Social capital refers to social connectedness (Putnam, 2015). Individuals with high social capital have ties to diverse and significant social networks. The value in these social ties lie in their ability to connect you to the ‘right’ people, such as those who can provide you with employment, and to impart valuable information about what kinds of opportunities exist and how to take advantage of them (Vance, 2016a). In sum, social capital is a strong indicator of future success and upward mobility.


JD Vance did not always enjoy the level of academic and commercial success that he is recognized for today. Growing up in the industrial rust belt town of Middletown, Ohio and Appalachian Jackson, Kentucky, JD was accustomed to a much different life. Like many of his neighbors in these white working class towns, his upbringing was tumultuous and characterized by financial troubles, unstable home environments, and abuse. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs outlines human motivation and differentiates between deficiency and growth needs (Atkins, 2011). According to his theory, all individuals must fulfill their deficiency needs, including physiological, safety, and social needs, before we can develop self-esteem and become self-actualized. JD, like so many other impoverished children, struggled to fulfill his deficiency needs. He seemed unlikely to finish high school and certain to fall victim to the cycle of poverty, which preyed on generations of his family. But, against all odds, JD managed to overcome his disadvantage. He describes his journey and those who helped him along the way in his best selling book, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis.

Background: Jackson, KY and Middletown, OH

Vance’s hillbilly roots lie in Jackson, Kentucky; a small town located in the state’s southeastern coal country where his grandparents were born and raised. Vance spent his summers and much of his free time in the Appalachian town. It became a refuge from the turmoil he experienced in Middletown and provided him with a deep sense of belonging that he lacked in his everyday life. Yet, despite its comfort and intrinsic beauty, Jackson has been continually plagued by pervasive poverty and social disadvantage. As Vance described it, “Jackson is undoubtedly full of the nicest people in the world; it is also full of drug addicts and at least one man who can find the time to make eight children but cant find the time to support them” (Vance, 2016a, p. 20).

Mamaw and Papaw, unable to visualize a life outside of poverty in Jackson, left Kentucky in the late 1940s in search of jobs. They rode the ‘hillbilly highway’ north, joined by millions of fellow ‘hill people’ migrating from economically stagnant Appalachia to Midwestern industrial cities. During this wave of migration, 13 out of every 100 Kentucky residents left the state in pursuit of economic opportunity (Vance, 2016a, p. 20). Mamaw and Papaw would land in Middletown, Ohio, the home of Armco Steel, where Papaw found a job as a lineman. However, as Vance posits, the social and economic issues his grandparents and their neighbors fled when leaving Appalachian followed them to places like Ohio, Michigan Illinois, Indiana, and Pennsylvania. Vance (2016a) wrote, “My grandparents uprooted themselves from the real Kentucky and relocated to Middletucky in search for a better life, and in some ways they found it. In other ways, they never really escaped” (p. 22).

Jackson and Middletown epitomize cities struggling with outdated economies- cities dependent upon declining industries no longer able to support large, working class populations. Jackson’s economy is based on natural resources, primarily coal, which has a tendency to boom or bust. The lack of diversification has left Jackson vulnerable to external market forces. As Stephen Bowling, the Vice Mayor of Jackson, explains, “when there is a downturn in any of the resource markets, it trickles down to our society, economy, to the dinner tables of everyone in the country” (Bowling, 2017). Jackson’s 38.9% poverty rate (Data USA: Jackson, KY, 2015), 73.7% child poverty rate (using the percentage of K-12 public school students in Jackson who qualify for free and reduced lunch as a metric (Jackson, KY: Schools Ratings & Facts, n.d.), and Breathitt County’s 43.5% unemployment rate (2011-2015, % of population age 16+ not in labor force (United States Census Bureau, n.d.) are symptomatic of the region’s declining coal production and subsequent loss of mining jobs. Since the early 1980s, coal production in Kentucky has declined by about 19% while employment has dropped by 62% (Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, 2017). Breathitt county coal production peaked in 1984 and has since declined by 96.94% (Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet, 2016).

While Jackson had been experiencing an out-migration for decades, Middletown began to lose quality jobs, workers, and economic progress with the decline of manufacturing throughout the latter half of the 20th century. From 1969 to 2014, manufacturing employment in the Cincinnati Metropolitan Area (which includes Middletown) experienced a 45% decline, from over 206,00 workers to 113,000 workers (Millsap, 2016). Those who had the resources to move out of the city did so over this period; the rest of the population, including the Vance family, became trapped in deepening poverty, forced to watch the stores and restaurants along Main Street close as Middletown became, “little more than a relic of American industrial glory” (Vance, 2016, p. 50-51). According to Duane Gordon (2017), the Executive director of the Middletown Community Foundation, the poverty rate in Middletown increased from 12.5% to 22% between 1990 and 2000, and then increased to 25% over the subsequent decade. Among children, 95% of K-12 public school students qualify for free and reduced lunch (Middletown, OH: School Ratings & Facts, n.d.). Gordon identifies several precipitating factors of the growing poverty, including the closing of Midwest factories, the recession, and the mismanagement of public assistance programs.

