Made In America
BROOKE GLADSTONE Most episodes of On the Media eventually are overtaken by events, but not our episodes about poverty. Because, of course, absolutely nothing has changed since they were first broadcast.
TAPE We need to have a frank conversation about the way that our lives directly contribute to poverty in America.
TAPE The idea that poor people are lazy. There is no misperception about poor people that is greater. There needs to be a reason why are we unwilling to share with them.
TAPE And I just kind of looked at him. He was like, This is yours.
TAPE From our three services combined, we collected this much money. This is 1000.
TAPE Instantly, I started crying.
TAPE You work hard. You get discipline inside yourself. You marry and have children in that order. Okay? You do all of those things. You play by the rules. You will make it in America. And luck has nothing to do with this.
TAPE That's not true.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So join us to bust some poverty myths after this.
BROOKE GLADSTONE From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. If you've noticed an uptick in the word poverty in the media you consume lately, it's likely because of this guy.
MATTHEW DESMOND Ending poverty in America is better for all of us.
BROOKE GLADSTONE That's Matthew Desmond on Fresh Air last month. He's a Princeton professor and the author of the brand new book Poverty by America. A press tour can grant an author a precious 5 minutes in the spotlight, and Desmond is using every second of that to put the issue of poverty front and center with appearances on public radio stations nationwide and book reviews in all the major print outlets. With no less than three appearances in the New York Times alone. His book aims to persuade us all to join him in becoming poverty abolitionists.
MATTHEW DESMOND It is clearly better for folks that are facing homelessness and hunger and humiliation, but it's also better for those of us who have found security that are diminished and depressed by all this poverty in our midst.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Why is there more social mobility in Canada and France? America's the land of opportunity, right? That's a founding myth, a delusion. In this hour, we revisit the challenge of telling the story of poverty and explore one of those founding myths.
MATTHEW DESMOND We need to have a frank conversation about the way that our lives directly contribute to poverty in America.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Back in 2016, we spoke to Desmond for our five part series, Dissecting the Myths about Poverty. He just written his seminal work, Evicted Poverty and Profit in the American City.
MATTHEW DESMOND Ruth Lopez Turley, who's a sociologist at Rice University. She gave a presentation a few years ago and she said if everyone who is zone to Houston Public School District went to that school, Houston Public School District would have a 40% poverty rate. And then she asked the audience, Do you know what the poverty rate is? It's 80%. And then she said, And then we have the audacity to ask why these schools are failing in Evicted.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And in his new book, he reveals poverty not as a realm where the other half lives, not even as a lack of money, but as a process, a complex social and financial interaction that strengthens the positions of the comfortable. He notes that the word exploitation has vanished from the debate and believes it should be reinstated.
MATTHEW DESMOND Poverty isn't just a product of joblessness. It isn't just a product of low wages. It's also a really high housing cost and for profit colleges. And I think that we just have to be blunt and clear eyed about the fact that some people are making a pretty dollar off the pockets of the poor. And I wonder, can we stop having a conversation about laziness or not? Can we stop that and really have a frank, honest conversation about why we are weird in the world for this level of poverty alongside this much wealth?
BROOKE GLADSTONE Conversations. How many have we had over the years on the causes of poverty? In 1795, founding father and political theorist Thomas Paine blamed civilization. He acknowledged that private property, though an unnatural construct, is the price we must pay for developing agriculture. But he wrote.
MATTHEW DESMOND It has dispossessed more than half the inhabitants of every nation of their natural inheritance, without providing, as ought to have been done, an indemnification for that loss and has thereby created a species of poverty and wretchedness that did not exist before.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And so he proposed not as a charity, but as a right.
TAPE To create a national fund out of which there shall be paid to every person. When arrived at the age of 21 years, the sum of £15 sterling as a compensation in part for the loss of his or her natural inheritance by the introduction of the system of landed property and also the sum of £10 per annum during life. To every person now living of the age of 50 years and to all others as they shall arrive at that age.
BROOKE GLADSTONE For some reason that didn't take. So we tell stories everlastingly to remind ourselves of what poverty is. Poverty means that you've slipped off the knife's edge, that a botched piece of paperwork or a bout of flu has cost you your job than your home. And finally, your kids. It means you sell your plasma for bus fare. It means you don't have the money to bury your mom. Most of us haven't a clue what it means to live like that, because most of us, even when the screws tighten and we gasping for breath, don't spiral down into a hell of loss upon loss. Because most of us have won the good luck lottery for a whole heap of reasons. Could be race or background or just being born in the right place. Research suggests that in Salt Lake City you have roughly an 11% chance to rise from the bottom fifth income bracket to the top fifth, whereas in Atlanta you have a 4% chance, which means you don't really have a chance. But that said, if you're a reporter like me on the poverty tour, you don't go to Atlanta. You go to Ohio?
JACK FRECH: Well, right now we’re heading out to Route 50. I mean, in general, all this is, is part of the southeastern Ohio Appalachian region.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Why Ohio? Well, I went because, like Neapolitan ice cream, you get the three main flavors of poverty in a single container. Appalachia, for white, Cleveland for black and manufacturing dead zones, like Youngstown, for the rust-colored variety.
