Coming of Age in the Other America illuminates the profound effects of neighborhoods on impoverished families. The authors conducted in-depth interviews and fieldwork with 150 young adults, and found that those who had been able to move to better neighborhoods—either as part of the Moving to Opportunity program or by other means—achieved much higher rates of high school completion and college enrollment than their parents. About half the youth surveyed reported being motivated by an “identity project”—or a strong passion such as music, art, or a dream job—to finish school and build a career.
Yet the authors also found troubling evidence that some of the most promising young adults often fell short of their goals and remained mired in poverty. Factors such as neighborhood violence and family trauma put these youth on expedited paths to adulthood, forcing them to shorten or end their schooling and find jobs much earlier than their middle-class counterparts. Weak labor markets and subpar postsecondary educational institutions, including exploitative for-profit trade schools and under-funded community colleges, saddle some young adults with debt and trap them in low-wage jobs. A third of the youth surveyed—particularly those who had not developed identity projects—were neither employed nor in school. To address these barriers to success, the authors recommend initiatives that help transform poor neighborhoods and provide institutional support for the identity projects that motivate youth to stay in school. They propose increased regulation of for-profit schools and increased college resources for low-income high school students.
Coming of Age in the Other America presents a sensitive, nuanced account of how a generation of ambitious but underprivileged young Baltimoreans has struggled to succeed. It both challenges long-held myths about inner-city youth and shows how the process of “social reproduction”—where children end up stuck in the same place as their parents—is far from inevitable.
"You will not read a more important book about America this year."—The Economist
"A riveting book."—The Wall Street Journal
"Essential reading."—David Brooks, New York Times
Hillbilly Elegy is a passionate and personal analysis of a culture in crisis—that of white working-class Americans. The disintegration of this group, a process that has been slowly occurring now for more than forty years, has been reported with growing frequency and alarm, but has never before been written about as searingly from the inside. J. D. Vance tells the true story of what a social, regional, and class decline feels like when you were born with it hung around your neck.
The Vance family story begins hopefully in postwar America. J. D.’s grandparents were “dirt poor and in love,” and moved north from Kentucky’s Appalachia region to Ohio in the hopes of escaping the dreadful poverty around them. They raised a middle-class family, and eventually one of their grandchildren would graduate from Yale Law School, a conventional marker of success in achieving generational upward mobility. But as the family saga of Hillbilly Elegy plays out, we learn that J.D.'s grandparents, aunt, uncle, sister, and, most of all, his mother struggled profoundly with the demands of their new middle-class life, never fully escaping the legacy of abuse, alcoholism, poverty, and trauma so characteristic of their part of America. With piercing honesty, Vance shows how he himself still carries around the demons of his chaotic family history.
A deeply moving memoir, with its share of humor and vividly colorful figures, Hillbilly Elegy is the story of how upward mobility really feels. And it is an urgent and troubling meditation on the loss of the American dream for a large segment of this country.