different working class experience growing up.

Vance’s culture has no living memory of anything else, so it’s natural for him to see the culture of his people as overwhelmingly influential in their fate. But this is not the case for the majority of the white working class. For example, sociologist Robert Putnam had a different experience in his hometown of Port Clinton, Ohio. The Port Clinton of his 1950s upbringing, as related in his book Our Kids, certainly had its share of working class poverty, but it was socially intact and functional—a world away from that experienced by Vance’s family.

I grew up in white, working-class, rural Southern Indiana during the 1970s and 1980s. While it had some Appalachian cultural influence, its demographic and social conditions were different. German was the dominant ethnic background of the area. My family is of mostly German Catholic stock, with one Sicilian grandfather added to the mix. … I was a classic case of “poor but didn’t know it.” There was certainly a lot of poverty around. Yet I, too, recall a functional and socially intact, if hardly idyllic, community.

Sometimes, our wealthy feel like it’s a good idea for their children to see “how the other half lives.” They encourage them to go to an impoverished area and do some volunteer work. This is usually lauded as a good thing. However, it’s often occurred to me that it can give the rich children who will become the majority of our ruling class a mistaken impression of our society being made up of two types. I think, to get a better idea of how society really works, they would do well to embed themselves in a struggling lower middle class community.

Renn goes on the note that many of the social ills that plagued Vance’s childhood have crept into the more functional working class communities as well.

Today, however, both Putnam’s Port Clinton and my Southern Indiana are a lot more like Vance’s Appalachian world than Putnam or I would have believed possible, even after allowing for nostalgia. We face a different question from the ones that confront Vance. We must ask what changed in only a generation or two to damage communities that once did broadly sustain healthy working-class marriages, families, and community life. It’s harder to blame culture entirely here when that same culture was producing respectable if unglamorous success as recently as 30 years ago.

This is an excellent point and I’m so glad that Renn brought it up. He mentions drugs as one factor, although I am tempted to as if that is a symptom or a cause since mind altering substances have always existed. Renn said he never had to face the dangers of drugs growing up, but he’s a few years younger than I was and I recall drugs as having been rampant during my adolescence. Statics have shown that my age cohort have had among the highest reported consumption of drugs. Of course my age cohorts are the dysfunction parents of the last couple of decades, so I wouldn’t dismiss a relationship out of hand.

Renn calls on the right to face unpleasant truths about the changing economy.

“Creative destruction” is not so great when you’re on the receiving end of the destruction, and when it’s human lives rather than widgets or corporate profits at stake.

He then suggest that the left needs to acknowledge that the sexual revolution has been a disaster for the working class. I’m running out of time, so I’m going to put a quote here that I might want to deal with another day:

No-fault divorce and the diminishment of the stigmas attached to casual sex and single or divorced motherhood have been a liberating dream—or at least a manageable reality—for educated urbanites. But these changes have been a nightmare for the children growing up in a white working-class world, where broken homes and a string of romantic and sexual partners for Mom is the new normal. “Of all the things that I hated about my childhood,” Vance writes, “nothing compared to the revolving door of father figures.”

This is an important subject, but I don’t think it needs much more time than I have today. I both agree and disagree. Or I agree with the statement that this has been a problem for the working class, but the conservative response, that we just reimpose our former values, strikes me as wishful thinking.

Then Renn tackles a subject that I would really like to touch on, Vance’s innate abilities.

Vance also lacks self-awareness in some areas, especially in his rejection of the idea that talent—that is to say, good fortune—played a major role in his success. He instead attributes it to the character and work ethic he developed in the Marines, and explicitly rejects innate talent as a factor. “Today people look at me, at my job and my Ivy League credentials, and assume that I’m some sort of genius, that only a truly extraordinary person could have made it to where I am today,” he writes. “With all due respect to those people, I think that theory is a load of bullshit.”

But undoubtedly Vance won the genetic lottery for IQ. He got into Yale Law School. Based on the LSAT scores needed for admission there, his IQ is likely north of 140—probably genius-level. No wonder he didn’t think that the people there were any smarter than he was. No amount of hard work can substitute for this. Untold numbers of people have worked extraordinarily hard and yet failed to gain admission to the Ivy League.