JACK FRECH: We’ve always had a higher rate of poverty in the Appalachian areas because, you know, even at its peak back at the turn of the last century, when we had coal mining jobs and jobs in timber, there were still more people than jobs, and the jobs were…
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jack Frech has spent his entire life battling to preserve aid to the poor, including 33 years as welfare director in an Appalachian county. Standing by his black SUV, he's gray-haired, bemused, verging on skeptical, and yet still game, despite having escorted countless reporters, like me, on the Appalachian leg of their poverty tour, past rusted trailers and shacks and a few creeks tinted a bright chemical yellow.
JACK FRECH: - when they were setting up a coal mine somewhere and they would throw up these wooden houses in a day, and they’d either be, you know, four rooms in a box shape or they had they’re called shotgun houses that were maybe three rooms in a line. When I came here in the early ‘70s as a caseworker, there were hundreds and hundreds of those houses out there and most of them had electricity at that point but did not have running water.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You know he’s said all this before, some 30-odd years, the same tour, the same story.
JACK FRECH: In the last 20 years, the other thing that we’ve seen is families are doubling and tripling up in these old houses. Kids are sleeping on the floor or three or four to a bed.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: He’s trying to make the invisible, visible.
JACK FRECH: Well, unless you have some reason to take a state road out to a county road and then a township road off the county road and a dirt road off another dirt road, you’re not gonna see them because that’s where they are. And I think it lends itself to this, this whole idea that things aren’t that bad.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And he definitely disposes of that idea because now you see. The hard part, he explains as the day fades and we repair to his airy, well-appointed home nestled in the woods, the hard part isn’t getting the media to see how bad it is, it's getting us to understand why, because we kind of think we already know.
JACK FRECH: You know, I think my first contact with the media in dealing with this really started back in the late ‘70s, around the time I took the job as a welfare director, and one of the things that you constantly deal with in this field is that people just - if you're not poor, it’s not likely that you even know someone who’s poor and you certainly know very little about their lives. People deal in misperceptions.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Like what?
JACK FRECH: Well, I think the idea that, that poor people are lazy. There is no misperception about poor people that is greater. There needs to be a reason why are we unwilling to share with them, and the best way is to say, they are poor through their own fault. We've gone so far in this country as to actually say that sharing with them hurts them, giving them help creates dependency, which somehow we don’t apply to Social Security, unemployment compensations, veterans benefits, tax breaks for mortgage payments, all the other things that everyone gets. I mean, Medicaid, which, of course, is, is welfare too, almost everyone has to go on Medicaid, and yet, no one looks down on them because they got old and had to go into a nursing home and could never possibly afford the cost to keep them there. So we’re very specific about who we decide is on welfare and who, who isn’t, and we overlook the fact that, you know, the average length of time of people on welfare is about two years. I mean, you know, again, it’s all in the matter of the way we label things.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you talked about this prevalent myth within the context of your first brush with the media. Tie that together.
JACK FRECH: Well, I think for me the way to advocate for poor people was to shine a light on them, to shine a light on them to show that this could happen to any of us. I think though that, as time went on, I, I became much more aware of how much of this had to do with racism, how much of this had to do with sexism, how much of this had to do with other issues that had nothing to do with someone's ability or how hard they wanted to work or didn’t want to work. I mean, you can take almost the same stereotypes that we apply to poor people and get away with now. And you can see how for hundreds of years we applied those same stereotypes to black people.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So he worked with big media to undermine those stereotypes, over and over again. We see the autographed pictures of network news stars, the snapshots and thank you notes scattered all over his house. Watching the videos of Jack's network appearances, you can literally see him age, each time a little grayer, a little stouter, but always the same passion, in ‘94 with Deborah Amos on ABC News Nightline.
JACK FRECH: People here are able to find shelter in all kind of places, in, you know, garages and small campers and trailers and things like that. Some of the places don't have running water. Some of them don’t have electricity.
DEBORAH AMOS: You might say that Jack Frech is an expert on welfare. The director of human services in Athens County, Ohio the heart of Appalachia, he’s been working with the poor…
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In ’95, with Chris Furie on Nightline.
CHRIS FURIE: Jack Frech, in charge of welfare for a poor Appalachian County in Ohio, says even less money will be available in times of recession, when the welfare ranks inevitably grow.
JACK FRECH: I think it - it will have that desired effect. It will save money; it will be at the expense of poor people.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In 2006, on Good Morning America.
JACK FRECH: At this point in our county, there are almost no manufacturers left. The last three or four of them that offered, you know, relatively decent jobs with full benefits, they’re all gone.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In 2010, with Ann Curry on NBC Dateline.
ANN CURRY: Athens County Welfare Director Jack Frech sees many young mothers like Crystal and says state and federal programs just don't help them enough.
JACK FRECH: Our staff work their butts off to get these people every dime they can but, at the end of the day, we send them out of here knowing that it's very likely that the last couple of weeks of the month they’re going to have to go to a food pantry to get enough food to eat.
ANN CURRY: You sound a bit angry about this.
