Growing Up Poor in One of the Wealthiest Nations in the World

Sarah Smarsh’s powerful new memoir tackles wealth inequality in the heartland

A s a Midwesterner who has lived on the East Coast for decades, I find myself constantly struggling with simplified versions of the Midwest as well as outright erasure. I’ve followed Sarah Smarsh’s work since I first learned about her, eagerly reading in her words a complex and thoughtful perspective on Midwestern life that I have found too seldom told. Smarsh’s evocative essays, such as “Poor Teeth” among many others, blend personal experience with research and analysis to convey and to explore what it means to be poor and working-class in the rural Midwest.

Her new book, Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth, takes on the intertwined themes of class, work, gender and sexism, violence, healthcare, education, race, political agency, and above all the way those outside the Midwest have written their own agendas and stories onto the region. This matters for Midwesterners, of course, but Smarsh powerfully argues that these stereotypes and misconceptions matter for the fate of our country as a whole — that those stereotypes about the region and its people are part of what is driving the political polarization that now threatens our democracy. The urgency of these issues is being heard, thankfully, and the book recently landed on the New York Times best sellers’ list.

Smarsh addresses these themes primarily through her own story, which includes a tumultuous upbringing as her parents each tried to stabilize themselves in the face of economic uncertainty. She tells the tale through the dialect and point of view of her family, with added perspective from research. The voice in the book comes from home, not from a policy document, and throughout the book she weaves in asides addressed to an unborn and imagined daughter, August, using this most intimate personal conversation to summon the truest things she can say about herself, her family, and the land that formed her.

Sonya Huber: You present a theory that stereotypes of poor white people held by those outside the Midwest helps to shape the conservatism of those poor white people. Do you feel as though your book might help those outside the Midwest understand this? What would change this dynamic?

Sarah Smarsh: I hope so. My journalism for the last few years has also been focused in that direction of challenging the idea that a whole swath of our country could be a political or cultural monolith. Most “good liberals” like myself would be reluctant at this point, hopefully, to do that about most groups. And yet there’s sort of this ironic willingness to look at the middle of the country or rural America as all white, all conservative, or even as all male. I wouldn’t dare to hope that my book could work against a cultural tide that powerful, but I do know that the individual connections that I’m making are powerful. Even people from privileged coastal experiences are saying that they felt like their eyes were opened in some way about the complexity and nuance and diversity of the place I come from. Even if the book doesn’t change things in the big picture, I know that it is changing some hearts and minds at the ground level. And that’s good enough for me.

SH: The overgeneralizations about such a huge chunk of the population is one of the big mysteries I wrestle with since I’ve been away from the Midwest. Do you think it’s partially caused by people not going to the Midwest and not having real experiences and encounters with that complexity and nuance and diversity?

SS: That’s absolutely it. You can even hear it in our language; we say “flyover country.” As I say in the book, that suggests that it might be dangerous to walk there [laughter]. And there is occasionally an earnest effort by New-York-based or coastal media outlets to “explore” these regions, but it’s framed as a safari or a journey into a war-torn landscape…

SH: Like [scary voice] “Welcome to Meth Land.”

SS: Exactly! It’s presented as a vaguely dangerous and miserable vision. That is not really a failure of the individual — that’s just human nature. It is a class and regional parallel to how we are also tribal and fearful along racial lines or other aspects of diversity. If people don’t know human beings from a group, they’re more vulnerable to stereotype and caricature. That is an outcome of the economic tide of our country. Since the Industrial Revolution, so for more than a century, this has been an increasingly urbanized country, and the economic imperative has been toward urban centers on the coast. There are some beautiful national parks in between the coasts, but there has not been a sense of places like my home as a destination in any sense, and maybe rightly so, depending on your set of values. People have no reason to go there. A kid like me would have occasion to go to New York City but it often doesn’t work in the opposite direction.

If people don’t know human beings from a group, they’re more vulnerable to stereotype and caricature.

SH: In various times of my life outside the Midwest, I would get nostalgic and say to a friend, “Oh, I miss how pretty the Midwest is in the spring.” That was always a complete conversation stopper. It wasn’t an idea that many people could comprehend, that there might be beauty there.

