Is It Possible To Bridge The Gap Between Rich and Poor? | KUOW News and Information

Is It Possible To Bridge The Gap Between Rich and Poor?

Dec 16, 2016

Part 2 of the TED Radio Hour episode Reconciliation

About J.D. Vance's TED Talk

J.D. Vance is a self-proclaimed member of the elite, but he grew up poor in the American Rust Belt. He details what the loss of the American Dream feels like.

About J.D. Vance

J.D. Vance grew up in the Rust Belt city of Middletown, Ohio, and the Appalachian town of Jackson, Kentucky. He enlisted in the Marine Corps after high school and served in Iraq. A graduate of the Ohio State University and Yale Law School, and is a principal at a leading Silicon Valley investment firm. He is the author of Hillbilly Elegy.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

GUY RAZ, HOST:

On the show today from conflict to reconciliation - how people with different views with different experiences, even different backgrounds, just might be able to come together.

J D VANCE: So I live in San Francisco - live and work in San Francisco.

RAZ: This is J.D. Vance. How old are you, by the way? If you mind...

VANCE: Not at all. No. I'm at that age where talking about my age isn't awkward yet, so I'm 32 (laughter).

RAZ: J.D. actually has a J.D. He earned it at Yale Law School. And, today, he's a technology investor.

VANCE: That's right. It's a fascinating challenge.

RAZ: So what does that mean? Like what's a normal day for you?

VANCE: Yeah, well, so my standard day is that my wife and I wake up together. Typically, we'll get a coffee, and then, you know, I'll drive into work. It's in the Presidio close to the Golden Gate Bridge and have a really great view of it from our office. So typically go into work around, you know, 8:30 to 9:30 and then...

RAZ: So you might think...

VANCE: Spend the day...

RAZ: ...By now...

VANCE: ...Trying to think about which companies are worth investing in which...

RAZ: J.D. represents a certain group of people.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LAURA INGRAHAM: They kind of represent the same world view, very elite, as you said.

JONAH GOLDBERG: Cultural elite.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: But my point is that we're talking by definition about elites.

RAZ: Elites - right? - coastal, urban, out of touch. But actually J.D. grew up poor. Here he is from the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

VANCE: Despite all outward appearances, I'm a cultural outsider. I came from a southern Ohio steel town, and it's a town that's really struggling in a lot of ways, in ways that are indicative of the broader struggles of America's working class. Heroin has moved in killing a lot of people, people I know. Family violence, domestic violence and divorce have torn apart families. The addiction that plagued my community also plagued my family and even sadly my own mom.

There's a very unique sense of pessimism that's moved in. There is a sense that kids had that their choices didn't matter. No matter what happened, no matter how hard they worked, no matter how hard they tried to get ahead, nothing good would happen. Even if you don't give into that hopelessness, it's sometimes hard to even know what those choices are when you grow up in a community like I did.

If you had looked at my life when I was 14 years old and said what's going to happen to this kid? You would have concluded that I would have struggled with what academics call upward mobility. In the South and Appalachia and southern Ohio, it's very unlikely that kids like that will rise. The American dream in those parts of the country is in a very real sense just a dream.

RAZ: When we come back, J.D. Vance and some ideas about how the two different Americas that he's lived in might actually figure out a way to talk to each other. I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today, ideas about moving From Conflict To Reconciliation. And we were just hearing from J.D. Vance. He grew up in Middletown, Ohio, but now works as an investment banker in San Francisco. And J.D. says reconciling these two worlds starts with understanding how one side sees the other.

VANCE: What's so weird about living in San Francisco is how virtually everyone here seems to think that their lives are going to be better 10 years from now than they are right now - that sort of - there's this sense of constant and continual improvement. I think at places like Middletown, there's this sense of instability that, you know, a lot of folks live paycheck to paycheck.

A lot of people, even those who are employed, are worried that they won't be employed a few years from now. There is a very real sense that the folks on the coast wield a remarkable amount of financial and political power. And they wield that political-financial power in combination with a certain condescension to the way that we live our lives.

RAZ: I wonder how you - like, how do you even begin to bridge that divide? Like, how do you even open up a conversation?

