Poverty doesn’t just happen; it’s engineered.

Poverty doesn’t just happen; it’s engineered. Most laws are made by the privileged few to benefit their own class, and even those few representatives and bureaucrats of good intentions have no idea how life is lived on a scale so far beneath their own, so that the laws they pass to help never do and nearly always end in being punitive, which just helps to more institutionalize the poverty.

Smarsh is a fifth generation Kansas farm girl whose main goal from the time she was a child is to make a life for herself different from the grinding poverty in which she was raised. The story is told to the daughter she deliberately never had because she was fanatically determined to stop the cycle of teenage pregnancy, spousal abuse, and addiction that are the stories of the three previous generations of women who came before her.

I had remained partnered with my high school boyfriend all those years, even though he had never developed physical desire for me–a situation that was painful at the time but that I now see served my intentions perfectly.

With an unrelenting drumbeat of irrefutable evidence Smarsh proves again and again that poverty is a station in life that has been institutionalized by a government determined to do as little as possible for those who need help most, and then treat as nothing more than disposable. She goes back to her motivation to leave that life again and again throughout the book.

No child of mine would ever have to do what Dorothy, Betty, Jeannie, or I did.

Smarsh’s story leaves you with no illusions about hard work resulting in the achievement of the American Dream, because her family worked their asses off and still couldn’t afford health insurance and were the first to lose their jobs and homes in an economic downturn. More than hunger, more than homelessness, shame might be the worst part of poverty.

…financial poverty is the one shamed by society, culture, unchecked capitalism, public policy, our very way of speaking. If you’re poor in a wealthy place, common vocabulary suggests that economic failure is failure of the soul.

She conclusively proves that the contempt the haves have for the have-nots in American society is manifest and corrosive, including their own. The beneficiaries of a program she finds to help subsidize her graduate degree call themselves “White Trash Scholars.” She concludes

This country has failed its children…failed its own claims about democracy and humanity. The American Dream, in particular, sometimes seems more like a ghost haunting our way of thinking than like a sacred contract worth signing toward some future.

Given we live in a time when our government is more concerned with giving tax breaks to the rich than meals to kids who come hungry to school, it’s impossible to refute her thesis. Not an easy read but a necessary one. Maybe read it just before you vote in the next election.

That would be tomorrow.

N.B.: Her oped in the New York Times on the historic abortion vote in Kansas this year is very much worth reading.

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Dana View All →

Author and founder of Storyknife.org.

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