Middletown and Jackson’s economic problems occur in conjunction with mutually reinforcing social issues, such as failing schools and health crises. Jackson city schools are ranked 206th out of the 261 assessed cities in Kentucky (Kentucky School District Ranking, 2017). The city’s 2015 graduation rates were 19% lower than the Kentucky state average (69% vs 88%) and the high school drop out rate reached 31% in 2016 (Kentucky School District Ranking, 2017). Gordon identified education as the consistent greatest need in Middletown, “our community for the past 20 to 30 years has had a school system that scores toward the bottom of the state of Ohio. Out of about 650 school districts state wide, on most measurements we rank 590th, 595th, somewhere around there (Gordon, 2017). Based on 2016-2017 test scores, the Middletown city school district ranked 584th in the state (Ohio School District Rankings, 2017). Carmela Cotter, the principal of Middletown High School, posits that high rates of transience contribute to these academic challenges. As she explains, “What we know about our school is that roughly around 35- 40% of students are have been in our district from K-12. The rest of them are transient, they have moved schools and come into our district with gaps in their learning” (Cotter, 2017). Despite these issues, Cotter (2017) proudly notes that 364 seniors graduated from Middletown high school in 2017- a metric she believes offers hope for the future of Middletown schools.

Economic disadvantage in Jackson and Kentucky have also translated into adverse health outcomes, including higher rates of disease, mortality, and mental and substance abuse disorders. In 2017, Butler county was ranked 44th out of 88 Ohio counties in overall health outcomes (The rankings represent how healthy counties are within the state) and 39th in overall health factors (The ranks are based on four types of measures: health behaviors, clinical care, social and economic, and physical environment factors), and 44th in length of life rankings (University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute, 2017a). More shocking yet, Breathitt County ranks 120th out of 120 counties in Kentucky in terms of overall health and 114th out of 120 in the overall rankings in health factors, and 120th in length of life (University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute, 2017b). According to 2014 data, compared to Kentucky and national averages, Breathitt experienced higher rates of premature death, heart disease, stroke, cancers (lung, breast, and skin among others), suicide, mental and substance use disorder mortality, liver disease mortality, and obesity, among other disorders (Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, 2016a). Furthermore, a nation wide study found that between 1980 and 2014, Breathitt County had the fourth largest increase in mortality rates from cancer among all counties in the county (Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, 2016b).

The largest public health issue facing Breathitt and Butler counties is not a local concern, but a national crisis. The opioid epidemic has become a mass casualty event. Drug overdoses are now the leading cause of death among Americans under 50 (Katz, 2017). Over 60% of these overdoses involve an opioid, as 90 Americans die everyday from an opioid related overdose (Center for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC], 2017). Despite the increased attention given to the crisis by local, state, and national authorities over the past few years, the epidemic continues to gain momentum. From 2010 to 2015, annual overdose deaths involving opioids in the United States increased by nearly 57% and data suggests overdose opioid deaths will continue to rise in 2017 (CDC, 2017).

Kentucky and Ohio are among the five states hit hardest by the epidemic and with the highest rate of drug overdose deaths (29.9 per 100,000 for both) (CDC, 2016a). In 2016, overdose death of Kentucky residents, regardless of where the death occurred, and nonresidents who died in Kentucky, numbered 1,404 (Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy, 2016). Among all 2016 overdose deaths, 34% involved the use of heroin (up from 28% in 2015) and additional 47% involved Fentanyl (up from 34% in 2015). In Breathitt County, the average annual rate (per 100,000 residents) of overdoses by illicit and/or prescription drugs between 2012-2016 was 40.07 (Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy, 2016). This rate compares to the state with the highest overdose rate, West Virginia, which had an average annual rate of 41.5 overdoses per100, 000 residents (‘Drug overdose death rate,’ 2017).

Data from the Ohio Department of Health shows a 775% increase in opioid related deaths in the state between 2003 and 2015 (Phillips, 2017). Middletown is especially vulnerable because of its position half- way between Dayton and Cincinnati, which both rank among the cities with the greatest opioid issues. According to Middletown city manager Doug Adkins (2017), “last year they reported on the areas with the worst problems with heroine; Cincinnati was sixth and Dayton was first. I’m right in the middle, there’s no way I can keep it out of here.” To combat the crisis, the Middletown government has held eight heroine summits to foster collaboration among the health and judicial sectors; schools; faith based communities; and community agencies, and created heroine response teams, each composed of a police officer, paramedic and social workers to follow up on every overdose (Adkins, 2017). Yet, opioid-related overdoses are still on-track to increase in 2017. “Our overdoses are probably going to double and out deaths are probably going to double this year. With all of our resources, we are still going to fall behind,” said Adkins (Adkins, 2017).

