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Radiolab Presents: On the Media: Busted, America's Poverty Myths

Wednesday, January 18, 2017 - 01:00 AM

Norman Rockwell's "Freedom From Want" (Photo Credit: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration/National Archives and Records Administration)

We love to share great radio, even if we didn’t make it. Today, On the Media’s Brooke Gladstone tells Jad and Robert about a mammoth project they launched to take a critical look at the tales we tell ourselves when we talk about poverty.

In a 5-part series called "Busted: America’s Poverty Myths,” On the Media picked apart numerous oft-repeated narratives about what it's like to be poor in America. From Ben Franklin to a brutal eviction, Brooke gives us just a little taste of what she learned and shares a couple stories of the struggle to get ahead, or even just get by.

Go check out the full series, it’s well worth it. You can hear all 5 episodes of Busted here or subscribe to On the Media in iTunes (or wherever you get your podcasts) to listen to this series or all their other great work.

"Busted: America’s Poverty Myths" was produced by Meara Sharma and Eve Claxton and edited by Katya Rogers. They produced the series in collaboration with WNET’s Chasing the Dream; poverty and opportunity in America.

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Brooke Gladstone


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Comments [94]

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Dec. 10 2017 10:52 PM
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Aug. 03 2017 08:30 AM
brooke heppinstall kroenung from Palmer, AK

I'm a former college instr. in the social sciences...anthro/soc. From reading the comments here I suggest a new episode looking at why/how women regulate child bearing. What rules their decision-making on 'family planning'? I suspect we'll find more myths here. Of course, I just downloaded the rest of your series, so, maybe I'll luck out and find that you've looked into that. Great series so far. I have to say, I'm actually happy to NOT be teaching in this day and age ;)

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Jun. 21 2017 06:18 AM

Many grownup stories here on the Comment page. To address a few people's comments. Okay, let's pretend an American woman in this day-and-age doesn't comprehend how babies are made. After the first child - can we all agree the woman probably 'gets it'. To the commenter who proposes Margaret Smith (or any woman) most likely has no access to birth control, let's go there for a moment pretending abstinence doesn't exist, is it then excusable to reproduce 5 more times blaming it on being 'unable' to refuse sex to her partner(s)? Wow. Let's consider for a moment a white child (female) who grows up in a low-middle class household suffering the wrath of a violent schizophrenic parent or severely abusive alcoholic parent (or both) whose older and also abused-now-dysfunctional siblings terrorize the younger white female child to the point of suicide. No safety net, no government assistance, no social-worker hand-up. Luckily (there's that word again) this child doesn't die, she runs away from home at age 14 to live on the streets sleeping under bushes. NOT hooking-up to get sex-secured shelter, yes attending and finishing high school while enduring utter loneliness and poverty without a home. She implores to clean houses in the neighborhood for $20 bucks a week to eat. Exactly ON her 16th birthday applies and is hired to a lowest-level of-legal-age job then continues to exert efforts to gain more skills. Not rags to riches, rags to self-sustainment. She could've chosen to steal basic needs, end up in jail, a lot of folks from horrific backgrounds route to prison (where basic needs are free). She could've hung with bad crowd, drown her awful memories in drugs or alcohol, lashed out at the world. Can we all agree that choices exist for ANY person regardless of race or economic circumstances. It is a MYTH that simply being white guarantees being LUCKY with a safety net or a free hand-up from anyone - that false echo is racist! The choices for a black female are (perhaps) cognitively conditioned within the culture of her peers, neighborhood or family standards, otherwise why would she accept degrading (apparently unable to refuse sexual partners) and failure approaches to live by? I question, does society - for example, this white child I just wrote about - owe Margaret Smith her hard earned tax dollars. Certainly we can afford compassion but does society OWE - why Margaret Smith a safety net - and NOT a middle-of-the-road white kid?

