A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth

The author grew up in a midwest wheat-farming family in the 1980s and 1990s that found itself struggling to get by, for generations. This book tells the story of her young life and transition to adulthood. Smarsh combines memoir with rich and insightful social commentary. She asks us to carefully consider American class divisions and to question myths in our society that cause people to be treated as less than others simply because they are paid less. While not set in Oregon, this book contains lessons and reflections valuable for any rural community.

320 pages. ©2019.
Available Formats:

Reader Reviews for this Book


Review posted January 25, 2023


The book shares her account of growing up. At times the book is pretty repetitive and slow to move forward with her point.


Review posted December 21, 2022


Certainly an interesting topic and a lot of good stories in this book. However I found the organization hard to follow as the timing and characters seemed to jump around a bit. Perhaps that is a purposeful play on the ever-moving lifestyles the author described but I found the book slow to read after awhile. I thought the last third was the most interesting but it may have been because I just wanted to get the book finished. All in all, somewhat interesting but not a really great book to me. It was fine.

[email protected]

Review posted October 22, 2022


This was a hard read for me, but worth it. I recognized so much of my life growing up in rural Oregon; Heartland was enlightening.


Review posted August 21, 2022


An important memoir and perspective. Smarsh chronicles not only her story, but the story of her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother, and considers the cycles of generational poverty, and how difficult those cycles are to break.


Review posted July 19, 2022


Just finished Heartland. Enjoyed the unique way the author shared her valuable story and perspective. Many pages are marked with passages I want to reread and remember. I felt and learned a great deal. Highly recommended.


Review posted May 28, 2022


As someone who grew up in the Midwest, this book resonated with me. Smarsh writes eloquently about the powerful assumptions at the foundation of many of our country's biggest challenges (that we are more than reluctant to acknowledge and shift). Read this book and share it!


Review posted May 25, 2022


Heartland is a great example of economic inequality in America. How the "American Dream" is not attainable for most people, especially the poor. A amazing view into working class America. Highly recommend.


Review posted May 19, 2022


excellent eye opening book.


Review posted May 12, 2022


I appreciated Smarsh's perspective. I'd recommend this book to anyone looking to better understand class and politics in America. Is both a great memoir and sociology book.


Review posted May 1, 2022


This book was a bit more dense than I expected. I didn’t realize it was a bunch of separate stories/ excerpts (that was my bad) rather than a more informative summary style. Others may like it more than me! Parts were interesting but other parts felt disjointed to me. Interesting none the less!


Review posted April 27, 2022


LOVED this book! A great read. Passed it on to several friends and co-workers.

Alyssa Thompson

Review posted April 21, 2022


Great look into our country


Review posted April 19, 2022


Such a good book! It had the perfect blend of memoir and history of economics realities, politics, culture, etc while the author was growing up, and more recently. It gave me a new perspective of people within the farm culture and generational poverty. Definitely recommend this book!


Review posted April 18, 2022


Wonderful book detailing the experience of the working poor and the impact of "the American dream". The author's ability to bridge multiple points of few to build a more comprehensive and nuanced view of our country is beautiful.

Autumn R Mosley

Review posted March 14, 2022


Good read, a great look into the hardships of rural living


Review posted February 25, 2022


the concept of the book was really good, at times there was some interesting ways points were being made that distracted from the overall message. Easy to read, good insight


Review posted February 9, 2022


This book is informative, inspiring, and heartbreaking all at once. Everyone should read it to gain more perspective about inequality in our country.


Review posted November 25, 2021


A journey down a difficult life of poverty, at times poetic, other times painful and descriptive in a jarring way. The book was written to her unborn poor daughter, which was a powerful way to narrate the change and desires the author felt.


Review posted October 5, 2021


Captivating story. I really enjoyed how the author writes.


Review posted September 16, 2021


This book was very helpful


Review posted September 13, 2021


This was a very heart wrenching and heart warming experience. I have lived on low income with children but never experienced the poverty level the author shared and spoke about. I felt like I was allowed to see through her eyes and it touched my heart with greater understanding. We should never put people into classes or judge one another. Truly an eye opening experience.