JACK FRECH: I'm very angry about this.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Like poverty, anger comes in flavors and, here, Jack’s is tinged with a kind of smoldering heartache. But back in ’93, on CBS's Eye to Eye With Connie Chung, the experience elicited something closer to outrage.
CONNIE CHUNG: Listen to this: soon one of every three babies in America will be born to an unwed mother. The tragedy is two out of three families headed by single mothers live in poverty. It's a crisis that’s pumping up the crime rate and choking the taxpayer.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The angle pursued in this segment was clearly shared by then-correspondent Bernard Goldberg, now conservative media critic and Fox News contributor. Here’s Goldberg in the piece.
BERNARD GOLDBERG: Connie, imagine in America, with millions more poor people than we have now, you may not have to imagine long.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: His piece featured author Charles Murray, ardent promoter of the idea that welfare leads to illegitimate children, which breeds more poverty and crime, that, in fact, the best course was to root out illegitimacy at its source.
BERNARD GOLDBERG: There is a feeling that this plan to end welfare for single mothers is not just a half-baked crazy idea.
JACK FRECH: I think it's a dangerous, frightening prospect.
BERNARD GOLDBERG: Jack Frech is in charge of the welfare system in Athens County.
JACK FRECH: We’re justifying what essentially, in my mind, is, is an immoral decision by saying that we’re doing this as a favor to them. Essentially, we would be taking millions and millions of dollars out of our poorest communities and we would see people suffer greatly.
BERNARD GOLDBERG: But if they suffered greatly, that's precisely the point. They might not have these kids.
JACK FRECH: Or they might starve to death too.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That was Jack's worst media experience. His best, never to be repeated, had occurred nine years earlier in 1991, courtesy of ABC news.
JACK FRECH: Apparently, there was some concern by Peter Jennings and his producers that they were doing a considerable amount of coverage of the problems that Kurdish children were having as a result of the war and there was this huge outpouring from people in this country wanting to help those people. They were concerned about this.
PETER JENNINGS: The crisis for Kurdish children simply reminded us that 12 million American children have a daily crisis, as well, and that we should come and take a closer look at it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Naturally, they chose Ohio.
PETER JENNINGS: Our unusual concentration on children in poverty is going to last a couple of weeks, this week, here in Ohio, because all the statistics and many of the situations match the rest of the country.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And naturally, they called Jack Frech.
JACK FRECH: Peter Jennings came down and, you know, he and I spent the day. We went out and walked around and they shot video of poor families, interviewed lots of people. They had correspondents in three or four locations in Ohio. And then, throughout the week, it would lead the newscast and it would be something that happened that day.
PETER JENNINGS: When you get close to the poor, you recognize right away that very often the level of assistance which they get from government doesn't even lift them up to the legal poverty line, let alone above it, which seems to say that your congressman and your state legislators have failed to recognize that children and families in poverty are a national disaster. In your name, they often argue about other priorities and welfare cheats, 12 million American children who cheat.
JACK FRECH: The overwhelming response they got was that we don't believe this. The pictures you're showing us of these poor families and how they’re living, we don't believe this is happening in America, and we’re horrified. So that was, you know, their attempt to shine a light on this. I mean, this was not all sweetness and light and, I mean, they showed a drug-addicted mom over, I think, at Dayton, someplace where her baby was in an incubator. They had, you know, some poor kid up in Columbus, a 10-year-old boy, and he was taking responsibility for his siblings. And, you know, it was, I thought, excellent reporting about what was happening. And, you know, you’re, you’re convinced that if people only saw this, if they only knew, it would make a difference.
So you can imagine my perspective on this when, you know, Peter Jennings, hearing him do a broadcast every night, literally saying the words that I had told him earlier that day about, you know, what benefits are, what problems are, what struggles are, you know, here’s the most, you know, famous renowned newscaster, at the time.
Brooke Gladstone And a huge audience.
Matthew Desmond Huge audience.
Brooke Gladstone You must have thought this is the moment.
Matthew Desmond Yes, absolutely. And I was thrilled. I was 42 years old and I thought, that's it. We're done here. You know, we've solved poverty.
Brooke Gladstone And then.
Matthew Desmond And then nothing. Nothing.
Brooke Gladstone Actually, a report released around that time by Senator Jay Rockefeller did spur legislation on child health insurance, but there was no effort to halt the decline in cash assistance to poor families in Ohio and elsewhere. Not then, and certainly not now.
JACK FRECH It's gone in the other direction. People are less sympathetic. They're harsher now. I mean, you know, you will see folks now, you know, begin to also rail against welfare, even though there's hardly anyone left on welfare. In Ohio, 75% of the cash assistance welfare cases are child only cases. There's only 15,000 adults left on cash assistance in Ohio. You know, we have eliminated cash assistance. You know, that's what I've seen evolve over all of this. And that's how I've kind of seen the media reaction to this or not in reaction at this point when Jennings and these folks did it. No one, I think, could have done it better. But what they didn't understand is they were up against a population out there who did not want to hear this, who did not want to change their minds about poor people. So no amount of information they were giving them, no amount of cajoling, no amount of this is the logical, the right thing to do, busting the myths, all that kind of stuff. None of that was going to matter when basically you had a population that wanted to cling to those things because it justified them not sharing.
