Much like when I read God Land, when I read Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth by Sarah Smarsh I saw glimpses of a world that I knew, but also that I avoided due to the actions of my parents when I was young. I in no way grew up in the same way as Smarsh, but I did grow up for the first third of my childhood in a small town where poverty was, most likely, all around me. In her memoir, Smarsh tells her story but weaves in and out of it sections on policies that were enacted at the various levels of government that greatly influenced the place in which she grew up.
Smarsh grew up outside Wichita, Kansas and was born to a teenage mother who was also born to a teenage mother. The cycle of poverty was continuing and she was determined to get out and break it. As she tells the story of her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother, you see how history repeats itself and how little the policies that are supposed to help people actually do.
At times this is a difficult book to read, but the way in which Smarsh points towards policies and elections and shows how their outcomes affect people, especially women and people of color, is vividly outlined as she also tells her story. There was a lot in this book and I’m still chewing on much of what she wrote, thinking about policy and outcomes, and people who’s lives are affected.
We can’t really know what made us who we are. We can come to understand, though, what the world says we are. (p. 13)
That America couldn’t hear his message about worshiping the false idol of wealth is a public fact that would be felt privately for decades to come. No one would feel it more than the poor. (p 24)
That we could live on a patch of Kansas dirt with a tub of Crisco lard and a $1 rebate coupon in an envelope on the kitchen counter and call ourselves middle class was at once a triumph of contentedness and a sad comment on our country’s lack of awareness about its own economic structure. Class didn’t exist in a democracy like ours, as far as most Americans were concerned, at least not as a destiny or an excuse. You got what you worked for, we believed. (p 29)
Wealth and income inequality were nothing rare in global history. What was peculiar about the class system in the United States, though, is that for centuries we denied it existed. At every rung of the economic ladder, Americans believed that hard work and a little know-how were all a person needed to get ahead. (p 42)
I would have passed all sorts of poverties to you. But some late night a tractor would have pulled you, well fed by what we grew, under a clear sky full of stars. That laughter—that freedom—would have been the fortune you inherited. (p 98)
For me, country was not a look, a style, or even a conscious attitude but a physical place, its experience defined by distance from the forces of culture that would commodify it. That place meant long stretches of near-solitude broken up by long drives on highways to enter society and then exit again. (p 105)
The countryside is no more our nation’s heart than are its cities, and rural people aren’t more noble and dignified for their dirty work in fields. But to devalue, in our social investments, the people who tend crops and livestock, or to refer to their place as “flyover country,” is to forget not just a country’s foundation but its connection to the earth, to cycles of life scarcely witnessed and ill understood in concrete landscapes. (p 122)
America has an idea that people in poverty make sketchy decisions, but everyone does. The poor just have less room for their errors, which will be laid bare in public for need of help. (p 130)
Was I a good kid or a bad kid? The answer to that question, I knew from both Catholicism and capitalism, would decide my fate. Heaven or hell. Wealth or poverty. Freedom or prison. (p 144)
I had no choice but to understand that people can demean and hit you and in their better moments love you, at once be a mess themselves and carry a deep pride in your strange togetherness. (p 162)
Economic power is social power. In the end, for all her hard work and tenacity, the poor woman lacks both. (p 225)
The American Dream, in particular, sometimes seems more like a ghost haunting our way of thinking than like a sacred contract worth signing toward some future. (p 288)