Suburban Elegy

Yesterday afternoon was my first block of free time in weeks, so I brushed off the dust of Hillbilly Elegy, which has been sitting in my pile of books-that-should-be-read for months. I read it in one big gulp; it was that good. As soon as Jonah wakes up, I’m going to demand that he reads it.

The memoir is about one kid who managed to escape the culture of poverty thanks to luck, the Marines, and his Mamaw, who saved him from his own bad decisions and his mom’s bad decisions. He talks about the positive aspects of the Appalachian, Scot-Irish culture – loyal, family oriented – as well as the bat-shit crazy parts of the lifestyle, which has resulted in generations of poverty and misery.

I read the book from the comfort of our Crate and Barrel armchair that swivels, so I can put my feet up on the large picture window. I glanced up from the book from time to time to watch the women speed walking in their $100 running pants and the teenagers zooming by in their graduation-gift Cameros. It’s a world apart from the J.D. Vance’s Middletown, Ohio.

Yet, it’s not.

People fuck up here, too. In between the speed walking and the calorie counting on iPhone apps, there is a whole lot of wine drinking, which is somehow a more socially acceptable form of addiction than weed. There are teenagers who screw up in exactly the same ways as teenagers in every other community across the country. There are dubious debts, like second mortgages to pay for private colleges that aren’t worth the $300,000 price tag.

And while our community doesn’t have the divorce rates and rotating boyfriends that plague other parts of the country, we’re the only family that I know that actually eats dinner together every night. Kids spend long periods of time by themselves or with nannies that have no authority to reel them in. Kids work very hard at times, especially in the highly regimented sports programs and tutoring worlds, but other times, they are supremely lazy. They have no expectations for home chores or sibling babysitting. Even though they all go to college, the parents and consultants micomanage the process for them.

There have been lots of recent studies (too lazy to find the link right now) that show that the wealthier families are spending more on educational programs for their children than ever before. And that’s all true. But in between those scheduled activities, there is a parenting vacuum. Parents set up the activities and even drive them from place to place, but don’t talk with their kids or guide them or yell at them when they screw up.

My parents, who were the first generation college attenders and who came from very rough family lives themselves, are appauled at the bad habits that they see around them in their own UMC town and in ours. Entitlement is its own evil culture. Wealth can protect people from bad habits for a short time, but it’s not fool proof.

60 thoughts on “Suburban Elegy

  1. I haven’t read Hillbilly Elegy, so can’t tell what made you think of parallels in this post. I think, maybe, that it’s about a breakdown in values in raising children? I think we’re always in dangerous territory when we do retrospective analysis of what we think were the values of the past. First, there’s a lack of context and generalized knowledge and a reliance on personal anecdote. Second, there’s a conditional fallacy — those of us who are here have avoided pitfalls that would have prevented us from being here. But we can’t conclude from our existence, that the path that got us here was the right one.

    The parallels in the truly dysfunctional families and drug addiction and poverty in other communities and the “quiet desperation” or borderline alcoholism or too much debt in suburban/umc families — I just don’t see it.

    I sometimes start to worry about some of what you are describing — the parenting vacuum, the demand that kids be phenomenal, and the clearing of simple responsibilities to guide that on the path to exceptionality, the growth of nebulous peer groups through social media, the potential manipulation of reward systems through video games, . . . . but then I think of the kids who are doing OK, the ones who have become exceptional, the ones who are centered and balanced, and think that we might be falling into the same traps of every generation, of seeing deterioration where there is just change.


  2. My wife has read Hillbilly Elegy and loved it; she thought its perspective on the endless nature vs. nurture debate (in this case, environment vs. individual choices) was really smart. I haven’t read it, but I did read Desmon’d Evicted, which tells a lot of similar stories about culture of poverty vs. individual effort in the context of the urban poor, and it led to some good discussions between us.

    Taking in a foster child from an environment of alcoholism and abuse has forced us to recognize that, as BJ says, the gap between REAL dysfunction and the middle-class desperations of self-medication and too much credit card debt is pretty huge. Not that the latter can’t rip people’s lives apart; we’ve all seen that it can. But pretending that our foster daughter’s problems are basically the same as that which the rest of our kids struggle with hasn’t served our family well.


  3. “I glanced up from the book from time to time to watch the women speed walking in their $100 running pants and the teenagers zooming by in their graduation-gift Cameros. It’s a world apart from the J.D. Vance’s Middletown, Ohio.”

