Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth
by Sarah Smarsh
Candidate for National Book Award
review by Shannon Berteau
In this era when everyone seems focused on the growth of our cities we know that our readership is still heartily invested in our rural landscape. The people Smarsh writes about are our neighbors, and maybe even ourselves. It could be imagined that maybe at one time the Smarsh family had a subscription to the Small Farmer’s Journal, but that they were not able to afford to continue their subscription when they were short in so many other areas of their financial picture. Heartland is touted as a memoir but it is a life study, an ethnography if you will, of farm-based families that struggle to get by. The anecdotes of daily life over the years in the Smarsh family will be of interest to many, but where the author really shines is during her discourse of the hegemony of our class structure in America. “America didn’t talk about class when I was growing up. I had no idea why my life looked the way it did, why my parents’ young bodies ached, why some opportunities were closed off to me… [this book intends to articulate] what it means to be a poor child in a rich country founded on the promise of equality.”
She attempts first to break down the term “white working class.” “If a person could go to work every day and still not be able to pay the bills and the reason wasn’t racism, what less articulated problem was afoot?” The ideas warned against by Carter during the fossil-fuel shortage in 1979, his “crisis of confidence” speech, and brought to life by Reagan era policies, bred the concept that “class” didn’t exist. You got what you worked for, and if you weren’t willing or able to work for it, you shouldn’t expect any assistance. There is, of course, some truth to this. But far too many families suffer unnecessarily due to the utter horror in peoples’ hearts that think someone, somewhere, is going to take advantage of a hand out. This is terribly unfortunate considering that productivity (our level of work) has continued to go up, as our compensation (what we get in return) has completely stagnated. They marched hand in hand until 1973 and then diverged dramatically according to statistics tabulated by the Economic Policy Institute (www.epi.org/publication/charting-wage-stagnation). “For decades, far more people fell down the ladder than climbed up it.” Smarsh talks about the people who pick up our garbage being viewed as trash themselves, that someone hammering on a roof for a living might not be able to afford a doctor if they fall off, and the people who are responsible for feeding us may not be worth the warning about the carcinogenic pesticides that they “need” to use on their crops.
In contrast to the depressing nature of these truths, she does an amazing job of detailing the morals and character that exists in rural culture. Using her grandma Betty as an example of the kind of love she was surrounded with: “indiscriminate and generous … Betty … had every excuse to harden [her] heart but never did.” Her grandpa Arnie was indefatigable. “[He} was not one to act sad or complain. He had the gifts [of] … humor and generosity. He didn’t register his own goodness, which was effortless and reliable… What someone asked for, he gave if he could… He just did his best every day.” She goes on to mention how her vast and varied family ties used intelligence, creativity, and grit as well, which is the new buzz word in education for what our future professionals will require by the bushel. Hopefully this bodes well for coming generations from the rural landscape.
When reading these pages you may ask yourself: How can we treat so poorly the people who make our day to day lives function? Do we see no value in the service sector jobs that allow us to buy our groceries and other needs? If these jobs exist, and people are going to them every day, shouldn’t they get in return enough to buy a small home, an inexpensive car, take a reasonable vacation, send their children to college, afford decent healthcare and a good diet? It does not seem reasonable, no matter what you are doing for employment, that you could go to work every day and not be able to afford these things.
And this is why reading the book is so important. We need to take care of our rural families while they still exist. Remember our discussion regarding the preservation of farmland in the last issue of SFJ? If we don’t support families that exist on small rural “farms” the strongest rationale for protecting farmland evaporates. “Of all the forces that caused what social scientists call “rural flight,” the most powerful one during my childhood was perhaps industrialized agriculture… Small farms like my family’s, where the pigpen contained three sows and a litter of piglets, had no place in such an economy – one that was about more, bigger, faster.” She provides statistics that most of our readers are probably familiar with, and echo in this issue’s letters to the editor regarding other farming enterprises such as dairy. In 1980 there were sixty-five thousand hog farmers in Iowa. In 2012 there were ten thousand. The grain industry shut down local co-ops through consolidation. “Rural jobs dwindled, people moved away, and the services and stores and schools that couldn’t be sustained by a hundred people boarded up.” This dwindling down led to our rural communities becoming basically invisible to the vastly urbanized country. “To be made invisible as a class is an invalidation. With invalidation comes shame. A shame that deep – being poor in a place full of narratives about middle and upper classes – can make you feel like what you are is a failure… Our sense that our struggles were our own fault, our acceptance of the way things were, helped keep American industry humming to the benefit of the wealthy.”
The shame that came on in the eighties and nineties through forced work to receive benefits during the Reagan era, and welfare to work initiatives under Clinton, has led to a new concept: the monetization of the poor. Through interest, late fees, court fines, and bank fees our already poor compatriots are being “nickle and dimed” towards starvation. Smarsh really doubles down on the indecent morality required to keep this class system running towards the end of the book. “If you work every day and still can’t afford what you need, is it worse to steal a little from a big store owned by billionaires than to be a billionaire who underpays his employees? Is it worse to do business under the table with a couple hundred bucks than to keep millions of dollars in an offshore bank?” And it is not just the uber-wealthy that her questions are directed at but our counties and municipalities. Who are increasingly “turning to income from minor infractions to pay the bills that state or federal funding had covered before.” Criminalizing the poor is just the latest way of making money for government and private businesses. If this causes you to miss work, you begin a downward spiral that makes your struggles with full employment look like a trip to Disneyland. Joblessness is tied to hunger and homelessness. It is appalling that we have so many people in our midst who don’t have access to a consistent food supply and lack permanent shelter.
We bring this review to you knowing that it is not directly under the umbrella of topics usually covered in our pages. Awareness is everything, and we appreciate the fact that you come to our pages for facts and information about crops, tending livestock and equipment, and managing your land. Alongside these topics we often touch on the social impacts of forces acting outside the comforts of our homes and communities. This is a tale of forces acting right inside our communities, and we feel it deserves some attention. For all of its less than uplifting subject matter it is, for the most part, a light read, and a book we feel many of you may enjoy and learn from. If it brings attention to those in our communities that are often left mostly without voice, it can only benefit us all.