Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis - J.D. Vance (2016)

Chapter 4

I was born in late summer 1984, just a few months before Papaw cast his first and only vote for a Republican—Ronald Reagan. Winning large blocks of Rust Belt Democrats like Papaw, Reagan went on to the biggest electoral landslide in modern American history. “I never liked Reagan much,” Papaw later told me. “But I hated that son of a bitch Mondale.” Reagan’s Democratic opponent, a well-educated Northern liberal, stood in stark cultural contrast to my hillbilly Papaw. Mondale never had a chance, and after he departed from the political scene, Papaw never again voted against his beloved “party of the workingman.”

Jackson, Kentucky, would always have my heart, but Middletown, Ohio, had most of my time. In many ways, the town where I was born was largely the same as the one my grandparents had migrated to four decades earlier. Its population had changed little since the 1950s, when the flood of migrants on the hillbilly highway slowed to a dribble. My elementary school was built in the 1930s, before my grandparents left Jackson, and my middle school first welcomed a class shortly after World War I, well before my grandparents were born. Armco remained the town’s biggest employer, and though troubling signs were on the horizon, Middletown had avoided significant economic problems. “We saw ourselves as a really fine community, on par with Shaker Heights or Upper Arlington,” explained a decades-long veteran of the public schools, comparing the Middletown of yore to some of the most successful of Ohio’s suburbs. “Of course, none of us knew what would happen.”

Middletown is one of the older incorporated towns in Ohio, built during the 1800s thanks to its proximity to the Miami River, which empties directly into the Ohio. As kids, we joked that our hometown was so generic that they didn’t even bother to give it a real name: It’s in the middle of Cincinnati and Dayton, and it’s a town, so here we are. (It’s not alone: A few miles from Middletown is Centerville.) Middletown is generic in other ways. It exemplified the economic expansion of the manufacturing-based Rust Belt town. Socioeconomically, it is largely working-class. Racially, there are lots of white and black people (the latter the product of an analogous great migration) but few others. And culturally, it is very conservative, although cultural conservatism and political conservatism are not always aligned in Middletown.

The people I grew up around are not all that dissimilar from the people of Jackson. This is especially obvious at Armco, which employed a plurality of the town’s population. Indeed, the work environment once mirrored the Kentucky towns that many of the employees came from. One author reported that “a sign over a doorway between departments read, ‘Leave Morgan County and Enter Wolfe County.’”11 Kentucky—down to its county rivalries—moved with the Appalachian migrants to town.

As a kid, I sorted Middletown into three basic geographic regions. First, the area surrounding the high school, which opened in 1969, Uncle Jimmy’s senior year. (Even in 2003, Mamaw called it the “new high school.”) The “rich” kids lived here. Large homes mixed comfortably with well-kept parks and office complexes. If your dad was a doctor, he almost certainly owned a home or had an office here, if not both. I dreamed that I’d own a house in Manchester Manor, a relatively new development not a mile from the high school, where a nice home went for less than a fifth of the price of a decent house in San Francisco. Next, the poor kids (the really poor kids) lived near Armco, where even the nice homes had been converted into multi-family apartment units. I didn’t know until recently that this neighborhood was actually two neighborhoods—one inhabited by Middletown’s working-class black population, the other by its poorest white population. Middletown’s few housing projects stood there.

Then there was the area where we lived—mostly single-family homes, with abandoned warehouses and factories within walking distance. Looking back, I don’t know if the “really poor” areas and my block were any different, or whether these divisions were the constructs of a mind that didn’t want to believe it was really poor.

Across the street from our house was Miami Park, a single city block with a swing set, a tennis court, a baseball field, and a basketball court. As I grew up, I noticed that the tennis court lines faded with each passing month, and that the city had stopped filling in the cracks or replacing the nets on the basketball courts. I was still young when the tennis court became little more than a cement block littered with grass patches. I learned that our neighborhood had “gone downhill” after two bikes were stolen in the course of the week. For years, Mamaw said, her children had left their bikes unchained in the yard with no problems. Now her grandkids woke to find thick locks cracked in two by dead-bolt cutters. From that point forward, I walked.

If Middletown had changed little by the time I was born, the writing was on the wall almost immediately thereafter. It’s easy even for residents to miss it because the change has been gradual—more erosion than mudslide. But it’s obvious if you know where to look, and a common refrain for those of us who return intermittently is “Geez, Middletown is not looking good.”