Review posted September 1, 2021


Hearing about Sarah Smarsh's journey as a child in Kansas was eye-opening and riveting. The summaries about what she went through and also policies associated with why she went through it were incredible. It does remind you a bit of rural life and it was one take on what it was like to grow up there. I am thankful to be reminded that while we are an extremely profitable nation, a lot of that money doesn't also go to those who are working hard.

Paula Jenssen

Review posted August 23, 2021


Sarah Smarsh shared a perspective that was new to me. The book enlightened me to many historical socioeconomic policies. I recommend the book.


Review posted August 19, 2021


This was a heart-warming and heart-wrenching story all in one. I loved the author's depiction of life in Kansas in the 80's and 90's. Her description invoked both feelings of sympathy, but also of resilience and gave a clear idea of what it is like to be poor in America with no way out, regardless of the choices one makes. I think many times people in America who grow up with privilege believe that anyone can be anything if we just work hard. It's the old "pull yourself up by the bootstraps" attitude. Those people need to read this book to better understand the real struggles immigrants and laborers go through. I learned a lot reading this book!


Review posted August 5, 2021


Excellent read. Very informative regarding poor families in American


Review posted August 4, 2021


An unparalleled entry into understanding the roots of rural poverty. Through a gendered lens, Smarsh reveals how the persistence of economic inequality is encouraged by cultural acceptance of patriarchy, violence, isolation and survival through self-medication. In discovering and re-telling her own story of breaking generational poverty and marginalization, Smarsh dispels the stereotypes often applied to rural teen mothers and the working poor. The vehicle she uses -- a narrative accounting for her never-to-be-born daughter -- was confusing at first but built a powerful framework for shared awareness.


Review posted July 28, 2021


This book was interesting and well written. It was written as an ode to the authors child. The author discussed her own childhood and the experience of both her mother's and father's side of the family. An interesting perspective on class in America and the impacts of politics and poverty on Americans.


Review posted July 2, 2021


I was expecting a farmland version of Nickled & Dimed; this book is much grittier and much more personal, a family history as much as a memoir. Family history determines the choices people make, and their bad choices determine the family history. Four generations of "working hard and being broke," lack of education, unwanted pregnancies and abusive marriages made a regrettable history indeed, yet not without a certain strength. One has to admire the character of many of the characters even as we shake our heads at their choices. I had to take some breaks from reading this one, but thought it was an important book to finish - and I was especially intrigued by the author's device of telling her story to her imaginary future child, and how imagining a better future for that child in fact led her into one.


Review posted June 14, 2021


Easy to read...generational story interesting book


Review posted May 12, 2021


Great Book with valuable insights! I was born in NE. My family has been there for generations, immigrating from Czechoslovakia and Sweden. This book resonated and motivated me to continue to have an open mind, have empathy and see the value of all life styles.


Review posted May 10, 2021


Loved this book. I could really relate. Since I, as a girl, grew up in a rural area of farming with class issues.

Ella Martin

Review posted May 7, 2021


Sarah Smarsh's memoir is both a poignant love letter written to a hypothetical child of poverty walking in her mother's footsteps, as well as a candid invitation into the lives of America's rural poor. She draws the reader into a heartbreaking and painful narrative of the cycle of poverty and implores them to see the wheel of injustice, shame, and mental illness going round-and-round at the hands of stigma and government policies. This memoir is also a commemoration of family farms and generational labor.

kathy pecchioni graham

Review posted March 17, 2021


I was born & raised in Wichita, Kansas like Sarah Smarsh. I too, came from a working class family. While my family would be seen as more functional than hers, (we just had less stressors) there were many things in her book that hit home. Both my parents had to work to cover the bills. They worked very hard & knew how to budget money but still had trouble covering the bills every month. There is a myth in America ,that Smarsh points out so well, that it's all your fault if you can't "make it " in America. You must be lazy, dumb, don't know how to handle money, etc. Just working hard doesn't cut it. Smarsh shows how stressors upon stressors can build up in your life so much so it seems impossible to get out from under them. Smarsh recognized these stressors @ a very early age & was determined to prevent enough of them to find her way out. This book is an eye opener to those of you who were , by mere luck, born into a well to do family.


