On Thursday, Genevieve Wood interviewed J.D. Vance, author of “Hillbilly Elegy.” Vance, who also wrote the introductory essay to The Heritage Foundation’s 2017 Index of Culture and Opportunity, shared his thoughts on what can be done to help struggling Americans. Here is a transcript of Wood and Vance’s conversation:
Genevieve Wood: Let’s talk about culture and opportunity. You say these are things that are intricately linked. What do you mean by that?
J.D. Vance: What I mean is if you think of a person who grows up in a disadvantaged circumstance, their culture is really the set of environmentally and social circumstance that affect them. The networks they form, the relationships they form, the habits, attitudes, and expectations they have for their own life that they develop.
If we want to understand why some of these kids are doing well and why some of them aren’t, you really have to understand that social environment culture in which they grow up.
I think, unfortunately, it’s something that a lot of folks aren’t comfortable talking about but it is a really important component of whether these kids are able to have much in the way of good opportunity.
GW: You say that both sides of the political aisle talk about opportunity a lot, that’s kind of in our nation’s DNA. But how do they approach it differently?
JV: Well, I think very often when folks on the left talk about opportunity, they’re very worried about the lack of economic opportunity and jobs. They’re very worried about whether government policy isn’t doing enough, whether we are not adequately funding public institutions. I think a lot of times those concerns are valid, if sometimes overblown.
I think folks on the right tend to want to talk about how government is holding productivity back, how government is inhibiting folks from being able to live their dreams. Again, I think that’s really important, too.
I think what we often miss is that government isn’t everything in these conversations. There’s a lot going on at the individual level, and importantly, this point about culture, there’s a lot going on at the community level.
There are churches and social organizations. There are schools. There are the things that really make the life of the community that I think really drive the question of opportunity more than a lot of modern elected officials are comfortable acknowledging.
GW: You write in the intro of the index, you make this statement, “reform divorced from understanding of culture is a recipe for spending money, wasting time, and doing very little good.” That sounds like a warning to me to policymakers that you just referred to.
JV: One example I would take here is this question of school reform.
So we know that school quality and school availability is a very important component of whether a kid has much in the way of opportunity. But we also know that a lot of disadvantages that some of these kids face, they start before they even begin school in the first place. A lot of the kid’s real life prospects are determined from the ages of zero to 5.
So if you’re looking at a disadvantaged kid and saying, ‘The only thing we need to fix is the school, the only thing we need to do is spend more money on their public school or give them access to school choice,’ you’re missing the most important first five years of their life.
You’re not talking about family instability and breakdown. You’re not talking about childhood trauma. You’re not talking about the things that are ultimately huge drivers of whether these kids have much success.
GW: So how do you approach policymaking, as somebody looking at this community. First of all, I know this is very personal for you. As many of our viewers know, you’re the author of “Hillbilly Elegy,” which is a memoir of your childhood. You experienced many things that you talked about. What could Washington or a state capital have done to make your community better, your life better, early on?
JV: If they recognize the importance of culture, one thing that especially state policymakers in my life could have recognized is that the people who were most important in my life and the people who were really trying to make a difference in my life were my grandparents, my sister, my aunt, and uncle.
The policy actually made it a little bit more difficult for those folks to play a positive role in my life. I was often encouraged by the child welfare bureaucracy, for example, to look at foster care as a potential option instead of family that was in my life that was actively trying to play a role.
Obviously, not every kid is lucky enough to have the extended family that I had, but if we’re looking at ways we can make things a little bit easier, we might actually ask ourselves: Is there a way we can make it easier for grandparents and aunts and uncles, for sisters and brothers to play a positive role in some of these kids lives?
Unfortunately, right now, we make it a little bit more difficult. That insight should apply broadly to federal and state policymaking. We’ve got to recognize that the life these people lead is very often, again, it’s about family, it’s about community organization, it’s about churches and other social institutions.
Those sectors of people’s lives are often very invisible to folks who are making policy. I think if you are not making policy acknowledging the importance of those actors, then you are fundamentally going to miss the boat. You’re spending money, but you’re not actually going to do a ton of good.
GW: You talk about missing the boat and not understanding who these folks are. These are many of the people, what kind of became known as the forgotten man and the forgotten woman in the last election cycle, who came out for Donald Trump. Many people were shocked, many people in Washington and New York, these elite power centers. How is it, and we have all these communication tools now, we can know what’s going on in China and other places, how did we miss what was going on in our own country with our fellow Americans?