May. 05 2017 07:40 PM

An important of interest LACKING aspect to this story is: WHY did Margaret Smith produce six children if she has NOT the financial foundation to support so many children? The cycle of poverty has many components both predictable and unexpected, personally controllable or legislated. And yes, in serious ways it is unfair to all sorts of people and many of us struggle to maintain shelter and afford basic necessities. If you don't want to SINK in America you must THINK, and sometimes rethink, what is MY contribution to the situation I am in? In the newspaper today there is an article concerning a man who violently assaulted his landlord, breaking several bone's in the landlord's face, who got bail-bonded, then did not show up to court. His attorney told the judge he "blames" the man's no-show on his heroin addiction. Absurd. We have become a nation put into motion a pendulum of excuses for shrug-offs of personal-responsibility, blaming everything EXCEPT a person's character, or victim-attitude that the world owes them. There are tremendous advantages and heart-breaking disadvantage combinations to all sorts of people's lives that would surprise, even shock, other people. Calcutta India - statistically one of the most disadvantaged cities on the planet - citizens there astonishingly report high marks of happiness owing to family and community values. NOT rampant murdering each other left and right. Racism, in either (black or white) direction, there are not enough words to encapsulate how disgusting and the impact it all has. I think this 'On The Media' episode is flatly one dimensional. It has a point to make, yet not a very deep one. Humans are born into an array of circumstances A-Z functional or dysfunctional, whether rags or riches. How we handle those circumstances I think is more to the point than how those circumstances handle us. Luck, maybe. Some would say Life in truth bears witness to those who live it.

May. 04 2017 12:18 PM
Katherine McDonald from Atlanta, Ga

While I totally believe that demographics impact the ability to rise up from poverty, I also believe that the gap between the top 1/5 and the bottom 1/5 in Denmark and Canada are a lot closer together than the top and bottom in a capitalist oriented country - USA. I am a product of both luck and narrative. A mother on food stamps and a disgusting rich father. I'm also white but I went to college both because of the narrative (mom says they can't take your college degree in bankruptcy) and bc of a rich father that paid for the 1st year. Being white helped. Living in a state (Virginia) with good education also helped. Seattle, California these places have a more socialist orientation than Mississippi. I love this podcast but the economic criticism of the American bootstrap narrative isn't accurate. If you come here from India, China, Nigeria, even Mexico. (What is the mobility in those countries) of course Canada is doing better...those countries were cherry picked. They are not a representative sample of the global population. What are the statistics for the children of these immigrants? Do those statistics hold up in Denmark or France? Maybe Sweden but.... I'm in marketing you can make statistics say anything. A safety net can lift you up or keep you down. In southern (Read areas of the country with more historic racism) states, it's the safety net (in part) that keeps people in poverty. Education and socioeconomic profiles are not as frequently intermixed in these states. In Atlanta, public transportation doesn't even carry you out of the city bc the rich people and good schools don't want socioeconomic diversity. In Atlanta that equates quite closely to race but there are many more white rural welfare recipients. Those people aren't making it to the top 1/5 income bracket. getting financial aide for collegeisn't easy if you don't understand how to do it. Keeping yourself from getting pregnant is hard when birth control is a prescription, you can't afford the doctor, your mom can't take you to the doctor bc she can't take off work, your dad is long gone and doc won't see you without a parent bc that same doc doesn't believe in birth control bc of his persona religious beliefs.'s not so simple as race, income or location
Still a great podcast

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Apr. 24 2017 09:08 PM
Michael A. Potter from NC

Shame on you uneducated fools who don't understand that bad things happen to good, hard working people and that there are only so many well-paying jobs to go around. You are only capable of understanding your own situation. You'd shit your pants if you had to walk in someone else's shoes.

Apr. 09 2017 05:40 PM
litttleben from ann arbor

The negative comments in this piece reflect the inability of people to imagine any one's experience but their own.The piece was done well, but you chose not to hear what was said. At at a certain point such a failure becomes the responsibility of people such as your selves, who console themselves with the belief that all the injustice in the world is the fault of the people experiencing it; that injustice is not external but internal. This justifies the lies you tell yourselves Like an overly proud eight-year-old you look in the mirror and proclaim "I did this all by myself!"

Mar. 02 2017 10:22 PM
Bill from Brooklyn, NY

The first bad Radiolab I've ever heard—perhaps because it was piggybacking off another show with obvious bias.

Almost none of it meets basic journalistic standard.

