I remember the very first time I went to a nice restaurant, a really nice restaurant. It was for a law firm recruitment dinner, and I remember beforehand the waitress walked around and asked whether we wanted some wine, so I said, "Sure, I'll take some white wine."
And she immediately said, "Would you like sauvignon blanc or chardonnay?"
And I remember thinking, "Come on, lady, stop with the fancy French words and just give me some white wine." But I used my powers of deduction and recognized that chardonnay and sauvignon blanc were two separate types of white wine, and so I told her that I would take the chardonnay, because frankly that was the easiest one to pronounce for me.
So I had a lot of experiences like that during my first couple of years as a law student at Yale, because, despite all outward appearances, I'm a cultural outsider. I didn't come from the elites. I didn't come from the Northeast or from San Francisco. I came from a southern Ohio steel town, and it's a town that's really struggling in a lot of ways, 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. And there's a very unique sense of pessimism that's moved in. Think about rising mortality rates in these communities and recognize that for a lot of these folks, the problems that they're seeing are actually causing rising death rates in their own communities, so there's a very real sense of struggle.
I had a very front-row seat to that struggle. My family has been part of that struggle for a very long time. I come from a family that doesn't have a whole lot of money. The addiction that plagued my community also plagued my family, and even, sadly, my own mom. There were a lot of problems that I saw in my own family, problems caused sometimes by a lack of money, problems caused sometimes by a lack of access to resources and social capital that really affected my life.
If you had looked at my life when I was 14 years old and said, "Well, what's going to happen to this kid?" you would have concluded that I would have struggled with what academics call upward mobility. So upward mobility is an abstract term, but it strikes at something that's very core at the heart of the American Dream. It's the sense, and it measures whether kids like me who grow up in poor communities are going to live a better life, whether they're going to have a chance to live a materially better existence, or whether they're going to stay in the circumstances where they came from. And one of the things we've learned, unfortunately, is that upward mobility isn't as high as we'd like it to be in this country, and interestingly, it's very geographically distributed. So take Utah, for instance. In Utah a poor kid is actually doing OK, very likely to live their share and their part in the American Dream. But if you think of where I'm from, in the South, in Appalachia, in 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.
So why is that happening? So one reason is obviously economic or structural. So you think of these areas. They're beset by these terrible economic trends, built around industries like coal and steel that make it harder for folks to get ahead. That's certainly one problem. There's also the problem of brain drain, where the really talented people, because they can't find high-skilled work at home, end up moving elsewhere, so they don't build a business or non-profit where they're from, they end up going elsewhere and taking their talents with them. There are failing schools in a lot of these communities, failing to give kids the educational leg up that really makes it possible for kids to have opportunities later in life. These things are all important. I don't mean to discount these structural barriers. But when I look back at my life and my community, something else was going on, something else mattered. It's difficult to quantify, but it was no less real.
So for starters, there was a very real sense of hopelessness in the community that I grew up in. There was 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. So that's a tough feeling to grow up around. That's a tough mindset to penetrate, and it leads sometimes to very conspiratorial places. So let's just take one political issue that's pretty hot, affirmative action. So depending on your politics, you might think that affirmative action is either a wise or an unwise way to promote diversity in the workplace or the classroom. But if you grow up in an area like this, you see affirmative action as a tool to hold people like you back. That's especially true if you're a member of the white working class. You see it as something that isn't just about good or bad policy. You see it as something that's actively conspiring, where people with political and financial power are working against you. And there are a lot of ways that you see that conspiracy against you — perceived, real, but it's there, and it warps expectations.
So if you think about what do you do when you grow up in that world, you can respond in a couple of ways. One, you can say, "I'm not going to work hard, because no matter how hard I work, it's not going to matter." Another thing you might do is say, "Well, I'm not going to go after the traditional markers of success, like a university education or a prestigious job, because the people who care about those things are unlike me. They're never going to let me in." When I got admitted to Yale, a family member asked me if I had pretended to be a liberal to get by the admissions committee. Seriously. And it's obviously not the case that there was a liberal box to check on the application, but it speaks to a very real insecurity in these places that you have to pretend to be somebody you're not to get past these various social barriers. It's a very significant problem.
Even if you don't give in to that hopelessness, even if you think, let's say, that your choices matter and you want to make the good choices, you want to do better for yourself and for your family, it's sometimes hard to even know what those choices are when you grow up in a community like I did. I didn't know, for example, that you had to go to law school to be a lawyer. I didn't know that elite universities, as research consistently tells us, are cheaper for low-income kids because these universities have bigger endowments, can offer more generous financial aid. I remember I learned this when I got the financial aid letter from Yale for myself, tens of thousands of dollars in need-based aid, which is a term I had never heard before. But I turned to my aunt when I got that letter and said, "You know, I think this just means that for the first time in my life, being poor has paid really well."
