​2018 Spring Campus Book Discussion: Hillbilly Elegy

Chapter 9

In this chapter, Vance continues to explore reasons why those who lived in poverty from his hometown struggled and failed to improve their situation.  His answers stem from his own personal experiences with his mom and his own observations.  He describes how his drug-addicted mom asks him to take a urine test in her place so that she could pass a drug test to keep her license as a nurse.   He expresses great guilt and remorse of having agreed to it, but does so out of his grandmother's urging and  hope that her daughter would eventually get better.  He waffles back and forth between trying to decide if the government is doing too much to help the poor through programs such as Section 8 housing, or if the government isn’t doing enough to prevent jobs from going overseas, thus contributing to job loss and poverty.  At times, he appears to be sympathetic.  At other times, judgmental, as he places most of the blame and responsibility on the people and not on the weightier sociological, cultural, and psychological issues poor people face.  For example, he points out case after case of those from his community, including his mom, who abused the system.  He points to poor habits such as over-spending that leads to debt;  irresponsible behavior on the job; poor eating; and health.  At the end of the chapter he explains how his story turns out differently.  After moving back and forth between his mother’s house and his grandmother’s, he makes the decision to live with his grandmother and stays with her from the 9th to the 12th grade.  This move, which was pivotal for him, was his saving grace.  His love for learning and school returned; he found teachers who believed in him, and he began to excel academically. 

Obligations to the Poor

Does the U.S. Need Another War on Poverty?
Six commentators weigh in on the issue: “Does the U.S. need another war on poverty?” Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institute argues that reinforcing programs that help people take personal responsibility in education, marriage, jobs and child-bearing could close the income gap between the wealthy and the poor. Martha Bailey, co-author of “Legacies of the War on Poverty” argues that a war on poverty is needed. To support her claim, she points to the growing number of children raised in poverty in this country (25%) and its long-term effects of low academic attainment, which leads to an inability to contribute effectively to society, which perpetuates more poverty and all of the problems that come with it. On the other hand, government attention to these issues leads to higher test scores, better health, and students and citizens positioned to contribute positively to society. Guastava Torres argues that increasing the minimum wage and immigration reform are essential to reducing poverty. Geoffrey Canada, CEO of Harlem Children’s Zones charter schools, argues that focusing on increasing the minimum wage, providing tax credits to the poor, and increasing the conditions of low-performance schools all must be taken into consideration when addressing poverty. Other commentators, such as Angela Blackwell, argue that it is not a ‘war’ on poverty that is needed but jobs, education, and opportunity. Scott Winshup argues that we must encourage the “right” kinds of behaviors through ‘incentivizing’ programs, such as those provided to attract teachers for poor school districts.

Food for Thought

What are some reasons the poor struggle?  Who is responsible for helping them?

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