When an egg is fertilized there is a microscopic spark of light — a light that can lead to beginning of life and consequently, become the most pivotal choice in a woman’s life. Jodi Picoult’s, “A Spark of Light,” follows a man through the hours of his life as he bursts into a women’s health clinic and takes those inside, hostage. Contrary to Picoult’s former novels in which each chapter is told from one character’s perspective, “ A Spark of Light,” reads chronologically, opening with the present and reverting back in time. The book begins with George Goddard, the gunman, having already taken over the health center for a few hours. It traces his story, along with the stories of those inside the clinic as well as those outside. Picoult reveals the reason that brought him here today —his own daughter’s visit to the clinic.
Picoult dives deep into each character’s story, revealing his or her own truth. As always, Picoult does not leave you with a black and white answer, but rather, a thousand shades of gray. She gives voice to the clinic’s abortion provider —someone who lost his mother to an abortion. She offers the voice of a child who is seeking birth control and taking the appropriate measures before she engages in sexual intercourse. There is also the perspective of an older woman who came in merely for a check-up. Then of course, there is a young lady, who after her visit, may have to live with much more than just the emotional cost of having an abortion because of stringent Mississippi laws.
From the outside looking in is Hugh McElroy, a detective, who quickly learns that his daughter is also inside the clinic. McElroy and Goddard are bonded by their wishes to keep their daughters safe and fight for them, but are blind-sighted by the inevitable fact that their daughters have become women. Together, yet from opposing sides, McElroy and Goddard negotiate a transaction that fights to save lives, both those they know and love, and the ones they expect to know and love.
“A Spark of Light” is a timely American novel as it couples the hot topic of abortion with gun violence. Picoult presents the hard questions and illustrates to what length a human will go to fight for those they love as well as how far a person will go in the name of something that he or she believes in. Across the United States, she points out that the waiting period to buy a gun is often shorter than the waiting period to get an abortion—a “waiting” time that can’t legally be justified if your state considers abortion murder at sixteen weeks.
Read Jodi Picoult's latest book here!
Welcome to our third and final week of the defense budget! This post marks the third part of our defense budget breakdown. If you didn't get a chance to read last week's breakdown, check it out here and if you'd like to start at the very beginning, check it out here. If you have any questions or are interested about hearing us speak about this on a podcast, let us know in the comments or via email!
In the FY 2019 budget, $12.9 billion is allocated towards missile defense, with $9.9 billion of that going to the Missile Defense Agency (MDA). This is one of the few sections in the defense budget that explicitly discusses international partners and the importance of them, particularly in deploying missile defenses at their bequest. Some partners include the US Forces Korea, meant to protect the Korean peninsula, the Aegis Ashore site in Romania and a second site in Poland and Israel’s Cooperative BMD program. However, missile defense also includes the development of advanced missile defense technologies, increasing BMD capability and developing the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) program as well as systems engineering, and the necessary testing for these kinds of programs.
Space, Cyberspace, Science and Technology
While weapons and missiles might be the obvious recipients of DOD funding, other parts of defense are also included. Space-based defense systems are now in development, including the Air Force’s Next-Generation Strategic Missile Warning System as well as the Global Positioning System. Cybersecurity is also on DOD’s radar. There are 133 Cyber Mission Force teams, all of which defend the US, DOD networks and protect Commands in the field against cyber attacks. The DOD also funds Science and Technology (S&T), sending $13.7 billion, around 2.3 percent of the Department’s funds, towards the development and innovation of new products that can counter threats. Between FY 2018 and 2019, there has been a $500 million increase in funding towards research and development within the S&T sector.
Another large section of the defense budget goes towards maintaining readiness. In other words, the military wants to make sure it is ready for combat if the situation calls for it. However, each branch uses a slightly different model. The Navy uses readiness pillars to organize themselves - which can be applied to all four sections of the force: keyword PESTONI. PESTONI stands for Personnel, Equipment, Supply, Training, Ordnance, Networks and Installations. One of the key indicators for readiness is the level of training exercises. In the Air Force, for example, there was 25 full spectrum air force training exercises in FY 2018. These training exercises were also supplemented by the Combatant Command Exercises and Engagement and Training Transformation program (CE2T2), the only coalition training forces for wartime. In the budget, $602.2 million was allocated towards these exercises.
Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO)
One of the more visible funding operations of the DOD is their overseas operations. Whether the forces are deployed in Iraq or Syria, it is these forces that place their lives in danger and whose actions are the most widely broadcasted. For the FY 2019 budget, $69 billion was allocated for OCO spending. There are four main operations in this framework: Operation FREEDOM’S SENTINEL (Afghanistan), Operation INHERENT RESOLVE (Iraq, Syria and other ISIS operations), the European Deterrence Initiative, and other forms of security cooperation. Security cooperation can include troops in South Asia, and supporting US Central Command wherever they need assistance. Between FY 2018 and FY 2019, there was a 2.3 billion increase in funding for Operation INHERENT RESOLVE, a 1.7 billion increase for the European Deterrence Initiative and a decrease of 800 million for Operational FREEDOM SENTINEL.
Consider that for many of these missions — the budget not only supports dual counterterrorism methods, but also funds increasing troop levels and “in-theater” support. Also consider that in in Afghanistan there are 11,958 troops, while in Iraq and Syria there are 5,765 troops. While these numbers seem clear, the next figure of “In-Theater Support” which can refer to any support in Afghanistan, Iraq, Africa or Europe is at 59,463 troops. In total, there the budget requested an increase in troops to 93,796 troops in OCO operations, an increase of 34,333 troops These troops are most likely funded by the $3.2 billion increase from the FY 2018 budget of $65.8 billion.
The OCO Budget Request is also broken up by functional category:
To keep up with inflation and to remain competitive with the private sector, the FY 2019 budget also requests a 2.6 percent increase in basic military pay, which is the largest pay raise in 9 years. Personnel costs also include the cost of military health care and military family support. Costs are also broken down via department. The Department of the Army is increasing its budget authority by 23.6 billion in total; The Department of the Navy is increasing its budget authority by 21.1 billion; and the Department of the Air Force is increasing its budget by 23.9 billion.
Part Two of Three. Read Part One Here, Read Part Two Here.
Welcome to our second week of the defense budget! This post marks the second part of our defense budget breakdown. If you didn't get a chance to read last week's breakdown, check it out here. If you have any questions or are interested about hearing us speak about this on a podcast, let us know in the comments or via email!
When looking at these big numbers, it can seem overwhelming. What are these billions of dollars going towards? One spender is the continued modernization of the nuclear triad. The nuclear triad is a three-pronged military structure consisting of submarines, missiles and strategic aircraft, all of which have nuclear bombs attached to them. Even though nuclear bombs have only ever been used once in actual warfare, countries like the United States continue to modernize their tools. From FY17 to FY19, there will be a 3.84 billion increase in spending going towards modernizing bombers like the B-21 Bomber, COLUMBIA-class Submarines, Ground Based Strategic Deterrents, Long Range Standoff Cruise Missiles, Trident II Life Extensions (Submarines), F-35 Dual Capable Aircrafts and B61 Tail Kits (Aircrafts).
As one might expect, a large portion of funding for the DOD is going towards weapons development and modernization. For the Air Force, investment is being directed towards developing the F-35 program, which modernizes the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter and builds three separate variants of this aircraft for different uses. The budget also allocates funds for both the Air Force and Navy’s procurement of the AIM-120D Advanced Medium Air-to-Air Missle (AMRAAM) and the AIM-9X Block II Sidewinder short range air-to-air missile. The budget also funds the development of the new B-21 Raider, a long range strike bomber, and modernizing the existing fleet of B-52, B-1, and B-2 bombers. In total, the FY 2019 budget allocates $25.6 billion for all aircrafts.
For the Navy, the budget provides for a variety of nuclear aircraft carriers, amphibious warships and multi-missile warships. The budget also especially adds funding for two T- AO 205 Fleet Oilers, which act as power projectors in the sea. Their existence allows other ships to go longer without having to return to port to fuel as they provide logistical support to deployed ships. The Navy is also known for its usage of submarines, for which they are receiving an additional 154 Tomahawk land-attack cruise missiles (TLAMs). The current OHIO-class submarines will begin to be decommissioned in 2020, hence, development for new kinds of submarines will also be underway. In total, the FY 2019 budget allocates $18.4 billion for ships and $18.3 billion for missile defense and deterrence.
