Dignity and placelessness

Gracy Olmstead on Sarah Smarsh’s bookHeartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth:”

“The American Dream has a price tag on it,” she writes. “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.”

… many Americans disdain manual labor and the workers who do it. We talk dismissively about those who make our roads, buildings, and airplanes—the farmers who grow our food, the plumbers who fix our toilets, the electricians who make sure our houses have light. We pit blue-collar work against white-collar work as if the latter has greater dignity, meaning, and benefits for society. Yet if push came to shove, we could do without D.C. think tanks much more easily than the men and women who fix our roads. Sadly, all the financial benefits and security go to the knowledge economy workers, while those who make their work possible struggle from paycheck to paycheck. …

There are some important things in this book that conservatives should walk away with. First, we need to do a better job fighting poverty and empowering the poor. Those who call themselves “pro-family” should demonstrate it with policies that support single mothers and new parents (like paid family leave, for one). Sure, it would be better if businesses provided this on their own. But the fact of the matter is that many do not and will not.

Second, our language surrounding the dignity of work and self-sufficiency is good—but it is not sufficient. …

One thought I had while reading Smarsh’s book is that placelessness features largely in the instability and resulting poverty of her story. She does an excellent job explaining why instability is so common among the poor—especially poor women. But I’ve also observed the way embeddedness in good communities (ones with lots of involved citizens, nurturing neighbors, and vibrant associations) has historically fostered better opportunities and social capital for those who stick around, even the poor. Unfortunately, these sorts of communities are on the decline throughout America—which means you have to get lucky in order to find a place like that, or to be born into it. I have increasingly realized that I was one of the lucky ones. There’s a privilege that comes not just from a family or an income, but from a place that nurtures and grows you. Fewer and fewer Americans live in those sorts of places.

“Placelessness” reminds me of “Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry” that I saw sometime last year. It’s a “cinematic portrait of the changing landscapes and shifting values of rural America in the era of industrial agriculture, as seen through the mind’s eye of Wendell Berry.” It’s focused on the intersection of American culture and agriculture, but it’s also a good introduction to some of these concerns of Olmstead and Smarsh.