    I’m not sure there’s a huge difference. What you’re describing as different is the cost of the items. But the walking and the teens driving – that’s similar, no?


  4. It’s a world apart from the J.D. Vance’s Middletown, Ohio.

    Yet, it’s not….Wealth can protect people from bad habits for a short time, but it’s not fool proof.”

    I’m sorry, but that’s just not true.

    I found Hillbilly Elegy somewhat interesting, but was not as impressed as many others seem to be. What I found most impressive was Vance’s ability to confirm the preconceived notions of so many diverse readers. It seemed to me that whatever beliefs you held before you read the book, you found some reinforcement somewhere to validate them. It’s been said that Vance is interested in a political career and this ability to massage people’s egos in this manner should carry him a long way.

    His rags to riches story *was* impressive, but I think that people have sort of missed the point in his journey that was most impressive. Going from Middletown to the military to Ohio State was an achievement, given his lack of family support, but not an *especially* impressive one. At the time he went to OSU, OSU was completely open admission for undergraduates. (And the branch campuses are still open admission). So, regardless of how he did in high school, if he had a diploma or a GED he could just register for classes and show up.

    Not only that, but state schools in Ohio are among the most affordable in the country (for state residents) and Columbus is (was) dirt cheap. In the early ’90s I knew at least one person who was able to pay her way through OSU (tuition and living expenses) through a combination of financial aid (grants, not loans), work-study, and waiting tables. I don’t think she could do it quite as easily now, but you could still get through with only modest loans. That is, *if you don’t screw up.* (More about this below.) So, with his military benefits, Vance could easily afford his undergraduate degree.

    No, the really impressive thing was that he did well enough (and caught the eye of enough faculty who would support him) to go to Yale law school. In academia and some areas of industry the average Ohio State Undergraduate is held in suitably low regard. (I, myself, would not hire the median OSU graduate. I’d need some evidence that he/she was well above average to give them a look, but that’s another story.) And yet, the same people who squint at the average OSU graduate know that on a campus of 50000 there are quite a few students at the right tail who are superior to most Ivy graduates. Demonstrating that he was one of them was the really impressive achievement and hats off to him for that.

    But saying that someone from upper middle class suburbia faces exactly the same challenges is just flat out untrue. And the difference is the number of chances such a person gets. Vance took his shot and ran with it and did really well with it. As did I. But the difference between him and me is the number of chances that we each had. If Vance had screwed up (and there would have been so many ways he could have) then that would be it for him. Back to Middletown and some blue collar un/semi-skilled work (if he was lucky and motivated) or alcohol and opiates (if he wasn’t). Whereas, although I sailed through college, if I fell off the path (as many of my classmates did) then it was back to the ancestral home and another try somewhere else in a couple of years. (And then maybe a third try , or a fourth…) If they have a substance abuse problem or a small brush with the law then there are residential treatment programs and expensive lawyers and the means to pay for them.

    And, for that matter, the sacrifices that families make to send their kids on these paths are different. If the UMC suburban student calls their parents and needs $500 for something (car repair, medical bill, etc) then the choice the parent has is either no choice at all or perhaps not going on a vacation that year, or (in the most extreme case) perhaps downsizing from your $600000 house to a $350000 townhouse. The choice in Vance’s community might well be send the money or pay the rent or the utility bill.

    And so the true difference between a young person from Middletown and upper middle class New Jersey isn’t that the Middletown person has no opportunities, but that the *window* is so narrow. They have to take their one chance hit it just right to succeed, where as the UMC kid has to almost try to fail. Almost every one of your neighbor’s kids will do just fine, even if “just fine” isn’t necessarily “succeeds at the highest level.” Their support network will ensure it.


      1. Aren’t that bad according to whom? The US News and World Report? Those ratings mean less than nothing. Don’t just take my word for it. Laura’s friends at the Atlantic wrote a decent summary of why they are worse than useless. If you are going to make a case that OSU undergrads aren’t that bad, you are going to have to cite better evidence than that.

        It’s orthogonal to the point that I was trying to make but let me explain, and let me add that without detailing exactly where and when, I have a fair amount of experience with Big Ten education:

        1. Ohio is, culturally, a fairly anti-intellectual place. And the university tends to reinforce this rather than push back against it. The priorities of the *median* students are (were?) sports, the weekend bar scene, greek life (for many), and then academics. OSU is viewed, culturally, as a family heritage thing and an “experience” rather than an education. This doesn’t make OSU unique (many mediocre state universities are like this) but it doesn’t set OSU among the top-tier flagship universities either.