Brooke Gladstone So how to tell the story. The playwright Bertolt Brecht soundly rejected empathy when he depicted injustice. He did not want us to say, yes, I felt like that too. It's only natural. It'll never change. The sufferings of this man appall me because they are inescapable. No, Brecht worked willfully to undermine our empathetic tears so we could see more clearly. So instead, we'd say, That's not right. That's unbelievable. It's got to stop. The sufferings of this man appall me because they are unnecessary. As for me, I just figure if Jack Frech is still trying to shine a light just because. And you listen just because. And if, as Matthew Desmond argues in Evicted, the inhuman trap that is poverty is not so great as it once was, then maybe sustaining our gaze does work. If we can discern that what is appalling is in fact unnecessary. Coming up, we bust one of the biggest myths about poverty, the one that says that with a little grit, we can all go from rags to riches. This is On the Media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. And this week we're rerunning an excerpt from our series called Busted America's Poverty Myths. Depressingly, it turns out to be evergreen. As in, the story hasn't changed. The series exploded some of the more pervasive myths of poverty. We devote the rest of this hour to one of the biggest myths of all.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The upward mobility myth, the one that paints America as a nation where everyone has an equal chance to surmount any obstacle and advance from rags to riches. It’s an idea sown on our shores by a Founding Father, himself born into poverty, Benjamin Franklin.
JILL LEPORE: He’s the youngest of ten sons and his sister Jane is the youngest of seven daughters, Benny and Jenny they’re called when they’re little. Their father's a candle maker and a soap boiler.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Historian Jill Lepore, author of Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin, writes that Jenny and Benny are close. He teaches her to read.
JILL LEPORE: They spend their childhood making soap and dipping candles. Benjamin is an apprentice to his brother who's a printer. And when he's 16 or 17 he runs away to Philadelphia and he eventually opens up his own printing shop, and he does so well that Franklin actually manufactures most of the paper in the colonies in the 18th century. He opens up and owns a whole lot of paper mills.
Paper in the 18th century is made from rags, and so Franklin, in his newspaper, The Pennsylvania Gazette, prints these little notices, Bring in Your Rags, Cash for Rags.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ben sends them to his mill to be pulped.
JILL LEPORE: Franklin though also gets the license in Pennsylvania to print paper currency. [LAUGHS] So Franklin literally turns rags to riches. And that’s really where the notion comes from.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thus enriched and, of course, esteemed for his service to the new nation, he recounts his rags to riches saga in a groundbreaking memoir.
JILL LEPORE: The only sort of stories of lives, at that point, are the stories of the great, of kings and princes. And Franklin starts out as a pauper, essentially, so he publishes this autobiography to be a model for young men. He wants to tell the story of having made his own rise.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is not to slight the man who helps draft the Declaration of Independence, invents the lightning rod, his stove, bifocals, the flexible catheter and the glass harmonica you’re hearing now, and who also launched the first lending library and also the first publicly-supported hospital. Clearly, Ben does not want the poor struggling for books and medicine, but as a general principle he’s okay with struggle. He famously wrote, “The best way of doing good to the poor is not making them easy in poverty but leading or driving them out of it” and that the less was done for them, the more they did for themselves.
JILL LEPORE: He’s responsible for himself and his great success and his success alone, and people in his life that depend on him or on whom he may have depended for support, he erases them. And that becomes so much a part of the literary tradition of American autobiography.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: One notable absence from Ben's book, his sister Jane, married off at 15 to a ne'er-do-well with a history of mental illness passed on to two of their sons. And when most of her 12 children die too young, Jane raises their children and their children's children.
JILL LEPORE: Her whole life, she's constantly trying to scrabble together some kind of a living by taking in borders, taking in laundry, making the family soap. But the fascinating thing in remembering how important that story is to our sense of the American past is Benjamin Franklin's sister endures the fate that almost everybody else in the 18th century does. She remains in the station to which she's born.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And she writes with love to Ben that some impediments are just too hard to break through and that far too much potential is squandered through an accident of birth.
JILL LEPORE: And that’s the story of Jane Franklin. It’s like she’s this brilliant woman struggling, you know, to figure out how to get firewood for her many, many, many, many children, taking care of Franklin's parents, whom he abandoned, who are sick and destitute in their old age. He comes to Boston and erects a giant monument to their memory that really just celebrates him and his generosity.
The, the historical record is asymmetrical. We know so much more about the people who thrive and so little about the people who don't thrive. And you really have to think hard, what is the story telling me and what is it not telling me? What is Franklin’s autobiography telling me and what is it not telling me? Who’s missing here?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But ever since, the self-made man has been the avatar of the American spirit, especially in politics, starting with old Hickory Andrew Jackson right up to Hillary Clinton citing her drape-making dad and Donald Trump claiming he grew his fortune from nothing, but a - small multimillion dollar loan from his father.