SS: I was thinking about this because I recently went to the Wichita Art Museum to see a photography exhibit about contemporary farmers in their 40s, so roughly my generation, who care about things like sustainability, who are owning the mistakes of their ancestors and who are fighting against all economic odds to hold onto the land in the face of corporations and industrialized Big Agriculture. And this exhibit documents that. And I was so moved, because it occurred to me that I have never seen what feels like my home landscape validated or explored in the context of an art museum, other than the Dust Bowl, which feels like the last image of the region in the popular imagination. Wherever I go, I get “Dorothy” jokes [from The Wizard of Oz] and I’ve had people literally reference The Grapes of Wrath with no sense of irony or self-awareness. It boggles the mind. It’s a testament to how powerful a strain of contempt for particular regions of the country have proven to be in our collective framework.

SH: Along the same lines as the photography exhibit, I wanted to ask you about the language you use in this book, which by and large, is written in the conversational tone of “home.” I stopped for a full minute when I was reading and hit the phrase “warsh bin,” which almost moved me to tears. I have never seen that in print when it was not presented either in quotes or in italics. Seeing Midwestern dialect on the page without apology really affected me. But you also present research and move in and out of that manner of speech. Did you deliberate about that, and how did you decide on the balance?

SS: For me those decisions about language have something to do with how the book operates at the sentence level but it also plays a role in the literal theme and the reconciliations offered by the book, a balance between the two worlds I occupy in class terms. None of that was necessarily done with a heavy hand or any overt intention, but there was a decision along the way where I thought, I’m going to write this with the language that is natural to me. That for me is a kind of an integration, with the vernacular and turns of phrase of my home and also a more formal version of English that I come to by way of higher education. That’s kind of how language operates in my mind, as this thing melded together. I speak two types of English: “country” and “fancy.” In some contexts I am very mindfully employing only “fancy,” if you know what I mean. The book felt like it could have both of those forms of expression.

It is the case that having a sense of working hard and not receiving support is a sadly universal American experience at this moment of historic wealth inequality.

SH: The book also uses that language — and the gaps between those two forms of English — to narrate a realization about politics and political orientation. You describe in the book a revelation that occurs in a sociology class in college, where you suddenly see how the odds are stacked against you and your family and your entire community, and that alters your politics away from an individualized sense of judging individuals for their economic failings and more toward a liberal analysis of how class operates. Is there something about the Midwest or rural life in general that acts to suppress the awareness about one’s own context or about class divisions?

SS: That is a complicated question. While I describe that moment in the book as a kind of a political awakening, I was already pretty socially liberal, but economically less so. Yes, that moment was a kind of leftward shift, but it was less about a movement from right to left than it was about a politicization in general. Most of the people I come from don’t vote, especially when I was a kid. Now I think in the country as a whole there’s much more of a sense of political identity, even if it’s in a negative direction, as in tribal identity.

When I was a kid, no one was walking around saying “I’m a conservative.” Those same people might have been voting for Reagan, but I was not around people who were discussing politics, and that came in large part from a sense of removal from the places that made decisions about policy. And frankly that also came from a lack of information. I hesitate to use the word ignorance because that has a negative connotation, but a real lack of information because of the burden of class. If you’re out in a field all day, and you left school in the 9th grade, and you can’t access the language national discourse harnesses to parse the economy and politics…it’s not for lack of intellect or sense of civic responsibility, it’s the default for that place and that class to not have the knowledge, awareness, or language to begin to be engaged — let alone the time.

I think that moment when I woke up to these vague assumptions I’d been holding that were moderately economically conservative, and I saw through what were to my mind now the falsehoods, I guess I became aware of the gulf between the assumptions I had inherited and the facts. For one, it just pissed me off. I thought that if the people where I’m from knew this, they’d be pissed off too. And I was always kind of a rabble rouser in high school. If a kid suffered an injustice with the principal, they’d come to me and ask me to lead a walkout. I’ve always been that person, but I was in the context of a largely apolitical and maybe even disenfranchised place. Once I was on a college campus and started getting the straight dope about things work in this country, you could say it radicalized me, which is a commonplace experience for that to happen.

SH: And then as the Internet and social media became more widely accessible, there’s been a shift more toward claiming right-wing politics as a kind of identity in the places where we are from.

SS: Yes. The Right has been very artful and successful with harnessing and claiming the touchstones of my home and culture.

SH: Interesting. So the Right has appropriated the markers of that culture, in some ways.