        2. This is not a midwest thing or a public university thing. I wouldn’t say the same things about, say, Penn State (main campus), Michigan (Ann-Arbor), or Wisconsin (Madison). The difference with these schools is that they try to concentrate the best students at the flagship campuses and give them a more rigorous academic experience. OSU seems like it may be trying to do this (switching from quarters to semesters recently and also going from an open admissions model to a more selective one) and perhaps time will tell. (Also, Miami of Ohio, the public liberal arts college, is a damn fine school and you should respect it.)

        3. OSU does have a very good honors college and I have a healthy respect for someone who goes through that and gets good grades, *especially* if they take the thesis option. Their school of engineering is also decent.

        4. Also, there are so many students at OSU that the best of the best students are among the best anywhere. If I had access to a reliable oracle that could identify the top five students at any institution (where “top” is any metric you choose except family connections or wealth) then I would probably take the top five from OSU versus the top five from Princeton or Harvard. But I don’t…

        5. That said, when I am evaluating OSU grads (which I do, professionally, along with graduates of other schools) I usually only give them cursory consideration unless:

        a. They graduated from the honors college with very good grades.
        b. They graduated from the engineering school with very good grades.
        c. They graduated from the arts and science college summa. (*Not* magna or lower.)
        d. There’s something in their background independent from OSU that causes them to stand out otherwise.

        Business college students always get binned.


      2. I’m relying on person experience, having taught OSU undergraduates, once upon a time. I also was impressed with the way the athletic department followed the student athletes’ class work (to be fair, I never had any students in a money sport).

        And I think you’re very wrong that the beer-football thing is less of a draw at Penn State. There’s just no way the Sandusky crimes could have happened in a campus where football wasn’t the main focus. Penn State actually has protests, of students, to put the Joe’s statue back front and center. The football program is important enough that the people running the university committed crimes rather than made Paterno look bad by reporting an assistant coach of his to the police. Joe Paterno is central to Penn State in a way Woody Hayes and later coaches never were to OSU.

        I don’t know enough about Michigan or Wisconsin to say, but I suspect you are wrong there also. Plus Michigan sucks.


      3. I have zero gossip on OSU. Steve, my Cleveland husband, probably can say more. Steve is a graduate of Miami. So was his dad. Jonah got in, but we ruled it out because of the out-of-state tuition and the distance.


      4. Also, the main undergraduate bar area south of OSU’s campus was bought out. The pushed over the firetraps and replaced it with mixed shopping and stuff like that. Plus, I hear Larry’s is gone.


      5. Having spent many a weekend (and weekday!) night in the Short North, I must agree with Jay’s assessment of OSU undergrads’ priorities.

        I work with juvenile offenders in an area of Ohio that actually is what Vance describes Middletown as being. The differences between the kids here and suburban kids are like night and day. I wish the kids I work with had the “parenting vacuum” of the UMC kids. Better that than having your parents pimp you out to feed their drug habit. And because of lack of resources and a lack of foster homes, there’s not much that my agency can do to get these kids out of these situations except get them into the juvenile court system. I haven’t read Vance’s book but he came to speak where I work not too long ago; I don’t really like poverty pron. It’s not so fun to read when you actually live in it.


    1. “But saying that someone from upper middle class suburbia faces exactly the same challenges is just flat out untrue.”

      So much this.


    2. Yes, a solid university, and a student who goes there and does well certainly has a decent shot a Ivy League law school. I would have said what struck me about the story was the military + military ed benefits + state supported university, the pillars that lifted many rural Americans into the elite class in post war America.

      Vance is proof that it can still happen. But is it less likely now? State support for universities *has* changed. What else?


  5. I don’t think I ever said that the people in the UMC suburbs face the same obstacles as the people in poor white Rust Belt communities. No, I know that wealth gives you a mighty big safety net. I was responding (poorly, I know) to Vance’s idea that virtue and hard work is what separates the classes. His own hardwork and temperance certainly got him into Yale, but his classmates aren’t there because they possess that same virtue. They are there because of they were born on third. Vance’s descriptions of his work ethic are extremely inspiring. I certainly liked the guy after reading the book. But he assumes that his ivy league classmates have the same good habits as he does and have even better self control, which is why they are rich. That simply isn’t true and that’s what I was thinking about when I wrote this post.

