When a Missing Nickel Makes All the Difference

Photo by James Leynse/Corbis via Getty Images

Over at Virginia Quarterly Review, in an adaptation from her book Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country in the World, Sarah Smarsh looks at the high price of the American Dream through the lens of her upbringing as a member of a working poor farm family in Kansas.

Read another excerpt “Body of a Poor Girl,” from Heartland and check out our interview with Sarah on politics, identity, and cultural appropriation.

One develops a cunning to survive, whatever the scarcity. My family excelled at creative improvisation: eating at Furr’s Cafeteria on the rare food outing since it was all-you-can-eat and required no servers’ tip; scanning garage sales for undervalued items that could be resold at higher prices; rigging our own broken things rather than calling an expensive repairman; racing to the grocery store to buy loads of potatoes at five cents per pound when the Wednesday newspaper ad had a typo that the company legally had to honor.

But the American dream has a price tag on it. The cost changes depending on where you’re born and to whom, with what color skin and with how much money in your parents’ bank account. The poorer you are, the higher the price. You can pay an entire life in labor, it turns out, and have nothing to show for it. Less than nothing, even: debt, injury, abject need.

Read the essay