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Stuck on Welfare

Rod Dreher interviewed JD Vance, the author of Hillbilly Elegy. This much-touted memoir is described by its Amazon blurb as “a powerful account of growing up in a poor Rust Belt town that offers a broader, probing look at the struggles of America’s white working class”.

Photo by Shawn Perez, depicting dummies of several characters from The Beverly Hillbillies. Context unknown.
Photo by Shawn Perez, depicting dummies of several characters from The Beverly Hillbillies. Context unknown.

Vance’s answers to Dreher’s questions prompted me to buy the book. Here are some choice quotes from their conversation:

“By looking down on the hillbilly, you can get that high of self-righteousness and superiority without violating any of the moral norms of your own tribe. So your own prejudice is never revealed for what it is.”

“[W]hen you grow up in a dying steel town with very few middle class job prospects, making a better life for yourself is often a binary proposition: if you don’t get a good job, you may be stuck on welfare for the rest of your life.”

Photo by Don O'Brien — a collapsing house "[s]een during a visit to a small town along the Ohio Rver."
Photo by Don O’Brien — “Seen during a visit to a small town along the Ohio R[i]ver.”

“The refusal to talk about individual agency is in some ways a consequence of a very detached elite, one too afraid to judge and consequently too handicapped to really understand. At the same time, poor people don’t like to be judged, and a little bit of recognition that life has been unfair to them goes a long way. […] But there’s this weird refusal to deal with the poor as moral agents in their own right.”

“The long view, inherited from my grandparents’ 1930s upbringing in coal country, is that all of us can still control some part of our fate. Even if we are doomed, there’s reason to pretend otherwise.”

I want Scott Alexander to review this book (after I’ve read it, that is). Also, isn’t Hillbilly Elegy an evocative title, regardless of anything else?

Wealth-Adjacency Privilege

gold ingots and gold coins
Photo by John Louis.

Sara Bibel writes on The Billfold about having a rich uncle:

“When I was making big bucks, I offered to pay my uncle back for the tuition assistance he had given me. ‘Why?’ he asked. ‘I don’t need it.’ I feel guilty about this privilege, that I am not saddled with the debt that has made life difficult for so many people I know. I do my best to pay my good fortune forward. […] Access to wealth, and the knowledge that comes with it, is like getting compound interest on your entire life.”

I said this on Facebook, but I think it’s worth noting here for posterity: I also have the privilege of wealth-adjacency — more than that, actually, because my immediate family is financially comfortable as well as my relatives. I would be in a drastically different situation without robust health insurance and parents who could support me into my early adulthood. That doesn’t even address the money-manipulation comfort that Bibel brings up in her article (which I’m still learning).

"Invest in sharing!" A street art stencil featuring the "get out of jail free" card image from Monopoly board-game. Found painted on the sidewalk in New York City in 2007.
Photo by Jonathan McIntosh.

Something that should happen more often: Rich people mentoring poor kids specifically regarding personal economics. (Also systemic policy reform of various kinds, but let’s not get too excited.) If I’m ever wealthy by virtue of my own actions, I hope I will take the time and energy to hang out with a low-income high-school student and, I dunno, impart some knowledge. And buy their textbooks. Is that an unrealistic notion?

Of course, the policy reform is what would really help — if only moneyed interests didn’t have such a stranglehold on politics! One of the cruelest symptoms of growing up poor is that the whole arrangement is rigged: financial security is unattainable — but if you somehow magically attain it, you can’t handle your newly healthy bank account because you haven’t been able to practice not being broke. (Warning: both articles contain offhand references to sexual violence.) is not your typical progressive publication, but apparently they had the sense to make John Cheese an editor. The brilliant Tressie McMillan Cottom has also written wonderfully on this topic.

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