“We’re not trash. We’re good people.”
Early on in Andrew Palmero’s and Tracy Tragos’s documentary Rich Hill, Andrew, age 13, delivers this message. Andrew is an adolescent boy subject to a seemingly endless cycle of broken homes and extreme poverty. In documenting the life of Andrew, the directors opt to forgo narration, choosing instead to document his life as it happens. Though the film is void of an explicit narrative, it sheds light on the problems plaguing impoverished families. It provides the viewer with strong ethnographical evidence that supports sociological and economic evidence of the limited upward economic mobility in America as well as the cyclical nature of poverty.
Throughout the film, the directors juxtapose extremely patriotic shots of the town’s Fourth of July celebrations with shots of Andrew struggling to achieve a normal life. At first, I thought these shots served only to make the film more aesthetically pleasing. But as the film progressed, it was clear that they served to demonstrate that, despite what we may think, the American Dream is not always within reach for the extremely poor. For a kid like Andrew, who is forced to bathe in water heated by irons and coffeepots, the day-to-day battle to survive poverty makes long-term planning all but impossible. Furthermore, given his parents’ lack of education and his inconsistent attendance at school, it is very clear that he lacks the cultural capital necessary to understand how one can attain a higher education and a successful career, much less actually achieve these things.
In a similar manner, Palmero and Tragos also include shots of a Ferris wheel at the local carnival in order to represent the cyclical nature of poverty. The academic world has long understood that poverty has a propensity to be passed along from generation to generation. Economic data tells us that the offspring of families in lowest income quintile have the smallest probability of ending up in the highest income quintile (Norton et. al. 2011).
Similarly, sociological literature tells us that parenting styles perpetuate income levels across generations. In her book Unequal Childhoods, Annette Lareau (2003) draws distinctions between the way in which lower and upper classes approach parenting as well as the consequences of the different approaches. She explains that wealthier parents use a child-rearing approach called “concerted cultivation” that is characterized by very active and guided parenting in order to foster the growth of their child’s talents, opinions, and goals. This approach is adopted to prepare children for future academic and occupational endeavors. On the other hand, lower class parents tend to let their children grow and mature more on their own, through a “natural growth” parenting style. As a result, these children are dependent on the institutions they are a part of. They are less likely to seek out alternative guidance or directly question authority. Furthermore, lower class kids are far more likely to spend their time “hanging out” instead of participating in organized extracurricular activities that ultimately are rewarding in the long run (Lareau 2003).
Throughout the film it is apparent that Andrew’s parents’ do not use the concerted cultivation approach. Andrew spends the majority of his afternoons aimlessly playing. The fact that Andrews’ parents frequently move houses in the pursuit of new jobs further eliminates any sense of institutional consistency that would have otherwise existed in Andrew’s life. One cannot help but worry that Andrew will be subject to the same cycle of poverty that his parents experienced as a result of his upbringing. At the conclusion of the film, it is clear that the use of a Ferris wheel could not be a more apt metaphor for Andrew’s family’s life as well as the rural poor as a whole.
Unfortunately Andrew’s experiences are far from unique and are characteristic of the struggles that most young, poor Americans face. It is not clear by the end of the film what could or should be done in order to reverse these troubling trends. While the film fails in this regard, it does deserve considerable praise for its ability to humanize the American poor and strike down stereotypes of a lazy lower class unwilling to work their way out of poverty. It is abundantly clear at the end of the film that Andrew and his family are indeed good people. They are just facing numerous, overwhelming challenges that make it nearly impossible for them to break out of poverty.