Hillbilly Elegy:

A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis



Study Guide


(2) What obstacles did Vance need to overcome to escape poverty?

(2) Why did he write this book?

(3) What is the 'ethnic component' to his story? What are the good and bad aspects of his heritage?

(4) What is the history of Scotch-Irish in America?

(4) Why are hillbillies more pessimistic about the future than other groups of poor people in Ameirca?

(5-7) Vance does not believe that economic insecurity is the primary problem facing his culture? What does Vance mean when he says "There is a lack of agency here-- a feeling that you have little control over your life and a willingness to blame everyone but yourself. This is distinct from the larger economic landscape of modern America.."

Chapter 1

(11-13) Despite the many places where he lived while growing up, why did Vance always consider the holler in Jackson Kentucky to be his real home?

(12) What customs did hill country follow?

(14-15) Describe Vance's Uncle Teaberry, Uncle Pet, and Uncle David.

(15-16) In what circumstances did Mamaw believe it was permissible to kill someone?

(16) How did Breathitt County earn its nickname "Bloody Breahtitt"?

(17) Describe the conception of honor that filled the Blanton men with such pride.
(18-19) How poor were the Blantons while Vance was growing up? How had the situation changed when Vance returned to Jackson as an adult?

(19-20) What was the response of the people of Jackson to the ABC News report about "Mountain Dew mouth" in Appalachia (even though it was true)?  How is this response typical of the people there?

(21) What 'Great Migration' of hillbillies took place in the mid-20th century? Vance argues that the social pathologies of hillbillies in Kentucky spread to all the states where they migrated . Do you buy this explanation?

Chapter 2

(23-24) Vance credits his grandparents for all the success he has had in his life. What were their life stories?

(24) Who raised Papaw Vance?

(24-25) How did the history of feuding in Vance's family heritage fit into their conception of honor?

(24-25) How old were Vance's grandparents when they married?

(25-26) What job options did Papaw have in Jackson when he first married?

(26-27) What was the real story behind their move to Ohio?

(27-28) Where did Papaw find work?

(Note how aggressively manufacturing firms were recruiting whole families to move to factory towns in the Midwest during the years after WWII.)

(28-29) How many residents of Appalachia migrated to industrial towns on the 'hillbilly highway'? Where did the Blanton clan wind up?

(30-32) How did Mamaw and Papaw get along in their new life? What stigmas did they have to combat both back in Appalachia and in their new home? How did they adjust to the privacy typical of the new suburb?

(How was their experience similar to the reception Southern blacks had when they migrated to the North?)

(33-34) What happened when Uncle Jimmy started playing with a toy fighter jet at the local pharmacy?

(35-36) Hillbillies like Mamaw and Papaw voted Democratic all of their lives, but did they look to the government to save them? What did they expect from life?

(36) How was the generation of Vance's mother different from her parents' generation? what new challenges would this generation face that Mamaw and Papaw never expected?

Chapter 3

(39) To what cause does Vance attribute Mamaw's repeated miscarriages?

(40-41) How did life start to fall about for the couple even though Papaw was making good money and their children were going to good public schools? What forces were driving the problems which would prevent their children from achievieng the American Dream? (How does this analysis fit with Vance's thesis about the roots of poverty?)

(41-42) How did Mamaw get back at her husband one night for coming home drunk?

(42-44) What events drove the marriage to its crisis point? (Why didn't the couple reach out to other family members for help?)

(44) Why didn't Papaw want Uncle Jimmy to work at the Armco factory?

(45) Why didn't Aunt Lori go to college?

(46) How did these two eventually turn their lives around?

(46) What about Bev, Vance's mother? To what forces does Vance attribute her decline into a chaotic home life and eventual drug addiction?

(46) What saved Mamaw and Papaw's marriage?

Chapter 4

(47-48) Describe Middletown at the height of its economic fortunes from the 1960's to the 80's. Why were the working class whites who lived there culturally conservative even though they voted Democratic?

