Hillbilly Elegy and Section 8


On page 140 of Hillbilly Elegy J. D. Vance describes the section 8 resident of the rented house next door to his Mamaw’s house.

Those Section 8 recipients looked a lot like us. The matriarch of the first family to move in next door was born in Kentucky but moved north at a young age as her parents sought a better life. She’d gotten involved with a couple of men, each of whom had left her with a child but no support. She was nice, and so were her kids. But the drugs and the late-night fighting revealed troubles that too many hillbilly transplants knew too well. Confronted with such a realization of her own family’s struggle, Mamaw grew frustrated and angry.

From that anger sprang Bonnie Vance the social policy expert: “She’s a lazy whore, but she wouldn’t be if she was forced to get a job”; “I hate those fuckers for giving these people the money to move into our neighborhood.” She’d rant against the people we’d see at the grocery store: “I can’t understand why people who’ve worked all their lives scrape by while these deadbeats buy liquor and cell phone coverage with our tax money.”

Mamaw, Bonnie Vance, refers to J. D. Vance’s maternal grandmother. “[T]hose fuckers” refers to the civil servants at the county housing agency that implement Ohio’s version of the federally paid for housing program. The last sentence of the quotation reprises to material earlier in the book in which Vance describes people using food stamps subvert the government’s purposes by reselling goods to get cash and talking on their cell phones while paying for goods with food stamps. That description will provide material for another blog post. In this one, I’m writing about section 8 and its beneficiaries.

Section 8 refers to a housing law that dates to the 1930s, the Great Depression and the New Deal. As the Wikipedia account of this law says, the law has been amended repeatedly. Basically, in its modern form, as Vance describes it, a poor person will receive a voucher to present to his or her landlord. The renter will have to pay no more than 30% of his or her income and the section 8 program will pay the rest of the rent. The landlord must apply to be eligible for such tenants, and must submit to government inspection and minimum standards.

Vance relates his Mama’s complaints about the hillbilly riffraff that section 8 brought to her neighborhood. The particular “matriarch” appears to have been unemployed, but most section 8 tenant beneficiaries are employed but receive low, poverty-level wages. It is a common complaint about any such government programs that recipients don’t work. They refuse to take responsibility for themselves, living off the taxes paid by the working poor. As Speaker Paul Ryan has repeatedly said, programs to help the poor and sick harm them instead by undermining their sense of personal responsibility. That’s why Ryan and all other right-thinking Republicans strongly advocate cutting these harmful programs.

Direct your attention to another beneficiary of the Section 8 program. Just before the quotation above Vance describes the circumstances that led the neighbor, Mamaw and Papaw’s “oldest friends” to register the house for the Section 8 program. Vance tells us that “Mamaw’s friend had little luck renting his property, but when he qualified the house for the Section 8 voucher, he virtually assured that would change.” In ordinary free market thinking if a seller has “little luck” selling something in the open market, he lowers the price until a willing buyer appears. But this landlord didn’t want to lower the price and accede to the dictates of the free market. When a poor person rents a section 8 property, he or she pays 2 1/2% of whatever their annual (adjusted) income is each month to the landlord. That’s total of 30% per year. The government sends a check to the landlord for the difference between what the tenant can pay and the free market rent for a suitable property.

There is an agreed process, comparable values and so on, to establish the free market rent, but in this case, if the friend could not rent the property at the rent he asked, then he is asking more than the market rate. In a free market, the most recent sale determines the fair market price for everyone. Thus, if the landlord had rented his property at the actual free market rate, he’d have received less than what he received as a combination of payments from the tenant and the government.

The government pays him directly. All he had to do was to fill out some forms and submit his property to inspections. That looks to me as if the government is giving the landlord taxpayer money for which he doesn’t have to do anything onerous at all. Nothing that might properly be called work. I wonder why Mamaw, J. D. Vance, and the Republicans are not concerned that the government is undermining the character and sense of personal responsibility of Mamaw’s friend?

The Republicans are not concerned about undermining the moral character and sense of responsibility of wealthy person’s heirs. None of them work for the benefits the receive from their benefactor. Yet one major tax change called for all Republicans is the eliminate taxes of estates.

Evidently, only poor people have their moral fiber damaged by receiving unearned money.

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