According to budget documents, the DOD used more munitions than expected over the last few years. These munitions were largely used in Syria and other Middle Eastern countries to target ISIS. Because of this, the DOD has increased productions of munitions as a whole. From FY 2017 - 2019 the amount of Guided Multiple Launch Rocket Systems has increased by 6,013, Joint Direct Attack Munitions by 10,355 and Advanced Precision Kill Weapon Systems by 9,240.
Part Two of Three. Read Part One Here.
This post kicks off the start of our budget breakdown! We'll start with three weeks about defense spending and then move to other parts of the budget like healthcare and education. If you have any questions or are interested about hearing us speak about this on a podcast, let us know in the comments or via email!
For fiscal year (FY) 2019, the President’s budget request was for $686.1 billion US dollars. From last year, that’s an increase of 5 percent from the President’s 2018 Budget and an increase of 10 percent from last year’s Continuing Resolution (CR). Although the budget this year marks a reverse in a 7-year-decline, defense spending is still a relatively small amount of the US economy. Think back to World War II: defense spending was 35.5 percent of the US economy. Since the 1950s, it has hovered below 10 percent. In FY 2019, the budget reflects defense spending as 3.1 percent of US GDP. Any historical comparison, however, should be treated with caution. Due to inflation, pay raises and unforeseen circumstances —- it is likely that each budget is likely to be ‘the biggest ever.’ It is also difficult to place the current administration in either a wartime or peacetime environment as the US currently has over 90,000 troops abroad but is not engaged in serious combat as it was in World War 2 or the Vietnam War.
Under the Budget Control Act of 2011, discretionary spending was supposed to sink to historically low levels as a share of our national economy. This law imposed limits on such spending through 2021. Since the actual implementation of defense sequestration in 2013, defense spending has actually somewhat decreased. In the FY 2010-2012, the overall funding for the Defense Department (DOD) was over $640 billion. During the next four years, funding for the DOD dropped significantly to under $600 billion per year. While $600 billion is nothing to scoff at, the decrease of $40 billion is also no less important.
However, that is beginning to change. In FY 2017, defense spending came in at $606 billion, the next year $612 billion and in FY 2019, the budget puts defense spending at $686 billion. By 2023, spending for defense is expected to rise to $742 billion. That is $51 billion higher than the budget in 2010. In other words, the era of sequestration is over.
With every budget comes new priorities. For this President, one of his main priorities is investing in Defense. It follows, then, that defense spending would increase. From 2017’s continuing resolution, the budget for 2018 allocated $639 billion for the DOD, a $52 billion increase from the previous year. That money will be spent ”rebuilding, modernizing, and preparing our Armed Forces for the future so that our military remains the world’s preeminent fighting force and we can continue to ensure peace through strength.”
Of the many ways that the President can reinvest in Defense, budget documents have outlined three key strategies: reversing defense sequestration (triggered in 2013), filling critical gaps and building war-fighting readiness and implementing defense reform. As mentioned before, that includes a $52 billion increase in funding for the DOD and a $2 billion increase for national defense programs. That funding will go to implementing a full Readiness Review of the troops, which will cost $21 billion, depot maintenance, shipyard requirements, training and cyber warfare. The DOD also hopes to hire 56,400 more Marines, Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen. While all of this funding will be used for these purposes, the budget also called for reducing the costs of military programs and HQ activities by 25 percent.
Despite documents that state the increase in defense spending will be offset with targeted reductions elsewhere, this new budget will eliminate the defense sequester and raise the cap on defense discretionary spending, and in doing so, increase the deficit. Between 2018-2022, the deficit will have risen by $245 billion but between 2018-2027, it will have risen by $469 billion.
Part One of Three
Chances are high that the midterm elections have been covered in almost every newspaper and magazine throughout the course of this autumn season. There’s a reason why. Congressional elections that are held in the middle of a president’s term are essentially referendum on the president’s politics and there’s a distinct history of these elections not reflecting lightly on those policies. In fact, only twice has the sitting president’s party gained more seats in the midterm elections.
But why is that?