(48-49) What were race relations like during Middletown's industrial heyday?

(49-50) How did life in the town start to change in the 1980's while Vance was growing up?

(50-51) What is Middletown like today?

(51-52) How did the federal government's programs to encourage home owenership actually contribute to  Middletown's decline? How did local government projects also cause harm?

(53) What impact did the merger in 1989 of Armco with Kawasaki Steel have on the decline?

(54-56) What happened to the belief in Papaw's generation that their children and grandchildren would work with their minds and not their hands? Why did so few of Vance's childhood friends go to college? (How does this point fit Vance's thesis?)

(57) What was the collective wisdom among the townsfolk about who would make it to college and then success in the professional world? How did people begin explaining poverty to themselves? What had happened to their work ethic?

(58) How did this attitude reflect the attitudes toward work of people back in Appalachia?

(59) When does the competition to get ahead in life really begin? How did Vance's grandparents help him get started early?

Chapter 5

(61) How old was Vance when his parents split up?

(62) Describe Bob Hamel, the guy that Vance's mother got involved with next and who became Vance's adoptive father.

(62-65) Describe Vance's relationship with his Mom when he was in his first years of grade school.

(66-67) What key values did Vance learn from his family? How old was Vance when he learned how to fight?  What were "fighting words" for him? What tips did Mamaw teach him about fighting?

(69) How did Mamaw teach vance to deal with the 3rd grade bully? (Vance adds, without commenting, that this was the last fist fight he was ever in. Why?)

(69-70) How did Vance's life start to unravel when he was nine? (Money was not the problem: his mom and Bob, her third husband, had a combined income of over $100,000.)

(71-72) Describe the kind of fights that his Mom would get into with Bob. What kind of impact did the constant fighting have on Vance?

(73) What does Vance conclude was the real cause of this violent behavior?

(74) How did Vance's Mom nearly kill herself when he was eleven?

(75) After her split with Bob, how did his Mom's behavior deteriorate even more?

(76-77) How did she nearly kill Vance when he was eleven? (Note the detail with which Vance relates this memory. Trauma is burned into your mind forever.) 

(78) Why did Vance lie in court to protect his mother? What does Vance begin to realize about his culture during the court hearing and then later during his visit to Uncle Jimmy's family in Napa, California?

Chapter 6

(81) Why was Vance always confused growing up when he was asked if he had any brothers or sisters?

(82-83) How did Vance's sister Lindsay really save her brother?

(84) What happened when the family travelled to a model audition for Lindsay?

(85-86) What kind of religious instruction did Vance receive from his grandmother? What parable was she fond of reciting for Vance?

(87) How many different father figures did Vance deal with as he was growing up? What was he learning about adult relationships?

(89-95) What was Vance's experience like at age twelve when he was reunited with his biological father and went to live with his family for the summer?

(93) How religious are the people of Appalachia?

(95) What did Vance think of going to church regularly with born again Christians?

(96-98) What fundamentalist ideas did he begin to imbibe about gay people, science, the government and Easterners in general?

Chapter 7

(101-105) Describe the impact of Papaw's death on the family.

(104) What does Vance mean when he says, "To this day, being able to "take advantage" of someone is the measure in my mind of having a parent"?

(106-108) What stories did Vance remember about his grandfather at his funeral?

(112-13) How did things 'veer off course' for Vance's Mom after her father died?

(113-14) How well did Mamaw deal with the loss of her husband?

(113-14) Who took care of thirteen year old Vance during this time?

(116-17) What kind of experience did his mom have in rehab? What does Vance think of the idea that addiction should be treated as a disease?

Chapter 8

(119-20)  What did fourteen year old Vance think of his mother's plan to move to Dayton with her most recent boyfriend, Matt?

(120-21) How did things go with the anger management counselor she hired to work with Vance?

(121) Why did Vance feel like there was no one in his life with whom he could live? What 'least bad option' did he choose?

