J.D. Vance grew up in a small, poor city in the Rust Belt of southern Ohio, where he had a front-row seat to many of the social ills plaguing America: a heroin epidemic, failing schools, families torn apart by divorce and sometimes violence. In a searching talk that will echo throughout the country’s working-class towns, the author details what the loss of the American Dream feels like and raises an important question that everyone from community leaders to policy makers needs to ask: How can we help kids from America’s forgotten places break free from hopelessness and live better lives?

Who is he?:

J.D. Vance grew up in the Rust Belt city of Middletown, Ohio, and the Appalachian town of Jackson, Kentucky. He enlisted in the Marine Corps after high school and served in Iraq

Why you should watch:

A graduate of the Ohio State University and Yale Law School, he has contributed to the National Review and is a principal at a leading Silicon Valley investment firm.  He is the author of , a number one New York Times Best Seller. As the family saga of Hillbilly Elegy plays out, high school sweethearts moving from Appalachia to Ohio for a better life, we learn that this is only the short, superficial version. Vance’s grandparents, aunt, uncle, sister, and, most of all, his mother, struggled profoundly with the demands of their new middle-class life, and were never able to fully escape the legacy of abuse, alcoholism, poverty, and trauma so characteristic of their part of America. Vance piercingly shows how he himself still carries around the demons of their chaotic family history.

A deeply moving memoir with its share of humor and vividly colorful figures, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis is the story of how upward mobility feels. And it is an urgent and troubling meditation on the loss of the American dream for a large segment of this country.

Vance lives in San Francisco with his wife and two dogs.

Discussion Questions:

  1. When he had trouble selecting a white wine as a law student, to what did he attribute his difficulty?
  2.  “I came from a southern Ohio steel town, struggling in a lot of ways”. What are some of the ways that he talks about?
  3. He gives the example of a poor kid in Utah and a poor kid in southern Appalachia and southern Ohio to illustrate what phenomenon?
  4. He lists four reasons why that is happening. What are they?
  5. Economists call the value that we gain from our informal networks, from our friends and colleagues and family “social capital”. Discuss with someone your own social capitol.
  6. I think the issues of social capitol and mentoring raises important questions for all of us about how we’re going to change that. We need to ask questions about how we’re going to give low-income kids who come from a broken home access to a loving home. We need to ask questions about how we’re going to teach low-income parents how to better interact with their children, with their partners. We need to ask questions about how we give social capital, mentorship to low-income kids who don’t have it. We need to think about how we teach working class children about not just hard skills, like reading, mathematics, but also soft skills, like conflict resolution and financial management. Discuss your ideas of solutions for these issues with others.

Making Connections:

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America’s forgotten working class with J.D. Vance


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