Caleb O. Brown: This is the Cato Daily Podcast for Tuesday, April 25, 2017. I am Caleb Brown. The problem of poverty in the United States seems as intractable as ever. Whole regions like Appalachia appear to have been almost entirely left behind by progress, despite trillions of dollars in public sector spending. J.D. Vance is author of the book Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. It is his story of growing up along the Hillbilly Highway. We spoke at the Cato Institute’s Benefactor Summit in March about poverty, culture, and well-meaning public attempts to help low-income people.
I lived in Kentucky for about sixteen years. I wasn’t born there, but I went to high school there, I went to college there, I had a career there. And on my visits to Eastern Kentucky, with friends of mine who were from the area, it becomes difficult, really, to one, fully appreciate let alone explain the nature of the problem, if you could even reduce it to one problem.
J.D. Vance: Sure.
Caleb O. Brown: It’s poverty, it’s culture, it’s economic opportunity, and well, just give me, in a general sense from your observations, what is the linchpin, if there is one?
J.D. Vance: Yeah, that’s really tough. I, too, would resist the idea of pinning it all on a single problem, but the way that I would explain it is that you take an area that for many generations has struggled in a number of different ways, it has struggled economically, the folks who have lived there have gotten used to a certain sense of struggle and even desperation in certain cases, and because of that their children and their grandchildren grow up in a circumstance where they really, I think, expect not to do especially well. And so this sense that life is very foreclosed, that the opportunities that are maybe out there for other people aren’t there for you, and consequently that you don’t have a lot of hope that things are going to get a whole lot better I think is really one of the core things. It’s complicated, but it’s one of the core things that’s really driving what is going on in that area.
Caleb O. Brown: There is a development economist by the name of William Easterly who has written a lot about development around the world and his first big book that I ever was exposed to is called the Elusive Quest for Growth.
J.D. Vance: Sure.
Caleb O. Brown: And by way of, I think drawing a parallel, he talked about where poverty was in the United States and the statement that really stuck with me in that book is, at the time, 18 of the 20 poorest all-white counties in the United States were in Southeastern Kentucky.
J.D. Vance: Yep.
Caleb O. Brown: And that is, that’s just a startling statistic…
J.D. Vance: Yep.
Caleb O. Brown: …but when you think about developments, like economic development, the broadening of the range of opportunities that people are exposed to and can engage with, thinking about the third world and Appalachia isn’t entirely inappropriate.
J.D. Vance: No, it’s not. I mean there are, unfortunately, in certain parts of the country incredibly concentrated pockets of poverty and consequently of misery, and I do think that this is one of the areas where things are the worst. You know, it occurs to me when you mention Easterly’s work, that one of the big drivers of economic growth in some of these regions over the past 30 or 40 years is successful urban areas. And that’s of course one of the things that Appalachia doesn’t have a whole lot of that you can pin your hat on - is really big cities that drive the regional economy.
Caleb O. Brown: And part of that is just that it’s geographic.
J.D. Vance: Yeah, absolutely.
Caleb O. Brown: And one of, you know, it’s expensive to knock the top off a mountain, for example.
J.D. Vance: Right, right.
Caleb O. Brown: But as a matter of culture, you mention that people feel relatively desperate…
J.D. Vance: Sure.
Caleb O. Brown: …in a lot of ways and that has continued for decades. How do you view the Great Society programs, you know authored by, in some ways by Eastern Kentucky…
J.D. Vance: Sure.
Caleb O. Brown: …U.S. representative Carl D. Jackson…
J.D. Vance: Sure.
Caleb O. Brown: …you know, what impact has that had?
J.D. Vance: Well, on the one hand it’s difficult not to admire, I think, the intentions behind the Great Society, because it really was the first large scale effort, I think, to deal with some of these long-term multigenerational poverty problems. It has worked in the sense that there are fewer people living in absolute desperation in Eastern Kentucky and West Virginia all across the country really. It has worked in that sense. What it has really failed at is creating a truly self-sufficient, upwardly mobile group of people. And so unfortunately what you have in a lot of these families, a lot of these communities, is people who have only known poverty going back generations. You have the, unfortunately, a sort of perpetual class of people who have never known anything like real economic opportunity. And despite the fact that it is has prevented a lot of people from starving to death, which is of course admirable and necessary, I think the Great Society has really failed at creating a class of people who can rise through the economic ranks and that’s, to me, its enduring failure.