So I didn't have access to that information because the social networks around me didn't have access to that information. I learned from my community how to shoot a gun, how to shoot it well. I learned how to make a damn good biscuit recipe. The trick, by the way, is frozen butter, not warm butter. But I didn't learn how to get ahead. I didn't learn how to make the good decisions about education and opportunity that you need to make to actually have a chance in this 21st century knowledge economy. Economists call the value that we gain from our informal networks, from our friends and colleagues and family "social capital." The social capital that I had wasn't built for 21st century America, and it showed.
There's something else that's really important that's going on that our community doesn't like to talk about, but it's very real. Working-class kids are much more likely to face what's called adverse childhood experiences, which is just a fancy word for childhood trauma: getting hit or yelled at, put down by a parent repeatedly, watching someone hit or beat your parent, watching someone do drugs or abuse alcohol. These are all instances of childhood trauma, and they're pretty commonplace in my family. Importantly, they're not just commonplace in my family right now. They're also multigenerational. So my grandparents, the very first time that they had kids, they expected that they were going to raise them in a way that was uniquely good. They were middle class, they were able to earn a good wage in a steel mill. But what ended up happening is that they exposed their kids to a lot of the childhood trauma that had gone back many generations. My mom was 12 when she saw my grandma set my grandfather on fire. His crime was that he came home drunk after she told him, "If you come home drunk, I'm gonna kill you." And she tried to do it. Think about the way that that affects a child's mind.
And we think of these things as especially rare, but a study by the Wisconsin Children's Trust Fund found that 40 percent of low-income kids face multiple instances of childhood trauma, compared to only 29 percent for upper-income kids. And think about what that really means. If you're a low-income kid, almost half of you face multiple instances of childhood trauma. This is not an isolated problem. This is a very significant issue.
We know what happens to the kids who experience that life. They're more likely to do drugs, more likely to go to jail, more likely to drop out of high school, and most importantly, they're more likely to do to their children what their parents did to them. This trauma, this chaos in the home, is our culture's very worst gift to our children, and it's a gift that keeps on giving.
So you combine all that, the hopelessness, the despair, the cynicism about the future, the childhood trauma, the low social capital, and you begin to understand why me, at the age of 14, was ready to become just another statistic, another kid who failed to beat the odds.
But something unexpected happened. I did beat the odds. Things turned up for me. 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, the same grandparents of setting someone on fire fame, they really shaped up by the time I came around. They 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. My grandma especially did two things that really matter. One, she provided that peaceful home that allowed me to focus on homework and the things that kids should be focused on. But she was also this incredibly perceptive woman, despite not even having a middle school education. She recognized the message that my community had for me, that my choices didn't matter, that the deck was stacked against me. She once told me, "JD, never be like those losers who think the deck is stacked against them. You can do anything you want to."
And yet she recognized that life wasn't fair. It's hard to strike that balance, to tell a kid that life isn't fair, but also recognize and enforce in them the reality that their choices matter. But mamaw was able to strike that balance.
The other thing that really helped was the United States Marine Corps. So we think of the Marine Corps as a military outfit, and of course it is, but for me, the US Marine Corps was a four-year crash course in character education. It taught me how to make a bed, how to do laundry, how to wake up early, how to manage my finances. These are things my community didn't teach me. I remember when I went to go buy a car for the very first time, I was offered a dealer's low, low interest rate of 21.9 percent, and I was ready to sign on the dotted line. But I didn't take that deal, because I went and took it to my officer who told me, "Stop being an idiot, go to the local credit union, and get a better deal." And so that's what I did. But without the Marine Corps, I would have never had access to that knowledge. I would have had a financial calamity, frankly.
The last thing I want to say is that I had a lot of good fortune in the mentors and people who have played an important role in my life. From the Marines, from Ohio State, from Yale, from other places, people have really stepped in and ensured that they filled that social capital gap that it was pretty obvious, apparently, that I had. That comes from good fortune, 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. We need to ask questions about how we're going to teach low-income parents how to better interact with their children, with their partners. We 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, 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 is anxiously awaiting their dad, wondering whether, when he comes through the door, he'll walk calmly or stumble drunkly. There's a kid whose mom sticks a needle in her arm and passes out, and he doesn't know why she doesn't cook him dinner, and he goes to bed hungry that night. 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. I don't have all the answers, but I know that unless our society starts asking better questions about why I was so lucky and about how to get that luck to more of our communities and our country's children, we're going to continue to have a very significant problem.