She Thought Her Family Was Middle Class, Not Broke In The Richest Country On Earth

6 hours ago
Originally published on September 16, 2018 9:57 am

Sarah Smarsh grew up in rural Kansas — the fifth generation to farm the same land, riding tractors where her ancestors rode wagons. There was never enough money and prospects were few. She was part of the what has become popularized as the white working class. But back then, she didn't know it.

"I never in a million years thought that I was poor, and I don't think that my family would have used that word either when we were — well, and many are — living that experience," Smarsh told NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro in an interview for Weekend Edition Sunday. "Our sense was: We got enough to eat, and there is a roof keeping the elements off of our head, and so I guess, if someone would have asked, we would have thought we were, say, middle class.

Her new book, Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth, has just been nominated for the annual National Book Foundation longlist awards in non-fiction category. In it, Smarsh talks about how her family story reflects the wider story of inequality and poverty in America.


Interview Highlights

On the term "intergenerational poverty" and its limits

Yeah, and even the term poverty — since I write about class, I think about the power of words and our word choice often, and I never in a million years thought that I was poor, and I don't think that my family would have used that word either when we were — well, and many are — living that experience. Our sense was: We got enough to eat, and there is a roof keeping the elements off of our head, and so I guess, if someone would have asked, we would have thought we were, say, middle class. And I think that "working poor" is a good term for the experience my family was living, because that kind of gets at the reason that we were poor, which is not for lack of effort and participation in these systems that we're encouraged to believe in. It was rather for markets and low wages that we had no control over ourselves.

So much storytelling about poverty is overlaid with this sense of pity and sometimes even condescension that casts it as this overwhelmingly bleak experience. And in fact, my life and my family was often brimming with humor and joy and love — a lot of hardship too of course.

On being a child from a line of teenage mothers

For some reason — I don't know if it was just my disposition as a kid — the future journalist in me was always looking around, trying to get to the bottom of things, and to understand all these deep truths about our family that no one was talking about. And I knew my mom was unhappy, and I knew that something about it had to do with her role as a mother. This, I think, fostered in me a really precocious sense of my own would-be participation in that same path.

And so by the time I was of childbearing age, even as a prepubescent, I was already consciously thinking about how I really wanted to make sure that I didn't have a baby when I was really young and really poor. That absolutely informed the way that I structured this book, which is addressed to that would-have-been child that I did successfully circumvent having. Teenage pregnancy has everything to do with poverty, in some ways, and it's something that we — that I have not really seen addressed outright as much as I think it ought to be: This relationship between the female body, her womb, motherhood and one's socioeconomic outcomes.

On how the working poor are viewed as dispensable, and on poor whiteness in particular

Toward the beginning, I directly address a term that gets at that within the context of my own racial experience, whiteness: "white trash." Trash, of course, is garbage; it is dispensable; it is, by definition, something to be thrown away. And it's a dangerous way to talk about human beings, about ourselves, about our country. I think it says a lot about the way that power and these power structures and strata in this so-called socioeconomic ladder that we measure our country by really often informs our language in some really destructive ways. ...

I often find that there is a particular derision toward or contempt for poor whiteness that comes from better-off whites. You know, this is a very different experience on the privilege continuum than being a person of color. But it still nonetheless has something to do with race, I think. ... If we have a culture really built on the foundations of white supremacy and ideas that are deeply embedded in our society about whiteness essentially being a shorthand for economic stability and power ... it's kind of implicit in that, for the white people that trade in those ideas, that that's sort of the right order of things. Even, let's say, well-to-do white people who fancy themselves liberal and progressive have such a hateful, venomous attitude toward members of their own race who have not won in this capitalist society, in economic terms. And that seems to me to suggest that they are offended by essentially looking in the mirror, seeing someone who is more a physical reflection of themselves in whiteness, who is living the shame of poverty.

On the increased attention paid to the white working class following the 2016 presidential election

On the one hand, you know, coming from rural America, I think, oh, all right, now we're getting some attention in national discussion. But the hell of it is, it's often, from my view, the wrong attention, framed the wrong way, asking the wrong questions, and making the wrong assessments. I'd almost rather just be left alone. So we've sort of moved from a sense of invisibility to a stunning, broad stereotype casting millions of Americans as somehow a political and cultural monolith. It seems to me that what's going on right now is the scapegoating of a group that I know in some pockets to be very progressive, and is not at all represented by the media attention that's going on right now.

On what her family thinks of the book

Yeah, the way they look at it, I think, is: This is a very strange and rare experience for one to have, to be made a character in a nonfiction book. But they understand work. They respect work. They're not necessarily book people, but they know I'm doing my job, and they respect that. And though — I think the way they see stories is: If it's true, it's true. So there's neither pride nor shame on their part. I think they just feel like — they believe I got it right, and that's the best review I could get.

Hiba Ahmad and Barrie Hardymon produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Sarah Smarsh grew up in rural Kansas - the fifth generation to farm the same land, riding tractors where her ancestors rode wagons. There was never enough money and prospects were few. She was part of what has become popularized as the white working class. But back then, she didn't know it. In her new book "Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard And Being Broke In The Richest Country on Earth," Smarsh talks about how her family story reflects the wider tale of inequality and poverty in America. I began by asking her about her life on that farm.