(124-25) What worries gnawed at Vance while living with his Dad and his born again family?

(125) How did Vance's Mom get along with her latest boyfriend Matt?

(126) Whom did she marry? How well did Vance and his Mom get along with this family?

(127) What is Vance's position about the source of the real problems with America's public schools? How did he do in school as a sixteen year old?

Chapter 9

(129) How many different homes has Vance lived in now? How many different fathers and families has he known? (See p. 150)

(130-31) Describe Vance's response to his mom's request that he supply the urine for her upcoming drug test. Why does he give in? Why does Vance feel like he hit bottom at this moment?

(132) After his final break with his mother, what was life like for Vance living with Mamaw? How was his grandmother’s support essential during his final years in high school?

(137-38) How did his life turn around when he started living permanently with her?

(138-39) What did Vance learn about the class divide while working as a cashier at Dillman's Grocery? 

(140) How did the poor game the welfare system?

(140) How does Vance explain why
 Appalachia and the South went from staunchly Dem­ocratic to staunchly Republican in less than a generation?

(141) What did Mamaw think of the hillbilly family that moved into the house next door when it was made into Section 8 housing?

(142) How does Vance explain why Mamaw's political views swung so wildly back and forth between extreme conservatism and European style social democracy?

(142-45) In the following pages Vance tries to get at the reasons why families like his struggled so during the 1980's and 90's. What answers does he come up with?

(144-45) He describes reading books about poverty in America by professors like William Julius Wilson (on the left) and Charles Murray (on the right), but what conclusion does he draw from his own experience about the origins of the problems facing his own family and so many of the families like his?

After hearing the 'surround' argument and the 'macroeconomic' argument, he concludes, "Our elegy is a sociological one, yes, but it is also about psychology and community and culture and faith." (144)

(145-47) Vance supports his argument by describing some of what he has witnessed of his dysfunctional neighbors behavior. He is making a classic 'culture of poverty argument'. Is his argument convincing?

(148-49) How did Mamaw get through to Vance and convince him to work hard?

"I know Mamaw was good for me not because some Harvard psychologist says so but because I felt it." (150)

(150-51) What was the most important aspect of her influence over the three years he lived with her?

Chapter 10

(155-56) Why was it a really good idea for Vance NOT to go to college the year after he graduated?

(156-57) What scared Vance the most about joining the Marines?

(158) Why was Mamaw so against the idea at first?

(159-60) How did the Blantons and Mamaw in particular support J.D. while he was in boot camp?

(162-63) How did Vance learn to overcome "learned helplessness" in the Marines?

(164) how did the townsfolk in Middleton treat J.D. after he had graduated from bootcamp?

(165) What happened when Mamaw's health care premiums went up $300 a month?

(167) Why did paying for a dinner at Wendy's make such an impact on Vance's self-esteem?

(168-69) What ailment finally took Mamaw?

(170) How much money was Mamaw able to leave her family?

(171) How did Lindsay and J.D. silence some demons on their ride to Kentucky for Mamaw's funeral?

(173-74) How did Vance gain some perspective on his family's travails while serving in Iraq?

(175) What basic life skills did Vance pick up in the military?

(175-76) How did his time spent working with others in the Marines prepare Vance for the professional world? 

(176) How did the Marine Corps experience enable Vance to overcome the hillbilly 'surround' and not 'undersell' himself?

Chapter 11

(181) How did Vance handle college after his experience in the military?

(182) What part time jobs did Vance find to help pay for his tuition at Ohio State?

(183-84) Why did Vance's health break down during his freshman year?

(184) Vance can never forgive his Mom. Can we accept his stance toward her?

(184) Where did Vance find a third job?

(185-86) Why did Vance oppose a bill that would have reined in the practices of pay-day lenders?

(186) How did Vance rebut the guy in one of his classes who described the people who serve in the military as under educated and bloodthirsty?