Review posted February 19, 2021


I loved this book. Very informative. Highly recommend.


Review posted February 9, 2021


Smarsh's memoir is thoughtful and compassionate. Her lucid and kind look at her family and their circumstances and the social conditions that influence both is necessary in this political moment. Kansas rural poverty and Pacific Northwest rural poverty have a lot of parallels and in this time of political division we need her voice. I recommend it.


Review posted February 7, 2021


The title is a question so many Americans ask themselves often. It pulled me in immediately. I found compelling ideas in the book, some I had not thought of. This book would be a great assignment for middle and high school age students. It would be educational and thoughtful for everyone to read, many who could most gain from reading it won’t.


Review posted January 15, 2021


An interesting read about rural poverty and the challenges that come with it. The author captures the struggles intrinsic to a life characterized by economic deprivation and the life lessons that result from enduring financial hardships. It is a poignant testimony to the socioeconomic injustices enmeshed in the American dream.


Review posted December 25, 2020


It's interesting learning about how other people live. Where I grew up, anyone who owned land had to be rich. In this book, someone could own a 1/4 of a square mile of land and still be living in poverty. They were not just poor, they were working really hard from before dawn to past dusk and still had trouble making ends meet.


Review posted December 8, 2020


I tried, I really did, but I just couldn't get into this book. I disliked that it was addressed to a child (born or unborn I never figured out.) I didn't like that it seemed to never really go anywhere but in circles. I gave it 3-4 tries but this book just did not speak to me. I still think it sounds really interesting, just not my style.


Review posted December 7, 2020


This book actually surprised me.. I didn't expect it to. If you're looking for a good read and something to preoccupy your mind this one would be it. Definitely something that makes you think about things.


Review posted November 25, 2020


Heartland is a straightforward story of growing up poor in rural America. It rang true to me personally, as I grew up in a poor community in Appalachia. The author is honest and non-dramatic in her portrayal of many childhood events, and those of her family, that were deeply traumatizing. One key idea that I could totally relate to was the feeling that I was taking up too much space as a child. Her mother says, "Do you have to breathe so loud?" She was shamed for asking for attention, for her tears, and for just being, sometimes. There were a few too many characters to keep track of -- that is my only criticism of this book, which I highly recommend. It sheds light on a large population of forgotten people, and as I was reminded, shunned people, merely because they are poor. The book brought me to deep reflection about my own attitudes and beliefs about "poor" people. It opened doors into my heart, which carried judgement and condemnation, much of it shared by family and community. I had many recollections of judging others who had "less" than me. Thank you for bringing this book to my attention, and for making it available for free! I will definitely pass it on.


Review posted November 23, 2020


This is quite the memoir, as the author takes us through her own experience of intergenerational poverty, collective trauma, and the seemingly never-ending struggle to survive. Read and rethink your stereotypes of flyover states, public schools, and growing up white in the heartland. Read and reflect on how we as a society can and should expand our perspective and broaden our compassion and ensure that we support policies and programs that address these issues.


Review posted November 7, 2020


I read this title during the early November Presidential election and aftermath. It is beautifully written, moving and sometimes very funny. I can't imagine a more inside look at the kind of poverty and strength in srtuggling farm families and especially the trials of being a young woman in the heartland. I feel like i understand a little better what motivates Trump supporters. Loved this book, thank you Ford Foundation.


Review posted November 3, 2020


Great read!


Review posted November 2, 2020


Great read. I tend to enjoy books that share a personal story with the ever changing economic hardships

Terri 001

Review posted October 7, 2020


I very much enjoyed reading the aithor’s personal experiences that made understanding the plight of poor, midwest farmers so difficult. Her family was engaging and increased my empathy tremendously. I only wish I had someone to discuss the questions at the back of the book with- regardless this book, its characters and the plight of the poor will stick with me a long time.