I’ve decided to switch up this blog a little bit, and write more reading-response-type essays where I share my thoughts about books I read that have a big impact on me. These will mostly be nonfiction books (I’ll still share the fiction I love, too!), and I’d love for you to share your thoughts with me about these topics as well. That said, last month I read Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth by Sarah Smarsh. In it, she details her life growing up in rural Kansas in an unstable home, economic hardship, and a family full of strong-willed women. From a writing perspective, I thought this book was really well done. Her family members became memorable characters, I actually cried real tears during one of their funerals in the story, and she painted a really clear picture of her life growing up. It reminded me a bit of Hillbilly Elegy by JD Vance, which I read last year and reviewed here, but with less physical abuse.
So often, poverty is discussed in terms of urban poverty, in the “dangerous” parts of town, the “slums”, etc. But, the author argues, rural poverty is often overlooked. Maybe this is because rural poverty is harder to see, it’s not in your face, on the streets. Maybe it’s because, for the most part, people in rural poverty have jobs, they work on farms or in dairies, in their small towns running small businesses. But the thing is, even though they’re working hard, a lot of them aren’t making anything close to a living wage.
As a young child, Sarah never stayed in one place for very long. Her mother, just like her grandmother and great-grandmother before, married and divorced a few times and moved around a lot. The most stable home Sarah found was with her grandmother, who finally settled down with her (eighth) husband on a farm. Sarah made the difficult choice to live there, instead of with her mother, so that her education would not suffer. She was an observant child, seeing the self-destruction happening around her, determined not to be the same. In fact, the whole book is written almost as a letter to an unborn and unconceived child, the one she would have had at sixteen had she followed in the path of every other woman in her family. She personally witnessed and understood the impact of having children that young, of being tethered to an (often) abusive man, of scraping pennies for diapers and formula and food, of losing out on career opportunities, of being resigned to a life in poverty, continuing the cycle of her family.
She wrote about how poverty is a shameful thing in our country, that if you live in poverty, the most pervasive opinion is that you somehow “deserve” it. She talked about how her family and many in her community refused welfare, even though they needed it, because simply accepting it was a source of shame. They didn’t have much, she said, but they had their pride.
The most devastating part in the book for me was when she told the story of her father, a hard worker and a dreamer, getting injured at work. He was working around chemicals and was essentially poisoned by them and suffered physical as well as mental complications. It took him a while to recover; he wasn’t able to work during that time and collected very little money from the company on a settlement. But, the words that broke my heart were these:
“It wasn’t the inherent trauma of his experience that got to me but the lack of outrage he seemed to feel–like he knew damn well that dying on the job was his birthright, and his gratitude for having survived outweighed any well-deserved sense that he had been victimized.” (emphasis mine)
I guess I never really thought about how dangerous lots of the “blue collar” jobs are. Huge farm equipment, chemicals, being exposed to the elements, not able to rest for illness or injury. As a kid, I hardly knew anyone with this type of job. But for Sarah, dying or getting seriously hurt on a job was a way of life, normal. How awful to feel that you are destined to hardship, that it’s your birthright simply because of a position you hold. That you are disposable to society. That your hurt doesn’t affect anyone but you and your own.
I first started really thinking about and becoming aware of poverty when I was teaching, and I wrote a little bit about that here. Before that (and I’m ashamed to admit this now), my privileged attitude was one that was anti-welfare and government-assisted healthcare, because “those people” just seriously took advantage of the system. I mean, my parents worked for their money and paid for our food and healthcare, why couldn’t “those people” just get a damn job? It wasn’t until I really started reading about people in poverty, listening to parents at school share their concerns, talking with with others who grew up in poverty, that I began to understand the nuance of it. The impact of constant stress hormones on a body, especially on a developing baby in a stressed mama’s body. The lack of quality healthcare, the lack of access but also the ability to pay for it, the lack of nutritious food (which, I have learned is so much more expensive), the lack of quality education in certain areas, lack of access to birth control. All of these things stack up against people in poverty, and there’s little someone can do on their own to “get out”. This idea totally challenged my vision of the American Dream and the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality.
As a campus, my school participated in a poverty simulation. We were given a part to “play”, we were given a certain amount of money and a list of things we had to get done within a certain amount of time. We had to visit with social workers, stand in lines for assistance, apply for jobs, apply for childcare, pay bills. My part was a mother, part of a four person family. My “husband” had been laid off and was searching for new work. My two young “children” were not yet in school. They started a timer and we started to live this family’s life. I don’t remember the details, but I remember that, more often than not, we slept in our car, I didn’t have enough food to go around, and by the time the simulation was over, my “husband” still hadn’t found a job, and we were still waiting on the government assistance for housing. Not once did I sit down. When the timer buzzed for the last time, I was exhausted. I had been running all over that school gym, two “kids” in tow, getting pushed aside by others in line, questioned by those who could help me, filling out form after form after form, and at the end of the day I felt like I hadn’t accomplished a single thing.
That day, something in me changed, just like it had when my assistant principal told me a few months before that, “you can’t call CPS on them just because they’re poor”–which had stopped me in my tracks as well. The truth of the matter is that we have no idea how anyone else lives except ourselves. We can make all the assumptions in the world, but until we realize that we are talking about ACTUAL human beings, and not just policy, our capacity for empathy will never grow. Which is why books like Heartland are so important for us to read. It gives us a small glimpse into the life of someone who had it hard and who lived to tell about it. I don’t have an answer for how to “fix” the system. But I do know one thing for sure: that when we cast our votes, or support certain policies or politicians, that we need to think about the actual faces that will be affected by such choices. Think about the children, the mothers, the fathers who want nothing less for their children than we do for our own. We have to stop dehumanizing them, lumping them into a category of “poor” and think about them instead as our neighbors. What are we doing to help these children and families? How can we use our privilege to make a difference for them?
If you’re looking for more books like this on the same topic, these five are fantastic as well.
Thanks for reading and until next time, peace and love from my household to yours.