Tuesday, December 12, 2017

My Hillbilly Elegy

As one may suspect by the title, I recently finished reading J.D. Vance's Hillbilly Elegy.  It had been on my "to read" list for quite some time and having failed to find a used copy, I resorted to borrowing from the local library.  I toyed with the thought of titling this post along the lines of "compare and contrast" but thought the connotation conjured up images of high school essay questions..."compare and contrast your life experiences to...". 

I understand the demographics of poverty in Appalachia.  Many years ago, "Bastard Out of Carolina" by Dorothy Allison was assigned reading for admission to SocialWork school. In the case of Appalachia there is a density of common poverty.  I grew up on a dairy farm in upstate New York. Looking back, times were tough and we were clearly not well off but when I was a child I was not aware of being poor. I know the reason for this perception is that while farm life was a tough life, there were many others that you encountered who were much worse off than you.  Our school bus ride was well over an hour long and in one portion traveled a couple miles up a dead end dirt road to a ramshackle house where one day I had observed the inhabitants chasing a pig out the front door. I remember the school bus getting stuck one day at this stop and the father coming out to help and operating an old tractor (one that looked like it was well past deceased) helped the bus driver hook a chain to the bus to free it. Many years ago, I was amused to see the local paper run a story about "Clapper Hollow" which was a portion of our bus route - the paper indicated the origins of the name having a basis in persons having the "clap" and being referred to as the "Clappers"... who knows, could be true...

While New York in general or upstate New York specifically is certainly not perceived as Appalachia when one thinks of impoverished areas, I think it is important to reflect on substantial differences between rural and urban areas.  I grew up on a farm. For most of my childhood, a dirt road ran past our farm and our closest neighbor was about a quarter mile away.  Other than the single neighbor, any other neighbors were miles away.  There was an impoverishment of socialization and social opportunity.  School was a 20 minute drive or most often over an hour by circuitous bus route. There were clear distinctions between kids who lived "in town" versus those who lived away from town and while the opportunities may have been extremely limited in small towns, they were much more limited in you lived out of town. This theme carries to the modern day where is a marked distinction of opportunity between those in rural areas who have access to high speed internet and those in outlying areas where high speed internet is available.  

Social opportunity includes career opportunity. In general, if you grew up on a farm, your likely employment was going to be working the farm. We had a gutter system that covered the main part of our barn. This was a system of chain driven paddles that pushed the manure around the barn and out to a manure spreader. Unfortunately, there were areas of the barn that did not have this automation.  This included a row of heifers and calves where you had to shovel the manure by hand into a wheelbarrow and then transport it over to the gutter system with the chain driven paddles. As with many folks I've experienced a few crappy jobs in my time, but I look back and say with all seriousness that I actually shoveled shit for a living at one time.

While we are encouraged to dream big, it is difficult to dream much beyond what you have seen and experienced. When we were young, my older sister had expressed her vision of success as being able to go to McDonalds and not having to worry about affording it.  She graduated college and became a CPA and thereafter I asked her about this goal and she reflected that she had since raised the bar somewhat.

I agree entirely with J.D. in regards to his stressing the importance of stability in the home as a necessary ingredient for those in poverty to have a chance at success. While there were some tense times in my parent's relationship, they weathered the storms and were steadfast supporters of education and academic achievement.  Religion can be a double edged sword to the impoverished - to some it provides a measure of comfort, but it can also terrorize and oppress as potently as any drug.  My parents were (and remain) "born again" Baptists; they employed substantial corporal punishment.  While we maintain an amicable relationship, I identify both of these factors as substantial barriers to ever having a close relationship. I found it interesting that when in a position to choose between staying with his stable but religious biological father or returning to his hillbilly grandmother, J.D. chose grandma; moreover, I found it curious that he precipitated this choice by calling his sister for a ride rather than to ask his father who appeared accepting of his son's choice.

Like J.D., the military was a stepping stone for me to be able to move from a rural life to a suburban life with greater opportunity.  I entered the Army, not because I was a red, white and blue patriot but because I was close to hitting bottom. Job opportunities looked bleak. I had completed a 2 year degree at the local community college with a goal of continuing but lacking funds and entry level jobs were not going to permit the amount needed to return to college anytime soon. I recall working on financial aid with my parents and this was definitely an area where the family farm was a kick in the ass - my dad looked great on paper with land assets... in short to quote from Seinfeld, "no soup for you!" 

At some level, I knew my Army experience was important not only for the the college money, but also for the socialization and "street smarts" that I didn't get while living in the country. I selected the Army because they were the branch that could offer the most money for college during that era and they also had 2 or 3 year enlistments. J.D. notes experiencing a wide diversity of social classes in the Marines.  This was not my experience in the enlisted ranks of the Army; for the most part, the enlisted ranks of the Army that I experienced were working class poor.

I also agree with J.D. in regards to the value of a "network". Those coming from rural roots often do not have a strong network nor are they well equipped to build a network. Rural folk tend to value independence and privacy, neither quality providing much value to this important ingredient. While my Army experience helped, I have always struggled in regards to "networking" well.

One explanation for the popularity of Hillbilly Elegy is that it helps to provide an understanding for the outcome of our recent presidential election. While obscured by the voting of metropolitan New York City area, the political sentiments of rural upstate New York often parallel those of Appalachia.  I often get those Facebook leads for friends based on my rural relatives and am often bemused when I follow my voyeuristic impulses and spot pictures of upstate rural males reflecting redneck ideology complete with hunting and an occasional Confederate flag. It is with much empathy that I understand and sometimes share the anger of the working poor who observe the non-working poor and special groups get taken care; the rich take care of themselves and the working to keep on working.

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