In the 1980s, Middletown had a proud, almost idyllic downtown: a bustling shopping center, restaurants that had operated since before World War II, and a few bars where men like Papaw would gather and have a beer (or many) after a hard day at the steel mill. My favorite store was the local Kmart, which was the main attraction in a strip mall, near a branch of Dillman’s—a local grocer with three or four locations. Now the strip mall is mostly bare: Kmart stands empty, and the Dillman family closed that big store and all the rest, too. The last I checked, there was only an Arby’s, a discount grocery store, and a Chinese buffet in what was once a Middletown center of commerce. The scene at that strip mall is hardly uncommon. Few Middletown businesses are doing well, and many have ceased operating altogether. Twenty years ago, there were two local malls. Now one of those malls is a parking lot, and the other serves as a walking course for the elderly (though it still has a few stores).

Today downtown Middletown is little more than a relic of American industrial glory. Abandoned shops with broken windows line the heart of downtown, where Central Avenue and Main Street meet. Richie’s pawnshop has long since closed, though a hideous yellow and green sign still marks the site, so far as I know. Richie’s isn’t far from an old pharmacy that, in its heyday, had a soda bar and served root beer floats. Across the street is a building that looks like a theater, with one of those giant triangular signs that reads “ST___L” because the letters in the middle were shattered and never replaced. If you need a payday lender or a cash-for-gold store, downtown Middletown is the place to be.

Not far from the main drag of empty shops and boarded-up windows is the Sorg Mansion. The Sorgs, a powerful and wealthy industrial family dating back to the nineteenth century, operated a large paper mill in Middletown. They donated enough money to put their names on the local opera house and helped build Middletown into a respectable enough city to attract Armco. Their mansion, a gigantic manor home, sits near a formerly proud Middletown country club. Despite its beauty, a Maryland couple recently purchased the mansion for $225,000, or about half of what a decent multi-room apartment sets you back in Washington, D.C.

Located quite literally on Main Street, the Sorg Mansion is just up the road from a number of opulent homes that housed Middletown’s wealthy in their heyday. Most have fallen into disrepair. Those that haven’t have been subdivided into small apartments for Middletown’s poorest residents. A street that was once the pride of Middletown today serves as a meeting spot for druggies and dealers. Main Street is now the place you avoid after dark.

This change is a symptom of a new economic reality: rising residential segregation. The number of working-class whites in high-poverty neighborhoods is growing. In 1970, 25 percent of white children lived in a neighborhood with poverty rates above 10 percent. In 2000, that number was 40 percent. It’s almost certainly even higher today. As a 2011 Brookings Institution study found, “compared to 2000, residents of extreme-poverty neighborhoods in 2005–09 were more likely to be white, native-born, high school or college graduates, homeowners, and not receiving public assistance.”12 In other words, bad neighborhoods no longer plague only urban ghettos; the bad neighborhoods have spread to the suburbs.

This has occurred for complicated reasons. Federal housing policy has actively encouraged homeownership, from Jimmy Carter’s Community Reinvestment Act to George W. Bush’s ownership society. But in the Middletowns of the world, homeownership comes at a steep social cost: As jobs disappear in a given area, declining home values trap people in certain neighborhoods. Even if you’d like to move, you can’t, because the bottom has fallen out of the market—you now owe more than any buyer is willing to pay. The costs of moving are so high that many people stay put. Of course, the people trapped are usually those with the least money; those who can afford to leave do so.

City leaders have tried in vain to revive Middletown’s downtown. You’ll find their most infamous effort if you follow Central Avenue to its end point on the banks of the Miami River, once a lovely place. For reasons I can’t begin to fathom, the city’s brain trust decided to turn our beautiful riverfront into Lake Middletown, an infrastructural project that apparently involved shoveling tons of dirt into the river and hoping something interesting would come of it. It accomplished nothing, though the river now features a man-made dirt island about the size of a city block.

Efforts to reinvent downtown Middletown always struck me as futile. People didn’t leave because our downtown lacked trendy cultural amenities. The trendy cultural amenities left because there weren’t enough consumers in Middletown to support them. And why weren’t there enough well-paying consumers? Because there weren’t enough jobs to employ those consumers. Downtown Middletown’s struggles were a symptom of everything else happening to Middletown’s people, especially the collapsing importance of Armco Kawasaki Steel.

AK Steel is the result of a 1989 merger between Armco Steel and Kawasaki—the same Japanese corporation that makes those small high-powered motorcycles (“crotch rockets,” we called them as kids). Most people still call it Armco for two reasons. The first is that, as Mamaw used to say, “Armco built this fucking town.” She wasn’t lying: Many of the city’s best parks and facilities were bought with Armco dollars. Armco’s people sat on the boards of many of the important local organizations, and it helped to fund the schools. And it employed thousands of Middletonians who, like my grandfather, earned a good wage despite a lack of formal education.