    If there is a spectrum of behavior with one side being the self destructive nonsense that beleagured Vance’s family and the other side representing the puritan self control that Vance had to employ to overcome childhood obstalces, most people in this UMC suburb would be in the middle. But they still end up at Yale, because of money and connections and knowledge of how the system works.

    Because my son insists on being friends with everyone from the Ivy League bound kids to the druggy shop class kids, we’ve seen a few kids not make it. They got kicked out of high school for various mind-blowingly stupid decisions. It’s too early to know if they’ll be able to turn things around in a year or two. But not everyone makes it out of here.


    1. Vance is making a point about a group. What you are talking about are individuals. Having a few kids fail is not the same, at all, as having the majority of kids fail.


      1. Let’s also note, Vance is talking about adults who have actually failed to move on (to college, to decent jobs, etc). Your son’s friends are 17 or 18 – clearly still young. Not the same.


    2. This summary rings true to me — and I think sums up my discomfort with the Vance story. I agree that people use the story to argue that hard work and virtue explains the separation of the classes and that argument ignores the actual paths to success.


    3. Because my son insists on being friends with everyone from the Ivy League bound kids to the druggy shop class kids, we’ve seen a few kids not make it. They got kicked out of high school for various mind-blowingly stupid decisions. It’s too early to know if they’ll be able to turn things around in a year or two.

      Yes, I am sure that there were a fair number of kids like this. But, for the most part, I wager that for them it is back to the ancestral home, relying on their family safety net and waiting for their second, third, or fourth chances. For Vance’s classmates, blowing your shot means that for the most part you were done, or at the very least at the bottom of a very deep hole to climb out of. There’s a big difference.


  6. Speaking of Ohio, I had always thought Middleton was basically a farm-league version of Dayton. I guess maybe I should have bothered to go there. Anyway, Ohio’s non-discrimination clause has (or had, when I was there) “Appalachian origin” in there with race, gender, etc. as something you couldn’t discriminate against. Vance was probably a student they boosted because of affirmative action.


    1. I’m not familiar with Ohio State’s affirmative action policy–Jay says that the university had open admissions–but in any case, Yale Law School does not practice affirmative action for Appalachian children.

      Regarding which, I note, pace Laura, that very, very few of the children from her town, and most especially not the ones currently in rehab, or the ones going to expensive third-tier private colleges, are going to end up going to law school at HYS. The people who end up there really did have to work hard and do exceptionally well in college.


      1. Yale almost certainly practices affirmative action for first generation rural kids who are veterans. Especially ones who can tell their story compellingly.


      2. Law school admissions are not very holistic. Not at all like colleges. If you look at law school admissions data, GPA plus LSAT scores plus race (the last set of numbers is mostly only available from lawsuits) overwhelmingly explain admissions results. I would guess that Vance had very good undergraduate grades and LSAT scores.


      3. I’d guess it is somewhere in the middle. Yale *totally* has regional affirmative action for undergraduates and it is crass intellectual dishonesty for the Douthats and Vances of the world to claim that the Ivies ignore working class middle America, because it is completely the opposite. (They’d totally take a West Virginia valedictorian with a rigorous background over yet another suburban AP-classes-sports-community service-clubs-music cookie cutter…)

        The law school, though, is *less* holistic, but not completely so. I’d guess that Vance had:

        1. Top grades.
        2. Top LSAT scores.
        3. A great writing sample.
        4. Stunning faculty letters (hard to get at OSU, where you need to separate yourself from a large and faceless pack).

        That said, he also had a compelling story, which he could totally stress in his application, and which YLS would have found interesting. They do look for a diversity of background in their law students as well.


      4. Yale College definitely has regional affirmative action. For one thing, it relieves the pressure on the Jewish and Asian quotas. Class-based affirmative action is less of a thing for them.

        I don’t know if Vance says in his book whether he applied to or was accepted at other T14 law schools. It would be interesting to know if there are any slight differences in law school admissions, such that an interesting life story might put someone over the top at one place but not another. (There are slight differences in weighting of GPAs and LSATs, which I believe is the main reason–my LSATs were better than my grades–that I got into Berkeley and was wait-listed at Columbia.)