Upward Mobility

The problems facing Middletown and Jackson are “indicative of the broader struggles of America’s working class” (Vance, 2016b). Communities across the county are trapped in cycles of disadvantage that extend across generations and offer few opportunities for escape. The deep poverty and accompanying adverse social conditions that afflict such communities obstruct traditional pathways to upward economic mobility and force each new generation to become more deeply defined by family violence, drug abuse, and divorce. Essentially, the American Dream, which once motivated millions of ‘hillbillies’ to leave their homes, has become reserved for those born into privilege. Equal opportunity is the cornerstone of the American national identity, yet data confirms our failure to uphold this ideal. As income inequality grows in the U.S., as has the inequality of opportunity. Effort, skills, and ingenuity are less important in determining the success of youth, while class origins increasingly matter.

The Pew Charitable Trust (2015) conducted an extensive analysis of the status of economic mobility and the American Dream in the U.S. Economic mobility refers to “the ability to move up and down the income ladder over one’s lifetime and across generations” and it differentiates between absolute mobility (upward and downward changes in income over time) and relative mobility (a person’s rank within the income distribution as a whole). They found that family advantage and disadvantage have an extensive impact on the future economic potential of children: approximately half of parental income advantages/disadvantages are passed on to children (Pew Charitable Trust, 2015). Their research shows that children whose parents are at the bottom 1/5 of the income distribution are unlikely to experience relative upward mobility; 40% of these children remain at the bottom (Pew Charitable Trust, 2011). Consequentially, children born into higher income families enjoy dramatically better economic outcomes than children born into lower income families, thus proving that the American Dream is little more than a dream for many populations. Economic mobility is also geographically distributed, indicating that it not only matters to whom you are born, but also where you are born. The southeastern United States and rust belt regions are ranked lowest for upward mobility (Thompson, 2014). Cincinnati, Ohio, located just 40 miles from Middletown, is ranked in the bottom 10 worst cities for economic mobility (Thompson, 2014).

Vance explores the conditions in children’s lives that impact their ability to succeed and be upwardly mobile in Hillbilly Elegy. He focused on four factors: 1) economic and structural issues, 2) loss of hope, 3) family structure and parenting, 4) the community. The circumstances surrounding these elements prevent poor youth from accessing opportunities or inhibit their ability and/or motivation to take advantage of them when they are present.

  1. Economic and structural issues

The economic and structural conditions of communities determine the availability of opportunities. Cities like Middletown and Jackson that are built around declining industries are defined by poor economies that prevent people from getting ahead. As jobs disappear, so do talented individuals. When educated individuals migrate from economically depressed areas, a phenomenon known as the brain drain, they take their skills and potential to create new jobs with them.

Education is the traditional vehicle to achieve upward mobility, but residential sorting trends funnel poor children into worse schools with fewer resources. Research shows that children, regardless of their own background, do better in schools with affluent student bodies (Putnam, 2015). Put simply, if the kids around you are working hard, you are also likely to work hard. Schools with affluent student bodies also experience greater parent engagement. According to Robert Putnam (2015), “when parents are involved at school, their children go further in school, and the schools they go to are better” (p. 167). High-income parents who are involved in their children’s schools demand more academically rigorous curricula, which encourage higher academic achievement (Putnam, 2015). In contrast, high poverty schools have higher rates of delinquency, truancy, disorder, and transience, which interrupt learning for all students.

Students attending high poverty schools are also disproportionately deprived of access to extracurricular activities. While budget cuts in public schools eliminate funding for activities in impoverished schools, affluent school can rely on financial support from parents to maintain the full ‘menu’ of extracurricular opportunities (Putnam, 2015). This disparity in access has significant consequences on the future of children sorted into impoverished schools; extracurricular participation matters for upward mobility. Involvement in extracurricular activities translates into positive outcomes (higher grade point average, lower drop-out rates, lower truancy, higher educational aspirations, greater self-esteem, higher future wages, and occupational attainment) and teaches soft skills (strong work habits, self-discipline, teamwork, leadership, and a sense of civic engagement) that can be valuable in higher education and the workforce (Putnam, 2015). Furthermore, research shows that students who are consistently involved in extracurriculars are 70% more likely to attend college than kids that were only occasionally involved and about 400% more likely than kids not involved at all (Putnam, 2015, p. 175).

