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Hillbilly Elegy: A deep, compelling look at poverty in America, with implications close to home

I’ll never forget the first time I came face to face with squalor. My car broke down as I was driving home from Capitol Reef National Park. I walked a half-mile or so in the dark to a home just off the highway. A man opened the door, hesitated, and then let me in to use his phone.

Inside the home I saw filth, dirty dishes and food scraps. I saw several children sleeping on the floor, two of whom seemed too old to be wearing diapers. Over in the corner I saw the mother staring at a TV set, barely noticing I was there. I made my phone call and left, never forgetting the sadness I felt. The home bore no resemblance to the order and comfort of my wholesome, middle-class upbringing.

Poverty is an ugly thing. It strips dignity away from adults and hope away from children. It makes everything a person does in life harder. It exacts a toll from society as it denies opportunity, breeds crime, and shortens human lives.

The New York Times bestseller Hillbilly Elegy chronicles the experiences of the white underclass in America’s Appalachia region. The book is attracting an extraordinary amount of attention because it explains many of the sentiments felt by voters in the 2016 presidential election. Something isn’t working in America. Making America great again has something to do with restoring opportunity to people who have been left behind.

The Economist magazine says you will not read a more important book about America this year. Utah’s Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox referred to the book in a tweet as “incredible” and then said it “might be the best thing written to understand the Trump wave.”

The book is an autobiography written by Yale Law School graduate J.D. Vance. He describes what it was like to grow up in America’s Appalachia region. It is a thoughtful, sobering and compelling memoir.

Vance wrote the book because he wanted people to understand the psychological impact that spiritual and material poverty has on children raised in poor families. He referred to his home as a “hub of misery.” Among the troubling situations he describes are these:

–          A mother putting Pepsi inside the bottle of a nine-month old

–          The short supply of virtuous fathers

–          A young girl giving birth to a child and burying a child before being old enough to drive

–          Parents who are more roommates than parents

–          Gaming of the welfare system

–          A young mother who lost her baby like she lost her car keys

–          Giving of his own urine for his mother’s drug test so she wouldn’t lose her job

Vance’s grandmother proved to be a rescuer in his life. Speaking of his grandmother he said, “The theology she taught was unsophisticated, but it provided a message I needed to hear. To coast through life was to squander my God-given talent, so I had to work hard. I had to take care of my family because Christian duty demanded it. I needed to forgive, not just for my mother’s sake but for my own. I should never despair; for God had a plan.”


Vance poses crucial questions that apply to all segments of society. He asks, “How much of our lives, good and bad, should we credit to our personal decisions, and how much is just the inheritance of our culture, our families, and our parents who have failed their children?” He wondered how much of his mom’s life was her own fault. He asked, “Where does blame stop and sympathy begin?”

Middletown, Ohio is a long way from Salt Lake City, but the struggles of America’s Appalachia region are not that distant from challenges we face in the Beehive State. In the Salt Lake Valley, the life expectancy of a person born in the Foothill area is nearly 10 years longer than a person born in the Glendale neighborhood. Utah’s middle class has shrunk from 54.6 percent of households in 1980 to 50.3 percent today. The economies in 10 rural counties contracted over the past year.

I finished the book with several observations. First, grandparents matter. Period. Full stop.

Second, we devote too many resources to help with the effects of poverty too late in the game. We need to intervene early. That’s why I find investment in high-quality pre-kindergarten programs so appealing.

Third, I don’t think we should segregate the poor into enclaves. In Vance’s words, it just creates a “bigger pool of hopelessness.” It’s better to blend human experience together and learn from one another.

Finally, choices matter. Public policies can help, but will never be enough. Harry Potter’s Dumbledore was right. It is our choices that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.

If you want to enjoy compelling springtime reading, read Hillbilly Elegy. It will make you think and it will make our society better.

Natalie GochnourNatalie Gochnour is an associate dean in the David Eccles School of Business at the University of Utah and chief economist for the Salt Lake Chamber.