Caleb O. Brown: So one of the lessons from, I mentioned Bill Easterly, one of the lessons from his work, one of the lessons from the work of Peter Bauer, the development economist, and really the crux of the work of F. A. Hayek is we can’t design for people a world that will bring out their best attributes…
J.D. Vance: Sure.
Caleb O. Brown: …that will make them want to succeed and the lesson, really, is humility with respect to designing policy. But I would argue that the Great Society was not a very humble effort.
J.D. Vance: No, I think that’s right. I think the Great Society was not an especially humble effort. I mean my sense of this, and you know I do think that there has to be some role for policy in these problems just absent, you know, absent policy there is a question of what do you do. And I think you have to do things at the community level, at the local government level, at the civic institution level, but I do think that there is a role for state and federal policy here. But it has to come with a certain amount of humility because the lesson of the past 40 or 50 years of policy interventions is that these really grand efforts tended not to succeed by their own terms. They tend not to lift people out of poverty and keep them out of poverty for a long time. That said, I think that that humility should counsel us in the favor of really asking tough questions about whether a given policy intervention might work, actually figuring out that it does work before scaling it to a multibillion or even multitrillion dollar effort.
Caleb O. Brown: But don’t you think that lawmakers, when faced with the areas of severe poverty but with plenty of voters, are strongly incentivized to provide the things that are going to get them reelected? I mean from Carl Jackson to Hal Rogers, who is a mover and shaker with respect to pork, that that’s just a natural and perhaps inevitable consequence of a political solution to the problem of poverty.
J.D. Vance: Well that certainly – I don’t know that I’d say it’s inevitable. It is certainly something that we see again and again in these circumstances, and so I do think that should sound a cautionary note before we dive into these problems. I think that the worry that I have with a lot of these largescale policy interventions is because – is that there is a pressure to do something. You are faced with this problem and politicians want to try to fix the problem. And I think that if you go into it with a fix mentality instead of an understand and figure out what works maybe at the small scale before trying to scale it massively up, then you end up with a lot of the programs that we’ve had and like I said, I think they’ve been – they’ve wasted a fair amount of money, they haven’t necessarily worked, and I think they waste political capital in a way that’s really important, right, because people start to lose faith that people, you know, that elected leaders are even capable of solving these problems or they start to think that it’s not even worth solving these problems, which I don’t think is necessarily the right approach. The current example, actually, that I would use that really worries me on this front is early childhood education, right. So there’s some early evidence that early childhood education, when done right, is actually a very powerful tool for giving kids long-term life success…
Caleb O. Brown: But scaling those programs…
J.D. Vance: …but the problem is scaling it has never worked and there is no good evidence right now that we could scale it to three, four million kids. So I think that if we take the approach of let’s just fix this problem then that’s how we end up with a program that serves four million kids and actually doesn’t have fantastic outcomes, but if we approach it with a little bit of humility I am open-minded to the fact that eventually we start to figure out levers that we can push and pull that may work, so I’m not a total pessimist here.
Caleb O. Brown: Alright. So you know, when I – I am a big bluegrass music fan – a lot of my musical heroes came from rural North Carolina, came from Eastern Kentucky, and in the canon of bluegrass music there is this understanding that if there’s not work where you are, this is in the 40s and 50s…
J.D. Vance: Sure.
Caleb O. Brown: …before the Great Society, if there’s not work where you are, if there’s no hope where you are, you leave.
J.D. Vance: Right.
Caleb O. Brown: But that kind of mobility, or that sense of I need to go find my own fortune, has that been in decline in the last 40 or 50 years?
J.D. Vance: My sense is that it has been, and if you look at the data there is a lot of good evidence that suggests that geographic mobility has dropped off pretty significantly. Now no the one hand it is easy to see why, right? In the 40s and 50s, if you didn’t leave a place like Eastern Kentucky, you might starve to death, right, where that’s obviously not an incentive that people are faced with these days. So I think we have to be mindful of the fact that, again, I don’t think that we should want people to starve to death or let them starve to death, but the fact that some of these programs create disincentives to actually move to places where there are more opportunities. And that’s not just bad, of course, for the people who are choosing to stay put instead of going and finding better jobs and better work opportunities and so forth, the thing that worries me the most is that it is especially bad for their children who find themselves trapped in places where there just isn’t a whole lot of hope, there isn’t a whole lot going on.