  1. Loss of Hope

JD’s grandparents’ move to Middletown and their subsequent hard work at Armco steel and in the home was motivated in their strong belief in the ideal of the American Dream. “Despite the setbacks, both of my grandparents had an almost religious faith in hard work and the American Dream. Neither was under any illusion that wealth or privilege didn’t matter in America … still Mamaw and Papaw believed that hard work mattered more.” (Vance, 2016, p. 35-36). Although they ever lost hope in this ideal, their working class neighbors began to believe that the dream of progress was not made for them. JD describes a unique pessimism that seeped through the communities- a belief that no matter how hard they worked, they were never going to get anywhere because the system was rigged against them.

“When you grow up in this world, ppl can start saying, ‘I’m not going to work hard, because no matter how hard I work, it’s not going to matter.’ Another thing you might do is say, “Well, I’m not going to go after the traditional markers of success, like a university education or a prestigious job, because the people who care about those things are unlike me. They’re never going to let me in” (Vance, 2016b).

Stephen Bowling (2017) witnesses this internalization of hopelessness in Jackson. He says that many people in Eastern Kentucky have “resigned themselves to the fact that things are never going to get any better.” This pervasive hopelessness has, in many ways, become a self-fulfilling prophecy. High school students with no hope for the future disregard upward mobility as an out of reach fallacy and therefore abandon the steps necessary to achieve it. After each passing generation, prosperity seemingly becomes an even greater impossibility; impoverished populations become more resolute in their hopelessness, and thus further discouraged from inputting hard work in pursuit of the American Dream.

  1. Family Structure and Parenting

In Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, Putnam highlights an emerging trend, the separation of the traditional family unit into a two-tiered family structure. The first tier, the ‘neo-traditional family’, includes college-educated, high socioeconomic individuals. The second tier, ‘fragile families’, occurs among high-school educated, low socioeconomic individuals (Putnam pg 63). ‘Fragile families’ are characterized by instability. The parents, if ever married, often divorce;’ and single parent households, unintended births, early childbearing, and multi-partner fertility are common (Putnam, 2015). Research shows that such fragility impacts children’s potential for later success. Children who grow up without their biological father do worse on standardized tests, earn lower grades, stay in school for fewer years, and are more likely to have behavioral problems like shyness, aggression, psychological problems (Putnam, 2015). On average, children raised in single-parent households do worse in school and life, “though imperfect, the correlation is strong: more single parents means less upward mobility” (Putnam, 2015).

The effects of family structure are also mediated by parenting. Early life experiences and environments impact neurological and neurobiological development, which has extensive consequences for later outcomes (Children’s Bureau, 2013). Early interactions with caring, nurturing adults support healthy brain development (Children’s Bureau, 2013). Conversely, children who lack these important relationships early in life are more likely to have impaired executive functioning and subsequent trouble concentrating, controlling impulsive behavior, coping with adversity, following directions, and organizing their lives (Putnam, 2015). Differences in parenting styles are often class-based, with higher SES parents able to offer their children more time, positive attention, and resources than lower SES parents (Putnam, 2015). As such, the “correlation between poverty and child development is largely explained by differences in parenting styles” (Putnam, 2015, p. 122).

Positive parenting and stable family structures equip children with foundational tools and capacities that allow them to succeed in school, careers, and life in general. Children who lack such components are at a disadvantage from early childhood. Not only are they denied valuable tools to help them get ahead, but their plight is also compounded by the presence of chronic stress, which often accompanies family instability and low SES. Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) are life events that can produce toxic stress in children’s lives and create life-long adverse consequences (CDC, n.d.). There are three categories of ACEs: 1) child abuse (emotional, physical, and sexual abuse), 2) neglect (physical and emotional neglect), and 3) household challenges (growing up in a household with substance abuse, mental illness, violence, parental separation, etc.) (CDC, n.d.). While children at all socioeconomic levels experience such trauma, children from low SES and less educated families are at greater risk (Vance, 2016a, p. 114). In Hillbilly Elegy, Vance cited a report from the Wisconsin Children’s Trust Fund, which determined that 40 percent of low-income kids face multiple instances of childhood trauma, compared to only 29 percent for upper-income kids (Vance, 2016a).

The CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences study was conducted from 1995-1997 and remains one of the largest investigations of childhood trauma and later-in-life health and well-being outcomes (CDC, 2016b). Through two waves of data collection, 17,337 Health Maintenance Organization members from San Diego, California received physical exams and completed surveys regarding their childhood experiences and current health status and behaviors.

Among the 17,337 participants, they found that 26 percent of participants had experienced one ACE, almost 40 percent reported two or more ACEs and 12.5 percent had experienced four or more ACEs. Respondents who reported having experienced one category of ACE exposure had an 85 percent chance of experiencing a second category of ACE exposure and a 70 percent chance of experiencing a third (Anda et al., 2004). This finding suggests that early traumatic experiences are inter-related, and that the presence of one adverse experience can increase the risk of exposure to another (Anda, et al., 2004). Furthermore, they discovered ACEs have a cumulative effect on later-in-life outcomes, where the risk of medical, mental and social problems as an adult increases with the number of ACEs in childhood (Anda et al., 2004).

