The movie “Hillbilly Elegy” — based on J.D. Vance’s best-selling memoir of the same name — comes out Tuesday on Netflix.
It’s likely to be a powerful drama, one that’s already getting talked about as a potential Oscar winner. It certainly brings the star power: The movie is directed by Ron Howard and stars Glenn Close and Amy Adams.
We can’t review a movie we haven’t seen but we can raise a question in advance for viewers to think about: Will this movie help or hurt Appalachia’s reputation?
The book wasn’t exactly a Chamber of Commerce pitch. It deals with how Vance grew up in a dysfunctional family in Ohio but went on to study at Yale and become a venture capitalist in Silicon Valley. To that extent, his story is an uplifting one. The controversial parts of Vance’s book, which came out in 2016, are where he draws larger conclusions about what afflicts Appalachia. Like many things in our society today, “Hillbilly Elegy” was read through a partisan lens. Conservatives saw Vance emphasizing the need for people to take personal responsibility; liberals saw Vance blaming the poor for being poor.
“People talk about hard work all the time in places like Middletown,” Vance wrote. “You can walk through a town where 30 percent of the young men work fewer than 20 hours a week and find not a single person aware of his own laziness.” That’s harsh, but possibly true. We’ve not been to Middletown so we can’t say.
We don’t know how much of that the movie will get into the social issues the book does so let’s ask another question, one that “Hillbilly Elegy” didn’t really address. Why is Appalachia one of the poorest parts of the country? This is actually a pretty easy question to answer: Because there’s never been anything to make Appalachia rich.
Big picture: Appalachia is a pretty broad geographical descriptor. The Appalachian Regional Commission covers counties from the middle of Mississippi to upstate New York. Is Mississippi really part of Appalachia, or was taking the ARC that far just a way to pick up votes for passage in Congress? That’s probably a question that answers itself. We’d prefer to stick with communities defined by the Appalachian Mountains, but rather than quibble about the supposed boundaries let’s focus on the places that everybody agrees are part of Appalachia.
More big picture: Appalachia was always lightly settled because there wasn’t much economic reason for anyone to be there. Farms were small because the mountains meant they couldn’t be big. The one thing that drew lots of people to certain parts of Appalachia was coal. We emphasize the phrase “certain parts” because most of Appalachia never mined coal. We often write about how the “coal counties” of Virginia are hemorrhaging population and how politicians ought to figure out a way to stop that. Demographers are less sentimental and say that, as the coal economy declines, those counties are simply reverting to their pre-coal populations. Of course, that’s easy for them to say because they generally don’t live there and have to deal with the consequences of de-population.
Even though most of Appalachia never mined coal, coal does give us a useful way to talk about the region: Here’s an industry that made a lot of people rich but it didn’t make the region rich. Unfortunately, that’s the nature of extraction industries — the wealth they create usually flows out of the region. Arguably the one exception in Appalachia is Pittsburgh, although it actually underscores the point about extraction wealth flowing out of the community. Coal from Appalachia — other parts of Appalachia — fired the steel furnaces of Pittsburgh that turned the city into a major manufacturing center. By 1910, Pittsburgh sometimes accounted for half the nation’s steel output. Today, Pittsburgh has successfully pivoted to create a new economy as a high-tech city based on medicine and robotics. Powering that transition have been the city’s universities, one of which is Carnegie-Mellon University — founded by the steel magnate Andrew Carnegie. If you want to look at this way, low-wage laborers in Southwest Virginia helped make Pittsburgh into a global metropolis. Roanoke might be a smaller exception: The business of transporting coal turned Big Lick into a real city, but didn’t do much for, say, Pocahontas and other towns closer to the actual extraction.
The challenge today — be it for the coal-producing parts of Appalachia or the non-coal producing parts — is how to better plug into the economy of the 21st century. That’s a challenge for all of rural America, not just Appalachia. The so-called information economy rewards communities with deep labor pools of tech-savvy workers. That may describe Pittsburgh — where Apple, Facebook and Google all have offices now — but not, say, Pocahontas or Pennington Gap. Once a small community could hold out hope for attracting a factory — Middletown, Ohio, where “Hillbilly Elegy” is set, had a steel plant. A lot of those jobs, though, are gone — either gone overseas where labor is cheaper or gone completely as the economy changes. There are a lot fewer opportunities for workers with only a high school diploma. Even many factory jobs today require more: We’ve pointed out before that one reason the Eldor Corp. auto parts plant located in Botetourt County was that it needs a lot of workers certified by Virginia Western Community College’s mechatronics program. To build a new economy, rural localities have to figure out how to raise the skill level of their workforce — which means getting a lot of adults to go back to school. That’s a daunting prospect (but also one reason why community colleges matter so much).
There’s also this inconvenient obstacle: Topography. Around the world, there aren’t many mountain-based communities that have become rich. The Roanoke Valley is successfully marketing its mountains as part of a “quality-of-life” pitch — but those mountains also limit the type of companies that can come here. Those restrictions become more severe as you go further west into the heart of the Appalachian chain. Now, for the upside: In theory, those restrictions ought to matter less and less. A factory requires acres of flat land; a software company doesn’t. But persuading a software company that it ought to be in Appalachia rather than Austin is a hard sell for lots of reasons. Whether you look at “Hillbilly Elegy” from the right or the left, the story doesn’t address that — but our communities have to every day.
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