SS: Yes. I think it is. And it’s a way to signal, falsely and successfully, to people and to say, “We see you, and we validate your place.” Whether or not people know the details about what the Republican Party really stands for these days, there’s something primal to being seen and recognized. For decades, unfortunately, the Democratic Party failed to do this.

SH: And then unfortunately what many on the Left do is to take all the cultural markers and signs of that place and identity and disparage them, lumping them in with those right-wing politics. So that the culture itself comes to falsely stand for those political views.

SS: Yes! So that makes it kind of an Ouroborous, the image of the snake swallowing its own tail.

I’m a writer and I believe in the power of story to transcend the political divisions that are at the fore today.

SH: You mention that when you were in college, your mom had voted Republican, but then over time her beliefs shifted too. Was your slow discovery of politics a factor in how your family members’ politics changed? What do you think in the larger political timeline caused their shifts?

SS: That’s an interesting question. I just went to an event here in Wichita about how people form their beliefs and why they hold onto their beliefs. Researchers were validating what I always suspected, as someone who came from a small town, where most people were vaguely calling themselves Republican in the ’90s, even though it isn’t the Far-Right thing that is going on now. Now that I’m in the media and most of my close friends has college degrees, I see how it’s a function of group and social belonging in some senses. I’m sure it’s possible that the information I got ahold of in the spaces that otherwise my family wouldn’t have had access to might have influenced my family.

But I think my mom was the first one other than me to have what my biases would call an awakening to the bullshit of the Right. For me it happened about 2001. A year prior I had voted for George W. Bush in my first election, and then I took the sociology class that blew my mind. For my mom it came a little bit after that, with the revelations about the falsified Weapons of Mass Destruction narrative that had been used to justify our military actions in the Middle East. She is someone who always read the news and tried to sort things out the best she could. At that time there wasn’t the social media information silos we have today. In 2003 my mom was reading the newspaper and watching the nightly news, and finally she said, “I don’t care who I voted for a couple of years ago, this is BS.” I feel like she made that shift on her own. My other family members — I suppose it might have influenced them that I was saying, “Hey, come caucus with me,” and get involved.

Stop Dismissing Midwestern Literature

SH: Is your book in an implicit dialogue with Thomas Frank’s 2004 book What’s the Matter with Kansas? What were you thinking as you read that book?

SS: The book was not conceived or constructed in response to any book. But that book was a big piece of political culture. I respect Thomas Frank a lot, and I have written for a magazine he founded, The Baffler. And we have very similar politics. I don’t really like the framework that was seized from that book and that America kind of ran with, which is the idea of “people voting against their best interests.” I’m not sure that he’s the one who articulated that specific phrase, but I do feel like that was the book that made that idea the go-to explanation or mystery. While I might agree with that assessment, it is just by definition a flawed and confounded way to begin seeking to understand people’s behavior. First of all, there’s an inherent condescension, an assumption that someone must be an idiot for doing what they do. Second of all, to me it also suggests that people in some states and regions are voting “correctly” and others are voting “incorrectly.” It suggests that there are essentially different kinds of people in different places. But what I know to be true from the political journey that you and I just talked about is that we are a product of our experiences, which I would think any good liberal would agree with. For someone who is casting a ballot from Thomas Frank’s vantage, which I believe is New York City where he’s lived for decades, it might clearly be a vote against their best interests. But in the context of their own experience, they have their reasons and, heck, maybe it’s misinformation, but it’s not stupidity. I can tell you that.

SH: Are you finding as you travel and read from the book that people are connecting personally with the stories you tell?

SS: I am finding that, and it’s been very humbling. My hope against hope was that that would be the case. I find myself in the role of commentator because of the topics I write about, but at my heart, I’m a writer, and I love language, and I believe in the power of story to transcend the political divisions that are at the fore today. I’m writing about a space and a class that has been stereotyped and maligned, perhaps even scapegoated, that demographic, for our country’s woes. I worried that that might keep people from connecting to the story. It turns out that no matter what city I’m in, whatever context, people from all different walks of life — not necessarily poor, not necessarily rural — connect with the story. I think that might have something to do with the subtitle of the book (“A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth”). It’s a sad state of affairs, but it is the case, that having a sense of working hard and not receiving support — whether it be healthcare or having time off or support to have a child — is a sadly universal American experience at this moment of historic wealth inequality, even if one’s experience wasn’t so extreme as mine.

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