J.D. Vance’s book “Hillbilly Elegy,” published last year, has been assigned to students and book clubs across the country. Pundits continue to cite it as though the author speaks for all of us who grew up in poverty. But Vance doesn’t speak for me, nor do I believe that he speaks for the vast majority of the working poor.
From a quick glance at my résumé, you might think me an older, female version of Vance. I was born in Appalachia in the 1960s and grew up in the small city of Newark, Ohio. When I was 9 my parents divorced. My mom became a single mother of four, with only a high school education and little work experience. Life was tough. The five of us lived on $6,000 a year.
Like Vance, I attended Ohio State University on scholarship, working nights and weekends. I graduated at the top of my class and, again like Vance, attended Yale Law School on a financial-need scholarship. Today, I represent people who’ve been fired illegally from their jobs. And now that I’m running for Congress in Northeast Ohio, I speak often with folks who are trying hard but not making much money.
A self-described conservative, Vance largely concludes that his family and peers are trapped in poverty due to their own poor choices and negative attitudes. But I take great exception when he makes statements such as: “We spend our way into the poorhouse. We buy giant TVs and iPads. Our children wear nice clothes thanks to high-interest credit cards and payday loans. We purchase homes we don’t need, refinance them for more spending money, and declare bankruptcy. … Thrift is inimical to our being.”
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Who is this “we” of whom he speaks? Vance’s statements don’t describe the family in which I grew up, and they don’t describe the families I meet who are struggling to make it in America today. I know that my family lived on $6,000 per year because as children, we sat down with pen and paper to help find a way for us to live on that amount. My mom couldn’t even qualify for a credit card, much less live on credit. She bought our clothes at discount stores.
Thrift was not inimical to our being; it was the very essence of our being.
With lines like “We choose not to work when we should be looking for jobs,” Vance’s sweeping stereotypes are shark bait for conservative policymakers. They feed into the mythology that the undeserving poor make bad choices and are to blame for their own poverty, so taxpayer money should not be wasted on programs to help lift people out of poverty. Now these inaccurate and dangerous generalizations have been made required college reading.
Most poor people work. Seventy-eight percent of families on Medicaid include a household member who is working. People work hard in necessary and important jobs that often don’t pay them enough to live on. For instance, child-care workers earn an average of $22,930 per year, and home health aides average $23,600.
The problem with living in constant economic insecurity is not a lack of thrift, it is that people in these circumstances are always focused on the current crisis. They can’t plan for the future because they have so much to deal with in the present. And the future seems so bleak that it feels futile to sacrifice for it. What does motivate most people is the belief that the future can be better and that we have a realistic opportunity to achieve it. But sometimes that takes help.
Yes, I worked hard, but I didn’t just pull myself up by my bootstraps. And neither did Vance. The truth is that people helped us out: My public school’s guidance counselor encouraged me to go to college. The government helped us out: I received scholarships and subsidized federal loans to help pay my educational expenses. The list of helpers goes on.
Now that so many people have read “Hillbilly Elegy” this summer, I hope they draw this better moral from the story: Individuals can make a difference in others’ lives, and by providing opportunities for all, our government can do the same. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness should be legitimate expectations for everyone, “hillbillies” included.
Betsy Rader is a lawyer running as a Democrat to represent Ohio’s 14th Congressional District in the U.S. House.