(187) How did Vance manage to graduate from Ohio State in under two years?

(188-89) During the summer of 2009 spent in Middleton before he went to law school, Vance described the cynicism of the people there as almost spiritual. Why did people there, as patriotic as any in the US, feel so disconnected from the rest of America?

(189-90) According to Vance, from where does much of the anti-Obama animus come from that Trump would later exploit?

(191-92) Why do conspiracy theories about Obama and the evil designs of the federal government breed so freely in the hillbilly mindset?

(192-93) How is this radical political attitude related to the conditions of the surround in which many of the people with whom Vance grew up find themselves living? How do right wing political leaders contribute to the problem? 

(193) What is the treatment Vance recommends for this dangerous malaise?

(194) What did Vance's Dad ask him when he found out that his son had applied to Yale Law School?

Hillbilly Elegy 4


Chapter 12

(197) Why did Vance decide to apply to Yale and Harvard and not Stanford?

the personal sign-off from the dean of your college

(198) How was Vance able to afford the tuition at Yale?

"the most expensive schools are paradoxically cheaper for low-income students. Take, for example, a student whose parents earn thirty thousand per year-- not a lot of money but not poverty level, either. That stu­dent would pay ten thousand for one of the less selective branch campuses of the University of Wisconsin but would pay six thousand at the school's flagship Madison campus. At Harvard, the student would pay only about thirteen hundred despite tuition of over forty thousand."

(200) Why did J.D. describe Yale Law as 'nerd Hollywood'?

(200-01) With whom did Vance bond during his first year?

"One of those classes, a constitutional law seminar of sixteen students, became a kind of family for me. We called ourselves the island of misfit toys, as there was no real unifying force to our team-- a conservative hillbilly from Appa­lachia, the supersmart daughter of Indian immigrants, a black Canadian with decades' worth of street smarts, a neuroscientist from Phoenix, an aspiring civil rights attorney born a few min­utes from Yale's campus, and an extremely progressive lesbian with a fantastic sense of humor, among others-- but we became excellent friends."

(201) How hard was the work? What area of his studies did he need to improve?
Why did one professor believe that students like Vance should not be admitted?

(202-03) What was the toughest part of the adjustment for him? What new obstacle was it essential for him to overcome?

"A student survey found that over 95 percent of Yale Law's students qualified as upper­ middle-class or higher, and most of them qualified as outright wealthy. Obviously, I was neither upper-middle-class nor wealthy. Very few people at Yale Law School are like me. They may look like me, but for all of the Ivy League's obsession with diversity, virtually everyone-- black, white, Jewish, Muslim, whatever-- ­ comes from intact families who never worry about money."

(204-05) How did Vance struggle with issues of class both at school and back home? Could he be honest with his classmates about his life? Could he tell folk back home what he was doing?

"At Yale Law School, I felt like my spaceship had crashed in Oz. People would say with a straight face that a surgeon mother and engineer father were middle-class. In Middletown, $160,000 is an unfathomable salary; at Yale Law School, students expect to earn that 
amount in the first year after law school."

"I became less comfortable with the lies I told about my own past. "My mom is a nurse," I told them. But of course that wasn't true anymore. I didn't really know what my legal father-- the one whose name  was on my birth certificate-- did for a living; he was a total stranger."

"one consequence of isolation is seeing standard metrics of success as not just un­attainable but as the property of people not like us.... I imagine that the discomfort they feel at leaving behind much of their identity plays at least a small role in this problem." (206)

(206) How does Vance believe that privileged schools should change to make people from different classes less uncomfortable? 

"We do know that working-class Americans aren't just less likely to climb the eco­nomic ladder, they're also more likely to fall off even after they've reached the top. I imagine that the discomfort they feel at leaving behind much of their identity plays at least a small role in this problem. One way our upper class can promote upward mobility, then, is not only by pushing wise public policies but by opening their hearts and minds to the newcomers who don't quite belong."

