In the third installment of our series, "Busted: America's Poverty Myths," we take on one of our country's most fundamental notions: that America is a land of equal opportunity and upward mobility for all. And we ask why, in spite of a wealth of evidence to the contrary, does this idea persist?
With the help of historian Jill Lepore, Brooke traces the history of the "rags to riches" narrative, beginning with Benjamin Franklin, whose 18th century paper manufacturing business literally turned rags into riches. We hear from Natasha Boyer, a young Ohio woman who was saved from eviction by a generous surprise from strangers... only for the miracle to prove fleeting. And we consider the efficacy of "random acts of kindness" and the fateful role of luck -- where you're born, and to whom -- in determining success.
"Rags To Riches" by Tony Bennett
"Adagio K. 617a For Glass Armonica" by Christa and Gerald Schönfeldinger
"Shine (Reprise)" by Roger Anderson & Lee Goldsmith
"Rondoletto" by Margaret Lion
"Avocet" by Bert Jansch
"This Old House" by Marcos Ciscar
"Melancolia" by Marcos Ciscar
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I’m Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone -
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
- with Part 3 of our series, “Busted: America’s Poverty Myths.” This one is about the biggest myth of all.
[CLIP/TONY BENNETT SINGING “RAGS TO RICHES”]:
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. [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 government already spends more than $20 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.
“Busted: America’s Poverty Myths” is produced by Meera Sharma and Eve Claxton and edited by Katya Rogers. This series was produced in collaboration with WNET in New York as part of “Chasing the Dream: Poverty and Opportunity in America.” Major funding for “Chasing the Dream” is provided by the JPB Foundation, with additional funding from the Ford Foundation.
Next week, many, arguably most Americans, walk a tightrope through life.
MAN: Sixty-four percent of people don't have enough money to cover $1,000 emergency expense, should it arise.
MAN: There were people in the area that could not afford a funeral or a cemetery plot.
WOMAN: People are raising their own money, using social media fundraising sites like this one, to cover costs insurance won't.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: When an unexpected event causes you to lose your footing and all you’ve built goes plunging down, is there anything out there to break your fall?
WOMAN: You never know when it’s your turn. Anything can happen. You might be on top of the world tomorrow but it can end for you the next day, you know, and you will go through poverty, what we goin’ through.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The Great American Myth of the Safety Net, on next week’s On the Media.
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BOB GARFIELD: That’s it for this week’s show. On The Media is produced by Alana Casanova-Burgess, Jesse Brenneman, Paige Cowett, Micah Loewinger and Sara Qari. We had more help from Leah Feder. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Casey Holford. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I’m Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I’m Brooke Gladstone.