The Poverty of Relentless Disappointment: ‘Rich Hill’ and a Vanishing American Dream

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This post first appeared at Talk Poverty.

A still from the documentary Rich Hill. Harley, 15, lives with his grandma and eight other members of his extended family, because his mom is in prison. (Photo courtesy of RichHillFilm.com)

Rich Hill, Missouri, is about an hour and twenty minutes from Kansas City by car. According to the Census Bureau, its 2012 population was 1,341. Median household income was about $29,800, and its poverty rate was just over 27 percent — nearly double the level for Missouri and the country, but about the same as the US rate for African Americans and Hispanics; the difference is that 98 percent of this poor town is white.

That’s the setting for Andrew Droz Palermo and Tracy Droz Tragos’s 2014 documentary, Rich Hill.

First we meet Andrew. “We’re not trash. We’re good people,” says the teenager. He recounts his family’s many recent moves (they’ll be uprooted three more times before the film is over), and introduces us to his sister, whom he dotes on, and his parents. His mom is possibly developmentally disabled and is missing most of her teeth. When he can, Andrew works with his father, who does “oddball jobs and stuff.” His dad is pretty good natured about it all, or at least inured to it: “You learn to survive,” he says.

When Andrew’s dad dreams, he usually dreams small, imagining a summer with enough work that he can “take the kids down to Wal-Mart, or the dollar store, and let ‘em buy whatever they want… in a reasonable amount… about $400 apiece worth of stuff.” He laughs at the implausibility of it.

Appachey is a bit younger; we meet him as he comes home to a dirty, crowded house, and lights a cigarette from the coils of a beat-up toaster. He tells us that his father disappeared one night when he was six and never returned. Appachey has been diagnosed with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and Attention Deficit Disorder, and may have Asperger’s, says his mom, who, lying in bed with a cigarette, appears initially to be cold and hard. But as we hear more from her, it seems she’s just worn, disappointed by her life. She says she never had a chance, going straight from her mother’s house to marriage at 17 and caring for a growing number of children. Appachey is angry, cruel to his siblings and looking for trouble. He’s soon enough in juvenile court and sentenced to a detention facility by the film’s end.

Harley, the third teen featured, tells us that he’s on medication to control his temper while we watch him shop for a hunting knife. His mom is in prison, and she too has just had the last of her teeth pulled. He lives with his grandmother, who is supporting them with the help of a small food stamp allowance. Harley tells us that he was raped by his stepfather, who, we’ll learn, his mother then tried to kill — it’s why she’s in prison. Harley’s always on the verge of erupting in frustration and rage.

Everyone here seems exhausted and resigned to their fate. That’s not irrational, given that even those who seem to have some hope, like Andrew, barely have a chance, so deep and broad are the forces arrayed against them: A child born poor in the US is likely to remain poor; and depending upon where you live, the odds of escaping such circumstances are incredibly low. People try as best they can, but trying doesn’t correlate with success. And that’s the crucial lesson.

Imagine you are Harley: How will you escape your status? Will you get therapy? A more effective drug regime? Tutoring to get through school? Start saving for college? Who will pay for these things? Will you get your mom out of prison? Improve your grandmother’s earning’s power? What would you do to move into the middle class if you were this particular boy?

Many viewers and critics will see much of what is portrayed in the film as “culture,” but it’s actually structure: the product of decades of disinvestment from communities like this one, which leaves behind depressed, isolated, local economies with no jobs, a dwindling tax base and nothing to attract business or new residents; aging, dilapidated housing stock; underfunded, inferior schools; little or no access to health care and other social services; and few people around who aren’t as poor as you are. This segregation of poor people matters, producing what social scientists call “concentration effects.” Thus, disability, physical illness and mental illness are more common in poor families and in poor places. The fact that there are lots of people medicated in Rich Hill — Andrew’s mom, Appachey and Harley, at least — shouldn’t surprise us.

Nor should it surprise us that so many in Rich Hill have bad teeth or no teeth at all — it’s a clear physical marker of poverty in the US, and another way in which disadvantages accumulate: if you’re too poor for dental care and it shows, you’ll have a much harder time finding work, which makes you less likely to secure the income or insurance that might prevent you from losing more teeth and your children from losing theirs.