      5. Perhaps there will be a clamor for release of his transcripts and LSAT scores when Vance runs for political office? (I am guessing not).

        This topic isn’t quite a side discussion because I think one of the points of Laura’s summary in the comments is that Vance is an example of a white man who struggled with and overcame enormous challenges, but that does not mean that his struggles are representative of the class of white men.

        There are discussions of the relative qualifications of any black man who attended, say Harvard Law, with a reference to uncited statistics, but, are the statistics available based on first generation status? on geography? on veteran status? And, we do have the statistic on legacy/development. Anyone want to argue that Tiffany Trump’s LSAT scores must be excellent and in line with all the other students admitted to Georgetown Law?


  7. My book club talked about reading Hillbilly Elegy this summer, but several people had read it and been unimpressed for one reason or another. Instead, we read an older book, Rick Bragg’s All Over But the Shoutin’, which is terrifically well-written – just read the introduction online if you’re interested – and provides another similar story. Bragg is a journalist and uses that skill to describe his own upbringing vividly.

    Definitely agree about the multiple chances thing. I am also reading Americanah, about Nigerian immigrants, and it’s made me think about how much the choices people make are circumscribed by poverty – who you would marry to make sure you could survive or your kids could survive, what kinds of jobs you would do (the classic “immigrant doctor cleaning toilets or driving cabs” story is a cliche for a reason), and how that would continue to shape your life.


    1. I read Americanah and had a reaction that I’m kind of embarrassed about. I hated the way it portrayed white people. Now, I read a lot of African American literature. I read all about evil white people, stupid white people, mean white people, selfish white people. I am not new to negative portrayals of white people. But this book’s portrayals really bothered me, possibly because the banality of the white characters.


      1. But this book’s portrayals really bothered me, possibly because the banality of the white characters.

        Have you met white people?


      2. Interesting. Now that I think about it, I kind of like the fact that there are almost no important white characters in the book – she’s got a boyfriend for a while (the rich American guy) who is white, but most of the people I can name are Nigerian, and then there’s the black American boyfriend and his annoying sister. I haven’t been annoyed about the white people because I can barely remember them.

        I also like it because although the experiences are very far from my own, and the characters are facing difficult situations and sometimes tragedy, it’s mostly not harrowing or horrible. Nigeria – which I discovered has a population of 182 million – has a terrible problem with electricity access, and you get a sense of what a pain it would be to have only a few hours a day (if at all) and deal with the heat. But what I remember best is that a woman who has to leave her wealthy lover’s house is advised first of all to take along the generator, and how the main character chides herself for failing to notice how big someone’s generator house is when she returns to Nigeria after a long time abroad.


  8. I don’t see the equation between UMC New Jersey and working class Ohio. Of course there are instances of dysfunction in both societies, but, as a Marxist would note, quantitative differences make a qualitative difference. If we could get everyone to the UMC New Jersey level of dysfunction, we would get as close to earthly paradise as flawed human beings are likely to achieve. Of course, as a Christian would note, the people would still be sinners, in need of repentance and not entitled to judge others, but I would consider that description of humanity more as a guide to individual spirituality than to social policy.


  9. If we could get everyone to the UMC New Jersey level of dysfunction, we would get as close to earthly paradise as flawed human beings are likely to achieve.



  10. I’m still struggling with the classifications and such. As usual, I’m wondering about the people in-between Vance’s Middletown and Laura’s Bergen County. I think that we should be eschewing income or assets as a measure of social class and devise some sort of measure that involves risk. Because that seems to be what we’re talking about – how much risk exists. Then we could measure success as relative to this risk measurement.

    I find Guy Standing’s categories of social class to be a little more detailed/applicable:
    “Meanwhile, a global class structure has been taking shape, superimposed on national structures. At the top is a tiny plutocracy, many with criminal backgrounds. Their economic and political power is awesome; they have no responsibility to any nation state.

    Below them is an elite who also gain from capital, some from what Thomas Piketty calls patrimonial capitalism. Below them is a salariat, with employment security, pensions, paid holidays, and other non-wage perks. They are what American scholars in the 1960s and 1970s expected to become the norm. But although a salariat will persist, it is shrinking.

    Alongside it is what I call proficians, project-oriented, self-entrepreneurs, not seeking employment security. Many work frenetically, but suffer from burn-out sooner or later. They too are uninterested in defending wages. They obtain their money elsewhere.

