The places we have left behind

I finally got around to reading Hillbilly Elegy to see what all the chatter was about.  The book is memoir by J.D. Vance who grew up in a the Appalachians, a place that many of the people that I know have little understanding or connection to.  Vance grew up there but he also managed to move out of there eventually getting a law degree at Yale.  It is the story of his life.  His ability to share that with us with a set of rational, emotional and insightful eyes as he looks backward from the perch he now sits on makes the book a very interesting read.

His family is filled with a cast of characters as most families are.  His Grandparents made a major impact on his life after not being the best parents to his Mom.  They were his rock.  He admires their tough hot-head ways as people who carry pride on their shoulder among the drugs and unemployment.

A few things really stayed with me.  The first is the work ethic he describes in people around him.  He describes a few people he worked with that rarely showed up for their hours yet when they finally got fired they blamed it on the system not on themselves.  They had zero understanding that perhaps they were to blame.  Where does that come from?  As he moves forward in his life and learns how to prepare for an interview, what to wear for an interview and expectations in a world he enters later on from the Marines to Yale Law School it is an eye-opener.

Second is the towns we have left in the past.  There are many towns where the main employer has disappeared and with that the community has dived into drugs, anger and frustration.  That anger is taken out on the political system.  These large companies might have moved their main headquarters into foreign countries but we have become a flat world and it was the only way they could survive.  Many now use automation and don’t need as many employees as they have had in the past.  Our Government has failed to see this coming or maybe they did and chose to not do anything about it such as social programs to help these people left behind shift into other jobs.  Although once those companies pulled out there were not any jobs left and the majority of the families left behind are workers not forward thinkers who might be able to come up with new companies.

Vance writes about the many problems in his town but it could be about many blue collar towns.  This is a large group of white Americans in crisis.  Their anger is real, their drug abuse is real, their frustrations are real.  These people are part of the towns we have left behind.

Many of these people voted for someone who espouses their pain but doesn’t understand it and honestly could give a shit about it is not going to help the people in these towns.  The train has already pulled out of these stations.  The question that local, state and federal government should be asking is how do we bring a new train into town?

Comments (Archived):

  1. Dan Wick

    I too read this book in November after the election. I was looking to understand why these voters voted the way they did. While I liked the memoir a lot (as a memoir), it left with me with more questions than answers as to why the Rust Belt abandoned Democrats.I’m home in rural Iowa spending time over the holidays. My home county voted 70% Trump; thankfully my entire family was in the 30%, so we had a less tense holiday season. There are some similarities to the people Vance describes to my friends and neighbors back here in Iowa, although rural Iowans and farmers are some of the hardest people I know and have an incredible work ethic.I do think there is a sense of being left behind here as well and a growing distrust of government to help keep rural people as empowered and upwardly moving as urbanites. (Although Iowa is leading the country in innovative things like Ethanol and wind energy.)My take so far, and these are not easy conversations to have with my friends who are Trump voters, is that the messaging never hit home with them. And quite frankly, fake news had a huge impact. What constitutes fact any more?Take one data point that Obama just recently mentioned in his “exit interview” with Axelrod:…”The U.S. Department of Agriculture pumped out $6.5 billion in 2016 to fund rural electrical utilities, housing and community development.”“And so we’ve got to figure out how do we show people and communicate in a way that is visceral and — and makes an emotional connection as opposed to just the facts,” Obama continued, “because the facts are all in dispute these days.”When the facts become arbitrary, that’s a dangerous and scary thing. And when people are intentionally ignorant about fact finding, that’s a fucked up problem. Debasing and debunking it on Facebook was not effective for me amongst my many rural friends who were Trump supporters. They just didn’t want to hear it. Very frustrating.

    1. Gotham Gal

      Really interesting insight. The amplification of fake facts is scary and wreaks havoc on reality.Obama did not do a good job at articulating everything that was done for rural areas throughout his administration. Nor did he do a good job of getting Democrats elected which also stifles the messageDefinitely a lot of questions left to discuss.

