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J.D. Vance feels right at home during Ohio State guest lecture

J.D. Vance is no stranger to Ohio State’s Mershon Auditorium.

Before becoming a best-selling author, political commentator and rumored contender for public office, he walked the halls of Ohio State as a student. After graduating in 2009 with a degree in political science, Vance studied law at Yale and moved to San Francisco to work with Peter Thiel’s capital investment firm.

He recently moved back to Columbus to start a nonprofit and was back on campus Tuesday as guest speaker in the Provost’s Lecture Series.

Instead of running for U.S. senate or governor, Vance plans to focus on helping everyday Ohioans through his newly formed nonprofit, Our Ohio Renewal, which was the focal point of his lecture.

In his 40-minute speech Vance told the packed auditorium he wants to impact Ohio — a dream he’s had since first leaving the state — before turning to politics, a move which he did not rule out.

He outlined the problems facing the U.S. currently, such as what he calls the decaying of the American dream, before providing solutions to the issues.

“The American dream as we understand it is much more prevalent in some places than others,” he said. “Unfortunately, the places where we call home are the places where it is struggling the most.”

He said places like his childhood home of Middletown, Ohio, and elsewhere in rural Appalachia are struggling not because of geography, demographics or politics, but because of things like family instability and concentrated poverty.

This question of how we bring the American dream to more children in our community is not an easy question to answer by any means. It’s not a question where I think all the answers are even out there yet. It’s going to require a complete rethinking of how we do business, how we do politics and how we do policy. – J.D. Vance

Vance turned his story of an impoverished, unstable childhood into a best-selling memoir, aptly named “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis,” which catapulted him into political spotlight.  

“We know that children who grow up in very unstable homes, in homes where there is a lot of trauma, a lot of relocation, a lot of toxic stress, they are much more likely to stay trapped where they are born. They are much more likely to experiment with drugs. They are much more likely to stay out of the workforce, more likely to go to prison,” Vance said.

Vance said much of that family instability and concentrated poverty is due to the opioid epidemic that he is all too familiar with; he was raised by his grandmother after his mother turned to drugs and his father left.

His nonprofit is aimed at helping rural Ohio dig itself out of the opioid epidemic that has devastated the region he once called home.

“Obviously being addicted to drugs causes certain problems. It makes people less able to hold a job and so forth,” he said. “But the biggest driver of elder poverty in the state of Ohio is actually grandparents who are taking care of children who are orphaned by the opioid epidemic.

“You now have a problem not just of children whose nuclear family has fallen apart, you have a problem of children who are living in poverty because the only supporter that they have wasn’t planning for that outcome.”

Vance said the solution to these problems needs to take place on a one-to-one, ground-floor and local level. He said when problem-solving takes place “30,000 feet above” an issue, the newest generation of legislators become plagued.

“Whether you are thinking about becoming a teacher or a legislator, whatever your career initiatives are, think about these problems more locally,” he said.

Vance said educational institutions like Ohio State are key to solving problems on a local level, as well as training the workforce of the future in what he called a “stagnant period of new job creation,” partly due to the loss of able-bodied workers the opioid crisis has brought.

“This question of how we bring the American dream to more children in our community is not an easy question to answer by any means,” he said. “It’s not a question where I think all the answers are even out there yet. It’s going to require a complete rethinking of how we do business, how we do politics and how we do policy.”

Vance said he doesn’t have all the answers and doesn’t pretend to. But he has more now than he did a year and a half ago and is looking to apply some of those answers back home.

“I happen to believe we have 21st-century problems that require 21st-century answers,” he said. “I have offered a few [answers], but I really encourage all of you to not accept this as anything close to a final answer … many many more answers must come. Many answers have to come.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated where J.D. Vance attended law school. He went to Yale, not Harvard. 

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