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Opening Address, J.D. Vance

The cavernous ballroom at the new Hilton Hotel in downtown Cleveland buzzed with anticipation as attendees awaited the opening keynote speaker, J.D. Vance, to kick off the 2017 Policy Summit on Housing, Human Capital, and Inequality.

Vance, author of #1 New York Times bestseller Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, began on a light note, sharing that his wife had a baby 3 weeks earlier and he is grateful for being asked to speak at the Policy Summit because it gave him the opportunity to bathe and shave for the second time in weeks. He deftly transitioned to the heart of his talk by explaining some of the motivation for writing the memoir that details many of the struggles of poor Americans in the Appalachian areas of the United States.

Vance was raised in Middletown, Ohio, primarily by his grandparents. His mother was addicted to drugs, and his father left when Vance was a boy. He experienced firsthand the economic and social struggles that contribute to much of the intense poverty in southern Ohio, West Virginia, and Kentucky but was still able to “get out” and attend The Ohio State University and then Yale Law School. So the questions Vance poses in both his book and his keynote speech are, first, why can’t more people escape this cycle of poverty, and, second, what can we do to increase the number of those who do?

It turns out the answers are complicated. The loss of manufacturing jobs is only part of the problem. Family networks are strained and social institutions such as labor unions and churches have grown weaker, and in the absence of these resources, young people don’t learn the soft skills, or have the social knowledge and emotional intelligence they need, to do well as adults. Another factor is the crippling opioid addiction crisis that has hit the lower Midwestern areas of America harder than almost anywhere else in the country, as is the prevalence of childhood trauma—both physical and emotional abuse.

Our Ohio Renewal is a nonprofit Vance founded to strengthen the kinship care networks that have been destroyed by opioid and heroin addiction. He is working at the grassroots level and focusing on areas very much like his own hometown to address the issue at its core.


“I came to this issue in a personal way. My grandparents grew up in eastern Kentucky coal country, and I was the first in the family to go to college. But [my book is] not only a memoir. It’s a social commentary,” Vance said.

Vance is concerned that if we can’t get to the root of these issues, another generation of children will grow up bearing the (invisible and visible) scars of being raised in broken families. “When you grow up in a household with trauma, that trauma doesn’t go away with material prosperity. These are consequences we see again and again in the data for years following,” Vance stressed to the audience of policymakers and data experts.

Vance noted another barrier to social mobility. “The social costs to getting out are higher than they used to be, and the benefits of moving are lower.” While Vance’s grandparents needed to move to find better jobs, they didn’t need to move far. They were still close enough to visit their ancestral home often. “There was no social segregation,” said Vance. Nowadays, however, moving out requires getting an education, and that, he said, “always transforms how you think of home. You can come off as condescending.” Vance suggested people need strategies to deal with the separation.

Mary Ann Stropkay, a conference attendee from First Federal Lakewood, a mutual bank with branches in suburban Cleveland, was impressed by Vance’s insight into the complicated topic of understanding barriers to social mobility. “The cultural dynamics at play when it comes to poverty and the decline of social institutions that are so important to everyone—whatever part of the income spectrum you are on—are interesting to hear from Vance’s perspective,” she said.

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Vance fielded a number of questions about alternatives to relocating for people hoping to escape poverty in these areas and agreed that investing in poor areas is needed, too. “Up and out works only if it works both ways,” he says. “If people are moving out, you also need people to move in.” Otherwise, “the place dies.” Vance said it is important to invest in some of these declining areas so that people don’t have to choose between staying or moving far away, but he also cautioned that we should not think “we have to save every small town.”

In general, Vance is disturbed by the separation of people along ideological lines and the negative policy dialogue that pervades the public discussion of these issues. He said progressives are wedded to legacy ideas of Lyndon B. Johnson and conservatives to those of Ronald Reagan, but “we need new solutions. The problems are different.”