The CDC-Kaiser Permanente study discovered that ACE scores have a positive, graded relationship with a wide range of physical health, mental health, and social outcomes. As an individual’s ACE score increases, as does their risk of:

school and work performances are predictors of upward mobility and indicators of self-actualization that are commonly impaired by ACEs. A study on learning and behavioral issues found that these challenges at school and work were reported by 51.2 percent of participants with an ACE score of four or higher compared to only three percent of participants with an ACE score of zero (Burke et al., 2011). A separate study discovered a “strong, graded relation between” eight categories of adverse childhood experiences (emotional abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, battered mother, household substance abuse, mental illness in household, parental divorce or separation, and incarcerated household member) and three indicators of worker performance (job problems, financial problems, and absenteeism) (Anda et al., 2004). Workers with ACE scores of four or more were more than twice as likely to report each of the three indicators of impaired performance than their counterparts with zero ACEs (Anda et al., 2004).

Research on ACEs proves that early experiences in the home and the quality of relationships with parents and families have a significant impact on the ability of children to be upward mobility. Children, and more often poor children, who are denied close nurturing relationships with their parents and/or are subjected to traumatic experiences, will often lack the capacity to take full advantage of opportunities for advancement. Furthermore, the deleterious effects of ACEs are cyclical. Individuals who had multiple adverse experiences in their childhood and adolescence are more likely to repeat toxic-stress inducing behaviors with their own children (Children’s Bureau, 2013). For example, Data from the Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health showed that girls who experienced childhood physical abuse were up to 7 percent more likely to commit youth violence; boys who experienced childhood sexual violence were 3–12 percent more likely to commit youth violence (Children’s Bureau, 2013). As Vance (2016a) wrote, “Out of the frying pan and into the fire. Chaos begets chaos. Instability begets instability. Welcome to family life for the American Hillbilly” (p. 229). Thus unstable homes and harmful parenting stunt the potential of multiple generations to achieve the American Dream.

  1. Community

Social capital refers to social connectedness (Putnam, 2015). Individuals with high social capital have ties to diverse and significant social networks. The value in these social ties lie in their ability to connect you to the ‘right’ people, such as those who can provide you with employment, and to impart valuable information about what kinds of opportunities exist and how to take advantage of them (Vance, 2016a). In sum, social capital is a strong indicator of future success and upward mobility.

Unsurprisingly, disparities in social capital exist between poor and affluent communities. Putnam describes how better educated, higher SES people have wider and deeper social networks consisting of more strong and weak ties than do less educated, lower SES individuals. Strong ties, or connection to close friends and family, primarily provide socio-emotional support (Putnam- source). Weak ties are connection to wider and more diverse networks. They are especially important for educational and economic advancement as they provide knowledge about and access to opportunities that would otherwise be unreachable (Putnam, 2015). These differences in social capital contribute to the youth opportunity and information gaps.

Vance writes, “those who tap into it (social capital) and use it prosper. Those who don’t are running life’s race with a major handicap” (Vance, 2016a, p. 221). Children who are born into poverty, raised in depressed areas, subjected to family instability and adverse experiences, and denied access to valuable social networks are, in many ways, doomed from the start. They are less able to be successful in school, develop soft skills, go to college, have careers, and, thus, are more likely to remain trapped in and perpetuate their disadvantage. JD Vance was one of these children. His family and community were poor, leaving him deeply cynical about his future early in life. His home life was chronically unstable and he reports having six ACEs (Vance, 2016). After his father left when he was young, Vance describes his mother’s romantic history as including a revolving door of men (Vance, 2016a). Each new boyfriend was accompanied by a move to a new house or new city and an eventual verbally and/or physically violent break-up. This turmoil and the trauma from her own childhood led Vance’s mother to alcoholism, drug addiction, and an attempt on her own life and the endangerment of his.

The chaos of his home had significant impacts on his academics and health, “I was a sophomore in high school, and I was miserable. The constant moving and fighting, the seemingly endless carousel of new people I had to meet, learn to love, and then forget- this and not my subpar public school, was the real barrier to opportunity” (Vance, 2016a, p. 127). Yet, despite all of these circumstances working against him and his potential to be upwardly mobile, JD escaped. He graduated from high school, served in the U.S. Marine Corps, graduated from Ohio State University with a bachelors degree in political science and philosophy in two years, attended Yale law school, became a venture capitalist, and then a best selling author. But, how did he achieve all of this when the statistics showed that he should not have?

