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Acton Commentary

A ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ for family and civil society

A sad irony is that, since the rise of the federal government’s aggressive war on poverty launched in the 1960s, many of the underlying causes of economic distress have been neglected or ignored. While government achieved some progress towards meeting basic material needs, it has no answers to the deeper dilemma of dependency and hopelessness faced by many Americans.

One book that highlights the problem and that is receiving considerable attention this year is J.D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy.” Vance uses his own story to depict a crisis of culture among the white working class, especially in Appalachia. When President Lyndon Johnson launched his Great Society programs over 50 years ago with an iconic visit to Eastern Kentucky, it produced forlorn images of families in dilapidated shacks. The region remains under siege by poverty.

The problem, in large part, as Vance explains, is wrapped up in cultural and family decay. Vance, who declares, “Poverty was a family tradition,” was able to break free from the cycle and escape a chaotic future by moving in with a grandmother. Stability in the home brought with it a possibility to change’s ones life trajectory.

“The solutions to poverty exist in the assets a community already has, the chiefs of which are human ingenuity and strong families,” declares a statement of principles from Acton Institute’s PovertyCure initiative. Ignoring the solutions by continually throwing money and federal legislation at poverty has proven to be a subsidy and not a solution.

The erosion of aspects of civil society, specifically those programs and helping hands closest to those in need, has been particularly devastating to regions where poverty is prevalent. Likewise, Vance highlights a fact that became crystal clear during his time at Yale Law School: “the networks of people and institutions around us have real economic value.” It’s a powerful reminder of the dangers of seeing poverty as only a material problem to be solved.

This was reiterated in the release of the Census Bureau poverty report in September. Modest gains are evident in census data that show the poverty rate went from 16 percent in 2014 to 14.8 percent in 2015. This is still higher than a decade ago. While many of those mired in poverty are doing better from a material perspective (almost two-thirds have cable or satellite TV), dependency on government continues to surge.

Dependency, of course, is exacerbated by the decline of civil society, which lessens the space between the individual and government reliance. In 2012, when the Democrat Party released a video at their convention that declared, “Government is the only thing we all belong to,” it was a subtle reminder of that growing dependency.

The good news is that large segments of American society still have healthy communities and families. This was visible during the August flooding in parts of South Louisiana. While the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) acted competently for a change, it could in no way match the immediate assistance of armies of brave citizen volunteers, who took initiative to rescue thousands of their own neighbors with their own private boats.

Recent disasters in the Southeast like Hurricane Katrina, tornadoes that wreaked havoc on Alabama, and this summer’s flooding in Louisiana, showed the enormous advantage churches and other charitable organizations have over the government in meeting the needs of people. After Katrina, many decentralized charities, especially churches, markedly improved their disaster-response methods, learning from the mistakes they had made during America’s costliest hurricane ever.

In contrast, 50 years on, the federal government’s war to end poverty is still showing an unwillingness to reform and learn from mistakes. While material poverty has declined in part, a poverty of dependency and a lack of hope are taking over large segments of society. Trying to satisfy the human person in need with material goods alone continues the cycle of poverty. Relearning old truths about the significance of families and civil society is the only guarantee of a lasting escape from the poverty trap.

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Ray Nothstine is editor of the Civitas Institute in Raleigh, North Carolina