Surely if a president is elected through the democratic system, voters are likely to be satisfied with their policies and will want to continue to vote in that party. Unfortunately, that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Most voters suffer from apathy, and think that their vote doesn’t matter (link to your article here, Jo). They believe that the presidential election is the most important and that therefore it doesn’t matter who is elected in Congress. Other voters are angry. They are the disenfranchised part of the population whose party was not elected to the presidency and they vote accordingly.
Here are some notable midterm elections:
1938: After campaigning for the New Deal, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt hoped to gain seats for his party, the Democrats. War loomed in Europe, and the American economy was just beginning to raise its head from the Great Depression. However, his pleas for support were ignored and the Republicans gained 81 seats, taking the majority
1974: In the wake of President Nixon’s resignation, President Gerald Ford was in office during the midterms of 1974, granting Nixon a pardon that September as the country was going through an energy crisis. In total, the Republicans lost 63 seats in Congress.
1994: President Bill Clinton lost heavily in his first midterm election as the Republicans campaigned for the Contract for America. The Democrats lost 60 seats in total in both the House and Senate. Keep in mind that his affair and subsequent impeachment took place in 1995 and had nothing to do with this first midterm loss.
2002: This midterm election was an exceptional year, completely bucking the trend of midterm losses. After the impact of September 11, President George Bush and the Republicans swept through the polls, winning ten seats in total.
2010: After his first two years in office, President Barack Obama received a referenda for his actions at the polls, and in his own words, it was a “shellacking.” In total, the Democrats lost 69 seats in the House and Senate.
2018: This year, we don’t yet know the outcome of the midterm elections and each side is convinced that their party will sweep the polls. History can tell us that it is likely that the Democrats will gain seats in Congress if more angry voters come to the polls than satisfied voters. However, this presidency has been anything but ordinary. Hopefully, we can rely on history to give us a better picture of what is to come.
“My vote doesn’t actually matter,” is a phrase we hear far too often in the United States, a place where voting and truly having a voice is not merely a right, but a privilege. When questioned about this statement generic responses can be everything, ranging from, “one vote won’t make a difference,” to “I really don’t care,” or worse yet, “what happens in politics won’t impact me.”
That is all wrong.
Generally, only enthused voters go to the polls for midterm elections. Midterm elections historically have a low turnout because it is commonly thought of as a vote for your party, however, in reality, there is a lot at stake. Here’s are some of the reasons:
Your vote is how you get to begin to be the change you want to see in the world (or your country, your state, your city, your community, or in YOUR home). Start that wave, vote for what you believe in, as it is the initial step to creating the future you want. The right to vote is not set in stone, it is a privilege and by voting, you are actively choosing to take part in your country’s history and developing the world that you yourself want to live in. It is our duty to vote —and to elect people whose voices stand for ours!
The US Budget is one of the most talked about and least understood parts of how the American government functions. And it’s no surprise; budgeting is difficult and complex. Imagine your own personal budgeting process and multiply it times 300 million. The number of actors needed for that can’t just be one person, which means the sole power doesn’t directly go to the President.
The Constitution actually ascribes the vague “power of the purse” to Congress. In other words, Congress has the ability to collect taxes, to create taxes and to borrow money. However, as the founders found in many cases, the details of that process remain unclear. Consequently, the process has evolved with our government.Now, there are a series of federal agencies whose sole purposes are to create the budget. They include the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the Government Accountability Office (GOA) and the Congressional Budget Office (CBO).
Every year, Congress goes through the appropriation process and passes a series of appropriation and authorization bills. Appropriation bills state how much money is allocated to a particular department. Authorization bills actually give the government permission to spend that money.
The Five Steps in the Federal Budget Process
If the budget is not complete by October 1 and it rarely is, then Congress must pass Continuing Resolutions so that federal agencies can still receive funding while negotiations are ongoing. You might remember 2013 where the government shut down. Those were situations when an agreement was not reached and funding was shut off to federal agencies. In fact, Congress has only passed all twelve regular appropriation bills four times between 1977-2012. If Congress can’t decide on twelve separate appropriations bills, they can also pass an omnibus bill - one bill that encompasses twelve funding areas.
Here at Sub-Stances, we’re going to be diving into what makes up the budget, how the funds are redistributed and providing some transparency to the budget process itself. The budget is an important process and one that many Americans only have a surface understanding of. Over the next few months, we’ll be breaking down each segment of the budget and bringing everything into layman’s language. Look forward to deep dives on defense, energy, social security and many more!