"When you go from working-class to professional-class, almost everything about your old life becomes unfashionable at best or unhealthy at worst…. Why has no one else from my high school made it to the Ivy League? Why are people like me so poorly represented in America's elite institu­tions? Why is domestic strife so common in families like mine? Why did I think that places like Yale and Harvard were so un­reachable? Why did successful people feel so different?"

Chapter 13

(209-10) Why did Vance fall for Usha?

(210-13) How did Vance handle the social intricacies of the Fall Interview Program during his second year? (What happened when he sampled a glass of sparkling water?)

(212-13) What did Vance realize was the essential key to finding high paying jobs?

I went to Yale to earn a law degree. But that first year at Yale taught me most of all that I didn't know how the world worked. (210) 

We needed to be funny, charming, and engaging, or we'd never be invited to the D.C. or New York offices for final interviews. 

At these types of events, you have to strike a balance between shy and overbearing. You don't want to annoy the partners, but you don't want them to leave without shaking your hand. I tried to be myself; I've always considered myself gregarious but not op­pressive. 

It was at this meal, on the first of five grueling days of inter­views, that I began to understand that I was seeing the inner workings of a system that lay hidden to most of my kind ... The interviews were about passing a social test-- a test of belong­ing, of holding your own in a corporate boardroom, of making connections with potential future clients. (213)

"...everyone who plays by those rules fails...  successful people are playing an entirely different game. They don't flood the job market with resumes, hoping that some employer will grace them with an interview. They network. They email a friend of a friend to make sure their name gets the look it deserves. They have their uncles call old college buddies. They have their school's career service office set up interviews months in advance on their behalf. They have parents tell them how to dress,  what to say, and whom to schmooze." (214)

(214) What is 'social capital'? How do you attain it?

"The net­works of people and institutions around us have real economic value. They connect us to the right people, ensure that we have opportunities, and impart valuable information. Without them, we're going it alone. (214)

(215) How did Vance respond to the question, "Why did I want to work for a law firm?"

(216-17) What did Vance learn about competing with classmates as he prepared his paper for the Yale Law School Journal? (Who rescued him from this predicament?)

"At Yale, networking power is like the air we breathe-- so pervasive that it's easy to miss."  (216)

(218) What is the value of a judicial clerkship? Why is social networking a vital aspect of this process?

"There's no database that spits out this information, no central source that tells you which judges are nice, which judges send people to the Supreme Court, and which type of work-- trial or appellate--you want to do. In fact, it's considered almost un­seemly to talk about  these things.  How do you ask a professor if the judge he's recommending you to is a nice lady? It's trickier than it might seem. So to get this information, you have to tap into your social network-- student groups, friends who have clerked, and the few professors who are willing to give brutally honest advice. By this point in my law school experience, I had learned that the only way to take advantage of networking was to ask." (218-19)

(219) How did Professor Chua set Vance straight about this career path? (How did this conversation change his life?)

"..the value of real social capital:... my professor told me that she wanted to talk to me very seriously. She turned downright somber: "I don't think you're doing this fortheright reasons. I think you're doing this for the credential, which is fine, but the credential doesn't actually serve your career goals. If you don't want to be a high-powered Supreme Court litigator, you shouldn't care that much about this job."

"Social capital isn't manifest only in someone connecting you to a friend or passing a resume on to an old boss. It is also, or perhaps primarily, a measure of how much we learn through our friends, colleagues, and mentors." (220)

(219-20) Where did Vance and Usha wind up landing a job?

Advice from an old aquaintance in Mitch Daniels' office (remember that part time job?)

"So Usha and I decided to go through the clerkship process together. We landed in northern Kentucky, not far from where I grew up. It was the best possible situation." (220)

(222) What lesson about social capital is Vance trying to teach us?

Chapter 14

(223-24) How did the trauma of Vance's hillbilly upbringing nearly wreck his relationship with Usha? 