There are other ways in which Rich Hill offers useful insight. Like the struggling families depicted here, most poor people in the US are or have been married — contrary to the simplistic rhetoric of many, marriage is not a magical ceremony with anti-poverty powers. There are also higher rates of unintended pregnancies among poor women. But that’s not because they’re irresponsible, but because they are poor — contraception is expensive and may require a doctor’s supervision, two large obstacles.

Most of the adults in the film work, and those who don’t are typically looking for work, disabled, or caring for children or grandchildren (who may themselves be sick or disabled). But even working and working hard won’t get you out of poverty if your wages are low — and in 2011, one-quarter of all male workers and one-third of all female workers were employed in poverty-wage jobs.

Finally, US prisons are filled with poor people, just as they are in the film, and women are the fastest growing segment (although at twice the rate for black women as for whites). Mass incarceration is a consequence of poverty and also a cause of it: Having an incarcerated parent makes children poorer, and increases the likelihood that they will have their own early encounters with the criminal justice system; that reduces their chance of completing high school, which increases the likelihood that they will be poor and incarcerated as an adult, which makes them more likely to remain poor, given the difficulty ex-offenders have getting hired. Our criminal justice system is a massive engine for making people poor, sick and angry, and if there is any such thing as a “cycle of poverty,” it’s built and maintained by public policy.

Those who appear to have abandoned hope — and that’s many of those in Rich Hill — will be blamed for their poverty by many viewers. But as insecurity rises and mobility continues to decline, more and more families might find something here to relate to.

Stephen Pimpare
Stephen Pimpare is author of A People’s History of Poverty in America, winner of the Michael Harrington Award and is currently at work on Ghettoes, Tramps, and Welfare Queens: Down & Out on the Silver Screen. He teaches US social policy and social welfare history at Columbia University and NYU. You can follow him on Twitter @stephenpimpare.
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  • AnnaFrieda

    Barbara Ehrenreich in her book “Nickel and Dimed” gives a first-hand account of how hard it is to escape poverty and working low-paying jobs.

  • Carla Stixs

    Sadly, you are correct.

  • Linda Solecki

    If I had one solution to poverty, and I only say this because I sincerely believe it and it worked for me, and that solution is education.. An education opens doors that are closed to the severely poor and disenfranchised. These young people mentioned above should have one goat at this stage in their lives and that is to finish high school. But with no role models (people within their scope who have a HS education) they are likely to feel it affords them nothing when it is the key out…

  • Dee Ryan

    There are so many rural areas like Rich Hill… no matter what you do to work or make it better for you and your family, it just never seems to be enough to work out. Where I live (Westcliffe, CO.) you can hear and see the same stories. Except there are three classes here; Wealthy summer homeowners, The working poor and the tourists. Rural Counties in Colorado are some of the poorest in the state. Little or no health care, long mileage drives to discount stores, little opportunity for decent incomes/advancement in current positions. ‘Tis a never ending cycle. Mix in alcoholism in large doses and you have problems you have no answer for in this time and space.

  • Anonymous

    “Nickel and Dimed” an awfully condescending book.

  • Cole

    Tiny house eco-villages and permaculture. It would require some education, from the internet or library, to learn how to become self sufficient (again) and form communities (again) that support one another. We need to all learn to be less dependent on the dwindling fossil fuels. If we stay attached to a civilization built on cheap oil, it will keep lowering our standard of living. We could have resilient local communities where all basic needs are met that are nested in large resilient communities for trade. We all need to start producing instead of consuming, to learn skills, to grow/store food/water… to become specialized whether to make cheese, hand tools, or beer. If you look into permaculture you can do this without outside inputs and have closed loop systems. You can build small cob houses with a group of friends with no mortgage; use solar passive design which eliminates most need for heating/cooling. Any energy you do need, can come from a local sustainable community owned source like solar, wind, and/or hydro. You can also use masonry stoves which requires little wood but radiates heat. You can coppice trees for stick wood which again is sustainable and doesn’t require that much work. Everyone can learn these wise skills and then combine them with new technologies to become less dependent on the unstable fossil fuel; destructive agriculture; and the unreliable false money economy. Self sufficiency, community, and a redesign (permaculture) is the path to a rich, high quality of life. Any problem you can think of, people everywhere, right now, are putting into action the solutions.