Last week, h̶i̶s̶t̶o̶r̶y̶ herstory was made.
The United States watched an esteemed, scholarly, accomplished woman come forward to reveal and to relive the trauma that she suffered when she was fifteen years old. We witnessed a survivor of sexual assault recount her trauma, in front of not just the entire nation, but before some of the most powerful, predominantly male individuals in the country, knowing that most already stated their support of her alleged attacker. Dr. Christine Blasey Ford came forward, willingly amidst the risk and the spotlight it put her and her family through, to inform the Senate Judiciary Committee about their nominee to the highest court, who would hold a lifetime appointment. It is worth noting that she has received death threats and had to move out of her house. As if she hadn’t suffered enough, now her family, her home and even her work have been affected.
The Republican senators wisely chose a female prosecutor to question Dr. Ford, in their place – as a group of entitled white men questioning a sexual assault victim certainly didn’t offer the best optics.
Dr. Ford calmly and coherently answered the prosecutor’s and senators’ questions, to the best of her ability for four hours. Her testimony packed so much palpable, potency that had FOX News acknowledging such. More importantly, there was a 147% increase in the amount of calls to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network.
There was a break and then it was SCOTUS nominee, Brett Kavanaugh’s turn to speak.
His lengthy, bombastic, accusatory opening statement indicated that this session certainly was going to differ from Dr. Ford’s. Judge Kavanaugh’s answers to the senators were ambiguous at best. He often disregarded the question and instead took the opportunity to filibuster the allotted 5 minutes per senator, with long-winded answers or one-upmanship statements. The biggest takeaways from his testimony were 1) his refusal to call for an FBI investigation himself and 2) his surprising, irate, erratic and partisan temperament. Kavanaugh all by himself, revealed his true character during this hearing and it is the author’s opinion that it is one not worthy of holding a lifelong appointment in the highest ranking court in the United States.
The Senate Judiciary Committee adjourned in the evening with the vote scheduled for the next morning at 9:30 am EST.
9:30 came and went. The vote was pushed until 1:30 pm. 1:30 arrived and nothing was happening. 1:35 and there was some movement. Senator Flake went over to Senator Coons to meet outside. They returned shortly later with an announcement by Senator Flake. He declared his concern surrounding the allegations and called for a one-week delay in the vote. He asked for the FBI to conduct an investigation that would be narrow and limited in scope. Almost immediately after, the session ended as is Senate policy to conclude at 2.
Perhaps it was the momentum of #MeToo Movement, the fear of repeating the past mistakes of the Anita Hill hearings, or the sexual assault victims coming forward in support of Dr. Ford. Maybe it was the constant busy phone lines, the full mail inboxes of senators, the numerous protestors, or simply the call to do the right thing. Regardless, it was a very pleasant surprise to see that there are those in office who place country over party.
Not even a week later, the FBI has concluded its investigation and report. However, there is only one copy and it is not available to the public. So, the nation continues to watch the senators’ reactions to the FBI report, for clues and guidance regarding the nature and contents of the report. Ideally, the contents or specific documents, such as Mark Judge’s statements, will be declassified; however, it is unlikely especially before the vote that is scheduled for this Saturday, October 6.
As the nation watches this confirmation process unfold, I will say that it, is at the very least, incredibly disconcerting that accusations of sexual assault only bare consequences in the Hollywood and media industries. Those holding the highest political power seem to be immune to severe consequences of such horrendous, grotesque acts. But senators beware - November IS coming. As the phrase goes, “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” Well, we passed scorned long ago. We American women, the majority, will see you at the voting booths.
And to Dr. Ford, thank you a thousand times over for your inspiring, courage to come forward. You bore the weight of all us on your shoulders and I can only wish you could feel our gratitude, love and support for your admirable bravery. We stand with you as we stand with all victims and survivors. You are our champion.
Whatever your opinions on the polarizing political environment in the United States, there is no refuting the fact that disinformation is beginning to play a huge part in elections worldwide. In countries like Germany, France and even places like Ukraine — disinformation is the norm rather than the exception. But what is disinformation? Disinformation is not the same as misinformation, which is information that was unintentionally false like incorrectly attributing a photo to an event.
