Living in the Washington, D.C., suburbs as someone born, raised and educated in Appalachia, while also working in what Brookings Institution’s Senior Fellow Jonathan Rauch calls the “knowledge industry,” I often feel out of place. This has been exacerbated in the era of President Trump, as all eyes suddenly turned to states like West Virginia, in an attempt to understand (often superficially) Appalachia and its problems, and why this group of people were head-over-heels for a conman.
Naturally, when J.D. Vance ascended into the national spotlight as the whisperer for Trump supporters with the success of his memoir, “Hillbilly Elegy,” — which will soon be a Netflix feature film directed by Ron Howard– people would ask my thoughts about his writing. I was always demure in my responses, saying something to the effect of ‘it’s a moving story, but it wasn’t really anything new to me.’
Which is true. Vance and I are very similar. Though I had a normal upbringing in a stable family, I recognized the trauma he endured in people I knew. We are broadly in the same generation, him being roughly four years older. Jackson, Kentucky, where he spent the first decade of his life, is roughly 100 miles south from my hometown of Ironton, Ohio, and is culturally very similar. I immediately recognized the Scots-Irish codes of honor and family that he writes about.
And I was once a shiftless Appalachian kid, going through the motions, causing mischief that I sought to hide from my parents, not really thinking much about the future. It wasn’t until my last year and a half of undergrad that I began to be serious about what I was going to do in life.
For these reasons and more, I didn’t think Vance’s book had much to offer a broader social or political conversation. But the more I listened to him actually talk at length about the book, I changed my mind. I actually think he hits on something very important that offers insight into the nature of poverty and why some demographics or locations not only become poor but stay poor in the long run: the concept of institutional stickiness (or institutional path-dependence). My hope for the Hillbilly Elegy film is that it finds a way to tell this story that goes beyond the standard tropes of ignorance and unintelligible accents usually reserved for Appalachians in media and entertainment.
In an interview with the Hoover Institution, Vance said that “one of the takeaways from the book is that culture is really sticky. You don’t just all of a sudden require material comfort, and then all of the habits and all the attitudes that you grew up with, you completely cast off.” Vance is referring to the problems his family had with adjusting to middle class life in Middletown, Ohio. But this idea of stickiness can be applied in a much broader way.
Nobel Prize-winning economist Douglass North first introduced the concept of institutional path-dependence, whereby economic and political arrangements as well as more informal cultural tendencies and norms, emerge from unique historical circumstances and become locked in, often invisibly guiding both human behavior and outcomes. As the name implies, once these institutions and patterns arise, they can be very hard to change. After winning the Nobel, when asked by various governments what they could do to achieve economic growth comparable to more developed nations, North would famously reply: “That’s simple. All you need is a different history.”
The story of Appalachia– and towns in the Rust Belt, for that matter– and the woes of its people are well-documented. Globalization produced real gains on net, reducing global poverty to levels unheard of in all of human history. But it also produced losers. The loss of heavy industry that previously allowed families a middle-class existence exacted a heavy economic toll on the region.
The limited labor market opportunities that resulted contributed to the rise of the opioid epidemic, as the less educated face fewer disincentives and greater risk factors for engaging in drug use. These include poor job prospects, declining wages, injury and chronic health conditions. All of these factors compound over generations, feeding what economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton call a “cumulative disadvantage from one birth cohort to the next.”
Progressively worsening labor market opportunities have triggered declining marriage rates, social isolation, and poorer health outcomes. All of this contributes to rising mortality rates—deaths of despair—among whites without a college degree.
As we can see, this is a self-reinforcing (or path-dependent) cycle that is multi-generational—it’s sticky, as Vance would say. This doesn’t mean that Appalachians are all pathetic, weak-willed morons who don’t take responsibility for their lives. The structural forces described above, caused by decades of tough economic times, are very hard to break. This is not to rob anyone of agency and say that individuals aren’t responsible for bad choices they have made. It simply recognizes the macro-level forces at work.
These self-reinforcing factors are not exclusive to less educated, Appalachian whites, though. Historically marginalized groups in the U.S. also struggle economically and politically, though the causes are different. African-Americans possess roughly 1/10 of the wealth of the median white household. This isn’t due to any pathological failing of the black community, as is often argued. Rather, it’s due to centuries of oppression and plunder by the state—from slavery, to Jim Crow and housing discrimination, and much more. Political institutions were designed to steal from and terrorize black Americans, and we still see the residual effects of that to this day, due to institutional path-dependence.
This is my hope for the Hillbilly Elegy film: that it find a way to not simply tell the moving story of Vance’s success, but also highlight these powerful, impersonal forces that shape the life outcomes for most ordinary Appalachians. Yes, plenty of people have made destructive decisions in their lives. But as novelist James Baldwin said: “the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.”
Jerrod A. Laber is a Washington-based writer and journalist, and Senior Contributor for Young Voices. His work has been published in the Columbus Dispatch, The National Interest and the Washington Examiner, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @JerrodALaber.