On ‘Independent Lens’: ‘Rich Hill’ and a Vanishing American Dream

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Editor’s Note: Rich Hill, winner of the 2014 grand jury prize at Sundance for best documentary, premiered last night on Independent Lens (watch online through February 3). The film explores life in small-town America through the eyes of three teen boys in Rich Hill, Missouri, a once-vibrant mining town that has fallen on hard times.

This post first appeared at Talk Poverty.

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.

Filmmaker Tracy Droz Tragos on Jon Stewart

Stephen Pimpare is author of A People’s History of Poverty in America, winner of the Michael Harrington Award. His latest book is 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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