CINCINNATI – After writing and talking repeatedly about the problems facing the kind of people he grew up with, best-selling author J.D. Vance is coming back to his home state to try to do something to make things better.
Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy,” with colorful tales and observations from his life in the Ohio Rust Belt city of Middletown and his familial home in rural eastern Kentucky, was among 2016’s most prominent nonfiction books. It drew extra attention because of Vance’s insights into the support maverick New York businessman Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy drew from the struggling white working class of his upbringing.
A popular TV discussion show guest during the campaign, the Yale-educated Silicon Valley investor now wants to do more than talk about the issues.
“I just think those of us who think we have something to offer have a responsibility to try to help,” Vance said.
Vance, who has been working with public relations strategist Jai Chabria, who was a longtime adviser to Ohio Gov. John Kasich, is forming a nonprofit called Our Ohio Renewal and will relocate with his wife from San Francisco to either Cincinnati or Columbus, where he earned his undergraduate degree at Ohio State University. He has spoken at Ohio State and Miami University, near Middletown, in recent weeks and has other speaking engagements lined up that he said will help him learn more as he plans an effort that’s’ “very, very early” in development.
Among the issues he wants to target are the needs for more upward mobility opportunities for families in the lower end of the economy, what he calls rebuilding “the broken pipeline to the middle class,” and the opioid epidemic that has hit his home state particularly hard.
Butler County, which includes his Middletown hometown, could be a good place to start.
Martin Schneider, administrator for Butler County coroner Dr. Lisa Mannix, said when all toxicology results are in, the coroner expects that 2016 will top last year’s totals of 189 drug overdose deaths – 141 of those related to heroin and/or fentanyl.
“Sadly, this will make the third consecutive year in which drug overdose deaths are the single largest cause of death among cases taken on by the coroner’s office,” Schneider said this week.
“It’s obviously a tough problem and there have been a lot of efforts to deal with it,” Vance, whose book recounts his mother’s long struggle with addiction, said, adding that it’s too early for him to “pontificate” on what should be done. He hasn’t ruled out getting into politics someday, but says that’s not in his short-term plans.
He’s eager to resettle in Ohio, where he hasn’t had a “You Can’t Go Home Again” experience like the protagonist of Thomas Wolfe’s novel about an author who finds hometown people hostile about his book’s portrayal. Vance, 32, had worried about the response, but he said it’s been mostly positive, with people he grew up with telling him they appreciate that he “tried to be honest about the complications and also passionate about them.”
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