    Then comes the old proletariat, for which welfare states as well as labor relations and regulations were constructed. The proletariat was oriented to a lifetime of stable full-time labor, in which entitlements, ‘labor rights,’ were built up. But it is dwindling, along with its capacity, and even desire, to defend welfare institutions. Its achievements should not be romanticized. The proletariat favored and benefited from a sexist, often racist hierarchical laborism. Its labor unions epitomised that. There have been few more reactionary figures in American history, for example, than the old leaders of the AFL-CIO.” (From here: After this section, he goes into great detail about what he calls the precariat, which is worth reading in full, I think.


    1. I think there’s something to be said about vulnerability to risk in assessment of class. I’ve noted this aspect when thinking of federal judges. I vaguely remember discussions of Sotomayor’s assets, which were low. But, as a federal judge, with she was guaranteed a salary of 200K+ for life, which is, effectively 5+ million in income generating assets.

      Tenured professors also can enjoy this safety net.

      And, the growing number of at will employees, with no guaranteed job or income or annuity, are at some level of risk, regardless of their level of income. High income employees have to be aggressively saving to build assets. And, those who get lump sum capital, especially at early ages (inheritance, stock, startup payoffs, . . . .) are in yet a different category.


  11. I have to say, there are situations (even for people from very privileged backgrounds) where 2nd, 3rd, or 4th or whatever chances don’t even matter because they are beyond being able to make any use of them. The dead Penn fraternity kid cannot benefit from any sort of second chances. Less dramatically, there are people who have suffered brain damage and/or done stuff with drugs that guarantees that they are never going to live up to the potential they had at 16 and even just holding down a job of any kind is going to be a major achievement.

    Of course, well-off families are in a better position to manage those damaged relatives, but there are problems that money and second chances cannot fix.


  12. Two comments. First. The segment that sticks with me from _Hillbilly Elegy_ was his observation of the difference between the “tv people,” i.e. the lawyers & judges, and “my people,” i.e., the defendants and their families, in court. Once you start noticing this distinction, it sticks with you. Another point to notice is that his family did well in Ohio when the manufacturing center(s) thrived. His mother’s dysfunctional addictions and dysfunctional parenting made life very difficult.

    Alcoholism, drug addiction and abuse exist in the wealthy towns, too. It’s hidden better, perhaps, but it’s here. It may be less noticeable because families often sell their homes and move out after the kids go to college, making it hard to figure out, “say, I wonder how the Jones family’s doing?” And of course, if there’s a divorce caused by spousal abuse, the divorced spouses usually find housing in other, less expensive towns, which makes the problem seem to disappear.


    1. Second comment, which I thought of this morning. The greatest asset of the UMC towns is the network of social capital. In times of stress, families are supported by the network. Meals are arranged. Children are transported to and from sports and tutoring; patients are transported to appointments. Grandparents are picked up from airports. Parents use online tools to coordinate squadrons of volunteers.

      Adults (usually mothers) get to know each other through youth activities: soccer, hockey, lacrosse, Odyssey of the Mind, chess club, Model UN, Band, etc. Church. Town committees. School volunteering. Charitable activities. Playgroups.

      Charles Murray hit it on the head in _Coming Apart_ when he pointed out the importance of traditional social networks in his “Belmont.” In _Our Kids_, Robert Putnam noted the increasing estrangement between the UMC and everyone else.

      Then again, do I think J.D. Vance’s family and neighbors would welcome squads of the “TV people” descending on their homes and telling them how to lead their lives? There’s a lot of pushback against such things, as you can see in the comments depicting people living in “TV people” towns as ninnies and sissies. Such as in Casey Affleck’s Dunkin Donuts Saturday Night Live commercial. (Or, in context, Dunkin Donuts vs. Starbucks.)


      1. I grew up in a blue collar community on the east side of Cleveland. In the 70s things were still pretty good with stable jobs and good schools. Although the standard of living was modest by UMC standards there was a crucial element of stability that no longer exists. Paychecks were steady. Social networks were strong. Public services were good. Kids went to the public pool all summer and the public skating rink in the winter. Not anymore. The house I grew up in has been vacant for 8 years.
        I really think that unstable economic environments can really destabilize others aspects of a community. Where is the tipping point where the social networks start to break down and addiction, teen pregnancy and family instability rises?


