WASHINGTON – Two prominent Americans who overcame the odds in leaving poverty behind – a white conservative and a black liberal – agreed on Tuesday that poor and jobless African-Americans have a harder struggle than their white counterparts.
William Julius Wilson, a Harvard University sociologist born into poverty in Pennsylvania, joined in a wide-ranging discussion at the Brookings Institution with J.D. Vance, a venture capitalist known for his memoir “Hillbilly Elegy,” a story about an impoverished white family in Appalachia.
Wilson’s father, a coal miner, died at the age of 39, leaving his six children and wife behind. His mother, who had a 10th grade education and lived to 94, supported the family by cleaning houses. Wilson, who remarked that his odds of becoming a Harvard professor must have been nearly zero, said he related very much to Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy.”
Vance, a Marine and Yale Law School graduate, grew up in Ohio, where his grandparents raised a family from dirt poor to middle-class. After Yale, he worked for Mithril Capital Management LLC, a venture capital firm owned by Peter Thiel.
The two discussed structural barriers built into the American economic system versus an individual’s sense of responsibility in the outcomes of their lives. These two contrasting forces are central to much of the political debate between liberals and conservatives. The balance is highlighted in Vance’s book through details about addiction. Research shows, Vance noted, that people who believe their addiction is a disease show slightly less proclivity to fight and overcome that addiction, which creates a Catch-22.
“We know there are biological components to addiction,” Vance said. “We know that there are these sort of structural, non-personal, decision-making drivers of addiction, and yet if you totally buy into the non-individual choice explanation of addiction, you show less of a proclivity to fight.”
This Catch-22 can also be applied to poverty, and Vance believes that what’s missing in American discourse is a “simultaneous recognition” that life is unfair for some but individual agency must be emphasized in spite of that unfairness. He said that his grandmother, who he described as the hero of the memoir, towed that line better than anyone he knew.
“Life is unfair for us, but don’t be like those people who think the deck is hopelessly stacked against them,” Vance remembered his grandmother telling him.
Wilson described his own positive roles models — his mother and his aunt, with whom he would spend summers in New York City. The aunt, who held a college degree, told him that one day he would also complete his college education.
Both Vance and Wilson had some criticisms for their respective parties. Vance said there’s a tendency on the right to “say that these parents need to take better care of their families and of their children, and unless they do, there’s nothing that we can do.” Both agreed that there are cultural practices within families that reinforce problems created by the structural barriers – behaviors that perpetuate poverty and disadvantage.
“Too often, liberals ignore the role of these cultural forces in perpetuating or reinforcing conditions associated with poverty or concentrated poverty,” Wilson said.
Findings released by the Pew Research Center in 2017 show contrasting perceptions about wealth and poverty between the two parties. In the Pew survey, about 66 percent of Republicans said that wealth is due to hard work, rather than advantages in life, while only 29 percent of Democrats said that wealth was based on hard work. On why Americans are poor, 32 percent of Republicans said it’s because of circumstances beyond their control, rather than a lack of effort, while 71 percent of Democrats said poverty was beyond the individual’s control.
Vance and Wilson agreed black and jobless individuals have a tougher road than white and jobless Americans. Vance said that low-income African-Americans are more optimistic, however, given the “Barack Obama effect,” which he said could wear off soon.
Vance said that concentrated poverty is worse than isolated poverty, and the experience of concentrated poverty is more common with African-Americans because of the residual impact of housing policies in the 1950s and 1960s. Housing is the biggest factor driving the difference, he said.
“All things being equal, certainly being poor, jobless and black is sort of worse off, if you look at wealth numbers, if you look at income numbers – that’s still the case,” he said.