Likewise, the 2004 election featured Dick Gephardt, son of a milk truck driver, John Edwards, son of a mill worker and Barack Obama, son of a goat herder, leading Jon Stewart to ask Daily Show Senior Political Analyst Stephen Colbert –
JON STEWART: Are they laying this on a little thick? Does it ring hollow, if everyone trumpets this bootstrap story?
STEPHEN COLBERT: Wow!
That’s pretty cynical, Jon. I mean, I for one connected with what they were saying. But, then again, I myself am from humble origins. My father was a poor Virginia turd miner.
JON STEWART: I’m, I’m sorry?
STEPHEN COLBERT: He mined turds, Jon!
And that’s why I believe in the promise of America, that I, the son of a turd miner, could one day leave those worthless hicks behind, while still using their story to enhance my own credibility.
[AUDIENCE LAUGHTER/END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But if the ancient and the universal bootstrap story was planted on our shores by Ben Franklin, it was codified some 80 years later by an essentially defrocked Unitarian minister named Horatio Alger, known first and best for his serialized novel called, Ragged Dick.
CHAPIN: A hardworking boy
A genuine joy
Devoted and loyal
I hate him!
HIGGINS: Not lazy and sly
And won’t tell a lie
He’s nothing like I am
I hate him!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That’s from the musical “Shine!” based on the book. Dick Hunter is a poor shoeshine boy but unlike his fellow bootblacks, he’s hardworking and moral.
DICK HUNTER, SINGING: I’ll climb and when I’ve clothing that fits, I have a hunch I’ll lunch with J.P. Morgan.
JILL LEPORE: Frankly, he’s kind of a cheap knockoff of Dickens.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jill Lepore.
JILL LEPORE: This is how the popular culture understood the economic opportunities that existed in the United States at the time.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
There was a board game called The Office Boy, and you start with your little token at Office Boy, and what you’re trying to get to at the center of the board, if you follow the serpentine path, is Owner of the Company. And, as you go along, if you land on a, a virtue like Work Extra Hours that day, you get to jump ahead to the next square. And if you land on a vice, which is like you take to drinking or something, you, you move back.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And Ragged Dick and late 19th century games like The Office Boy, The Drummer Boy, The Sailor Boy, The Messenger Boy, and so on, you succeed through the exercise of virtue. But it still depends on landing on the right square. In fact, the success of Alger’s heroes always depends on being in the right place, at the right time. Their fates hang on random encounters with generous strangers. But that’s a fable. In some places, there never is a right time.
Take Vinton County, Ohio, where nearly a quarter of its dwindling population lives in poverty.
JACK FRECH: There are no major roads that go through. There are only two traffic lights. The main county seat probably has, you know, a couple of thousand people living in it. But, other than that, it’s just all very isolated.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jack Frech who, for decades, was welfare director in Ohio's Athens County, says that having no people means having no jobs.
JACK FRECH: A couple of years ago, following some food stamp cuts by the Obama administration, the only grocery store in Vinton County closed. So, I mean, those kind of things, it's [LAUGHS] hard for people to imagine.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: No grocery store in the whole county.
JACK FRECH: No, they only had one, and it closed.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Natasha Boyer is from Hamden, population 800, in Vinton County, a place that barely exists. She’s just out of high school, with a diploma, a baby and a burning desire to make good. So, like Ragged Dick, she goes to the big city, in this case, a suburb of Columbus, where she secured an assistant manager job at a Domino's Pizza franchise, opening and closing the store, making pizza, pretty much everything.
NATASHA BOYER: As I was coming to go out to work, I was on the phone with my son. I couldn't afford childcare, so he lived with his grandparents down in Vinton County, in my hometown.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
NATASHA BOYER: So I was talking to him on the phone and I opened my door and I seen there was a letter that fell down and I was like, oh, okay. It was an eviction notice and they said that I had three days to get out, if I didn't pay the rent. This was only my second month being in Columbus. I had just got my feet. I had been sick prior, double pneumonia in both lungs and I had had bronchitis. I had been off work for a week and half.
Domino’s does not do sick leave. You can be with them 20 years and you don't get sick leave, unless you are a general manager. So I’d missed a week of work and that’s why I didn't think I was gonna have the money until later that month, but I didn't think it was gonna be a problem. I had let them know, they said that it was fine and I still get this notice, on a Sunday morning.
I just was talking to my son and I had him give the phone to my grandparents and I told them, I don't know what to do. They was like, well, you need to move back down, not even a month and a half after I'd moved up there.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How did you feel when you saw that note?
NATASHA BOYER: An emptiness, a feeling of failure. I was terrified because I didn't want to move home and lose any opportunities that I already had with Domino’s because I felt like was gonna go further with them. And then I thought moving back home I’m gonna be starting from rock bottom. My mom had once said that she didn't believe that I would make it even two months. And I was like, okay, this is, this is her being correct about me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Then, out of the blue, comes a random act of kindness, straight out of Horatio Alger, except, not really, because virtue has nothing to do with it. On the day of the crushing eviction notice, Natasha opens up the store, she’s soon joined by Paula, the delivery person. Then the owner rings, saying that Paula is to deliver a pizza to a nearby church, large pepperoni, price 5.99.
