Sarah Smarsh: Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country of Earth

After reading Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance, I couldn’t wait to read Heartland by Sarah Smarsh. To be so well connected and “informed” in today’s world, both books make me realize how little we actually know of the lives people have who are different from us. Her story rings of Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. Smarsh came from a five-generation Kansas wheat farming family and yet lived below the poverty line. People assume that this way of life for poor rural people died out a long time ago, but Smarsh writes, “We were so invisible as to be misrepresented even in caricature, lumped in with other sorts of poor whites, derogatory terms applies to us even if they didn’t make sense”- like hillbilly, redneck, cracker, roughneck. “We were so willfully forgotten in American culture that the most common slur towards us was one applied to poor whites anywhere: ‘white trash.’ Or since, we moved in and out of mobile homes, ‘trailer trash.'” She says the image of this poor white female is one of a woman standing in the doorway of a trailer with a cigarette in her mouth and a baby on her hip. Smarsh says that could be her mother and her. Smarsh never saw herself in the pop culture or news about white girls which magnified her feeling of failure and shame. Generational poverty isn’t easily eradicated by pulling oneself up by her bootstraps. I recently read a blog about the difference between being broke and being poor. When one is broke, there are still resources available, but to be poor implicates there aren’t resources and life is very unstable.

Part of this instability is the high rate of teenage pregnancies. Smarsh comes from a long line of teenage mothers. “Poverty makes motherhood harder, and motherhood makes poverty harder. Single mothers and children are, by far, the poorest type of family in the United States.” Smarsh determined early in life to break that cycle, and she did. Even though she attended eight schools, often poor rural schools by the time she was in 9th grade and struggled to keep up academically, teachers recognize her intellectual ability and encouraged her. She states, “If you live in a house that needs shingles, you will attend a school that needs books, and while sitting in that school’s desk you’ll struggle to focus because your tooth needs a dentist or your stomach needs food. Teachers, for such children, become mothers; schools become houses; and cafeterias become hearths. It can be brutal, then, to exit a school for what an adult has informed you will be the last time, when that school has been the steadiest place you’ve ever known…primal needs can be met even as the human spirit is hurt. Belonging is, on a psychological level, a primal need too. It is often denied to the poor.”

Smarsh recognized as a child that education and future jobs was a way to break the poverty cycle. “Sensing that mission was up to me alone, as the American Dream will tell a poor child, my ability to do the right thing rather than the wrong one hung on my shoulders. She worked through high school and held 2-3 jobs in college. “I looked at my family then and felt I had two choices: be a relentless worker with a chance at building my own financial foundation or live the carefree way so many of my friends did. The latter, by my estimation, almost assured my becoming a young mother and an underpaid worker, too. It was an easy choice.” She writes that her high school and college years were “the most tired years of my life.” She is accepted into a federally funded program which paid for graduate school for minority, first-generation, and low income students. They were referred to as the “White Trash Scholars.” The United States talk about being a classless society. We are a democracy where all are created equal, but in reality we’re not. Smarsh says our country has a “lack of awareness about its own economic structure.” Also “Class is an illusion with real consequences…Financial poverty is the one shamed by society, culture, unchecked capitalism, public policy, our very way of speaking. If you’re poor in a wealthy place, common vocabulary suggests that economic failure is failure of the soul.”

Today, Smarsh is a tenured college professor with a lifestyle vastly different from her upbringing. Smarsh concludes, “I did not leave one world and enter another. Today I hold them simultaneously-class being a false construct, like any other boundary or category we impose. You don’t really climb up or down, get in or out. Mine isn’t a story about a destination that was reached but rather about sacrifices. I don’t believe anyone, certainly no child, should ever have to make.”

#sarahsmarsh #heartland #poverty #kansas #childhood #scribner

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