  • Anonymous

    capitalism is the single largest reason for poverty. we encourage people to make money off the sweat of others by paying them as little as possible; the few at the top control the most of the wealth. the gap gets wider every year and we do nothing to change it by way of government policy. it is a time bomb waiting to explode.

  • James

    GOT TO KEEP THOSE PRIVATE PRISONS PROFITABLE ! HAVE THEM BABIES AND KEEP THE 1,000′S OF PEOPLE WORKING IN WELFARE OFFICES EMPLOYED AND GIVE THE POLITICIANS SOME ONE TO HATE

  • Anonymous

    You cannot adequately educate the developmentally disabled. At least, not enough so that they will be able to support a family. They then give rise to more disabled children and it goes on and on. Either we do everything we can to support these folks who will never be able to be independent

  • Linda Solecki

    It’s only when students choose areas of study that have no jobs…education has and will contine to be the path out of poverty. Even labor jobs today are considered skilled labor and most blue collar jobs requires at least a hs education. You are wrong about what I meant Robert. Do you deny that you cannot get anywhere in the world without a hs diploma? Put college aside as that argument usually comes from those who lament the good old days when you didn’t need an advanced degree for anything but the law and medicine. The world has changed and those unwilling to change with it get left behind and become irrelevant.

  • Linda Solecki

    I agree with you except uneducated is not developmentally delayed. If you are raised in an environment where those around you have little or no education the value of education is not taught. This in itself limits children’s lives. School can be the only stimulating factor in their lives.

  • DrTeeth

    Interesting – that very thought occurred to me after I saw this film. People who are raised under such stressful conditions do not learn critical thinking.

  • dhb4angels

    Breaks my heart – how would you pull up your bootstraps in this environment? Bothers me when people say it’s a choice.

  • dhb4angels

    Great thoughts, compared to my note above of despair. I am for sustainable COMMUNITIES and independence. Will take more than a big push for momentum, but the investment would be worth it for humans, animals, and environment.

  • Arianna Editrix

    Bootstraps? These folks, like a lot in North St. Louis don’t have boots!

  • Eric Rahn

    And then they have the nerve to say, “Why are all those big cities with Democratic mayors so poor?” Look around you, dumbass. How wealthy is your town with its “it’s-your-fault-if-you’re-poor” conservatives running it?

  • wjshelton

    It’s called “false consciousness”. In other words, as long as they see themselves as better than Blacks, they’ll continue to support efforts to limit social gains that might improve the lot of Blacks (without realizing that they, too, would benefit from those efforts). Teahadists and the like have learned how to manipulate racial prejudice and fear to their advantage. They – the Teahadists – are extremely good at pandering to the poor whites fear that somehow, Blacks just might pass them by as the underclass.

    Oh, and, for the record, I’m from the Teahadist heartland – Oklahoma. I’ve seen their types at work for the 60 plus years that I have been on this earth.

  • dhb4angels

    Although I used it as a metaphor, literally it makes such a strong point of the destitution. Thanks for the great point!
    .

  • Jackie Marshall

    Conservative corporate string pullers want all of the “poors” dead and they’re getting their wish. When they’re done with rural poor, urban poor, and poor minorities they’ll move on the finishing off the middle class. Then they’ll eat their own, if there’s any environment left to support life after their corporations decimate the planet.

  • dhb4angels

    Any that are able to move out with a high school education is better than none. Yet the root will perpetuate the blight, breed more suffering, and continue spreading like cancer…

    This is a deep-rooted multi-generational systemic issue. Why has this been allowed to fester in our “exceptional” America, home of freedom, liberty, and justice for all? We have turned a blind eye to our desperate brothers.

    1.Cole’s point (above) about being educated on how to live sustainably and build functioning communities in any poverty stricken area (urban or rural, even in a closed system) could help address the problem over time. Love it!

    2. We’re giving humanitarian aid to foreign countries: we need CONgress to fund for SOLUTIONS to our Nation’s poverty/social ills.

    3. Fund train the trainers and workers for Cole’s ideas — OR — Fund development and roll out of college courses/degrees in community development (poverty/trauma/how to live sustainably, etc.). Train the trainers, pay for field work/travel/room/board throughout the 4 yr. course, monitor/measure progress, incorporate continuous process improvement. “Winners” (50 for 50 states) get Masters Degrees, then Ph.D.’s to further the course development.

