Breaking the cycle of poverty in the Heartland

In early childhood, Sarah Smarsh took on a mission: the protection of every creature born on her family’s Kansas farm.

“I watched them come out of their mothers as pink globs,” she writes, “and knew their mothers could only do so much.”

She was 4 and wandering the land on her own when she discovered a new litter of kittens in an outbuilding. Her father was away on one of the weeks-long construction jobs he worked to keep the family afloat; her mother, barely out of her teens, was mired in the care of an infant son and trapped in postpartum depression.

The little girl kept a watchful eye on the tiny, mewling furballs for weeks. One lonely afternoon while the mother cat was out hunting, she reached out to pat one of the babies for the first time.

“The head rolled away from the small body, leaving a track of blood on the concrete floor,” she recalls. “All the kittens had been gnawed through at the neck” — the grisly work of a fox or a possum.

“That was the hard truth of the wild place we lived,” Smarsh writes in “Heartland” (Scribner), out Tuesday. “Parents left their children by necessity to hunt for food so they wouldn’t starve to death, but those moments without protection offered plenty other ways to die.”

It was, she says, a feral childhood in a place red from the ground up: from its red soil and its people’s sun-reddened necks to the red-state reflexes that continue to paint its politics. The bloody lessons of a girlhood in the white working class — “knowing in your own bones how fragile and fleeting a body is” — have never left her.

But she refused to pass them on.

Smarsh’s book, a soul-baring meditation on poverty and class in America, tells the stories of her family’s wounded women, their farming men and her own wrenching choice to snap the three-generation cycle of teenage motherhood into which she was born.

“Growing up, I was surrounded by powerful women — people I love, not characters,” Smarsh tells The Post. “Their innate power with language and their ownership of their stories inspired me.”

Her moving memoir can be seen as the female, Great Plains flip side to 2016’s best-selling “Hillbilly Elegy” by J.D. Vance: a loving yet unflinching look at the marginalized people who grow America’s food, build its houses and airplanes but never seem to share fully in its prosperity.

“To experience economic poverty in a country famous for its abundance is to live with constant reminders of what you don’t have,” Smarsh writes.

“But there were moments . . . when the west wind that reached us all the way from the Rockies cleared the air and I felt more free than I’ve felt in cleaner, safer places.”

SMARSH grew up in a strongly matriarchal extended family that was clouded by mental illness. In her book, she painstakingly traces the dozens of moves that her great-grandmother Dorothy made with her daughters and granddaughters in the 1950s and ’60s across America’s plains, as they tried to outrun bill collectors, abusive men and their own addictions.

In the 1970s, after a string of failed marriages, Smarsh’s steel-spined grandmother Betty settled down as a part-time farm wife on a 640-acre spread 30 miles west of Wichita, Kan. Betty, who also worked as a court officer in town, and her wheat-farmer husband cared for Smarsh through much of her childhood.

Smarsh’s mother, Jeannie, was deeply scarred by her early rootlessness and insecurity. When she, the daughter and granddaughter of teenage mothers, got pregnant in 1980 at age 17, abortion — while legal — was not even considered.

“That’s the generational legacy of teen pregnancy,” Smarsh explains. “Where we came from, that’s just what happened. Teen girls have babies, and she had me.”

Jeannie married Nick Smarsh in her first trimester. For a few years, they had their own farm near her grandparents’ place, where Nick built a house and barn.

But Jeannie left him in 1988 and returned to the itinerancy of her childhood. She moved her two children to multiple houses and apartments in the poor neighborhoods of Wichita, with regular stints under Betty’s roof. “I would live in 21 different structures before I finished high school,” Smarsh writes.

Their transience “was like living in the circus,” as one of Smarsh’s aunts once put it. “Without the fun.”

“My family has this wild, unusual story in some ways but universal in others,” Smarsh says. Poor Americans move to new — and usually temporary — homes at twice the national average, studies have found; during her childhood, 28 percent of families below the poverty line pulled up stakes in any given year.

“Belonging is, on a psychological level, a primal need,” Smarsh says. “It is often denied to the poor.”

For her, then, security was found not under any particular roof but in the openness of the Kansas landscape. “Most essential to my well-being was the unobstructed freedom of a flat, wide horizon,” she writes.

That craving for freedom informed her deliberate decision, made when she was barely out of puberty, to break away from the tradition of early motherhood that had led to her own birth.

‘I have dual citizenship in terms of class. But after one makes that painful crossing, one never entirely belongs on either side.’