SARAH SMARSH: They're deep roots that I have grown to appreciate. And when it was all that I knew, I didn't really understand at that moment how increasingly rare that sort of experience is - to be farming and living on the very land that generations of my ancestors also worked. So yeah, I feel a very deep connection to this place, not just in a sentimental way but just in terms of raw time.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. Let's talk about your people. You're a sociologist, so you used the word intergenerational poverty, which has become a bit of a buzzword. But your story and your family's story is so much more than that buzzword might imply.

SMARSH: Yeah. And even the term poverty - since I write about class - I think about the power of words and our word choice often. And I never in a million years thought that I was poor. And I don't think that my family would have used that word either when we were - well, and many are - living that experience. You know, our sense was we've got enough to eat. And there is a roof keeping the elements off of our head. And so I guess if someone would have asked, we would have thought we were, say, middle class.

And I think that working poor is a good term for the experience that my family was living because that kind of gets at the reason that we were poor, which was not for lack of effort and participation in these systems that we're encouraged to believe in. It was rather for markets and low wages that we had no control over ourselves. So much storytelling about poverty is overlaid with this sense of pity and sometimes even condescension that casts it as this overwhelmingly bleak experience. And, in fact, my life and my family was often brimming with humor and joy and love.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This is a memoir. You make it clear that this is the story of this country but through the prism of your own experience and your family's experience. And I kind of want to bring you back a little bit to that. You know, you're the child of a teenage mother, who was the child of a teenage mother. Can you talk a little bit about that and about how that framed this book? And why you wanted to write it?

SMARSH: For some reason, I don't know if it was just my disposition as a kid. The future journalist in me was always looking around trying to understand all these deep truths about our family that no one was talking about. And I knew my mom was unhappy. And I knew that something about it had to do with her role as a mother. And so by the time I was of childbearing age, even as a prepubescent, I was already consciously thinking about how I really wanted to make sure that I didn't have a baby when I was really young and really poor. That absolutely informed the way that I structured this book - which is addressed to that would-have-been child that I did successfully circumvent having.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You talk about the bodies of men and women in this book - the bodies of the working poor, essentially, and how they are viewed as dispensable.

SMARSH: Toward the beginning of the book, I directly address a term that gets at that within the context of my own racial experience - whiteness, white trash. Trash, of course, is garbage. It is dispensable. It is, by definition, something to be thrown away. And it's a dangerous way to talk about human beings, about ourselves, about our country. I think it says a lot about the way that power and these power structures in this so-called socioeconomic ladder that we measure our country by, really - often informs our language in some really destructive ways.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. I mean, you acknowledge in the book that statistically, poverty and the sort of accompanying issues disproportionately affect black and brown communities all over the United States. But you write in the book that poor whiteness is a peculiar offense in a society that imbues whiteness with power not just by making it the racial norm but by making it a shorthand for economic stability. Can you explain that idea?

SMARSH: So what I mean by that passage is that if we have a culture really built on the foundations of white supremacy and ideas that are deeply embedded in our society about whiteness essentially being a shorthand for economic stability and power and there is - it's kind kind of implicit in that for the white people who trade in those ideas that that's sort of the right order of things. Even, let's say, well-to-do white people who fancy themselves liberal and progressive have such a hateful, venomous attitude toward members of their own race who have not won in this capitalist society, in economic terms. And that seems to me to suggest that they are offended by essentially looking in the mirror, seeing someone who is more a physical reflection of themselves - in whiteness - who is living the shame of poverty.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In 2016 - November 8 - America seemed to discover the white working class - or at least the journalists who cover America seemed to discovered the white working class. There's so much that's been written now. When you hear that phrase in the media, what do you think?

SMARSH: On the one hand, you know, coming from rural America, I think oh, all right. Now, like, we're getting some attention in national discussion. But the hell of it is it's often, from my view, the wrong attention, framed the wrong way, asking the wrong questions and making the wrong assessments. I'd almost rather just be left alone. So we've sort of moved from a sense of invisibility to a stunning broad stereotype casting. You know, millions of Americans are somehow a political and cultural monolith. It seems to me that what's going on right now is the scapegoating of a group that I know to be, in some pockets, very progressive and is not at all represented by the media attention that's going on right now.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What does your family think of the book? It's hard for families to read about themselves, I think.

SMARSH: Yeah. They're - the way they look at it, I think, is this is a very strange and rare experience for one to have - to be made a character in a nonfiction book. But they understand work. They're not necessarily book people. But they know I'm doing my job. And they respect that. And though I think the way that they see stories is, if it's true, it's true. So there is neither pride, nor shame on their part. I think they just feel like - they believe I got it right. And that's the best review I could get.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Sarah Smarsh's book is called "Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard And Being Broke In The Richest Country on Earth." Thank you very much.

SMARSH: Thank you so much, Lulu.

(SOUNDBITE OF ZOE KEATING'S "ESCAPE ARTIST") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.