"Whenever something bad happens-- even a hint of disagreement-- you withdraw com­pletely. It's like you have a shell that you hide i.n"
I could scream at her when she did something I didn't like, but that seemed mean. Or I could withdraw and get away."

(225-26) How did Vance overcome this psychological obstacle?

the best medicine was talking about it with the people who understood: his family.

Psy­chologists call the everyday occurrences of my and Lindsay's life "adverse childhood experiences," or ACEs. ACEs are traumatic childhood events, and their consequences reach far into adult­hood. The trauma need not be physical. The following events or feelings are some of the most common ACEs:

  • being sworn at, insulted, or humiliated by  parents
  • being pushed, grabbed, or having something thrown at you
  • feeling that your family didn't support each  other
  • having parents who were separated or divorced
  • living with an alcoholic or a drug user
  • living with someone who was depressed or attempted suicide
  • watching a loved one be physically abused. (226)

(226-27) In his research of ACE's what did Vance discover to be a primary difference between working class and middle class families?

four in every ten working-class people had faced mul­tiple instances of childhood trauma. For the non-working class, that number was 29  percent

Harvard pediatricians have studied the effect that childhood trauma has on the mind. In addition to later negative health consequences, the doctors found that constant stress can actually change the chemistry of a child's brain. Stress, after all, is triggered by a physiological reaction. I

(227-28) What is the danger of being 'hard wired' for conflict?

For kids like me, the part of the brain that deals with stress and conflict is always activated-- the switch flipped indefinitely....And that wiring remains, even when there's no more conflict to be had. (228)

For many kids, the first impulse is escape, but people who lurch toward the exit rarely choose the right door.... Out of the frying pan and into the fire. Chaos begets chaos. Instability begets instabil­ity. Welcome to family life for the American hillbily. (229)

"I realized that I mistrusted apologies, as they were often used to convince you to lower your guard. It was an 'I'm sorry" that convinced me to take that fateful car ride with Mom more than a decade earlier. And I began to understand why I used words as weapons: That's what everyone around me did; I did it to survive. Disagreements were war, and you played to win the  game." (230)

(228-29) What shocking statistic did Vance uncover about the incidence of children exposed to three or more maternal partners in the world? How is this syndrome passed on to the next generation?

(230) What would have happened to Vance if he had married someone wired the same way?

"In my worst moments, I convince myself that there is no exit, and no matter how much I fight old demons, they are as much an inheritance as my blue eyes and brown hair. The sad fact is that I couldn't do it without Usha. Even at my best, I'm a delayed explosion-- I can be defused, but only with skill and precision."  (230)

(231) At this stage in his emotional development, how did Vance start to rethink how he felt about his mother?

"What I do know is that Mom is no villain. She loves Lindsay and me. She tried desperately to be a good mother. Sometimes she succeeded; sometimes she didn't. She tried to find happiness in love and work, but she listened too much to the wrong voice in her head. But Mom deserves much of the blame. No person's childhood gives him or her a perpetual moral get-out-of-jail-free card-- not Lindsay, not Aunt Wee, not me, and not Mom." (232)

(232) Where does sympathy end and responsibility begin? Is Vance's judgment of his mother fair?

(233-34) What was Vance's response when Lindsay informed him that his mother was now addictied to heroin?

The emotion Mom inspired then was not hatred, or love, or rage, but fear. Fear for her safety. Fear for Lindsay having to deal yet again with Mom's problems while I lived hundreds of miles away. 

Has Vance built a case for the argument that a 'culture of poverty' develops in communities where concentrated poverty predominates and that this surround reinforces destructive behaviors which not only derail lives but can be passed on to the next generation.?

Chapter 15

(237-38) What plan did Vance try to put into action when he found out that his Mom was homeless and on drugs again? 

"I'd give Mom enough money to help her get on her feet. She'd find her own place, save money to get her nursing license back, and go from there. In the meantime, I'd monitor her finances to ensure that she stayed clean and on track financially." (237)

(238-40) Does he think that his efforts to help her will bring any change? What does he mean by 'putting a thumb on the scale'?