    4. Link efforts to community colleges, high schools, community organizations, corporations, philanthropics. Pay workers for field work/travel/room/board (i.e., high school students on summer breaks, unemployed, as part of college work,…).

    5. If Americans made an all out effort (as with the ALS ice bucket challenge) to make this a public issue, seek answers, ferret out the details, our world could change. Our souls would change.

  • dhb4angels

    Makes me wonder if there are reliable statistics on what portion of this population votes…

  • Mike

    Education ALONE won’t solve the problem… A less stingy attitude toward helping the economically disadvantaged has to be a big part of any solution. Feed them with good nutritious food, so when they go to school, they aren’t distracted by a growling stomach, no energy, or rebound from cheap carbohydrate based foods… Give them resources at school, so if they have trouble with a subject, they have help, instead of schools opening a crack fro them to fall ever further behind. Teach them in a way that grabs and holds their interest, instead of teaching as boringly and abstractly as possible, but with the threat, “do well, or you’re a failure” hanging over their heads – - these kids are stressed and adding more stress as threat/punishment won’t help. Give a broad based education – targeted education to produce worker-cogs employers want right now, will only create a glut where there is now a shortage of skilled workers and drive wages down. Part of the problem is kids are trained for jobs that are gone by the time they get there – - an all-around good education offers flexibility.

  • Leave A Mark

    Another example of growing inequality in America. More reason to understand what’s going on in America. You won’t get it from your local news station that caters to specialized programing for a rich minority with ‘stock’ segments on the hour while the majority of its viewership is a paycheck away from poverty themselves. Media ignores poverty in favor of privileged consumerism. Imagine an hourly segment on ‘poverty watch’.

    The nation should expect more urban riots as result of class and race discrimination. The coming unrest is inevitable as inequality continues to enrich the top and penalize the bottom. We remain a tinderbox while government ignores community grievances due to these poor economic living conditions. While program funding continues cuts to safety nets for poor, corporate welfare and subsidy programs help US business achieve record profits. Deregulation serves as a cancer to further weaken a falling working class. We have allowed the ruling class to criminalize the poor and homeless while celebrating corporate greed that led to our financial collapse. The urban decay is as obvious as the moral selfishness. All across America the have and have not’s are separated by more then raising income gaps; immaculate gated communities of privilege and wealth where opportunity exists with benefits unlike limited options in urban zones of decay and abandonment.

    Today’s ‘urban decay’ has been described by Chris Hedges as ‘sacrifice zones’ where “forgotten corners of this country where Americans are trapped in endless cycles of poverty, powerlessness, and despair as a direct result of capitalistic greed”. We are all in jeopardy of these growing reservation politics.

    Predatory financial industry played the greater part in dismantling America’s greatest asset – its middle class. Pulitzer journalists ‘Bartlett and Steel’ (a conservative and liberal team) reported on how the “American middle class has been systematically impoverished
    and its prospects thwarted in favor of a new ruling elite” for the past 30 years. Their best seller “The Betrayal of the American Dream” was an affirmation of fact that came to be, in light of their warnings, some 30 years prior and in fact grossly underestimated how much more difficult life would be for most Americans. They wrote, “Astonishingly, this has all been carried out in what is considered the world’s greatest democracy, where the will of the people is supposed to prevail. It no longer does. America is now ruled by a few
    – the wealthy and the powerful who have become this country’s ruling class.”

    Lower class communities build resentment on a society’s legal system and approach to punishment and incarceration when it reflects the values and norms of its elites and dominant ruling class. Glenn Greenwald’s book, “With Liberty and Justice for Some: How the Law is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the Powerful,” offers a scathing critique of our two-tiered system of justice that ensures the political and financial class is virtually immune from prosecution in the United States. Greenwald explores how the media, both political parties, and the courts have abetted a process of discrimination.

    Its no wonder critical thinkers show empathy for such a tinderbox carved from deregulated greed. While its no excuse for the populace to riot and loot, we can not excuse the ongoing theft of Americas working class wealth to the richest 1%.

    We need to escape the illusion of choice and its enslavement.

  • Arianna Editrix

    Sorry if I snapped. You see, I do social justice advocacy and a lot of other things in that very area. I’ve been doing it for nearly 4 years, on my own and NOT funded at all. It shames me to hear pale people say things like, “I don’t know why they’re so upset over this!”, or “We’ve never had racial problems here before.” To which I say, “You might want to check your St. Louis history. The name Pruitt-Igo comes to mind most recently.”

