Three University of Wisconsin professors led a discussion Monday about the political, social, and public health implications of UW’s 2017 “Go Big Read” book “Hillbilly Elegy.”
Written by J. D. Vance, the novel is a personal memoir about his journey out of poverty and a broken home, and how political and social dimensions can help explain his and millions of other people’s experiences as children of poverty in rural America.
UW political science professor Katherine Cramer, director of the Morgridge Center for Public Service, said the book provides insight into the motivations of rural voters in support of President Donald Trump.
“This book has come to our attention because many people have turned to it for some answers to what happened in the 2016 presidential election,” Cramer said.
Rural resentment toward a government which they feel is biased toward urban interests and values, Cramer said, is a major political perception touched upon in the book.
Cramer said rural populations believe the decision-making power of the government lies in cities, and resources flow to urban elites of these cities. The result is a rural population which feels ignored and disrespected.
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Cramer took issue with what she viewed as Vance’s failure to address the role of racism in rural frustration, something which she said has become increasingly important since the election of President Barack Obama in 2008.
“In this context of the first African-American president, racism became more relevant for many people’s political opinions, and I think we need to address it, and I’m worried that this book discounts that a bit too much,” Cramer said.
UW social work professor Katherine Magnuson said some of the aforementioned rural resentment is the result of intergenerational poverty found in many rural regions.
Of those born into the bottom 20 percent of wealth in the United States, Magnuson said only four percent make it to the top quintile of wealth in their lifetime. This statistic points to generational poverty as a rising concern.
Additionally, much of this poverty is concentrated in the Appalachia region of the southeastern United States, an area which Vance focused on in his writing of Hillbilly Elegy.
Generational poverty and societal resistance to economic mobility can result in chronic stress in the lives of children who experience it, Magnuson said.
“For children, there’s a physiological component to stress that has the ability to become embedded in children biologically,” Cramer said.
This stress can result in psychological and emotional problems for children in later life, but Magnuson described humanity’s resiliency as “ordinary magic.” In other words, people affected by this physiological stress are able to recover and lead normal lives, in many cases.
Vance used his personal experiences breaking free from both the generational poverty and physiological stress he found himself in from birth to write “Hillbilly Elegy.”
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The third speaker, Aleksandra Zgierska, a professor within the UW School of Medicine and Public Health, spoke about the implications of opioid addiction in rural areas.
Zgierska said addiction to opioids has been an increasingly important topic in public health in recent years due to skyrocketing drug-related overdose death rates, especially in rural areas.
The best way to combat opioid addiction and overdoses, Zgierska said, is through treatment. However, the stigma associated with treatment and addiction prevent many people from seeking treatment.
“There’s a lot we need to do to break the stigma of addiction, to break the misconceptions that exist out there, so that we can help people reach out for help and get the help they need,” Zgierska said.