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 ever green, as in the story hasn’t changed. The series exploded some of more pervasive myths of poverty. We devote the rest of this hour to one of the biggest myths of all.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
[CLIP/“RAGS TO RICHES”]
TONY BENNETT SINGING:
Must I forever be a beggar
Whose golden dreams will not come true
Or will I go from rags to riches
My fate is up to you
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
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, so [LAUGHS] 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.
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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’s 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 were 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 this story telling me and what is it not telling me?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
JILL LEPORE: 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. 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!
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.
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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: In 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. 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 [CHUCKLES] 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 and 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.
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 I 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 said, 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 10 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 him 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 1,000 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. 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 had 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.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, the myth of bootstraps and the role of luck. This is On the Media.