"A good friend, who worked for a time in the White House and cares deeply about the plight of the working class, once told me, "The best way to look at this might be to recognize that you probably can't fix these things. They'll always be around. But maybe you can put your thumb on the scale a little for the people at the margins." (238)

(240-41) Vance tells the life story of his cousin Gail and how she climbed out of adversity and into the American Dream? (When did the positive aspects of  'hillbilly' character take over for her?)

"So here's Gail: teenage single mom, no family, little support. A lot of people would wilt in those circumstances, but the hill­billy took over. "Dad wasn't really around," Gail remembered, "and hadn't been in years, and I obviously wasn't speaking to Mom. But I remember the one lesson I took from them, and that was that we could do anything we wanted. I wanted that baby, and I wanted to make it work. So I did it."" (241)

(241-46) Vance says that 'we can build policies based on a better understanding of what stands in the way of kids like me.' What kind of policy suggestions does he make regarding the foster care system and Section 8 housing?  Vance also cites the attitude that boys develop towards school work:

Education of Boys:

"As a child, I associated accomplishments in school with femininity. Manliness meant strength, courage, a willingness to fight, and, later, success with girls. Boys who got good grades were "sissies" or "faggots." I don't know where I got this feeling. Certainly not from Mamaw, who demanded good grades, nor from Papaw. But it was there, and studies now  show that working-class boys like me do much worse in school because they view schoolwork as a feminine endeavor. Can you change this with a new law or program? Probably not. Some scales aren't that amenable to the proverbial  thumb." (246)

Foster Care:

"Part of the problem is how state laws define the family. For families like mine-- and for many black and Hispanic families-grandparents, cousins, aunts, and uncles play an outsize role. Child services often cut them out of the picture, as they did in my case. Some states require occupational licensing for foster parents-- just like nurses and doctors-- even when the would-be foster parent is a grandmother or another close family member. In other words, our country's social services weren't made for hillbilly families, and they often make a bad problem worse." (243)

Section 8 Housing:

(241-43) What did Raj Chetty's study of the geographic locations of childhood upbringing and their relation to poverty confirm for Vance?

"Growing up around a lot of single moms and dads and living in a place where most of your neighbors are poor really narrows the realm of possibilities..." (243)

"Chetty and his coauthors noted two important factors that explained the uneven geographic dis­tribution of opportunity: the prevalence of single parents and income segregation. Growing up around a lot of single moms and dads and living in a place where most of your neighbors are poor really narrows the realm of possibilities." (242)

"the real problem for so many of these kids is what happens (or doesn't happen) at home. For example, we'd recognize that Section 8 vouchers ought to be administered in a way that doesn't segre­gate the poor into little enclaves (245)

What is the limit of the government's ability to help?

"The most important lesson of my life is not that society failed to provide me with opportunities. My elementary and middle schools were entirely adequate,  staffed with  teach­ers who did everything they could to reach me. Our high school ranked near the bottom of Ohio's schools, but  that  had little to do with the staff and much to do with the students. I had Pell Grants and government  subsidized low-interest  student  loans that made college affordable, and need-based scholarships  for law school. I never went hungry, thanks at least in part to the old-age benefits that Mamaw generously shared with me. These programs are far from perfect, but to the degree that I nearly succumbed to my worst decisions (and I came quite close), the fault lies almost entirely with factors outside the government's control." (244)

(247) Will Vance ever be rid of the impulses he developed as a child? How well was Vance able to control his anger when his sense of honor was violated by a man giving him the finger in traffic?


What was it like for Vance's mom when he was little and had his heart set on a particular toy for Christmas?  What sort of options does a poor mother have if she does not have the money to buy it?

(253-54) What advice does Vance have for Brian, the fifteen year old kid stuck in the same situation he had been when he was that age?