Armco earned its reputation through careful design. “Until the 1950s,” writes Chad Berry in his book Southern Migrants, Northern Exiles, “the ‘big four’ employers of the Miami Valley region—Procter and Gamble in Cincinnati, Champion Paper and Fiber in Hamilton, Armco Steel in Middletown, and National Cash Register in Dayton—had had serene labor relations, partly because they . . . [hired] family and friends of employees who were once migrants themselves. For example, Inland Container, in Middletown, had 220 Kentuckyians on its payroll, 117 of whom were from Wolfe County alone.” While labor relations no doubt had declined by the 1980s, much of the goodwill built by Armco (and similar companies) remained.

The other reason most still call it Armco is that Kawasaki was a Japanese company, and in a town full of World War II vets and their families, you’d have thought that General Tojo himself had decided to set up shop in southwest Ohio when the merger was announced. The opposition was mostly a bunch of noise. Even Papaw—who once promised he’d disown his children if they bought a Japanese car—stopped complaining a few days after they announced the merger. “The truth is,” he told me, “that the Japanese are our friends now. If we end up fighting any of those countries, it’ll be the goddamned Chinese.”

The Kawasaki merger represented an inconvenient truth: Manufacturing in America was a tough business in the post-globalization world. If companies like Armco were going to survive, they would have to retool. Kawasaki gave Armco a chance, and Middletown’s flagship company probably would not have survived without it.

Growing up, my friends and I had no clue that the world had changed. Papaw had retired only a few years earlier, owned stock in Armco, and had a lucrative pension. Armco Park remained the nicest, most exclusive recreation spot in town, and access to the private park was a status symbol: It meant that your dad (or grandpa) was a man with a respected job. It never occurred to me that Armco wouldn’t be around forever, funding scholarships, building parks, and throwing free concerts.

Still, few of my friends had ambitions to work there. As small children, we had the same dreams that other kids did; we wanted to be astronauts or football players or action heroes. I wanted to be a professional puppy-player-wither, which at the time seemed eminently reasonable. By the sixth grade, we wanted to be veterinarians or doctors or preachers or businessmen. But not steelworkers. Even at Roosevelt Elementary—where, thanks to Middletown geography, most people’s parents lacked a college education—no one wanted to have a blue-collar career and its promise of a respectable middle-class life. We never considered that we’d be lucky to land a job at Armco; we took Armco for granted.

Many kids seem to feel that way today. A few years ago I spoke with Jennifer McGuffey, a Middletown High School teacher who works with at-risk youth. “A lot of students just don’t understand what’s out there,” she told me, shaking her head. “You have the kids who plan on being baseball players but don’t even play on the high school team because the coach is mean to them. Then you have those who aren’t doing very well in school, and when you try to talk to them about what they’re going to do, they talk about AK. ‘Oh, I can get a job at AK. My uncle works there.’ It’s like they can’t make the connection between the situation in this town and the lack of jobs at AK.” My initial reaction was: How could these kids not understand what the world was like? Didn’t they notice their town changing before their very eyes? But then I realized: We didn’t, so why would they?

For my grandparents, Armco was an economic savior—the engine that brought them from the hills of Kentucky into America’s middle class. My grandfather loved the company and knew every make and model of car built from Armco steel. Even after most American car companies transitioned away from steel-bodied cars, Papaw would stop at used-car dealerships whenever he saw an old Ford or Chevy. “Armco made this steel,” he’d tell me. It was one of the few times that he ever betrayed a sense of genuine pride.

Despite that pride, he had no interest in my working there: “Your generation will make its living with their minds, not their hands,” he once told me. The only acceptable career at Armco was as an engineer, not as a laborer in the weld shop. A lot of other Middletown parents and grandparents must have felt similarly: To them, the American Dream required forward momentum. Manual labor was honorable work, but it was their generation’s work—we had to do something different. To move up was to move on. That required going to college.

And yet there was no sense that failing to achieve higher education would bring shame or any other consequences. The message wasn’t explicit; teachers didn’t tell us that we were too stupid or poor to make it. Nevertheless, it was all around us, like the air we breathed: No one in our families had gone to college; older friends and siblings were perfectly content to stay in Middletown, regardless of their career prospects; we knew no one at a prestigious out-of-state school; and everyone knew at least one young adult who was underemployed or didn’t have a job at all.

In Middletown, 20 percent of the public high school’s entering freshmen won’t make it to graduation. Most won’t graduate from college. Virtually no one will go to college out of state. Students don’t expect much from themselves, because the people around them don’t do very much. Many parents go along with this phenomenon. I don’t remember ever being scolded for getting a bad grade until Mamaw began to take an interest in my grades in high school. When my sister or I struggled in school, I’d overhear things like “Well, maybe she’s just not that great at fractions,” or “J.D.’s more of a numbers kid, so I wouldn’t worry about that spelling test.”