Disinformation is intentionally spread inaccurate information meant to deceive.
You might have come across it and not even realized that you were been deceived or lied to. The whole idea behind much of this disinformation is that it hides in plain sight, and attempts to influence your own opinions. That is why it is also often also referred to as information influence activity.
A country generally conducts information influence activities because they wish to undermine key democratic processes, social institutions and to sow doubt between groups and cause societal rifts. When a country is divided, it makes not only decision-making more difficult, but also means that country is less likely to interfere or make coherent foreign policy actions on the world stage.
But as a normal person, those big picture questions aren’t particularly relevant for you.
What is important for everyday communicators, whether you are a casual social media observer, a journalist or a media official, is to a) become aware of information influence activities, b) identifying these activities, and c) countering them. The first step is becoming aware of these deceptive measures. You might recognize them when political debates are exploited and instead of helping the argument, a user rather wishes to continue the argument and polarize the two sides so that compromise is more difficult.
The second stage, identifying disinformation, is the process of examining the information that you are given. It is no longer enough to simply read an article or post on Facebook without considering its origins. Disinformation narratives tend to be disruptive, oblique and polarizing. The problem is that there are so many different kinds and often, they come about together! Hostile actors will rarely stick to one technique because with more options comes more chaos.
But you’re probably more interested in countering these activities. Unfortunately, the reality of disinformation is that you’re always one step behind. You can always prepare, evaluate the risks, build public trust and raise awareness but once disinformation strikes — that is the best time to act. You can decide whether to react aggressively or simply let the matter fade to the side. You could choose to fact-check and post an official response. However, ultimately the best defense is a strong offense. So in times when disinformation strikes, rely on the ability to be aware of it and identify it so that you are able to counter it. If you first notice it, and understand its origins, your opinions and political debates to come will be more educated and rooted.
Read more about countering information influence campaigns with Countering information
influence activities: A handbook for communicators, a handbook published by the Swedish Civil Contingencies Industry or check out Katarina Kertysova's report on Russian disinformation.
Some books find you at a perfect time—they become like a friend or even a mentor. Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance, spoke to us, as both.
We were initially inclined to read Hillbilly Elegy, because we desired and needed to develop an understanding of the discussed area of our country, a region often belonging to a very different political ideology and way of life. We wanted to comprehend the reason behind people's’ decisions. To do that, you need to uncover how they arrived at that conclusion by looking at what has influenced them. This means hearing their stories. Hillbilly Elegy offers a look into a world different from ours, yet one that shares the same leader.
Jospehine’s Note: While I have familial ties in some of these states, my roots are primarily based in touristic mountain towns whose populations are staunchly liberal, avid environment advocates. Growing up amongst the western mountain ranges of the United States, the destinations for many vacations, is my greatest privilege. I grew up amongst my some of country’s most breathtaking backdrops that allowed me to develop a healthy lifestyle and environmental consciousness and appreciation. I include this because there exists a stark contrast between my childhood and the author, J.D. Vance, who also grew up amongst mountains.
J.D. Vance grew up in the Appalachian region between Kentucky and Ohio, also known as the Rust Belt. In many ways the Appalachian hills were his life-long safe haven, so much so that he recently went and purchased his grandparents’ land. This is where he grew up and where he escaped as well as faced his struggles, common to the average hill person. This part of the world is built on a lost generation of families who once moved here for economic prosperity—they moved to work in the coal and steel industries, with the hope to build a life for their families. For a while, this worked, but as factories and the industry moved out of the country, these people were left in the dust.
The epidemic that is now present across the Midwest, starts at the core—the family. As Vance notes and experiences, being raised by a nuclear family is not the norm, rather grandparents step in as parents for their grandchildren. This is the common byproduct due to high rates of alcoholism and opioid use, and an educational system with little to no community support. It is a system that unfortunately perpetuates itself. Vance describes Jacksonville as a place where you make it, but only if you have someone looking out for and encouraging you, like his grandparents did for him. Otherwise there is little hope for another way out. Vance didn’t even realize this until much later in his life - that he could escape the cycle of drugs, abuse, and poverty that plagues the Rust Belt. Vance explains that a person’s lack or perception of a lack of possibilities lies within each individual and where they point their blame. For some, the government is solely to blame. This is a contradictory statement by those who misuse their food stamps to buy cheap products at a grocery store, then resell the items on the street at a higher price, so as to spend the majority of the money on alcohol. Others point their blame on an America at large that no longer depends on them, and no longer sees them as a crucial aspect of modern America. The white underclass may have thought they were forgotten, but in 2016’s presidential election, they were heard.
