For her 2001 book Nickel and Dimed, author and social critic Barbara Ehrenreich worked several minimum-wage jobs. In the process she documented the precarious lives of the millions of Americans who are mired in poverty—particularly in a time when “the poor have disappeared from the culture at large, from its political rhetoric and intellectual endeavors.” More than a decade later, freelance journalist Sarah Smarsh arrived at a sadly similar conclusion in “Poor Teeth,” her incisive 2014 essay about the ever-growing class divide in America as seen through the lens of dental care (or lack thereof) and the “psychological hell” many people experience for “having poor teeth in a rich, capitalist country.”
Smarsh was flooded with hundreds of messages from readers who reached out to thank her for writing about an issue that’s rarely covered by the mainstream media. “It was a realization like, oh shit, I need to keep writing about these kind of things for these people because there’s so few of these narratives out there,” Smarsh says. “For me, writing about poverty and class is a choice, but it also feels like a responsibility.”
Unlike Ehrenreich, Smarsh didn’t require an immersive experiment into the world of the working poor—she’s already lived it. Prior to being an Ivy League grad and college professor, the 36-year-old Kansas native was a fifth-generation farm kid whose family eked out a humble existence on subpoverty-level wages. Smarsh draws on her wealth of personal experience in a new anthology, Tales of Two Americas: Stories of Inequality in a Divided State (Penguin), and her first book, In the Red (Scribner), due next year.
On Saturday, April 29, Smarsh will appear for a reading and conversation with John Freeman as part of the Chicago Humanities Festival. I spoke with Smarsh over the phone about poverty, social class, and the problems of seeing politics through a red state/blue state lens.
What prompted you to focus on social class in your writing?
I never made a conscious decision to do it, but what I gravitated to as a writer has always had a common thread of somehow intersecting with economics and class and rural/urban issues. When I got the attention for “Bad Teeth” and heard so many people say ‘Oh my god, I see myself in what you wrote and there are so few pieces like that out there,’ it made me realize I need to keep doing this for those people and for myself. Growing up, I had a vacuum of those same kinds of narratives. To this day, the only piece of pop culture I felt I connected to and represented my people was Roseanne. She’s a genius, and I’m so grateful as a ten-year-old that I had that show. I think I can speak to social class experientially in a way that not many people who end up with a platform like I have can. It’s an honor.
I know bits and pieces of your biography from essays you’ve written. Can you give me an overview of your background and how it’s shaped your work?
As a toddler, I lived in a trailer on a patch of dirt next to a windswept lake and a wheat field near Wichita. My dad is a construction worker and was a farmer and my mom lived a transient midwest life. My mom got pregnant with me when she was 17, and so they moved into what felt then like a nice little 700-square-foot tiny wooden structure out in the country. After my parents got a divorce, I moved permanently into my grandparents’ farm when I was 11 and spent my adolescence and high school there. We never had cable TV or air-conditioning or computers, but we always had food and shelter and clothes, and I loved living on a farm. So I didn’t think of us as poor, even though we were living under the poverty line.
It was a time when class wasn’t really part of the American consciousness. I think it’s finally beginning to rightly be acknowledged now. I didn’t conceive of ourselves on a place on a class ladder. If I’d had that language as a teenager, I’d have considered myself middle-class. Looking back it now seems triumphant and also a little sad that there’s there’s such a disconnect between the language of where we thought we were on the ladder and where we actually were. I remember later going to grad school at Columbia and realizing that the annual tuition was higher than the income of anyone in my family—by a lot.
Besides bad teeth, what are some of the other effects of the kinds of poverty you and your family and community have experienced?
There’s so many ways in which poverty is a violence on the body and mind. I think we often jump to the health-care discussion, but that’s a very reactive after-the-fact kind of thing. Consider that the bodies of my family actually look different than the cosmopolitan class I’m now a part of. My dad has been a construction worker for almost 50 years, and his fingers are swollen to the size of hot dogs—his hands calloused and his knuckles busted. I think his fingernails have been bruised every day of my life.
Life when you’re engaged in physical labor—as so many poor people are—comes with more inherent dangers. Skin cancer is very common in the rural communities like the one I grew up in. It was like a rite of passage to get a hunk of skin cut out of your face because you work in a field every day for decades. A lot of working-class jobs these days are much less about farming and factories and more health-care and service-industry work, and a lot of people I know have backaches and weight problems because the kind of food they can afford begets obesity, compounded by the fact that they can’t afford health care.
When you grow up poor, there’s also this psychological notion—there’s isn’t room or space for long-term planning. Your focus is on immediate survival. I used to take buckets of feed out to pasture to feed the cattle on a three-wheeler because (ATVs) are so dangerous, and I didn’t even have a helmet.
It doesn’t appear that the poverty problem is going to get any better under Trump.
Yes, Trump is a disaster, but neoliberalism under both parties has also been a disaster in so many ways. It was under Bill Clinton’s watch that welfare was dismantled and poverty criminalized. The big question for progressives like myself—can the Democratic Party be salvaged? Do late capitalism and the American machine have to fall apart and be rebuilt—and that will be ugly and painful for a lot of people—or will it look like a moderate shift in the right direction? That’s not going to happen under Trump, and I’m not convinced it would have unless under a very progressive candidate like Bernie Sanders.
Last fall, you wrote a piece for the Guardian about how the media wrongly turned the white working class into a scapegoat for Trump’s win. “Poor whites are bad” is a narrative that won’t go away.
It’s convenient for the middle- and upper-class pundits and politicians who set the conversation in this country to stick up for most of the whites in this country and create a stereotype of a rural white bigot. Trump was a white phenomenon—regardless of class. My grandma is a working-class white Kansas woman who caucused for Bernie Sanders—it was the first time she ever voted in the primary. She voted for Clinton in the general and loathed Donald Trump.
Here’s the thing, in my red state of Kansas, 60 percent voted Republican and 40 percent Democrat. But let’s say less than half of the population voted—at least one-third of the population is erased by this red-blue map. There’s so many decent working people that come in all colors and backgrounds. v