  2. pointsnfigures is starting a series on small towns that have been abandoned in Illinois. I have been all over the rural Midwest and rural South in the last 8 years. What is happening there is as dreadful as what is happening in poor inner city neighborhoods. (We used to call them ghettos). Kids on drugs, out of wedlock pregnancy, kids not finishing high school, high schools that aren’t very good anyway. Just a loss of hope.By the way, in Illinois we have 7000 taxing government bodies. We still have small towns in distress.Trump won because he had more of a hope message than Hillary. I know that is hard for people inside the bubble to confront, but if you had been around the country like I have you’d have felt it. I ask Hillary supporters what her campaign slogan was. No one can tell me-even the most ardent left wing liberals. When I ask the same people what the Trump slogan was, “Make America Great Again” immediately pops out of their mouth. That is the election in a nutshell.My friend that runs four golf courses in Michigan told me the day Trump declared that Trump would win. He said, “No one really gets out and talks to the people. I talk to all my customers, and all my people who work for me. I have a great sense of where they are at and they aren’t happy with the status quo.”I asked a question of a friend that sounds very elitist but I really don’t ask it from that point of view. Is it worth allocating resources to small towns? Why should we have public infrastructure investment there when no one lives there? Looking forward, if the bulk of business in rural America is farming-what happens when farms become 100% automated?The same question could be asked about a place like Englewood in the city of Chicago. Why are we spending public resources there? 27 shot this weekend. It’s the same every weekend. There is no end to the despair no matter how much we spend there publicly.At the same time, isn’t it smarter to set up public policy so private resources would flow there in place of the public ones? Hence, school choice and private charter schools become a massive issue. Low corporate tax rates and incentives to locate in those communities become a big issue. Isn’t that compassionate, even more compassionate than sending someone a government check. Doesn’t economic opportunity and sense of purpose give them more hope than another government program?I think there is a lot we can do. I don’t think policies like Basic Income or lots of public spending are the way to solve it.

    1. Donna Brewington White

      I will look for this series. If your travels took you down near Carbondale and Carterville and the little towns/villages that sprung up around coal mine shafts then you were in the part of the country that shaped my soul. When I was 9 my mother who was a transplant from the Chicago-southside convinced my rural born and bred dad that he had to move his daughters away from Southern Illinois with this question “Who will they marry?” I was 9!Thank God for her foresight. I escaped. But this election has made these people heavy on my mind and heart.

      1. Gotham Gal

        Your insight is probably really interesting to hear

        1. Donna Brewington White

          It’s probably more experience than insight at this point. So complex. Hopefully, it will turn into insight.

      2. LE

        Thank God for her foresight. I escaped.Your comment also highlights a point that I was going to make earlier in response to this post. Some of the most ambitious, qualified and motivated people leave those small towns for the big city in search of some bigger dream. And in many cases it’s obviously the cities on the east or the west coast that everyone hears about as the ‘promised land’ or opportunity. (And if not that some other place that just sounds exciting, like Miami. ) [1]My point is it’s actually more than just the factories closing down. This was happening way before that ever was an issue it’s just much worse now. For many reasons (lack of jobs) but also because of the media and the internet it’s so easy to see what else is out there.[1] And cities that don’t have a large amount of press, hype or halo (like Philly)? Well you don’t find many people moving there from somewhere else (unless there is a specific job opportunity).

        1. Donna Brewington White

          Our initial move was to a smallish city in Northern Illinois with a dying industry and all the fear and harmful attitudes that exist in a prolonged recessed or depressed economic environment. I was compelled to escape again — this time (you called it) to the West Coast.And you are right — it is not just about dying industries. In places like where I came from so many years ago, you are given different slots to choose from. Some professions and ways of living are elusive. At the ripe age of 17, I thought there must be a place where I could create my own life rather than accepting one of the choices prescribed for me!

          1. pointsnfigures

            yup. definitely was down there. Southern IL is totally depressed. And you are correct about that area of IL you left for the West Coast. Still depressed. We don’t fly much. We drive. I have over 150k miles on my diesel. Even our last trip to NYC we drove, and then went to upstate NY fly fishing. easier to drive and you meet the people. I have vacationed in some very poor areas of Appalachia and kids went to school in Mississippi and North Carolina.

          2. LE

            As a kid growing up in the 70’s I always had a very positive impression of Chicago as a result of my father going every year to the Chicago Gift Show at McCormick Place. More so than I had of NYC (in the ‘drop dead’ Ford days). Chicago seemed from memory much cleaner and nicer. I remember the lakefront and I think we stayed at the Ambassador hotel typically. I remember my mom making a comment about coffee in the morning and how they bring it to you ‘right away in Chicago’. Now the only thing coming out of Chicago is the murders and negative things which is unfortunate.

    2. LE

      It’s not a priority to make it happen unfortunately. It’s like the political version of the shoemakers children’s shoes getting neglected. The obvious suffering or lack of opportunity gets neglected while something foreign and exotic gets resources. A foreign country with a flood or disaster get support. [1] Cuba gets attentions diplomatically while Puerto Rico rots away. [2] Honestly the Cuba thing bugs me to no end. It’s not that I don’t care about the people that live their or what they might have to deal with. It’s just that I care more about the people in, say, Englewood (which I assume is like North Philly) or Puerto Rico or hundreds of other communities in the US and so on.[1] And yes I know there are other reasons we do things like that.[2] And no doubt much of that is pushed by business interests who see opportunity.

    3. Stephen Palmer

      I largely agree on charter schools (Obama also supported them), but other private investment isn’t going to come back into these areas until there is actual demand growth.