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

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.

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Lulu Garcia-Navarro is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. She is infamous in the IT department of NPR for losing laptops to bullets, hurricanes, and bomb blasts.