Summary of Heartland

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9 Overall

9 Importance

9 Innovation

9 Style


“You got what you worked for, we believed. There was some truth to that. But it was not the whole truth.” So says Sarah Smarsh, who grew up in a family of working poor people in Wichita and rural Kansas in a country known for affluence and opportunity. Her mother and grandmother were both teenage moms; her father was a small-time carpenter and her grandfather was a farmer. In this beautifully crafted, timely and stirring memoir of living below the poverty line, Smarsh explores the cultural forces driving America’s socioeconomics, drawing from her experiences and those of her extended family. She discusses the plagues of ill health, addiction, depression, social stigmatization and lack of opportunity that America’s working poor suffer. She writes with warmth, clarity, soul and remarkably little self-pity, though her contempt for cultural forces that punish poor people comes through with force. Hers is a candid look at the myth of the American Dream, the hard facts of economic inequality and society’s disdain for the poor.

In this summary, you will learn

  • What Sarah Smarsh and her extended family experienced living below the poverty line in Wichita and rural Kansas,
  • What impact societal attitudes have on poor and working class people, and
  • How economic inequality and the class divide affect Americans trapped below the poverty line.

About the Author

Journalist and author Sarah Smarsh, a former Joan Shorenstein Fellow at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, now lives in Kansas. She speaks frequently on economic inequality.



Fifth-Generation Farmers

Sarah Smarsh’s mom, Jeannie, was 18 when she gave birth to Sarah in the summer of 1980 in rural Kansas. Her mother Betty had been a teen when Jeannie was born as well. Sarah joined the fifth generation of Kansas farmers on her father’s side. She entered the world as a poor white female in a country that doesn’t acknowledge class disparity. Sarah began to understand her place in the socioeconomic order when she left home at age 18, and she didn’t hear the term “white working class” until well into adulthood.

Faith in the American Dream perpetuates the belief that people can improve their station with ingenuity and hard work. The working poor, however, can spend a lifetime in labor and end up further behind. Sarah’s family wasn’t starving or homeless but, at times, they couldn’t afford new shoes or doctors.

Sarah came into this world just as people were losing faith that the US economy would continually improve and were realizing that the world’s natural resources weren’t limitless. Reagan’s presidency ushered in trickle-down economics, renewed states’ rights and deregulation...

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