There was, and still is, a sense that those who make it are of two varieties. The first are lucky: They come from wealthy families with connections, and their lives were set from the moment they were born. The second are the meritocratic: They were born with brains and couldn’t fail if they tried. Because very few in Middletown fall into the former category, people assume that everyone who makes it is just really smart. To the average Middletonian, hard work doesn’t matter as much as raw talent.

It’s not like parents and teachers never mention hard work. Nor do they walk around loudly proclaiming that they expect their children to turn out poorly. These attitudes lurk below the surface, less in what people say than in how they act. One of our neighbors was a lifetime welfare recipient, but in between asking my grandmother to borrow her car or offering to trade food stamps for cash at a premium, she’d blather on about the importance of industriousness. “So many people abuse the system, it’s impossible for the hardworking people to get the help they need,” she’d say. This was the construct she’d built in her head: Most of the beneficiaries of the system were extravagant moochers, but she—despite never having worked in her life—was an obvious exception.

People talk about hard work all the time in places like Middletown. You can walk through a town where 30 percent of the young men work fewer than twenty hours a week and find not a single person aware of his own laziness. During the 2012 election cycle, the Public Religion Institute, a left-leaning think tank, published a report on working-class whites. It found, among other things, that working-class whites worked more hours than college-educated whites. But the idea that the average working-class white works more hours is demonstrably false.13 The Public Religion Institute based its results on surveys—essentially, they called around and asked people what they thought.14The only thing that report proves is that many folks talk about working more than they actually work.

Of course, the reasons poor people aren’t working as much as others are complicated, and it’s too easy to blame the problem on laziness. For many, part-time work is all they have access to, because the Armcos of the world are going out of business and their skill sets don’t fit well in the modern economy. But whatever the reasons, the rhetoric of hard work conflicts with the reality on the ground. The kids in Middletown absorb that conflict and struggle with it.

In this, as in so much else, the Scots-Irish migrants resemble their kin back in the holler. In an HBO documentary about eastern Kentucky hill people, the patriarch of a large Appalachian family introduces himself by drawing strict lines between work acceptable for men and work acceptable for women. While it’s obvious what he considers “women’s work,” it’s not at all clear what work, if any, is acceptable for him. Apparently not paid employment, since the man has never worked a paying job in his life. Ultimately, the verdict of his own son is damning: “Daddy says he’s worked in his life. Only thing Daddy’s worked is his goddamned ass. Why not be straight about it, Pa? Daddy was an alcoholic. He would stay drunk, he didn’t bring food home. Mommy supported her young’uns. If it hadn’t been for Mommy, we’d have been dead.”15

Alongside these conflicting norms about the value of blue-collar work existed a massive ignorance about how to achieve white-collar work. We didn’t know that all across the country—and even in our hometown—other kids had already started a competition to get ahead in life. During first grade, we played a game every morning: The teacher would announce the number of the day, and we’d go person by person and announce a math equation that produced the number. So if the number of the day was four, you could announce “two plus two” and claim a prize, usually a small piece of candy. One day the number was thirty. The students in front of me went through the easy answers—“twenty-nine plus one,” “twenty-eight plus two,” “fifteen plus fifteen.” I was better than that. I was going to blow the teacher away.

When my turn came, I proudly announced, “Fifty minus twenty.” The teacher gushed, and I received two pieces of candy for my foray into subtraction, a skill we’d learned only days before. A few moments later, while I beamed over my brilliance, another student announced, “Ten times three.” I had no idea what that even meant. Times? Who was this guy?

The teacher was even more impressed, and my competitor triumphantly collected not two but three pieces of candy. The teacher spoke briefly of multiplication and asked if anyone else knew such a thing existed. None of us raised a hand. For my part, I was crushed. I returned home and burst into tears. I was certain my ignorance was rooted in some failure of character. I just felt stupid.

It wasn’t my fault that until that day I had never heard the word “multiplication.” It wasn’t something I’d learned in school, and my family didn’t sit around and work on math problems. But to a little kid who wanted to do well in school, it was a crushing defeat. In my immature brain, I didn’t understand the difference between intelligence and knowledge. So I assumed I was an idiot.

I may not have known multiplication that day, but when I came home and told Papaw about my heartbreak, he turned it into triumph. I learned multiplication and division before dinner. And for two years after that, my grandfather and I would practice increasingly complex math once a week, with an ice cream reward for solid performance. I would beat myself up when I didn’t understand a concept, and storm off, defeated. But after I’d pout for a few minutes, Papaw was always ready to go again. Mom was never much of a math person, but she took me to the public library before I could read, got me a library card, showed me how to use it, and always made sure I had access to kids’ books at home.

In other words, despite all of the environmental pressures from my neighborhood and community, I received a different message at home. And that just might have saved me.