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 earn less. While not set in Oregon, this book contains lessons and reflections valuable for any rural community.

320 pages. ©2019.
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Reader Reviews for this Book


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.