NATASHA BOYER: That Paula had to take it out there, go onstage and do something, he said he didn't know what. I told her, I says, I don’t want to go onstage, I don’t want to be in front of a bunch of people I don't know. So I called Tom and he said, well, you can either take it or - you can take it. And I was like, all right.
[LAUGHS] It’s only a – about a five-minute drive.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: We she arrives, she’s instructed to wait and then to follow a man onstage. He asks her name –
PASTOR STEVE MARKLE: Your name is?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - says he’s teaching his church about giving, about random acts of kindness. And then he asks –
PASTOR MARKLE: What’s the best tip you’ve ever gotten, like ten dollars? Well, here’s fif- this is 15 dollars, so 5.99, oh, so that’s like a $9 tip.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: She says, thanks very much, and figures that’s it.
NATASHA BOYER: Then he said, well, hold on, we’ve, we’ve got a gift for you, and this lady that was standing behind me pulled out a thick wad of money. And I just kind of looked at him, and he’s like, this is yours.
PASTOR MARKLE: From our three services combined, we collected this much money. This is 1,000 –
NATASHA BOYER: Instantly, I started crying.
[SOUND OF CLAPPING]
I had about dropped to my knees. It still makes me want to cry, to this day.
I drove back to the store in tears and when I got there I told Paula, and she’s like, you’re not gonna have to leave, are you? I said, no, I’m not gonna have to leave. It was one of the best things that has ever happened to me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The church video goes viral and Natasha’s story is covered on NBC, Fox, The Washington Post, and so on.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: An Ohio church surprised a pizza delivery driver with a Random Act of Kindness, a tip of a thousand –
MALE CORRESPONDENT: The delivery woman – you see her there – she lives in an apartment with her young son and she was actually short on money to pay her rent at the time.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: The reverend asked her about the biggest tip she ever got, she said 10 bucks. Well, she got a lot more than that [LAUGHS] this time. Look at her.
NATASHA BOYER: I made it, nine months up there before I left.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It was nine months before you left Columbus.
NATASHA BOYER: Yeah.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So it didn’t buy you –
NATASHA BOYER: I had actually let someone move in with me. I really don’t want talk too much about it, but they ended up ultimately screwing me over and I did end up losing the place. But I chose to let it happen. They were close to me. I'm not that type of person. I can't kick somebody out. So I moved back home.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you feel like if you had made different choices that thousand dollars could have made a difference?
NATASHA BOYER: If I would have just stuck to being me and my boyfriend and not letting friends move in, I'd probably be where I want to be.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What do you think about the church that did that?
NATASHA BOYER: I, I love every single one of them people. I don't know any one of ‘em, but I love them with my whole heart.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, it was a lesson for them. It was also publicity for the church and the pastor. Do you worry that perhaps people might think, well, let private citizens take care of public needs, ‘cause, you know, we all have good hearts?
NATASHA BOYER: Right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you think that you could have gotten some help from the state?
NATASHA BOYER: No. I had already been looking into aid through the state. I had to have three months’ worth of electric bills or something. I hadn’t even been there three months. That was the first time I’d had anything in my name. I had tried Job and Family Services, I had Care or something.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
NATASHA BOYER: They couldn't help me because I had to have so many months of documentation that I had been living there. I'd only been there a month and a half, so I didn't have enough proof that I could pay them back or work off so many hours of something, and I was already working up to 70 hours a week at work. I couldn’t make up hours on top of that. I would never see my son. So I, I was facing that, if I don't pray hard enough then I might not have my place, if I don't get enough money. And when that happened, it took those problems away. They didn't have to do that. They didn't have to give me that. Even when they seen me, they could have said, no, she has tattoos, don’t, don’t do it. Whether I needed it or not, they had no idea. And I honestly do not believe that they did it for publicity. It was, I truly believe, a random act of kindness.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, at the wise old age of 21 –
- what kind of work are you looking for?
NATASHA BOYER: I honestly want to become a general manager. That, that’s been my ultimate goal, whether that be with Domino’s or it be with another company. I want to go back to school for business management. I want to own my own business, at some point.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you feel poor?
NATASHA BOYER: I do, because I feel like I've worked and worked and worked to, to get where everybody else is and I'm not there yet.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you think that you’re to blame for that at all?
NATASHA BOYER: I'm not gonna say I deserve to be poor and I’m not gonna say I deserve to be rich. I feel like you get what you work for.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you think life is fair.
NATASHA BOYER: Not always, that's for sure. Like, like down-home, they’ll look at you – I’ve got my nose pierced, they’ll tell me I have to take it completely out. There's jobs down-home that won’t hire me because I’ve got tattoos on my arms. And yes, these are decisions that I've made, but I feel like everybody should have their right of expression. And that is something else that falls under not being fair because there are people that do get discriminated for tattoos, piercings, their hair color, even.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Race?
NATASHA BOYER: Oh yes, still. My boyfriend is black and he pretty much is the only black man down home. He gets stared at. People will point at him.