Caleb O. Brown: You make a note of, that a distant relative of yours, may have begun the Hatfield-McCoy dispute by…
J.D. Vance: Yeah.
Caleb O. Brown: …murdering a man. It was my understanding that the Hatfield-McCoy dispute was actually started over the theft of a pig.
J.D. Vance: There are a number of different competing explanations for how the Hatfield and McCoy dispute got started, but one of the most popular that I have seen out there is that – so I think the murdering a pig incident actually came before Jim Vance killed Asa Harmon McCoy, and Jim Vance, just like me, a James Vance, but was actually a distant cousin of mine.
Caleb O. Brown: In trying to present a solution, and I would argue that there probably aren’t many good policy solutions that do not involve a largescale withdrawal of the federal government at the very least, and perhaps even state government from a lot of these areas, you know an old econ professor of mine used to say the problem with Eastern Kentucky is that it is overpopulated.
J.D. Vance: Yeah,
I have mixed feelings about this because on the one hand it’s obviously the case that Eastern Kentucky cannot provide enough good jobs for the people who live there but it is also obviously the case that there are people who grew up there that have an incredible attachment to it and the advice just move, while it is something that I have certainly counseled people to do and it is something that I argue in the book, is that we need more geographic mobility out of these incredibly impoverished areas. I think that any policy thinking that doesn’t at least account for the fact that a lot of people aren’t just going to move, that they are going to stay attached to that area, it isn’t being serious enough to the way that people are attached to their homes and are going to always be committed to them in one way or another, so I do think we ought to promote more geographic mobility but I also think that – I resist the idea that we can wholesale abandon these areas entirely because the people who live there aren’t going to abandon them and we have to do something for those people. Now, does that mean it is a massive federal policy? Maybe not. In my view, probably it shouldn’t be, at least most of the time. You know it is interesting you mention this word solutions, because I always resist the idea that there are solutions to this problem, because I think it’s sort of…
Caleb O. Brown: It is incredibly complicated.
J.D. Vance: …it sort of envisions the idea that you can 100% fix the problem, right, like math problems have solutions. And I tend to think that if we can put our thumb on the scale a little bit, if we can actually make things a little bit better for a subset of the population, if we can promote a little bit more upward mobility then we will have done as much as we can do and will have frankly done a lot more than policy has done up to this point.
Caleb O. Brown: So what evidence indicates that our effort, and I will admit that it causes a lot of dissonance to me personally, and always has, when I lived in Kentucky that there is, there was no fix. There was no simple policy…
J.D. Vance: Yep.
Caleb O. Brown: …that you could just adopt and then suddenly there are jobs, suddenly there are – that people’s best parts of themselves are going to be empowered, but at the same time there are – so within me, and within others, there is this effort, what are we going to do?
J.D. Vance: Right.
Caleb O. Brown: A strong desire to do something, so what promotes upward mobility in your view as a policy matter?
J.D. Vance: Sure. Well you know, the program that I have seen that actually provides me with the most optimism was this study that was done in the 90s, I believe, called the Moving to Opportunity study. And again it’s the sort of thing that I think we should be doing, which is trying things on a small scale, not spending a ton of money but then looking at what the long-term outcomes are to see whether they may be something worth pursuing on a larger scale. The basic idea was that you take kids who grow up in incredibly impoverished areas and you actually provide various financial incentives to move them and their families to more prosperous areas. And the evidence – you know, Raj Chetty, the Stanford economist, has done some good work on this – the evidence suggests pretty strongly that the kids who moved did much better than the kids who stayed, and importantly, the earlier the kids moved, the better they did. So the kid who moved when he was eight years old did a lot better than the kid who moved when he was twelve years old and so forth. So I do think that there are reasons for optimism, things that we might do to move the needle a little bit, but does that mean you are going to completely eliminate poverty in Eastern Kentucky? No. But does it mean that you’ll help some people have better opportunities? Yes. And I think that’s a worthwhile effort.
Caleb O. Brown: J.D. Vance is author of Hillbilly Elegy. Subscribe to and rate the Cato Daily Podcast at iTunes and Google Play, and follow us on Twitter, @CatoPodcast.