School became her salvation. A string of sympathetic teachers saw in her the makings of a writer. In high school, she worked at studies and activities relentlessly — and “kept my jeans zipped,” she writes. She landed scholarships and juggled low-paying jobs to pay for college. Today, as a journalist and college professor, she owns a place of her own in her hometown. To any outside observer, she’s left poverty far behind.

Not quite, she says: “I have dual citizenship in terms of class. But after one makes that painful crossing, one never entirely belongs on either side.”

HER sacrifices left scars. Refusing to bear a child into a life of poverty made her middle-class status possible. But the absence of that baby was a lack she felt so acutely that she gave it a name — August — in her imagination. Throughout “Heartland,” August is the unseen character to whom Smarsh, who declines to reveal whether she is in a relationship, describes her roots, her experiences and her hard choices.

“My hope for this book is that it transcends this political moment,” Smarsh says. “It’s not a polemic or a political argument, but a window into the decades leading up to the election of 2016 and where we are today.”

White working-class and low-income voters are often ignored in popular culture — and, when not overlooked, disparaged. But when awakened, they have the electoral muscle to effect monumental change. In 2016, they voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump, flipping states like Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania into the Republican column and handing him the White House.

It was the culmination of a two-decade trend that political scientists call America’s class inversion — and that Smarsh has observed up close. Her mother, who voted for Democrat Jimmy Carter in 1980 (the first time she was old enough to cast a ballot), was devoted to conservative talk radio by the election of 2000. “Democrats help people, and Republicans help people help themselves,” Jeannie is quoted as saying.

“People on welfare were presumed ‘lazy,’ and for us there was no more hurtful word,” Smarsh writes. That led to an impossible political choice: Either “concede personal failure and vote for the party more inclined to assist them, or vote for the other party, whose rhetoric conveys hope that the labor of their lives is what will compensate them.”

She adds: “There were undercurrents of feeling forgotten for many decades. And the Republican Party has been more astute at speaking to innate aspects of rural culture and shaping them toward their own political messages.

“Having an independent streak does not necessarily equate to conservatism, but it is a proud aspect of rural America that Republicans have validated — and that the other party has largely left on the table.”

IN 2012, the GOP’s Mitt Romney won 61 percent of white voters without college degrees; another 36 percent of that group supported Barack Obama’s re-election effort. Trump improved on Romney’s margin, taking 67 percent of white non-college voters to just 28 percent for Democrat Hillary Clinton — and goosed their turnout numbers, too.

A lot of it came down to rhetoric. “He speaks in that bold, forthright, no-BS manner,” Smarsh says. “My family can’t afford therapy, and they’re not on Twitter rehashing the issues of the day. Theirs is not a language of reflection. It is a language of action” — and Trump served up heaping helpings of it.

He also pounced on his opponent’s rhetorical missteps, such as when Clinton maligned Trump supporters as “deplorables” during an exclusive Manhattan fundraiser.

“Growing up, I did not get a sense of widespread resentment of educated people,” Smarsh says. “But when the media narratives harnessed that storyline, it gave rise to a bitter sense of self-righteousness” among white working-class voters.

Her ruby-red home state of Kansas, which hasn’t voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1964 landslide, went for Trump with 57 percent of the vote.

But looking beyond that number reveals openings for Democrats to turn the trend around, Smarsh says.

“I have never seen so many [Democratic] candidates who understand my foundations in the working class and in rural America,” she says. In Kansas particularly, “congressional candidates are making a good run at flipping seats that Republicans have held for decades.”

Bernie Sanders’ populism and his anti-establishment message won over 67 percent of Kansas Democrats in the state’s 2016 caucus. “In fact, more people caucused in Kansas for a democratic socialist from Vermont than for Donald Trump,” Smarsh points out.

The state is known for an independent streak that stretches back to its founding in the 1850s, when northeastern abolitionists streamed into the territory to prevent the establishment of slavery there.

“There’s a generational memory, a sense of rebellion,” Smarsh says, noting that third-party voting spiked significantly in Kansas in the 2016 presidential election. “Most of the people I grew up with are not at all fans of the president and did not vote for him.”

Still, “successful political messaging going forward has to begin with humility,” adds. “Respecting that the people who did vote for Trump are not these wild political aberrations but human beings like everyone else.”

Now in her late 30s, Smarsh remains childless. “It’s a sensitive personal issue for me,” she says. “There isn’t a big final statement on that.”

But she can’t quite shake the memory of “the one who would have been born into poverty — whose existence was subverted”

As she puts it in her memoir, “A mother is the first residence. And I kept the porch light turned off.”

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