newyorker | At least since the Moynihan Report, in 1965, Americans have tended to answer the question “Why are people poor?” by choosing one of two responses: they can either point to economic forces (globalization, immigration) or blame cultural factors (decaying families, lack of “grit”). These seem like two social-science theories about poverty—two hypotheses, which might be tested empirically—but, in practice, they are more like political fairy tales. As Kelefa Sanneh wrote earlier this year, the choice between these two explanations has long been racialized. Working-class whites are said to be poor because of outsourcing; inner-city blacks are imagined to be holding themselves back with hip-hop. The implicit theory is that culture comes from within, and so can be controlled by individuals and communities, whereas economic structures exert pressures from without, and so are beyond the control of those they affect.
This theory is useful to politicians, because political ideologies function by identifying some people as powerless and others as powerful. The truth, though, is that the “culture vs. economics” dyad is largely a fantasy. We are neither prisoners of our economic circumstances nor lords of our cultures, able to reshape them at will. It would be more accurate to say that cultural and economic forces act, with entwined and equal power, on and through all of us—and that we all have an ability, limited but real, to harness or resist them. When we pursue education, we improve ourselves both “economically” and “culturally” (and in other ways); conversely, there’s nothing distinctly and intrinsically “economic” or “cultural” about the problems that afflict poor communities, such as widespread drug addiction or divorce. (If you lose your job, get divorced, and become an addict, is your addiction “economic” or “cultural” in nature?) When we debate whether such problems have a fundamentally “economic” or “cultural” cause, we aren’t saying anything meaningful about the problems. We’re just arguing—incoherently—about whether or not people who suffer from them deserve to be blamed for them. (We know, meanwhile, that the solutions—many, partial, and overlapping—aren’t going to be exclusively “economic” or “cultural” in nature, either.)
It’s odd, when you think about it, that a question a son might ask about his mother—“Where does blame stop and sympathy begin?”—is at the center of our collective political life. And yet, as American inequality has grown, that question has come to be increasingly important. When Rod Dreher asked Vance to explain the appeal of Trump to poor whites, Vance cited the fact that Trump “criticizes the factories shipping jobs overseas” while energetically defending white, working-class culture against “the condescenders” who hold it in contempt. Another way of putting this is that, for the past eight years, the mere existence of Barack Obama—a thriving African-American family man and a successful product of the urban meritocracy—has implied that the problems of poor white Americans are “cultural”; Trump has shifted their afflictions into the “economic” column. For his supporters, that is enough.
Vance is frustrated not just by this latest turn of the wheel but by the fact that the wheel keeps turning. It’s true that, by criticizing “hillbilly culture,” “Hillbilly Elegy” reverses the racial polarity in our debate about poverty; it’s also true that, by arguing that the problems of the white working class are partly “cultural,” the book strikes a blow against Trumpism. And yet it would be wrong to see Vance’s book as yet another entry in our endless argument about whether this or that group’s poverty is caused by “economic” or “cultural” factors. “Hillbilly Elegy” sees the “economics vs. culture” divide as a dead metaphor—a form of manipulation rather than explanation more likely to conceal the truth than to reveal it. The book is an understated howl of protest against the racialized blame game that has, for decades, powered American politics and confounded our attempts to talk about poverty.
Often, after a way of talking has obviously outlived its usefulness, a period of inarticulateness ensues; it’s not yet clear how we should talk going forward. “Hillbilly Elegy” doesn’t provide us with a new way of talking about poverty in post-globalization America. It does, however, suggest that it’s our collective job to figure one out. As individuals, we must stop thinking about American poverty in an imaginary way; we must abandon the terms of the argument we’ve been having—terms designed to harness our feelings of blame and resentment for political ends, and to make us feel either falsely blameless or absurdly self-determining. “I don’t know what the answer is, precisely, but I know it starts when we stop blaming Obama or Bush or faceless companies and ask ourselves what we can do to make things better,” Vance writes. “We hillbillies need to wake the hell up.” As do the rest of us.