JV: I think a lot of the blame falls on the journalistic profession and what I mean by this is, if you think of the folks who are telling stories about this entire country, it is increasingly coastal. The local journalist has effectively disappeared. The local paper has disappeared.
Very often what’s happening is, if you’re going to have a story told about you if you live in West Virginia, southern Ohio, or eastern Kentucky, it’s from somebody who’s coming from the outside, spending maybe a week in your community and going back to write their story.
When you do that, when you have a journalistic environment that’s driven by that sort of drop-in mentality, I don’t think it’s actually that surprising that we’re missing what’s going on on the ground. People who are telling stories about America are not necessarily living in all parts of America.
GW: You also talk about the word “culture” and you say it’s kind of a loaded term at times, especially for conservatives. What do you mean by that?
JV: Well, I’ll lay my cards on the table. I’m a conservative and I come at the question of culture from a very conservative perspective. But I also think that conservatives fail to distinguish between the importance of culture and the importance of individual or personal responsibility.
Personal responsibility is obviously important. We don’t want to pretend that people don’t have any control over their own lives even when they grow up in disadvantaged circumstances.
But when you think about some of the things that I experienced growing up, they started when I was 2 years old, they started when I was 4 years old. It wasn’t my fault that I came from an unstable family. It wasn’t my fault that I saw a lot of trauma in my childhood.
We’ve got to recognize that things really matter and they are not always the fault of the people who are born into those circumstances.
I do think that those of us on the right could do a lot better talking about these issues and recognizing that disadvantage can take many forms, but it’s not always the form of lack of economic opportunity. Sometimes it’s lack of access to a stable family and a comfortable home.
GW: You’ve been very successful in your first major book. What’s next? How do you want to continue this conversation and keep moving it in the right direction?
JV: So, there are a couple of things I’m working on that hopefully will start to solve some of the problems I write about in the book instead of just talking about and diagnosing the problems.
So the first is an investment initiative I’m working on called the “Rise of the Rest.” The basic thesis of the “Rise of the Rest” is there are a lot of good businesses and good entrepreneurs in areas of the country that have these forgotten people.
They just need access to capital and they need access to investment that will create jobs, that will create successful new businesses and will hopefully start to bring some economic opportunity to some areas that don’t necessarily have it.
The other thing I started is a nonprofit organization called “Our Ohio Renewal.” You can go and follow it online, [ourohiorenewal.com/]. The basic thesis of that is we’ve got to solve some of these problems locally, at the state and local level.
Hopefully that nonprofit organization will make some headway in addressing the opioid crisis which affects a lot of the problems I talk about, is driven by a lot of the problems I talk about.
I think if we don’t figure out this particular drug epidemic, then it’s going to be really tough to restabilize some of these families and some of these kids.
GW: Have you gone back and talked to the families in these communities that you wrote so eloquently about, and what was their reaction to both to your book and where they see the country now today? Are they more optimistic or are they still pessimistic?
JV: I think a lot of folks are a little bit more optimistic because I think a lot of them are happy with the election outcome. But I think there’s still a recognition that these problems are really long term. It’s not for any one administration or one set of public officials to solve and they’re going to be with us for a long time.
Real progress comes slow and steady as opposed to everything just getting better all at once.
The reaction to my book was mostly positive. There were definitely some folks who were worried that I maybe aired too much of the dirty laundry, that I told too much of the negative story of what’s going on in the community. But most people know the problems that I write about very personally and they are just glad that someone actually told the story not from an outsider’s perspective but an insider’s perspective.
GW: Like a fly-in journalist as opposed to someone who’s actually been there. What have you not been asked in all your interviews? What topic have you not covered that you would like to share something on?
JV: That’s a tough one because that puts me in the position of you and I’m not a journalist. But one question that I don’t know if I’ve been asked it, but I certainly haven’t been asked it much, is what I think some of the big misunderstandings of the book are.
I would say the biggest misunderstanding and the biggest problem I’ve had with some of the reception to the book is the idea that it’s a sort of “pull yourself up by your bootstrap story.” I’m not saying it’s all about the individual pulling themselves up by the bootstraps, I’m saying that family and community and culture mattered.
I think my grandma mattered. I think the Marine Corps served in for four years gave me a lot of opportunities. I think my sister and aunt mattered. I think that recognition is actually a very conservative insight. It’s a recognition that some of the middle layers of society actually matter, that it’s not all about the government.
So it is a conservative book, but I don’t think it’s all about the individual doing all the stuff themselves. It’s a recognition that we need somebody in our lives and we need institutions in our lives that actually make it easier to have much opportunity.
GW: J.D. Vance, thank you very much.