What I’m reading

By Lee Stevens

This summer during my holidays I have been buried in several great reads, two of which I would like to share with a review.  Hillbilly Elegy by J.D Vance, a lawyer from Columbus, Ohio and Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich, a journalist from Key West, Florida.

In Hillybilly Elegy, J.D writes about his own upward mobility, growing up with his hillbilly grandparents in Middletown, Ohio, surrounded by poverty, and eventually making his way to Yale Law School paid for through scholarships for low-income students.  I admit I started off this book with some pessimism, fearing that it was going to be one of those stories of the boy “who beat the odds” and through hard work he was able to overcome his impoverishment so why can’t everyone?  And yes, in a way it was this kind of story; however, J.D also looks at the bigger picture, and what opportunities were available to him.  It was also a painfully honest story about his mother’s struggle with drug addiction, having 15 stepdads, and trying to make it through the school day without breakfast or lunch.  J.D grew up in a town where everyone was poor, and all that came with it, domestic violence, substance abuse, and child neglect.  He writes about the phenomenon of “brain drain,” which happens when people from the community becomes successful and then leave before anyone, (especially the kids) even get a chance to see what success looks like.  He writes about his “mamaw” and “pawpaw,” who made mistakes with their own kids, but made sure that they were always there for their grandson J.D.  He describes them as the only constant and secure thing in his life, and if it weren’t for them he would not have made it.  When he eventually makes it to Yale Law his accounts about the culture shock are both amusing and troubling.  It’s no surprise that J.D felt alone at Yale, as most of his peers came from affluent backgrounds, and he points out how educational success is very closely connected to income status, and how deeply flawed that it is.

J.D eventually dedicates a portion of his story to discuss some of the causes and then solutions to the poverty that plagues his community.  In it he writes about the psychology of his neighbours and uses the term “learned helplessness,” the conviction that what ever they do, however hard they try, will most certainly lead to failure.  In response J.D calls to his people to have resilience, he points out that hillbilly’s are tough and will vehemently defend their family’s honour, but are they tough enough to turn away from their dysfunction and set a good example for their kids?

I don’t doubt that many of his community members were experiencing a state of hopelessness, but I seriously question whether or not this was the cause of their impoverishment.  Although J.D implies that personal responsibility plays a part, he also points out some of the flaws in the system.  His personal experience with the child welfare system for instance when he had to lie about whether or not his mother was using drugs, he did this to prevent his own removal into care since his mamaw and papaw were not deemed suitable caregivers for trivial reasons related to income and the size of their house.  J.D is certain that had this occurred he would not have succeeded in life.  He writes, and I agree, the child welfare system needs to prioritize kinship care, and support family members with guardianship.  J.D also points to the need of more “social mixing,” within the community, and criticizes the amount of subsidized housing plunked in one area.  I believe if genuine public engagement occurs then gentrification might be a positive thing for a poor community.  Overall, I would recommend this read as it offers both a touching personal memoir, paired with a systemic perspective of a “culture in crisis.”


Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America is a peek at what life is like for those working in low wage jobs in America.  Barbara Ehrenreich wanted to write about the working class in America, and decides “to do the old –fashioned kind of journalism, where you go out there and try it for yourself.”  After careful consideration and encouragement from friends and family Barbara decides to temporarily live a low-income life, to see for herself, if a person could make ends meet on minimum wage alone without government assistance.

Barbara recognizes that with all the real-life assets she has built up in middle age, there was no way she was going to “experience poverty,” however, her objective is to see if she can match income to expenses.  Working as a waitress, a cleaner, a nursing home aid, and Wal-Mart salesperson she quickly realizes she that one job is not enough, and even with two minimum wage jobs the best housing she is able to find is a motel room paid for by the week.  At the end of her temporary life as a low wage worker, she evaluates the experience, and concludes that “you don’t need a degree in economics to see that wages are too low and rents too high.”  Granted she wrote the book in 2001, wages in some American States have barely improved.  In her book Barbra earns $6 to $7 an hour for all of her jobs in 2001, in 2018 the federal minimum wage remains at $7.25 (https://www.minimum-wage.org/federal).

Interestingly, she writes that having a Ph.D. did not make any of her six jobs any easier, and that none of them were “unskilled.” All of them required concentration, multi tasking, and mastering new tools.  Much of the book describes the horrid working conditions she and her co workers had to endure, for instance during her job as a waitress working an 8-hour shift, she was not allowed to sit down outside of her half hour meal break, even when there were no customers to serve.  During her time as a cleaner for a corporation called “The Maids,” cleaners had to strap a 15 lb vacuum backpack on to get the job done, and cleaning floors in giant mansions, had to be done on your hands and knees.  It was no wonder most of her co workers suffered terrible back aches, and other work-related injuries.  I pray these practices have been wiped out by now.

One of the most compelling aspects of her story was when she got to the part about working as a Wal-Mart salesperson.  (If you already feel bad about shopping at Wal-Mart, you might not want to read this part.)  During her orientation to Wal-Mart, Barbra describes the anti union propaganda videos she was made to watch, and the degrading pre-employment personality test and drug tests she had to take.  As her hourly wage was only $7 an hour at one-point Barbara was forced to go to a community agency for food, where she was told some of her Wal-Mart co workers also accessed.  All around Nickel and Dimed is a must read!  Thought provoking, funny, and terrifyingly relevant 17 years later.


Lee Stevens is a Community Facilitation and Engagement Specialist at Vibrant Communities Calgary. Please feel free to email Lee or comment below.

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