As someone who won the “genetic lottery” myself, let me say that Renn is entirely on the mark here. Renn acknowledges the value of hard work and I do too. However, I’ve seen people with less aptitude struggle. I recall helping less intelligent friends with their school work in high school. In fact, they often worked harder than I did. To be successful academically, you need both hard work and intelligence. To parlay that into a successful career requires other things as well. Renn aptly points out why this error (and it’s too bad that this is winding up at the bottom of a long post because it was my real interest):

Thus, Vance falls into the trap of too many of today’s winners in a “meritocratic” (his term) system: he believes, in effect, that he morally merits his outsize success because he earned it through hard work. This is the flip side of his cultural condemnation. He understands that he benefitted from encouragement from Mamaw and others, which many kids in his milieu don’t receive: “Whatever talents I have, I almost squandered until a handful of loving people rescued me.” But he fails to recognize the role that unearned merit, in the form of those talent endowments, played in his success. This position is deeply unfair to the half of the population with below-average intelligence—tens of millions of them with significantly below-average intelligence—in a knowledge economy that greatly privileges brainpower over brawn. Someone born into a poor, chaotic community with an IQ below 100 can’t just solve his problems by bootstrapping himself into Yale, not even after a tour in the Marines.

I want to highlight the phrase “morally merits.” The following is another important point:

The larger problems come less from the book itself than from the way in which educated readers have seized on it to confirm their own negative impressions of the white working class—and, by extension, to flatter the superiority of their own cultural values and their sense of moral entitlement to the success they enjoy.

Again, “moral entitlement.”

Finally, there is the question of agency:

The poor and working class do face challenging, sometimes horrific circumstances. They also have agency in choosing how to respond. Too often, their culture produces bad responses, even when the opportunity exists to choose otherwise. This culture itself may be an inheritance that individuals did not choose. But people can have disabilities for which they are not to blame. That doesn’t change their real-world effect. Unless both the external circumstances and the culture of the working class, of all races, are ameliorated, broad-based change is unlikely.

Well, I’m out of time and I’ve barely scratched the surface, only highlighting the parts of Renn’s article that interested me without having much of a chance to respond or elaborate my own ideas.

The same themes keep arising in my head. I wish I could build them up into a more coherent statement.

*I just wanted to add a quick comment. I should have said “Appalachian underclass,” not “working class.” Our fixation on the exotic habits of the underclass allows us to turn a blind eye to the real struggles of the working class.

  1. Tell me, do working class people refer to those who are in some type of regular employment or does it refer to something else.

    I don’t think hard work alone is sufficient to explain a person’s success. There are people who have worked hard but remained destitute. And some others by a stroke of luck managed to change their lives.
    I think it would be more honest, even for those who succeeded against odds, to admit the impact of external influence

    • fojap said:

      A lot of class definitions vary depending on who is using them. In this case, it would mainly be people who work to support themselves, but it might include someone who wants to work but happens to be unemployed. I want to make a distinction with the underclass, meaning people who inhabit a quasi-criminal strata, your drug dealers, petty thieves or those who actually strive to be on welfare or disability. That second group, it should be said isn’t very numerous. Also, I think some people fall into it and come back out of it later. It would be related to Marx’s Lumpenproletariat.

      I wanted to get into what you said, but I actually stopped after I found I’d been writing for well over two hours. I feel like Vance to some degree is only seeing what he wants to see. I definitely know a few people who have worked hard their whole lives and wound up in a bad situation. You get laid off after the age of about forty and getting hired again is really hard. Considering my age at the time of the 2008 financial crisis, I actually know a few people that fit that description. They will probably never have a full time job with benefits ever again. The couple of people I have in mind do work, it’s just irregular and they really have a hard time paying for basic necessities.

      I can think of other people, a friend whose mother worked as a waitress in a diner. They were always having mini-emergencies due to a lack of money. Difficulty paying medical bills, difficulty getting the car fixed. No one in the family was an alcoholic or drug addict. Just poor. You have to have your eyes closed to not realize people like that exist. Heck, that might even be most people.

      I guess it goes without saying that if you don’t work nothing good is going to come of it. What’s the phrase, “necessary by insufficient?”

      • So the underclass are those living on the edge or something close?
        I don’t think we have such a distinction as working class; we have employed and unemployed. Among those who are employed, some could be underemployed. For example an engineer working as bank teller is underemployed.

      • fojap said:

        Oh, we have lots of underemployed people.

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