The Value of Social Support

Growing up in Middletown, JD lacked access to important social capital, which contributed to his information gap. Yet, his social networks provided him with other kinds of social support. Social support is support accessible to an individual through social ties to other individuals, groups, and the larger community. The Search Institute has developed a framework of Developmental Assets that ”identifies a set of skills, experiences, relationships, and behaviors that enable young people to develop into successful and contributing adults” (Search Institute, 2007). They recognize support, including support received from the family; other adult relationships; neighborhood; and school, as an important external asset (Search Institute, 2007). According to Principal Cotter (2017), developmental assets, such as social support, help build resilience in students and prepare them to deal with risks.

Social support serves as a protective factor that counteracts the negative effects of adverse childhood experiences. Having experienced six categories of ACEs in childhood and adolescence, Vance was at risk of developing multiple health and social problems (see Table 1). However, his visible success diminishes the likelihood that he experiences many of these observable outcomes (e.g. obesity, illicit drug use, alcoholism, financial problems). When estimating the life-course impact of ACEs, we must also consider protective factors. Protective factors mediate risk levels by building resiliency to adversity. Without any protective factors, Vance’s risk of developing depression would be ? 49.0 percent; with the protective factors we know were and, still, are present in Vance’s life, his risk of depression is likely lower.

Table 1. The Risk of select health and social outcomes for JD Vance, based on his ACE score of 6.

Health or Social OutcomeRisk (%)
Depressed affect? 49.0
Suicide Attempt? 18.3
Illicit drug use? 28.4
Alcoholism? 16.1
Jaundice or Hepatitis? 10.7
Severe obesity? 12.0
Serious financial problems? 22.8

The social support JD derived from his networks over time gave him hope, possibilities, and the resilience to overcome the multiple risk factors present in his life. Scholars identify four types of social support, each of which played an important role in JD’s life and success: 1) emotional support (expressions of empathy, love, trust and caring), 2) instrumental support (tangible aid and services), 3) informational support (advice, suggestions, and information), and 4) appraisal support (information that is useful for self-evaluation) (Blalock et al., n.d.). JD beat the statistics because he received combinations of these four kids of social support at each stage in his life: from the Marines, his community, mentors and teachers, and most importantly, his family.


Hillbilly Elegy plays homage to his family members who “put their thumb on his scale” (Vance, 2016a, p. 239) “The life I lead now was the stuff of fantasy during my childhood, so many people helped create that fantasy. At every level of my life and in every environment, I have found family and mentors and life long friends who supported and enabled me” (Vance, 2016a, p. 253). The greatest support came from his grandparents, whom he describes as the heroes of the story. They provided Vance with the emotional support he needed to overcome the culture of chaos and hopelessness that surrounded him. “My grandparents- Mama and Papa- were, without question or qualification, the best thing that ever happened to me. They spent the last two decades of their lives showing me the value of love and stability and teaching me the life lessons that most people learn from their parents. Both did their part to ensure that I had the self-confidence and the right opportunities to get a fair shot at the American dream” (Vance, 2016a, p. 23).

Vance recognizes his grandparents, specifically Mamaw, for doing two things that really made a difference in his life. The first was providing him a stable, peaceful home. When Vance was 14 he went to live with Mamaw full time. Having finally escaped the chaos of his mother and her boyfriends, Vance was able to relax and regain his ability to concentrate and focus- assets Mamaw encouraged him to apply to his schoolwork (Vance, 2016). Mamaw’s second gift was helping Vance begin to unlearn the helplessness that was instilled in him by his community.

“Despite not even having a middle school education. She recognized the message that my community had for me, that my choices didn’t matter, that the deck was stacked against me. She once told me, “JD, never be like those losers who think the deck is stacked against them. You can do anything you want to” (Vance, 2016b, p. 35-36 ).

Mamaw showed Vance what was possible and encouraged him to pursue greatness despite his background. He credits Mamaw for saving him from the environmental pressures of his neighborhood and community and for helping him turn his life around and in a forward direction.

The U.S. Marine Corps

Mamaw’s inspiration and encouragement helped Vance avoid many of the early pitfalls associated with being born an impoverished kid in Middletown, Ohio. He avoided drugs, alcohol, early fatherhood, and graduated from high school on time. Yet, he was still a young adult with no money, who felt unprepared for college and still unsure he had the capacity to be successful. On the advice of his cousin, he enlisted in the Marines. The Marines offered Vance informational support by helping him close the information gap that had been growing since his childhood. While kids growing up in affluent communities learn how to manage their finances or buy a car from their parents or social networks, Vance’s community could not teach him these lessons. But, the Marines could. The Marines also taught him soft skills, which many of the adults he grew up with lacked, that would help him “navigate the world” (Vance, 2016b)

Middletown Community

After JD returned home from the Marines, he turned back to his community for the instrumental support he needed to attend classes at Ohio State University. The Middletown Community Foundation had recently established a scholarship for veterans and chose Vance as their first recipient. In 2007 and 2008, Vance was awarded a scholarship that would help him pay for his education (Gordon, 2017). In his thank you letter to the foundation, Vance suggests that his undergrad career would have much less successful if not for the support their support.

