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The most dismaying thing I have read in this year of crummy happenings was a one-page vignette in Hillbilly Elegy, J. D. Vance’s tale of growing up an Appalachian expatriate in southern Ohio. Most of this super-successful book covers family life—quarrels, drugs and drink, obscenity, and assaults, sprinkled with genuine acts of love. But the incident that struck me transpires in the workplace, not at home. No national events are involved, no big money at stake, no death or disaster, just a small conflict of personalities.

Vance works in a tile warehouse, saving up for law school in the fall. For all of her filthy language and endless grudges, Vance’s grandmother has planted in him a solid work ethic. He may be surrounded by screw-ups, but he shows up on time and does his job. The pay is decent, $13 an hour, and Vance pulls as many overtime shifts as he can.

He gets along with others, too, even nineteen-year-old Bob, who started before Vance but has a different attitude. Vance sees the job as a way out of the dysfunction of his past, and he finds no reason why Bob shouldn’t as well. Bob has a pregnant girlfriend and he needs money and health care. The small company provides them; it even hires her to answer phones. Nothing stands in the way of a stable working-class existence for the couple.

But they can’t keep it together. The girlfriend misses every third day and Bob one day a week. He arrives late and takes long breaks. Vance and a coworker make a game of it, setting a timer when Bob leaves his post for the bathroom and shouting updates to the crew: “Thirty-five ­minutes! . . . Forty-five minutes! . . . One hour!”

The boss is forbearing and urges Bob and his girlfriend to shape up or else he’ll have to let them go. Vance watches in bemusement, knowing the outcome. The boss fires the girlfriend after a few months and Bob soon after. Bob’s response: “How could you do this to me? Don’t you know I’ve got a pregnant girlfriend?”

Bob’s story sets a theme for Hillbilly Elegy. Why can’t these people straighten up? The usual answers don’t apply. Bob doesn’t need more access to healthcare, better benefits, or more education. He can do the job just fine if he puts in the effort. He doesn’t lack a “living wage”; his pay covers expenses. A nice apartment nearby runs only $500 a month, and a regular workload after a year on the job yields $32,000 plus benefits.

Bob may end up on welfare, but public assistance won’t help. His problem is internal. Only a change in character will fix him. The state doesn’t distinguish deserving poor from undeserving poor, and it can’t reach into people’s hearts and transform them. Bob needs moral reform, which the state cannot provide. In many discussions of human behavior and social policy with well-meaning friends who care about making society more just, I’ve realized that only people with direct experience of dysfunction in the underclass accept this truth.

Mexican Ray was one of a bunch of guys around the Del Mar Racetrack in 1980 and ’81. For two months each summer, I did nine hours a day, six days a week in this world all its own. I sold the Herald-­Examiner racing edition in the plaza outside the grandstand, my brother in the clubhouse. Horse racing has its glamor among owners and breeders and high-end gamblers who never showed whether they were winning or losing. Those were my brother’s customers. I was on the seamy side with cleaning crews, workers in the stables, and “stoopers,” vagrants who collected hundreds of tickets off the ground in hopes that someone had mistakenly tossed a winner.

I made a dime for every paper I sold, and arrived each morning with an empty wallet so that I could run through the betting windows only the money I’d made that day. Cigar Eddy, a tall old man with a lump on his forehead, managed the Pasadena Star-News, with fifteen-year-old Alex and his brother working the stands for him. Hippie John was a wiry thirty-year-old with stringy hair who always kept a deck of cards handy. He’d draw you into a quick game of blackjack, but get jumpy and wild-eyed if you won three hands in a row. Cadillac hung in the shadows, dealing dope to teenage track workers.

I never knew where Mexican Ray got his money. He didn’t have a job at the track, but he showed up every day and hung around the newsboys with the ease of a down-and-out man of the world. He looked forty years old, with a genial smile and dark clothes that were threadbare but had the semblance of sharp tailoring. He had a wary air about him, but he could be relaxed and kind. One time, after Eddy got so mad at his workers that he fainted to the ground, Ray pulled him to a bench, put one arm around his shoulders, and fanned his face with a paper, repeating, “Take it easy now, keep quiet, Eddy.”

You could tell that none of the young guys hustling papers and whatever else they could sell would ever be anything but what they were then. I mingled with them knowing that I had college waiting once the season ended. Their next step was Hollywood Park and Santa Anita, tracks where the horse racing moved in its annual cycle through Southern California. You might think that if these stragglers only had more Earned Income Tax Credit and free transport to health clinics they could have risen out of instability and grubbing and sleeping on the beach now and then. But that would only show you didn’t really know guys like Ray and the rest.

One day, Ray hit an exacta for three or four hundred dollars. There were a few cheap motels nearby that charged $20 per night. Ray could have bargained with one of them and rented a room for the rest of the summer. A hot shower and clean sheets every night, TV and coffee in the morning.

Instead, Ray disappeared for three days. We wondered what happened to him, but not too much. People came and went all the time; no one at the track followed anybody very closely.

But when Ray returned one afternoon, we all noticed. He strolled with a big smile and clean-shaven chin. His black hair was cropped and oiled neatly off his forehead. He had a bright new shirt and shoes that looked right out of Guys and Dolls. He sidled to the bench next to Cigar Eddy and mumbled, “Oh, yeah, oh, yeah.” Someone asked him where he’d been and he replied, “Tee-Zhay.”

He loved our reaction, but played coy. It took a while to gather that he’d taken his winnings to Tijuana and had a heckuva time. Now he was back, broke, ready to start up his regular life. But he was happy. Only after a few days did the glow wear off.

What do you with Mexican Ray? If he’d won more money, he just would have stayed in Tijuana longer, then resumed his pattern of hustling day to day. Inevitably, though, Ray would reach a crisis point. He had a kind of devilish innocence, but that wouldn’t save him from jail, illness, hunger, or worse. When I think back on those characters who made the grandstand at Del Mar such an education for a kid like me, I’d rather not know what happened to them.

We have to accept that there is no explanation for Bob and Ray, not one that we can plug into a government program. Nobody ever taught them a work ethic; parents were drunks; they’re depressed . . . maybe that’s true. But it doesn’t explain why Bob can’t be on time and Ray gets on that bus for T-J.

I asked my friend David, an attorney with underclass clients, to account for Bob. He replied, “The guy has no sense of an order higher than himself.” That sounded too conceptual, so I asked for specifics. “Bob has no idea that the company he works for has to have people do things or it can’t survive. To him, it’s just some force telling him what to do.” The company has to operate on a long-term plan, he said, but Bob can’t see it and he has no plan of his own.

That clicked as soon as he said it. Bob and Ray will remain who they are until they realize there is an order to existence, and that it is rational and good. A higher plan would prompt Bob to devise a “lower” plan of some kind. It would make Ray seek the stability of the motel across the street. Without it, company demands are ­unreasonable to Bob, and Ray sees the motel as a sad alternative to three wild days down south. Secular minds don’t make this connection between metaphysical order and daily habits. The lure of prosperity should be enough to ensure good behavior, and welfare programs should work. But they don’t, not for Bob and Ray and others in the underclass. That’s why secularists say, “They just need more education.” They suspect that some kind of moral reform is needed, but they don’t want it to be ­metaphysical.

In truth, for people at the margins, the bourgeois virtues of thrift, delayed gratification, cleanliness, and moderation must have a deeper rationale: An orderly life is called for by an orderly universe. Call this the social argument from design. Bob and Ray are mysteries of dysfunction. They mark the limits of material solutions to it. Their salvation must be equally mysterious and sublime.

Mark Bauerlein is senior editor of First Things.