Vance writes about his family’s “tradition” of poverty, now made worse by family chaos and drug abuse. His father abandoned him. His mother was a suicidal alcoholic who exposed him to a succession of stepfathers and boyfriends.
Despite “an almost religious faith” in hard work and the American dream, in his home town in Ohio is a place “where 30 percent of the young men work less than 20 hours a week and not a single person [is] aware of his own laziness.”
Most children do poorly in school. “We don’t study as children, and we don’t make our kids study when we’re parents,” Vance writes.
Watching an episode of “The West Wing,” Vance is struck that “in an entire discussion about why poor kids struggled in school, the emphasis rested entirely on public institutions. As a teacher at my old high school told me recently, ‘They want us to be shepherds to these kids. But no one wants to talk about the fact that so many of them are raised by wolves.'”
Given a few years of stability by his Mamaw (grandmother, the one who set Papaw on fire), Vance made it to the Marine Corps, Ohio State, Yale Law and Silicon Valley. Most of those he grew up with remain poor.
Books about inner-city blacks, such as William Julius Wilson’s The Truly Disadvantaged and Charles Murray’s Losing Ground, “could have been written about hillbillies,” writes Vance, who believes “our government encouraged social decay through the welfare state.”
In his 2012 book Coming Apart, Murray writes about the economic, social and cultural poverty of the white underclass, writes Pondiscio. He also cites Random Family, “Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s 2003 book about two young women caught up in a suffocating web of destructive relationships, teen pregnancy, drugs, crime and general dysfunction in the South Bronx.”
If there is any theme that ought to have emerged from the fractious state of our politics and civic life in 2016, it is not how divided we are but how deeply and stubbornly obtuse we are about one another’s lives. There is a tendency to sentimentalize the lives of the poor, or to infuse poverty with a false note of tragic heroism. Vance seems aware of this himself, noting in his preface that his object is not to argue that working-class white “deserve more sympathy than other folks” but that he hopes readers “will be able to take from it an appreciation of how class and family affect the poor without filtering their views through a racial prism.”
In an interview with Rod Dreher, Vance says the poor should be seen “as moral agents in their own right,” not merely as victims of circumstance. Better public policy can help, he says, but not much.
That leaves us with the problem: If Mama ain’t functional (and Daddy’s gone), ain’t nobody functional. What do schools do to help these kids learn?