VANCE: Well, at a person-to-person level, I think that there's always something to be said for having some empathy for the folks who really, really disagree with you about a given topic. So the frame that I'll put on this, for example, is that for a lot of the folks back home who voted for Trump, who were excited about the prospect of a Trump candidacy, it's really important for them to recognize why there are so many millions of Americans who aren't just upset about the prospect of a Trump presidency but are actually afraid.

Let's be frank about the fact that there are millions of people who felt that Trump's rhetoric directly threatened them and their families. And the flip side of it is that if we can recognize that a lot of the people who voted for Trump are not racist and, in fact, don't even like a lot of the rhetoric that came out of Trump during the campaign but they voted for him because he represented a change from a very, very problematic status quo, then, look, that expression of empathy, I think, again, opens up some some angles to have a more productive conversation.

RAZ: J.D. knows that for so many of the people he grew up around in Ohio, the odds of a better life aren't great, which is why J.D. had to move away to find that better life.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

VANCE: I graduated from high school, from college. I went to law school, and I have a pretty good job now. So what happened? Well, one thing that happened is that my grandparents provided me a stable home, a stable family. They made sure that when my parents weren't able to do the things that kids need, they stepped in and filled that role. But a lot of children aren't going to have that good fortune. And I think that raises really important questions for all of us about how we're going to change that.

We need to ask questions about how we're going to give low-income kids who come from a broken home access to a loving home, need to ask questions about how we give social capital, mentorship to low-income kids who don't have it. We need to think about how we teach working-class children about not just hard skills, like reading and mathematics, but also soft skills, like conflict resolution and financial management.

Now, I don't have all of the answers. I don't know all of the solutions to this problem, but I do know this. In southern Ohio right now, there's a kid who has no hope for the future but desperately wants to live a better life. They just want somebody to show it to them.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: Do you think that's, like, the key that, you know, for people to just start recognizing that someone on the other side is feeling some sort of despair?

VANCE: Yeah, I think that's definitely the first part of any reconciliation that has to happen. I mean, that said, empathy is really hard to have in a vacuum. And so when I think of - why are we having a conversation that is so un-empathetic (ph)? Why is it so hard for one side of our political divide to even understand the concerns of the other side of our political divide? - I think a very big problem is that we have these two groups of people who don't see each other that much. They don't talk to each other that much. They don't spend a whole lot of time around each other.

We are so isolated in our own little worlds, in our own little geographies that it's pretty hard to understand where someone else is coming from. And so I think that we have to really think about what that means as a country and, frankly, whether this segregation that we have is durable over the long run. My answer is that it's probably not - that something has to give.

RAZ: Does the burden to make this happen, to reconcile - does that burden fall on the so-called elites and the people who are more powerful?

VANCE: No, I think the burden falls on everyone. But I do think that it starts at the top, so the burden is heaviest on our political leaders. The burden is next heaviest on our media leaders, those who have a public platform - whether it's you or whether it's Rush Limbaugh. I mean, I think that has to go in both directions.

But I absolutely think that we have to recognize that there's a role for individual people on the ground in making this problem better. By all means, the coastal elites have to do better. But I am also a communitarian and a tribalist about these things, and I'm not going to let my own people off the hook, even if they don't have a radio show or a column at The New York Times (laughter).

RAZ: But, I mean, here you are. Right? I mean, you are, essentially, a coastal elite. And you may not have come from that, but you became that because you were educated. And you're now an investment banker. And your child, if you have one, isn't going to be from Middletown, Ohio, right? I mean, your kid is going to be a San Francisco kid.

I mean, so how do we begin to create those interactions, those spaces and those places where those conversations can happen when, you know, we're clearly, obviously, sorting ourselves out?

VANCE: It's interesting that you ask that at this stage in my life because my wife and I are actively planning to move back to Ohio. I take to heart this view that we can't continue to have the sorting out, as you said it - that it's not good for people. It's not good for the country. It's not good for our society over the long term. So, you know, I don't know that this is a mass solution to the problem, obviously, because I'm one person. But it's probably a good thing for folks who go, who access elite universities, who have pretty good job prospects. Folks like me have to feel a little indebted to the communities that they came from. And if they do, I think we'll start to see a little bit more of a geographic integration in the country because people will start to think - you know what? - I owe that place something, and I should return to it in one form or another.

RAZ: J.D. Vance wrote a book about his experience. It's called "Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir Of A Family And Culture In Crisis." You can see his entire talk at ted.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.