But I do have a son. I want his life to be better than what I lived, and that's why have to stay so optimistic at this point in my life. I do feel poor but I feel like if you find somebody that can help you through all that, not necessarily with money, you have that one person that says they’re going to be there and they prove it, you're gonna make it through as long as you look forward and you don't pay attention to what's happened in your past or their past. I've had horrible things that’s happened to me when I was growing up. When I had my son all that went away. Everything in my past went away.
And then I had met my boyfriend. He’s not spent a night away from me. He’s always there. He takes my son as his. I know he is not gonna leave me and he’s not gonna leave my son. My son's life's already better because I never had my father. I just got to keep looking forward no matter what the situation is, whether I’ll be living in a tent or I’m living in a mansion. It’s always gonna get better if you, you think positively.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: As it happens, the incident at Sycamore Creek Church was one of many similar church lessons and random acts of kindness last year.
PASTOR: God has chosen you for this evening -
PASTOR: - to give you a tip of $1300.
WOMAN: I want you to know, tonight you have 1600 –
MAN: All of these people chipped in. We think this is a record, but we are going to give you a tip of $3,400 –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: As for Natasha, one could argue that her loyalty to a friend in need, one of Alger’s unassailable virtues, is precisely what did her in. And, in fact, this happens again and again. There's a body of research, starting in 1970 with anthropologist Carol Stack’s book All Our Kin, that traces the networks of kinships that poor people rely on to survive, by sharing funds and child care, even basic goods. But those networks also impede upward mobility because good fortune is expected to be shared. Your choice then is either to sever those bonds or distribute the fruits of your lucky break until it’s too small to make a difference.
But there are lucky breaks and then there is real luck, luck so decisive yet so pervasive, you hardly know it’s there because it's always been there. Consider the phrase, “Lift yourself up by your bootstraps.” I mean, obviously, it can't be done. You can’t defy gravity by tugging on your shoes. In fact, once that phrase was a metaphor for the impossible. For example, in 1860, the year of Ragged Dick, a metaphysics professor named William Hamilton wrote that trying to analyze one’s own mind is, quote, “an effort analogous to one who would lift himself up by his own bootstraps.” But that is precisely what one must do to demolish the bootstrap myth, once and for all.
PROF. GREGORY CLARK: More than half of your outcome in life is already determined at the point that you’re born.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Economist Gregory Clark, speaking last year with C-SPAN's Peter Slen about his book, The Sun Also Rises. Clark used surnames to track social mobility across the world and found that it took many generations for families, both rich and poor, to regress to the mean, to become average. True, it's not a seamless progression. Your father may be rich and you may be broke but your children will likely move back up the ranks.
PROF. GREGORY CLARK: Just like the force of gravity being pretty much everywhere on the planet, the force of social mobility seems to operate in the same way across all the societies we can observe.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Even if you emigrate, your status, high or low, follows along.
PETER SLEN: Professor Clark, what does all of your research mean to the so-called “American dream”?
PROF. GREGORY CLARK: I have to say that I'm afraid that America is not a special society. It’s not an immobile society, it’s just not any better than medieval England. And so, I think that does imply an end to the American dream. [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In fact, you are twice as likely to achieve the American dream in Canada, though the likelihood of achieving it here varies hugely from county to county. Stanford Economist Raj Chetty has tracked millions of families and found that a child in San Jose has an impressive 13% chance to move from the bottom fifth income bracket to the top, as great a chance as any place on earth. Meanwhile, a child in Memphis has a 3% chance. But if a family moves from a low-mobility area to a higher one, their children's chances rise, and the younger they move, the better they do. Chetty charted it year-by-year among siblings.
RAJ CHETTY: Every extra year you spend in a better environment makes you more likely to go to college, less likely to have a teenage pregnancy, makes you earn more as an adult, makes you more likely to have a stable family situation.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That was Chetty on PBS NewsHour. He says the worst-performing neighborhoods are correlated with segregation, income inequality, single-parent families, poor schools and lack of social cohesion. These neighborhoods are very often black and overlooked when officials set budget priorities. Chetty says that government can effectively begin to boost mobility by investing in and fixing those neighborhoods. Meanwhile, it can do a better job of moving families, especially with young kids, out of them.
RAJ CHETTY: Twenty-five percent of the gap in earnings between blacks and whites is driven simply by the fact that blacks tend to grow up in neighborhoods that are much worse, on average, than whites.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The Biden administration is planning to spend more than 32 billion annually on housing vouchers calculated to enable poor families to rent in better areas. But they can take years, even decades, to get.
And when they get them, most states allow landlords to refuse vouchers, and they often do. So these families wind up where they started, paying a savvy slumlord much more for much less because there's no place else for them to go.
REV. DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.: In 1863, the Negro was told that he was free as a result of the Emancipation Proclamation being signed by Abraham Lincoln. But he was given any land to make that freedom meaningful.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Martin Luther King at the National Cathedral in Washington, 1968.
