Editor’s Note: The following article is adapted from Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (Harper).
Growing up in Middletown, Ohio, we had 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 my grandmother (whom I called “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 20 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. The Public Religion Institute based its results on surveys — essentially, they called around and asked people what they thought. The 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, and their skills 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 in Ohio 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.
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 30. 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 idea that the average working-class white works more hours than college-educated whites is demonstrably false.
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 (my grandfather) about my heartbreak, he turned it into triumph. I learned multiplication and division before dinner. And for two years after that, he 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. My mother 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.