It is estimated that 50 million people make poverty wages in the United States, and a substantial number of these people are white. There are also seven to eleven million children living in households where food is scarce. Not what you thought, right?
These alarming numbers have increased since the Covid-19 pandemic began. Poverty in the United States is not by accident; it is intentional and needs to be eradicated. With our current capitalist system and unfettered corporate greed, the working class will always remain poor to keep the upper classes very wealthy.
Sarah Smarsh in Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth brings to light the class divide in the United States and the plight of the working poor. Relaying her story of growing up in rural Kansas in the 1980s and 1990s, she details her family history of living in poverty with thoughtful analysis and social and cultural commentary. Her memoir is easy to read and exemplary writing.
Smarsh narrates the dilemma of several generations of working poor men and women. Her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother struggle with teenage pregnancy, divorce, physical abuse, constant relocating, lacking enough money to survive, and more. She details experiences of backbreaking work on the farm and the low wages in menial jobs that are never enough to make ends meet. Her story demonstrates not only how intergenerational, societal beliefs and indoctrination keep the poor in their place, but also how America has forgotten them (they are often called “white trash”) and doesn’t understand their plight.
In addition to the myths surrounding the working poor, Sarah examines how the detrimental economic policies of that time ensured her family would remain in poverty. Her memoir is a real example of what millions of Americans face in trying to stay above water, avoid homelessness, and how their daily struggles seem to never end.
Heartland is beautifully written, and at times, brought me to tears. There is more in this memoir, but I won’t spoil it for you!
As a LatinX American, I resonated with some of Smarsh’s story, especially the belief that my place was already set. I was not expected to fly the coop, get a college education, or experience upward mobility to the middle class. I was expected to remain working poor (a subject for another article) and not rock the boat. Reading Heartland reminded me of my own, troubled childhood.
I highly recommend Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth by Sarah Smarsh to students of socioeconomic studies, politics, and public policy. If you are an admirer of outstanding prose, this is your book! And to anyone who grew up working poor class, you will find this book inspiring.
A bit about the author, Sarah Smarsh:
Sarah Smarsh is a journalist, author, speaker, and commentator on socioeconomic inequality.
A former professor of writing at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, Sarah is now a journalist covering socioeconomic class, politics, and public policy in The New York Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Harper’s, and many other publications.
Heartland is her first book. It was an instant New York Times bestseller, a finalist for the National Book Award, and won the Chicago Tribune Literary Award.
Sarah Smarsh has also written a second book, She Come by It Natural: Dolly Parton and the Woman Who Lived Her Songs, which also made it as a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. I have not read it.
She lives in Kansas.
To learn more about Sarah Smarsh or to purchase a copy of Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth, visit SarahSmarsh.com.