I was born into poverty in the Appalachians. ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ doesn’t speak for me.


JD Vance, author of “Hillbilly Elegy,” in Washington in January. (Astrid Riecken / For the Washington Post)

Betsy Rader is an employment lawyer with Betsy Rader Law LLC, located in Chagrin Falls, Ohio. She is running as a Democrat to represent the 14th Congressional District of Ohio in the United States House.

JD Vance’s Book “Hillbilly elegy”, Published last year, was attributed to students and book clubs across the country. Experts continue to quote it as if the author spoke for all of us who grew up in poverty. But Vance doesn’t speak for me, nor do I believe he speaks for the vast majority of the working poor.

From a quick glance at my resume, you might think I’m an older, feminine version of Vance. I was born in the Appalachians in the 1960s and grew up in the small town of Newark, Ohio. When I was 9, my parents divorced. My mother became a single mother of four, with only a high school diploma and little work experience. Life was hard; the five of us were living on $ 6,000 a year.

Like Vance, I attended Ohio State University on scholarship, working nights and weekends. I graduated at the top of my class and again like Vance attended Yale Law School on a scholarship. Today I represent people who have been unlawfully fired from their jobs. And now that I’m running for Congress in Northeast Ohio, I often speak with people who are trying hard but not making a lot of money.

Although high school graduation rates are increasing and there are more private and federal grants available, most low-income students struggle to attend and stay in college. Here are nine facts about poor students and the college experience. (Claritza Jimenez / The Washington Post)

A self-proclaimed conservative, Vance largely concludes that his family and peers are trapped in poverty due to their own bad choices and negative attitudes. But I am very upset when he makes statements like, “We are on our way to the hospice. We buy giant televisions and iPads. Our children are wearing beautiful clothes thanks to high interest credit cards and payday loans. We buy homes we don’t need, refinance them for extra spending money, and file for bankruptcy. . . . Savings are the enemy of our being.

Who is this “us” he is talking about? Vance’s statements do not describe the family I grew up in, and they do not describe the families I meet who are struggling to be successful in America today. I know my family was living on $ 6,000 a year because as kids we sat down with pen and paper to help us find a way to live on that amount. My mom couldn’t even qualify for a credit card, let alone live on credit. She bought our clothes from discount stores.

Savings were not the enemy of our being; it was the very essence of our being.

With phrases like “We choose not to work when we should be looking for a job,” Vance’s stereotypes are shark bait for conservative policymakers. They fuel the mythology that the undeserving poor make bad choices and are responsible for their own poverty, so taxpayer dollars should not be wasted on programs to help lift people out of poverty. Now, these inaccurate and dangerous generalizations have been made compulsory at the university.

Here’s the simple fact: Most of the poor work. Seventy-eight percent of families receiving Medicaid include a working household member. People work hard in necessary and important jobs that often do not pay them enough to live on. For example, educators earn a average of $ 22,930 per year, and home care assistants on average $ 23,600. (Indeed, it’s a sad irony that the crucial jobs around babysitting and children have always paid very little.)

The problem with living in constant economic insecurity is not a lack of economics, it is that people in these circumstances are always focused on the current crisis. They can’t plan for the future because they have so much to deal with in the present. And the future looks so bleak that it seems futile to sacrifice yourself for it. What drives most people is the belief that the future can be better and that we have a realistic opportunity to reach it. But sometimes it takes help.

Yes, I worked hard, but I didn’t just cheer myself up. And neither did Vance. The truth is, people helped us: the guidance counselor at my public school encouraged me to go to college. The government helped us: I received grants and subsidized federal loans to help me pay for my education costs. The list of aids is growing.

Now that so many people have read “Hillbilly Elegy” this summer, I hope they get this best moral of the story: Individuals can make a difference in the lives of others, and by providing opportunity for all, our government can do the same. Life, freedom and the pursuit of happiness should be legitimate expectations for everyone, including hillbillies.


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