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Hillbilly Elegy and the Culture Argument against Welfare

During Thanksgiving, a relative happened to have JD Vance's book Hillbilly Elegy lying around, and so I picked it up out of curiosity. As other reviewers have said, the politics in it are pretty terrible. However it was better than I was expecting it to be. Mainly, it's a book about growing up in a fucked-up family, and Vance ends up emphasizing how his surroundings more or less controlled what kind of a person he ended up being. He made it out of Kentucky and Ohio and ended up graduating from Yale Law school, but unlike most conservatives, he doesn't paint that as some Randian heroic act of self-bootstrapping. Over and over he notes how lucky he was to have people to help him sort out his problems. "I am one lucky son of a bitch," he concludes.

The few areas of explicit conservatism — whining about white welfare queens, or dumbass libertarian notions about being coerced into paying taxes — fit very poorly with the overall thrust of the book. (Don't read National Review, folks.) With only a few alterations it could have pretty ordinary liberal politics.

But like Jonathan Chait, he does conclude that hillbilly culture is in part responsible for why poor whites are doing so poorly these days. If downscale white people are to become healthier, "we hillbillies must wake the hell up," he writes. It's not an argument I accept, but it does have some surface plausibility. Poverty leaves scars; poor people often make maddeningly terrible decisions (though they often make more sense than it may appear from the outside).

But let's suppose that Vance is right, and culture is dragging the hillbilly population down. The problem with this and his conservative politics is that Vance does not even try to show that conservative policy — making welfare benefits hinge on work, or cutting them altogether — will help hillbillies sort out their culture problem. The theory behind conservative social policy is that by taking away benefits from people who have been lulled into the hammock of dependency, as Paul Ryan calls it, or building in some work requirements and time limits as happened with welfare reform, will give people the kick in the ass they need to buckle down and get to work.

But the whole point of Vance's culture argument is that hillbillies are often impervious to economic incentives. One example he leans on is a time when an owner at a tile factory where Vance worked bent over backwards to provide a good-paying job to an unemployed young man and his pregnant girlfriend. The woman was soon fired for absenteeism, and the man didn't last much longer. And fair enough, that is pretty dumb. But if actually having a good job isn't enough to make someone work hard enough to keep it, then it seems rather unlikely that further deepening the abyss and desperation of unemployment (already very bad in this country) isn't going to do it either.

And on the other hand Vance dedicates a long and rather good section of his book to how the terrific stress of growing up in poverty and an unstable family gives his people a condition akin to PTSD — emotional distance, a hair-trigger temper, and a constant readiness to fight. It might be that completely axing all unemployment insurance and other welfare would have made the above-mentioned person so desperate that he would have shaped up, but it seems just as likely that the additional stress would simply worsen his psychological problems and make him even more unlikely to stick with a job. (And in point of fact, all that welfare reform achieved was an increase in extreme poverty of 150 percent.)

It seems to me that if you really believed this culture argument, you'd start by putting an economic floor under everyone, without exception — health insurance for all, retirement for all, some level of income for all, and so on. (Universal programs would also remove much of the welfare stigma, which has its own horribly damaging psychological effects.) An uninsured relative getting a very expensive illness can tear a family apart, easily. Conversely, knowing that no matter what happens, absolute destitution can be avoided is a great relief.

With some basic stability achieved, then social critics like Vance — together with social workers, job trainers, and other such people — would have a lot more purchase on the people he's ostensibly trying to help. It seems like the only people really paying attention to him right now are rich coastal elites looking for an Appalachia Translator.

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