Yale Law School Social Network

Upon entering Yale law school, Vance again found himself in a new environment with foreign rules and expectations. His naiveté became evident the first time he attended a law firm interview event at an expensive restaurant and learned that there were different varieties of wine beyond just red or white. He, again, realized his ignorance when The Yale Law Journal writing competition commenced in his first year. Vance’s classmates received advice on how to approach the contest from friends, families, or alumni groups to which they had access. Conversely, Vance did not have any friends or family who had attended Yale Law School. As he described it, “The entire process was a black box, and no one I knew had the key” (Vance, 2016a p. 216). Vance was, again, handicapped by his information gap.

Vance turned to his peers and professors to help him close this information gap. His professor-turned-mentor Amy Chua offered him guidance on the Journal writing competition, recommended him for a clerkship, and would later advise him to forgo said clerkship in order to focus on his relationship with the woman he would eventually marry. Vance defines social capital as a “a measure of how much we learn through our friends, colleagues, and mentors”(Vance, 2016a, p. 220). While he lacked this type of social capital growing up, his social network at Yale provided him with the informational support he needed to navigate the unfamiliar institution. Every time Vance received advice that helped him to get ahead or was offered a job interview after a professor recommended him, he developed a deeper understanding of the economic value of social capital.

The Value of Comprehensive Social support System

JD was able to become upwardly mobile largely because of the social support he received throughout his life.  “I was able to escape the worst of my cultures inheritance. The life I lead now was the stuff of fantasy during my childhood. So many people helped create that fantasy. After every level of my life and in every environment, I have found family and mentors and lifelong friends who supported me and enabled me” (Vance, 2016a, p. 253). But for most poor kids, the American dream still out of reach. Research from the Equality of Opportunity Project shows that the potential of children to earn more than their parents have fallen from 90% to 50% over the last half century (Chetty et al., 2016). To make Vance’s story of upward mobility a common one, we need to equip children and adolescents with the same tools that were make available to him. Like Vance, they need access to various forms of social support to mediate the deleterious effects of poverty and build their resistance to multiple risk factors.

Traditional, public sources of support for at-risk children are eroding. Community supports are less readily available today, and those that still exist have a diminished capacity to boost disadvantaged children up the economic ladder (Putnam, 2015). For example, student who play on their school sports teams learn leadership skills, the value of teamwork and hard work, and other soft skills. In the past, the opportunity to play on these teams was open to any student, regardless of income. However, public school budget cuts have started a ‘pay-for play’ trend that affects students in over half of American high schools. A 2010 nationwide survey found that the estimated team fees average between $300 and $400 a person (Putnam, 2015). Poor students are effectively denied entrance to the team because they cannot afford the associated costs. This example offers another explanation as to why affluent children “start and probably finish further and further ahead than their less privileged peers (Putnam, 2015, p. 229). To close this achievement gap, we need build the capacity of communities to provide targeted and comprehensive support to disadvantaged youth.

The first step in this process is to recognize the complexity of challenges facing poor children. Principal Cotter posits that the majority of her student population at Middletown High School experiences multiple risk factors. This makes helping them challenging because, as Cotter explains, “how do you deal with a student that lives in a household with poverty, abuse issues, drug issues, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are in the middle of grief or not eating tonight” (Cotter, 2017). Disadvantaged children and adolescents can be experiencing any combination of ACEs with multiple and severe consequences on their health and well-being. As such, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. We cannot expect single-issue programs or that fallacy that ‘anyone can make it through hard work’ to reduce the opportunity gap. To appropriately respond to the diversity of needs present within any community, a comprehensive set of support must be available to everyone at all times.

Comprehensive social support systems (CS3) are community- based solutions that increase the social capital of children and families. In doing so, they connect them to holistic services and support that address the multiple risk factors that plague disadvantaged communities. Vance’s social support system addressed his economic, structural, familiar, and psychosocial challenges and put him in a position to receive and take advantage of opportunities for upward mobility. A CS3, by increasing access to similar sources of support within a community, can foster the equality of opportunity and help close the achievement gap.