      2. I really think of that as being more middle class than UMC. The UMC is very good at apps to arrange volunteers, but they send the nanny with the kids instead of having friends drive them. The middle class can be very close-knit, often to the point of getting annoying.


      3. Of course, if there’s one thing the UMC is good at, it’s thinking of themselves as middle class.


      4. @MH, by all the markers I can find, our town is UMC. The median selling price for a house is over $1M.

        According to Investopedia, UMC income is: According to census data from 2015, 6.1% of households bring in $200,000 and higher every year and 14.1% bring in between $100,000 and $150,000. This is the upper middle class.

        An Urban Institute paper argued that what they referred to as upper middle class, or those with a three-person household income between to $100,000 and $350,000, has grown from 12.9% of the population in 1979 to 29.4% in 2014. It found that people with higher incomes saw their earnings grow faster than those with lower incomes.

        According to Citydata, our town median income is solidly in the middle of the Urban Institute range.

        Could it be that the people you think are UMC are the stratospherically wealthy masquerading as UMC?


      5. I don’t think so. I’m think of the UMC suburbs here. It maybe be different in areas where the wealthy are more common than they are here.


      6. The $1 million dollar house still blows my mind. I know it’s common in some parts of the country, but I’m used to thinking of anything above $250,000 as pure luxury.


    2. I’m still trying to figure out where *my* people fit in. Right now, my daughter is out having breakfast with her friend whose father died 2 weeks ago when he choked on his own vomit after a night of drinking.* At the time, he and his kids were living in a rented home while his ex-wife had moved to the neighboring town, and S had described them as poor/not having much money. The rented home looked awful from the outside (I used to drop S’s friend home after school sometimes before S got her license). And the family has set up a GoFundMe to support the kids’ college educations. His LinkedIn says he had jobs in the finance sector. So what was happening there? It seems clear to me that he was an alcoholic and that his issues affected his marriage and his standard of living and possibly his work. But he wasn’t a hillbilly, and he wasn’t a rich guy. These are my people: a mass of middling kind of people. Some succeed greatly, some fail spectacularly. But most just live day to day in suburban communities, dealing with a lot of problems, some of their own making, some not. But it’s not romantic to write a book about some guy who lives in a raised ranch with an above-ground pool in the backyard and who commutes to a small city to work an unsatisfying office job that may or not be there in 6 months.


      1. Wendy said:

        ” The rented home looked awful from the outside (I used to drop S’s friend home after school sometimes before S got her license).”

        I guarantee you it looked worse on the inside.


  13. “But it’s not romantic to write a book about some guy who lives in a raised ranch with an above-ground pool in the backyard and who commutes to a small city to work an unsatisfying office job that may or not be there in 6 months.”

    Updike actually wrote four of them: the Rabbit tetralogy. Two of them (Rabbit is Rich (1982) and Rabbit is Dead (1990)) won the Pulitzer Prize.

    But’s it’s tough to find anyone under 40 who has read any of these books, and there’s probably not that many people under 50 who have read any of them. But I think they hold up well, especially now. I think Rabbit would be a classic, the classic, Trump voter.

    There remains a sort-of genre of “middle-age man in free fall” books that gets a few entries every year. Rick Moody’s Hotels of North America, a novel written entirely in the form of on-line hotel reviews by a desperate man on the run, is an entertaining example.


    1. Well, ok, true. 🙂 But in my defense, I was thinking of non-fiction books in the genre of Hillbilly Elegy, purporting to show not an individual existential crisis but “real life” issues. The fictional character Rabbit is someone that readers might relate to but ultimately laugh at or shake their heads disapprovingly at. The “real” person a la Vance is someone we’re supposed to admire.


  14. What about “middle-aged woman in free fall” novels? That aren’t played for humor? although I don’t object to humor as such.


      1. It’s got white people in suburbs, the rust belt, fossil fuels, urine being poured over somebody, and (it looks like) drugs. It’s basically the Trump Years, as seen among the common folk. Somebody should write the book now, because after Paul Simon makes the musical, it will be too late.


      2. But any story involving urine will not be elevated enough to avoid being a comedy.

        Most of the stories which could become novels are about men, including my favorite, about the man who used the stolen brain under his porch to get high. (Also comedic. Darkly comedic.)

        I would nominate the story of Annie Dookhan: That life history involves drugs, and what looks like a midlife crisis.


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