There are huge differences in ratio between the bottom and top decile and quintile in the US v. Canada, not to mention Western Europe—so of course less people are going to rise by those markers. This isn't even acknowledged. And limiting the definition of "mobility" to such a dramatic shift in fortune is simply not credible.

And the prescription offered, spending (or government "investment") in neighborhoods is not the logical policy indicated by Chetty's research—which finds that local (+0.215) and per student expenditure (+0.251) have substantially less correlation to mobility than crime rate (-0.326), religiosity (+0.510), and share of single mothers (-0.763) and black residents (-0.605).

There are also numerous questions regarding Chetty's failure to adjust for cost-of-living differences and changes—much of his findings can be attributed to industry booms and busts which he fails to take into account.

Based on the above comments, I'm not alone—and it would be heartening to see the hosts address the numerous complaints and concerns.

Feb. 28 2017 06:40 PM
Steve from LA

I consider myself a centrist. This is a common problem mantra with the left leaning media, that compassion would solve all problems of the world. But no amount of compassion can substitute for wisdom and good planning (which both the left and right had avoided discussing in the past 10 years). True there is a lot of obstacles along the way to upward mobility. But the 1st thing we need to do is to ensure that we do not create obstacles for ourselves. Having children is very expensive and time consuming. My parents drilled in me to only have children when I have the financial ability to support them and to afford them a safe environment to grow up. Even with my middle class income, I still struggled to make that happen for my only kid. If I had 6 children, I probably be in the same position as the woman in the story.

Feb. 23 2017 12:21 AM
Jan from Northern California

I stand behind Planned Parenthood, and I tell people who are skeptical about that organization that women are especially vulnerable to being left with half a dozen children unless birth control is readily available.'s READILY AVAILABLE. So tell me: six kids??? Why? I don't think having babies is like eating cookies: You just can't help yourself. I DO think having sex can be like eating cookies, but babies are not a required outcome of sex. I am always blown away when someone tells a sad story about being a single parent and struggling to support SIX (sometimes more) children. I stopped at ONE, not because I wouldn't have loved more but because I was left on my own after ONE, and it was NOT going to happen to me again.

Feb. 19 2017 11:20 PM
Taylor from NY

Isn't upward mobility in the U.S. a greater span of wealth?

And from the bottom to the top seems like only one interesting metric. What is the percentage of from the bottom to the middle? I think we view that as the American dream, not being a billionaire but buying a home and raising a family.

Feb. 17 2017 09:41 AM

She was not responsible for her own predicament? Whose fault is it that she didn't acquire marketable skills when she was younger so that her earning capacity would be more solid? Whose fault was it that she had kids before becoming financially stable? Does she bear no responsibility for her failure to marry a man who would stand by her in difficult times? I get the impression that her son, who was shot, may have been running with a rough crowd. Why didn’t she move her family to an area where those influences were less prevalent, perhaps a more rural area?

Feb. 15 2017 11:11 AM
Mark from Washington DC

Terribly innumerate use of stats. To move between two quintiles in the US might be a larger move than four quintiles in a economically homogenous country. Small changes in wealth in Finland or Eritrea might move you far in terms of quintiles but not far in absolute terms, which seems more pertinent to the questions you were asking. In other words, if a one-quintile move in the US means a bigger absolute improvement in economic level than a three-quintile move somewhere else, wouldn't that be the relevant consideration?

I love Radiolab, even though my politics aren't very NPR, and was disturbed to see a collaboration with On the Media. And to hear Jad lapping up this polemic? Heartbreaking.

Feb. 15 2017 08:54 AM
nada decat

wonderful episode. I dont know how you keep your audience with all these truths and deeper conversations that most aren't used to.

Feb. 14 2017 11:47 PM
Monica from USA

This episode was weird....bottom to the top? what about all of the people who move in between? And you talked about percentage of people in different countries who move from the bottom to the top but what ARE those top and bottom brackets in each country? Are they as far apart as in the US? Why didn't you talk about the fact that the woman at the end CHOSE to have 6 children? Even if you can't get birth control, you can get free condoms pretty easily. And healthy food is more expensive??!! Come on....rice and beans are two of the healthiest foods in the world and the cheapest. I am vegan and I eat rice and beans almost every single day. Rice, beans, potatoes, apples, bananas, peanut butter, spinach and tomatoes. You can live off of that food. I know because I do. In fact my grocery bill went way down after becoming vegan and I am eating healthier than I ever have. There are many a blogs that show how to eat healthy and vegan on food stamps in the US.