An important way that CS3 can increase the social capital of children, instill them with hope, and mediate the problems of poverty is by connect them to mentors. The Search Institute created the Developmental Relationships Framework to outline the elements and benefits of strong, trusting relationships in the lives of children and adolescents. The framework posits that relationships that foster the development of the participating child include five elements. These relationships: 1) express care, 2) challenge growth, 3) provide support, 4) share power, and 5) expand possibilities (Roehlkepartain et al., 2017). Research shows that young people who experience strong developmental relationships are more likely to report a wide range of socio-emotional strengths and other indicators of well-being, including self-awareness, emotional competence, personal responsibility, academic strength, civic commitment, and resilience to stress (Roehlkepartain, 2017). The Search institute also found that young people have better outcomes when they experience “a strong web of relationships with many people” (Roehlkepartain, 2017). Indicators of academic motivation, socio-emotional skills, and personal responsibility are positively correlated and indicators of high-risk behaviors are negatively correlated with the number of strong relationships in children’s lives (Roehlkepartain, 2017).

Mentorship programs can compensate for the strong, developmental relationship many children lack in their lives. Putnam differentiates between formal mentoring (organized programs like the Boys and Girls Club) and informal mentoring (natural relationships that arise with teachers, coaches, friends, religious leaders, etc.) (Putnam, 2015). By helping at risk kids develop healthy relationships with adults, formal mentoring can engender positive academic and psychosocial outcomes, such as increased school attendance, enhanced student performance, improved self-worth, and reduced substance abuse (Putnam, 2015). Informal mentoring is valuable because these relationships are frequent and enduring. The measureable effects of mentoring are greatest when the relationship is long-term (Putnam, 2015). While a formal mentoring relationship lasts an average of 18 months, informal mentoring relationship last 30 months on average (Putnam, 2015).

The value of and need for mentoring is well established. Vance recognized the potential of strong relationships to mediate adverse social and environmental factors. In an interview with the Aspen Institute, he said, “if you want to give kids like me more opportunity, you need to figure out how to place ppl like mama or other mentors in front of kids’ pathways (Vance, 2017). Stephen Bowling also believes that mentoring programs could make a significant difference among Jackson children. With all of the adversity disadvantaged children face, he says they could benefit from having someone to talk things through with and show them a path forward. “The government agencies are doing great work, but they (children and adolescents) are not getting the individual things that they need to develop a successful life: the character building, the principles, the one-on-one time with someone to say I care about you and want to help you” (Bowling, 2017).

At-risk children derive greater benefits from both formal and informal mentoring than do their affluent counterparts (Putnam, 2015). However, while at-risk children receive more formal mentoring, there is a substantial informal mentoring gap wherein affluent children are more likely to have informal mentors beyond their family and mentoring relationships that last longer than poor children (Putnam, 2015). The mentoring gap begins in early childhood and continues to grow over time (Putnam, 2015). 64% of affluent children have some mentoring beyond their extended family and 62% of poor children do not (Putnam, 2015). The mentoring gap exacerbates inequality opportunity by denying disadvantaged children the benefits of mentoring, such as soft skills developmental assets, and by contributing to the savvy gap. The savvy gap refers to poor kids’ diminished understanding of “the institutions that stand astride the path to opportunity and make those institutions work for them,” In effect, they are less savvy about how to climb the ladder of opportunity than affluent kids. Understanding the impact of the mentoring and savvy gaps on prospects for upward mobility, Putnam asserts that, “any serious program to address the growing opportunity gap must address the savvy gap and therefore the mentoring gap” (Putnam, 2015, p. 216).


Through his story, Vance has become a mentor to the kids growing up like he did. He recently spoke to a group of high school seniors when he delivered the commencement address at the 2017 Middletown High School graduation. He touched on his journey from a working class family in Middletown to financial and literary success. According to Cotter (2017), his message resounded with the kids because he had been in their situation. He presented the students with a roadmap of how to move forward past the misery and adversity. Vance’s message resounds with Jackson youth as well. Bowling says that, “When they see parallels between themselves and JD, who went through all these horrible things and then made something of his life, then that gives them the ability to say ‘I can too’. It gives them the ability to dream and to hope, and that spurs action (Bowling, 2017).

Vance should also serve as an inspiration to governments, community organizations, and citizens nationally. Today, Vance is putting his words into action. Since moving back to his home state of Ohio, he started a non-profit to help tackle the problems he identified in Hillbilly Elegy. As Vance (2016a) wrote, “public policy can help, but there is no government that can fix these problems for us” (p. 255). There is no magic bullet solution that can reverse the generations of poverty, ACEs, and learned hopelessness that define the Jacksons and Middletowns of our country. Instead, each community must operationalize their resources, reinvest in social support, and begin to end cycles of disadvantage. Vance’s story provides a blueprint detailing the types and source of support required to give an impoverished kid from the rust belt or Appalachia the tools and opportunities to become a graduate of Yale Law School. Middlelayers’ CS3 provides a technological solution capable of implementing this blueprint in any community and of “creating space for the JDs and the Brains of the world to have a chance” (Vance, 2016a, p. 256).


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