HUDSON – The poor don't consider themselves poor, dumb or less deserving of respect than the richest men and women in the United States, says journalist Sarah Smarsh.
What they lack, she adds, is the monetary influence to change the unfair laws that keep them poor.
Smarsh shared her book, Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth, Sept. 4 at the Hudson Library and Historical Society with a crowd of more than 150 people.
Heartland is Smarsh’s memoir and an examination of the nation’s class divide. The book, a Finalist for the National Book Award and the Kirkus Prize, was named a Best Book of 2018 by NPR, The New York Post, BuzzFeed, Shelf Awareness, Bustle and Publishers Weekly.
NPR books calls it "Smart, nuanced and atmospheric ... Heartland deepens our understanding of the crushing ways in which class shapes possibility in this country. It's an unsentimental tribute to the working-class people Smarsh knows — the farmers, office clerks, trash collectors, waitresses — whose labor is often invisible or disdained."
Smarsh has covered socioeconomic class, politics and public policy for The Guardian, The New York Times, The Texas Observer, Pacific Standard and many others. A native of rural Kansas, Smarsh is a frequent speaker and commentator on economic inequality.
Gwen Mayer, archivist at the Hudson Library and Historical Society, told the audience that Smarsh’s home state of Kansas had something in common with Hudson. They both shared a famous resident, abolitionist John Brown.
Smarsh grew up in rural Kansas on a farm where they raised cattle and wheat. She was the first person in her family to go to college, as well as the first of her female relatives to graduate from high school and not have a baby.
She had escaped the cycle of class poverty, but her story spans generations. She said that as a reporter, she analyzed the culture that keeps certain groups from attaining a better life.
Smarsh said her family had a different perception of poverty than the rest of the world.
"I never thought of myself as poor," she told the audience. "We had food and a roof over our head. It was a blessing I didn't know how little we had."
The world has a one-sided abstract view of farmers because of "poverty porn" which focuses on the most wretched poor and dehumanizes their lives, she said.
"You can be poor and be happy," Smarsh said. "But poverty is a terrible injustice. It wears you down and tears you down. It's about an imbalance that hurts us all."
In the four decades of her life, Smarsh said the working class has become the working poor. There are 40 million poor in the United States and many work more than one job.
"It's a crisis we find ourselves in at this moment and it affects us all," she said. "How well do we take care of our own? What kind of job will we do to take care of our poor?"
Each chapter in her book has a theme where life on the farm is a commentary on the country.
"The belief that hard work and know-how got you ahead wasn't proving true," Smarsh said. "The poorer you are, the higher the price. You have nothing to show for your life. More fall down the ladder than climb up it."
The problem is that a value is assigned to work that doesn't reflect the true value, she said. Farmers work hard and yet their pay is not reflected in their labor.
"We're underpaying farmers and under taxing the richest," Smarsh said. "That allows the wealth to flow upwards."
The way to fix poverty is to fix the tax policy and pay people with low wages more money, she said. Instead of federal programs to help farmers, they would rather be paid a fair and livable wage.
The farm crisis is unkind to small family farms that lose their land to big corporations, she said. The farm has a family history and they see themselves as stewards of the land. Suicide is high among farmers who are under stress about losing a way of life.
Following the presentation, Arlene Nettling said she was impressed with what Smarsh has done and was impressed with how she analyzed her life and examined poverty.
Nettling said she lived on a farm until World War II when her father moved to Ohio and worked in the war industry.
"We lived one way, but things changed and we reacted to it," she said.
Another member of the audience, Marilyn Orr, said she grew up on a farm in Nebraska and her brother has kept the dairy farm going by relying on robots to milk the 280 cows.
"My story is much like hers," Orr said.
Orr received a scholarship to a private woman's college and married an Air Force officer.
"It was my ticket out," Orr said. "You knew you had to go to college and escape."
Another Hudsonite, Eric Lund, said he came to the event because of the topic.
"I agree with everything," Lund said. "There is a bigger separation between wages."
Smarsh said the forces involved in the distribution of wealth are not by accident, and President Jimmy Carter, also a farmer, warned that people in the United States needed to stop worshipping wealth, but they didn’t listen.
Reporter Laura Freeman can be reached at 330-541-9434 or firstname.lastname@example.org