J.D. Vance discusses decline of economic opportunity for young people

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Vance speaking in Cleveland in 2017

Vance discusses and relates HillBilly Elegy to social climate today

On Jan. 19, The Challey Institute at North Dakota State University held a webinar with J.D.Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy. During this presentation, Vance discussed his childhood of poverty and its relation to the social problems people face today.

Hillbilly Elegy is a story of a Yale Law student who reflects on his time in his hometown of Middletown, Ohio, and how his unfortunate past affected his future. Vance blames “hillbilly culture” for holding him back from a better life and encouraging social rot.

“The people who work hard don’t do well and the people who don’t work hard don’t do well either,” Vance said.

This is where Hillbilly Elegy comes from.

Growing up, Vance lived with a single, unstable mother with a history of drug abuse and failed relationships. His grandparents had alcohol abuse problems, but later reconciled and became his de facto parents.

As Vance got older, his grandmother became a very influential part of his adult life and encouraged him to get out of Middletown. Vance enlisted in the Marine Corps and attended Ohio State University four years later. From OSU, Vance moved on to be accepted at Yale University.

After Vance left, he discovered a new perspective on life and tied it back to his childhood in his hometown.

“[At the Marine Corps,] people assume that your choices matter, you may screw up and get yelled but you get to right the wrongs,” Vance said. “You have to actually take responsibility here.”

The author distinguishes two different statistics that were important to the overall theme of this book.

How many children can look to the future and expect that their livelihoods will be better than their parents? How well is one generation doing from the next?

These questions relate to the first statistic presented in Vance’s presentation. In the 1940s, 90% of children projected to do better than their parents and about 40 years later that number dropped to 50%.

“Part of the reason that the fabric of the communities is stretched thin is because the [good jobs] are lower than they were 30 or 40 years ago,” Vance said. “The basic social fabric is much weaker in these communities.”

The second statistic dealt with the geography of the phenomenon. The drop of children having a better life than their parents came from small, rural, and poor communities.

“People look at economic conditions but don’t look at how that affects culture,” Vance said.

Vance wants to remind victims that despite their tough lives they have some mobility to make things better.
“Acknowledge the disadvantages of unfortunate people, but don’t make them think they can’t change it,” Vance said.

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