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.
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.
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Toronto has been called the raccoon capital of the world. And if you know anything about trash pandas, as they're not so affectionately known, you know this, they'll do anything to get your leftovers. The Canadian raccoons were so adept at getting into trash cans that a few years back, the city of Toronto spent more than $20 million on new cans that were meant to outsmart the critters. Spoiler alert - things did not go as planned. What happened next is the subject of a 6,000-word investigation by the Toronto Star and staff reporter Amy Dempsey, who joins us now. Welcome.
AMY DEMPSEY: Thank you.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: You write that a simple inquiry turned into an accidental investigation. So where does this story begin?
DEMPSEY: It began in January when I got a message from a friend saying the new green bins have eliminated the raccoon population in Toronto. This friend hadn't seen the family of raccoons that had been living in his yard. Friends of his hadn't seen their raccoons.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And the idea is that these raccoon families might have been starving because they couldn't get into the trash cans anymore.
DEMPSEY: Yes. And so I reached out to Toronto's foremost raccoon expert, probably the world's foremost raccoon expert, Suzanne MacDonald. I wrote to her saying, are the raccoons starving? She, unbeknownst to me, had been getting a lot of inquiries from people asking the same question. And she had been measuring and weighing dead raccoons since about a year before the green bin rollout started to see whether their body mass index changed. So I asked if I could go with her, and that's where it started.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: This got personal for you pretty fast. You launched your own hidden camera investigation.
DEMPSEY: I did. I mean, one week I went outside and found that my neighbor's green bin had been toppled over and was open. So I texted her and said, you know, your green bin has been breached. And I sort of blamed it on her a little bit. I said, you must have left it unlocked because the raccoons - they can't get into these things. And then they started getting into mine. And it became very clear that they were opening them somehow. These bins, when you tip them to 110 degrees, open automatically. So Suzanne MacDonald, the raccoon expert, loaned me a trail camera, and I began performing surveillance in my laneway.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter) And in the end, you wrote it only took three nights and two chickens to find out the truth, which was...
DEMPSEY: The truth was there is at least one raccoon in my neighborhood who can open the green bins. Now, the city said, you know, your bin might be loose. Allow us to replace your bin. So it was replaced. And then the raccoons got into the second bin and then the city came back and said, well actually, we think there might be something wrong with the second bin that you've had. It's pretty clear that some of the raccoons can get in. And they simply knock them over and turn the handle just as we do.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. So what is your takeaway? Are raccoons sort of smarter than humans? Are we making a super raccoon that will take over Toronto at some point?
DEMPSEY: They're definitely not smarter than us. Some of them are really dumb. Like, I definitely have footage of raccoons who just crawl all over it for a little while and then slink away. But some of them - it is amazing how smart they seem to be. One of the videos I captured, the raccoon just walks up to the bin, pulls it right down and it lands with a bang. And then she turns and looks directly at the camera, almost as if to say, ha, you can't stop me. You can't stop me.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter). Amy Dempsey, an investigative reporter at the Toronto Star on the raccoon beat. Thank you so much.
DEMPSEY: Thank you.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And FYI, raccoon expert Suzanne MacDonald, told the Toronto Star that her research is ongoing, but the raccoons are, quote, "not starving to death - that's for sure." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.