Today, Vance’s resume screams privilege —he is a white male, who graduated from Yale Law, and married the woman of his dreams. He resides in Cincinnati where he practices as a malpractice lawyer, but his current life deeply contrasts his roots. He is the American Dream. Hard work got Vance to high places; however, without his grandparents, Mamaw and Papaw, his older sister, and aunts and uncles who stepped up throughout his life, he could have easily been another kid with barely a G.E.D. and an hourly job. Vance acknowledges that he was up against the odds, and he managed through his unique support system, to come out on top. His Mamaw believed deeply as education being the ticket out and she was correct. She sacrificed so much, to ensure he had the best shot at an education. From raising Vance and giving him as stable of a home as possible to redirecting money for her own prescription meds to buy Vance a calculator, Mamaw was Vance’s backbone. These moments defined and served as a catalyst to a better life.
Throughout his memoir, Vance explores the root causes of the hillbilly states. He candidly relives his childhood on paper, but moreover, he questions it. He dives into the cultural nuances that impact the white lower class more than economic opportunities present. He believes that way-of-life choices have been passed down and while they offer comfort and familiarity, they aren’t necessarily beneficial. The hillbillies are making their own fate—and it is not a hopeful one. This poses the question: who should fix it? Is the epidemic across the hillbilly states one that is structural, and can be mended through governmental reform? Or, is it one that can only change through intrinsic nature where people hold themselves accountable?
Vance describes the epidemic in the following way: imagine a kid coming to school every day and telling his teacher “I can’t,” when in fact the kid truly can, and has done so many times before. However, at home the parents do the work for the student instead of investing time into watching the child succeed. Much is the same in the dried up steel towns spotted across the center of the United States—the people have “learned helplessness,” and decide that the situation they are in far outweighs their capacities to improve their own lives.
The fact is if you are raised in this region of the world, born to parents that are ill-equipped to parent, your likelihood of making it out of this corner of the country is slim to none. Children raised here score very high on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), a series of ten questions outlining traumas most upper-class families never endure. Children who experience abuse, have a single parent, and are exposed to drugs and alcohol during early childhood are more likely to have depression and anxiety, to develop chronic heart disease, to live shorter lives, and also to continue the cycle. Kids who have experiences ACEs “are more likely to underperform in schools and suffer from relationship instability as adults.” Harvard has found that constant stress during development actually changes the chemistry makeup of the brain. Although the conditions are hard, and Vance contributes much of his success to having his grandparents and other family members support him, he states, “no person’s childhood gives him or her a perpetual moral get-out-of-jail-free card…”Ideally, individuals change, they raise better families, and in turn future generations are made successful.
Hillbilly Elegy tells the story of a lost generation that is need of a better future. That future will come from strong families, and individuals committing to better their own lives. Change starts from the inside, but it can extend out, culturally reshaping communities at large.
Josephine's Takeaway: After reading Vance’s take on adversity and experience of ACEs, I have never felt more sure of that our actions pave our own future. In the end, situations or rather our reactions to such, are opportunities for change. Despite the trials that children suffer, it has been my experience that people are extended olive branches throughout their lives by way of coaches, teachers, a wonderful grandparent, etc. If such branches are received with grace, people truly do have the ability to make it out on the other side in order to forge forward and create a life that they desire, not that they were born into.
Jessica's Reflections: This memoir opened my eyes and my heart. As a New Yorker, I am surrounded primarily by those who think and act the same way as I do. To be able to learn about another American’s drastically different way of life, is truly a gift and a lesson I strongly recommend that others divulge in, especially given this highly polarized political context. Familiarizing oneself with the values and challenges that others are up against is key to fostering understanding and empathy. I thank J.D. Vance for sharing his story and I encourage others, across the political and geopolitical map, to do the same.
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