Poverty in America takes many forms. In Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth, Sarah Smarsh reveals her personal experience of growing up poor in rural Kansas. Growing up as Americans moved away from farming and the midwest, Smarsh watched as support for her family’s way of life dried up, leaving very little left to tie a fifth generation farmer to the land.
As a white woman from a lower income region of the San Joaquin Valley (who was praised for waiting until the ripe age of 22 to have her first child) I can see and vaguely understand the edges of Smarsh’s experience. But the truth is it was my grandmother, who left the Great Plains with her two daughters to struggle in Los Angeles in the late 30’s, who made the transition that saved me from having to make a choice of whether or not to leave behind a life on the farm. And, come to think of it, my mother would rather have burned a barn to the ground than pitched anything into it so really there was no way that decision would have landed at my feet.
Americans have very little patience with or sympathy for poor people. But, if you are white you are less likely to remain in poverty. The cycle is easier to break. The opportunities are there but often you have to be willing to leave home to get them. Rural poverty in America takes many forms, leaves many scars and raises many questions. Smarsh’s excellent book continues this important conversation.