REV. DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.: It was something like keeping a person imprisoned for the number of years and suddenly discovering that that person is not guilty of the crime for which he was convicted. And you thus go up to him and say, “Now you are free” but you don’t give him any bus fare to get to town. And the irony of it all is that at the same time the nation failed to do anything for the black man, it was giving away millions of acres of land in the West and the Midwest, which meant that it was willing to undergird its white peasants from Europe with an economic floor. But not only did it give the land, it built land-grant colleges to teach them how to farm. Not only that, it provided low interest rates so that they could mechanize their farms. And to this day, thousands of these very persons are receiving millions of dollars in federal subsidies every year not to farm. And these are so often the very people who tell Negroes that they must lift themselves by their own bootstraps. It's all right to tell a man to lift himself by his own bootstraps, but it is a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.
[END CLIP][MUSIC UP & UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In 2003, the National Bureau of Economic Research published a famous study, in which researchers responded to help wanted ads for clerical, administrative and customer service jobs in the Chicago Tribune and the Boston Globe. They applied with names associated with whites, like Greg, or blacks, like Jamal, based on naming data for babies born in the late ‘70s. The white names produced 50% more callbacks. A white name yielded as many more callbacks as an extra eight years of experience on a black resume. In another study based in New York, whites with criminal records got more callbacks than blacks with clean records. So much for bootstraps.
E.B. White once wrote, “Luck is not something you can mention in the presence of self-made men.” Indeed, surveys find that wealthy people are far more likely than poor ones to say hard work is what leads to success and to credit hard work above all for their happy lot in life. Of course, hard work and talent matter but they offer no guarantee, as Robert Frank, professor of economics at Cornell University, observes in, Success and Luck: Good Fortune in the Midst of Meritocracy. He says success may also hang on the month or location of your birth, not to mention the wealth you're born with. But when we compose our personal narratives, those things recede into the mist, as Frank found when confronted by Fox News Host Stuart Varney.
STUART VARNEY: Am I lucky or not?
PROF. ROBERT FRANK: Yes.
STUART VARNEY: Who I am and where I am, I’m lucky.
PROF. ROBERT FRANK: Yes, you are.
STUART VARNEY: Lucky. Okay.
PROF. ROBERT FRANK: And so am I.
STUART VARNEY: That’s outrageous. That is outrageous. What about the risk I took? Do you know what risk is involved in coming to America with absolutely nothing? Do you know what risk is involved in trying to work for major American ep – network with a British accent, a total foreigner? Do you know what risk is implied for this level of success?
PROF. ROBERT FRANK: I do.
STUART VARNEY: Is it luck that you hold a tenured position?
PROF. ROBERT FRANK: Yes.
STUART VARNEY: [LAUGHS] That's nonsense! I am insulted by what you said.
PROF. ROBERT FRANK: Well, that’s absolutely, you –
STUART VARNEY: You are going against the American dream.
PROF. ROBERT FRANK: I’m not.
STUART VARNEY: No, if you come to America with nothing and you play by the rules, you work hard, you get disciplined inside yourself -
PROF. ROBERT FRANK: Right.
STUART VARNEY: - you marry and have children, in that order, okay, you do all of those things, you play by the rules, you will make it in America, and luck has nothing to do with it.
PROF. ROBERT FRANK: That’s not true, sir.
[AUDIENCE LAUGHTER/END CLIP]
PROF. ROBERT FRANK: I got in my cab leaving the studio and, of course, only then did I think about all the fast pitches he had thrown my way that I’d completely failed even to swing at, but –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Frank, speaking sometime later at New York University.
PROF. ROBERT FRANK: He said he’d come to the USA with nothing. He had a degree from the London School of Economics. That’s, that’s coming to the US with nothing. He had somehow overcome the handicap of working in America with a British accent.
Americans love British accents! He said he took risks. Well, what’s a risk? I looked it up. Merriam-Webster: Risk is the possibility that something bad or unpleasant, such as an injury or a loss, will happen.” He took risks and he succeeded. Well, that means, by definition, that he was lucky. Full stop. But I didn't have the wit to point that out.
[END CLIP] [MUSIC UP & UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But what does it matter, pointing it out? Well, as Frank notes, several studies suggest that when we feel gratitude, when we’re generous to strangers, when we're reminded of luck’s importance, we are more likely to plow some of our own good fortune back into the common good. But we underplay luck because we can recall our own struggles far better than the fateful but fuzzy role with chance and because the very idea corrodes our faith in free will, but mostly because, like Benny Franklin, we’re deeply invested in our own autobiographies.
Take me. My parents went broke a couple of times. Once we had to put all our stuff out on the lawn to be auctioned. I went to college almost totally on aid. But I always knew I was going to college, even on nights when supper was leftover Kentucky fried chicken I brought home from the job. I knew that this was temporary. So I can say, wow, I’m really self-made. But I know I’m not. Sure, I always kinda knew I was lucky, but not until working on this series did I really begin to understand what that meant.
Hard work is real, but bootstraps are bunk and social mobility a myth. Unless a nation chooses to build the infrastructure, the roads on which a person can move upward, you pretty much can't get there from here.
The Poverty series was produced by Eve Claxton and Mira Sharma and edited by executive producer Katie Rogers. If you want to hear the whole series, you can find it On the Media.. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.