Heartland | Sarah Smarsh

Summary of: Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth
By: Sarah Smarsh


Embark on a personal journey through the heart of America as Sarah Smarsh uncovers the harsh realities of working-class poverty in ‘Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth’. Delve into the author’s upbringing in rural Kansas as a fifth-generation farmer, examining the economic and social challenges that plagued her family as they struggled to survive within a broken system. Witness the impact of failed policies, inequality, and perceptions of class as Smarsh navigates through her childhood and adolescence, determined to break free from the cycle of poverty and emerge an empowered, educated woman.

Sarah Smarsh’s Journey to Class Realization

Sarah Smarsh’s story sheds light on the misconception around poverty and class struggle in America. The author retells the story of her upbringing in rural Kansas and how it took years for her to realize the economic disadvantages of the working-class. Despite being born into a family of farmers, Sarah’s family struggled to make ends meet, which made her understand the struggles of poverty first-hand. However, Sarah emphasizes that the American Dream can be misleading, and hard work does not always translate to economic mobility. She discusses how faith in upward mobility has contributed to disintegration of working-class families and the decline of public services. Though the Reagan years ushered in deregulation and renewed states’ rights, it failed to improve the economical station of working-class people. Nonetheless, Sarah’s family saw themselves as middle class and believed that working hard could create better economic outcomes. Sarah’s journey is a powerful reminder that misconception and delusion can blind people from the struggles of the working class.

A Family’s Struggles with Class

Sarah’s family history reveals the impact of class in America. Her grandfather met her grandmother, Betty, who faced abuse from multiple men before marrying Arnie. They faced constant transience, moving over 60 times in Betty’s life. Sarah’s father, Nick, struggled with his business and had to return to carpentry with his family, while Jeannie became a real estate agent. Sarah sensed her mother withheld love, but her father provided comfort. Their story highlights the unspoken reality of the role that class plays in shaping people’s lives.

Struggles of Physical Labor

The challenges of physical labor are heightened for the working poor who have limited access to education and opportunities. Society undervalues such laborers, perpetuating inhumane practices like unsafe work and sexual harassment. Women in poverty face even more daunting challenges, with single mothers and their children being the poorest in the US. The struggles are evident in rural areas where individuals cope with stress by turning to substance abuse. The story of Jeannie illustrates the dangers of limited resources, leading to a situation where Sarah’s safety was compromised because of lack of supervision. Such circumstances are not unusual for the rural poor who rely on physical labor for survival. The book touches on the impact of these challenges and how they are perpetuated in society.

A Perfect Storm for the Poor

Growing up in rural America, Sarah’s life was plagued with accidents and adversity, including chemical poisoning and a barn fire. She also witnessed a perfect storm of events that penalized the poor, including rising healthcare costs, pharmaceutical mergers, and a lack of access to hospitals. These factors contributed to the widespread proliferation of health problems among the poor, including obesity, diabetes, dental issues, and drug addiction. The chronic stress of poverty also caused heightened fear and anxiety. Despite these challenges, Sarah was able to break the cycle of poverty thanks to the support of her determined grandmother, loving father, and mother who encouraged her love of reading.

Surviving the Farm Crisis

In the 1980s, industrialized agriculture led to the loss of small farms across the Midwest. Farmers couldn’t pay their mortgages, leading to foreclosures, and rural communities suffered as banks, schools, and businesses closed. Sarah, a girl from a traditional farm family, moved to the city with her mother and brother, where they thrived with government assistance. Despite the gulf between her origins and American power, Sarah excelled in school and public speaking competitions. Her father Nick remarried a woman struggling with opioid addiction, which she eventually overcame to help others in recovery.

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