Hillbillies ‘R Us
By Robert Bradley | January 17, 2017, 15:13 EST
If you care about the collapse of the culture in America today, Hillbilly Elegy is a must-read. The author, J.D. Vance, has written an honest and penetrating portrait about growing up in Appalachia in a white, working-class family.
An utterly dysfunctional family!
This is not a book about hillbillies like the Hatfields and McCoys at the end of the 19th century. Vance, who is all of 31, writes about the broken culture of today. And unfortunately, the social pathologies that he describes in the hillbilly culture of Kentucky and Ohio also apply in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
The best way to understand the context of J.D. Vance’s life is to read Coming Apart, Charles Murray’s brilliant 2012 book about the fault lines in American society. Coming Apart presents the broad brush strokes of the decline in the white working class in America backed up by reams of statistics and years of research. Hillbilly Elegy is a perfect illustration of Murray’s work and demonstrates in painstaking detail the dangers of growing up in a culture where the critical institutions of family, church, and community are failing.
In Coming Apart, Murray proposes that the success of the American experiment has historically been based largely on the following: industriousness, honesty, marriage, and religiosity. He calls these America’s founding virtues. And then Murray demonstrates with empirical data how the new upper class continues to practice these virtues, while the white working class no longer adheres to them. While the upper class continues to flourish, the white working class has spiraled downward.
Murray points to Michael Novak’s comments on how dangerous this situation is for the American Republic: Liberty is the object of the Republic; liberty needs virtue; but virtue is impossible without religion. And the white working class, which has traditionally been the most religious group in America, has largely fallen away from the church in the past two decades.
In his memoir, Vance describes some of the strengths of the Scots-Irish hillbilly culture, including an intense loyalty and a fierce dedication to family and country. But he also writes about the problems he saw in Greater Appalachia: low social mobility; poverty; divorce; unwed mothers; and alcohol and drug addiction.
In his formative years, his mother had so many boyfriends and husbands that he finally chose to live with his grandparents. Though smart, at one point he started getting bad grades, as he was unable to handle the chaos in his life. Without his grandparents and the support they gave him, he emphasizes, he would have never been able to break away from his destructive environment and live the American dream. Joining the Marines also helped. Following his service as an enlisted man, he went to Ohio State University and then to Yale Law School.
In Massachusetts, many in our cities are battling the same dysfunctions. As Charles Murray points out in Coming Apart, marriage is the fault line between the middle class and poverty in America. In the Commonwealth, the percentage of fatherless families in major cities runs between 45 percent and 65 percent.
President Barack Obama addressed the theme of fatherlessness in a speech in 2008 before he was president, saying, “We know the statistics — that children who grow up without a father are five times more likely to live in poverty…” Here in the Commonwealth, according to a report by Massachusetts Family Institute, married-couple families had a median annual income in 2013 of more than $114,376, while income for female-headed households with children was more than 75 percent lower at $26,999.
Education is another way to break out of the intergenerational cycle of poverty. Those who drop out of high school, which happens so frequently in the hillbilly culture, have little chance for economic success. And the data unfortunately demonstrates that students from fatherless families in Massachusetts have twice the risk of dropping out of high school as students from married-couple households.
The culture described in Hillbilly Elegy is prevalent throughout our Commonwealth. And just as J.D. Vance was able to break away and live the American dream, so can those in the working class who adhere to the founding virtues that Murray describes. For the rest of us, it is time to help rebuild our key institutions of family, marriage, and community.
Robert H. Bradley is Chairman of Bradley, Foster & Sargent Inc., a $3 billion wealth management firm that has offices in Hartford, Connecticut, and Wellesley, Massachusetts. This column represents his personal views and does not represent the views of the firm.