  • Leave A Mark

    Live debt-free without a mortgage in sustainable houses comes with its own obstacles and politics. Agencies regulation size and occupancy work to benefit special interests and ban innovative designs. Building codes, zoning and community planning limit progress and fight downsizing to enrich developers and subsides for public housing. Permanent changes required to traditional housing will take time, but we presently have models in application working in intentional communities for homeless and public housing. Tiny house advocates are slow to act in collaboration with existing advocacies to advance such housing options. Off-grid homesteading is more apt to see the value in uniting efforts with organized advocacy while tiny houses industry struggles with stereotypical complex gingerbread fads over sustainable objective designs. As long as government is allowed to criminalize food gardens, alternative energy like solar and wind and size of house, skills will not be enough. Action on a coalition to address these roadblocks and fight special interests that impede progress needs to happen side by side with civil disobedience.

  • Leave A Mark

    Education alone is not the key. Read one of many books pertaining to the subject and you will find that American dream has changed into a nightmare. Opportunity for success through education continues to shrink as the income gap widens and inequality grows in epic proportions. You’re not listening if you think the jobs are out there for the formally educated. They have been replaced by corporate design for lower wages, fewer benefits and reduced hours. The jobs you see today in this economy are mainly low skilled, low paying part time or contracting positions. Formal education remains a myth to open doors for the poor and disenfranchised.

    Had you read the comment above, you’d know statics do not support your proposition. Experiential data reflects a growing poverty and inequality in America. One third lives in poverty while more then half that are one pay check away. There is no doubt that education is beneficial to the individual experience. But the education you seek, the education to set yourself free, begins with understanding who enslaves you.

  • Leave A Mark

    Hence – what Cornel West refers to as “the Niggerization of America”
    Free range slaves – indentured servants, debt slavery.

    Big banking is now financing predatory pay loan sharks. Deregulation has made loan sharking legal and a lucrative big business in predominantly poor neighborhoods. Corporations are the new company store where employee are paid on check cards to add insult to injury to the poor with excessive usury fees and interest just for “cashing” you check.

    Few Americans know or care, lulled into believing policy protects them from political fears. For example; Small businesses that have $500,000 in gross annual revenue or less are not subject to the Federal Fair Labor Standards Act. That amounts to 76% of all business in America, that are $500,000 or less. That’s 3/4′s of all U.S. businesses. The majority of Americans don’t know that their hard work is most likely NOT protected from wage theft. The law does not apply to over half the US labor force – thanks to lobbying efforts of their local Chamber of Commerce.
    If we ever stop fighting one another long enough to see beyond the immediate hot buttons, the ruling elite who orchestrated this mess would be removed. The fall is inevitable, they just hope we kill one another before we figure it all out and turn to them.
    .

  • Anonymous

    We have a dearth of medical professionals in this country, and yet the universities make it their policy to eliminate 50% of the students striving to make a career in medicine. It’s a standard practice throughout all American universities. Therefore, I disagree with your point that students choose the wrong areas of study. I maintain in this example, they are pushed out because they are at the bottom half of the grading curve. By the way, the grading curve is also part of our educational system. Thus in an area where there is a need for workers, it’s because we have engineered that need.

  • Anonymous

    While I don’t completely agree with your take of the solution to our problems in education, I do agree that nutrition plays a huge part in the ability of people to have a good life. My thought is that more people need to involve themselves in growing nutritious food and stop relying on huge corporations for it. Growing food may not provide a living wage, but it is a relatively low cost activity that is also productive and beneficial. You have to ask yourself, what were you doing while you were out of a job anyway.

  • Mike

    Many people when out of a job are looking for a job, whether their attempts are successful or not. Our system often demands people put in a certain number of job applications to continue to receive even very low levels of help. If you noticed, one family mentioned moved several times – - maybe to try to find work, or to get closer to family who might help – - obviously moving frequently and maintaining a garden don’t mix.
    The people in the article are mostly rural, but jobs are mostly urban – - to some extent it has to become a choice – - do you want to grow your own food, or have a job? Sometimes you can do both, but not always – - it’s not a safe assumption.