I am not trying to say there is no luck involved. I was raised by a single father but he was middle class and helped support me. Now I am in graduate school getting my PhD in engineering. I think my luck was more about 3D visualization and being pretty good at math in the way it is traditionally taught in school. The people that I know who are moving through social classes are very smart....that might be a more realistic factor of traditionally intelligent you are at the things our current society values (like critical thinking). Yeah you can argue that has to do with the schools you went to and it probably does to a certain extent but I went to one of those poor performing public high schools....I saw many students drop out or do poorly because they were more focused on drugs, drinking and parties. These are the people who might be on food stamps one day. I also saw very poor students who are now becoming doctors. They were more focused on school. So the real question is why do some people focus on short term satisfaction and others on long term?

So maybe the real luck is for whatever reason, learned or innate, how your brain functions.

Feb. 13 2017 07:55 PM
Joe from Ohio

A couple thoughts:

1) The common story line I seem to be reading is that income inequality is at an all time high, and the American Dream is dying so I'm surprised that RadioLab thought that the story line was the other way. I guess we consume different media or have a different idea of what mainstream is.

2) The reporting was so biased and lacking in critical thinking. The stats were interesting. It is certainly noteworthy that Canadians have double the chance to move from the bottom quintile to the top quintile. Now let's start to investigate why that might be. We heard "where you live has a greater effect on your ability to move up than who you are". I think that's very shallow analysis. How about we look at the decisions that people in Memphis make vs people in San Jose. Average age of becoming a parent, average education of parents.

I understand that we all start with different circumstances and some people can't overcome them, and as a society we should all be a little more humble and consider how lucky we are. However, I think we all have some decisions we can make about how much we can help the next generation of people (i.e. our kids). If you had a hard time getting to college then make sure you only have one or two kids and tell them early and often that they need to focus on education. No amount of public policy can replace good parenting.

Feb. 13 2017 04:43 PM

Yet another show I used to love that I cannot listen to anymore. 2016 was the year everything changed for me. I got red-pilled and dumped the Democrat party. It took me a lot longer than I wanted it to and I had a lot of setbacks along the way, but I did make it out of poverty. If you want to, you can do it. Yes - there is a hell of a lot of luck involved. But there is an equal amount of preparation too. If you haven't figured out that having a bunch of kids with a bunch of men is a recipe for poverty, then you're just stupid. I'm not going to sit here and listen to how people are just victims and that's all there is. You have to use your brain and have some sense of self preservation about you.

Feb. 12 2017 03:01 PM
Shrubby from Cincinnati

From this we can recognize that there are people in this country who want to be productive and contribute and it behooves us all to make it easier for them to get back to work, out of shelters, and stop drawing from assistance programs. Our system has flaws and we can make improvements.

The woman interviewed grew up in a lousy place but got out of there for a better life for her kids, to keep her sons away from gangs. That's laudable. For years (7 I think?) she had been supporting them all on her own and paying their way with her job.

If people wanted to see a victim mentality in this, then that's exactly what they saw. In these times, when the most likely cause of bankruptcy has to do with medical bills, I think what is more to the point is that if you should have the misfortune to fall down into this well it might be damn near impossible to get out again. So how can we change that?

It just floors me, people sneering at a woman who wants to work, get out of the shelter and provide for her family. As if THAT is just the WORST thing. We benefit as a society by having people willing to work who want to pull their own weight. She has to deal with her life as it IS not according to the choices you think she should have made in the past. She is where she is NOW, how can she get back to work and out of the shelter, that's what she is focused on. People are so impressed with the choices they would have made for her and gleefully pointing out what they think she did wrong-- well pointing out the imperfections of others isn't all that hard is it? It's a lot more complex to talk about the flaws in our systems and how we can bounce people up from hardship.

Feb. 09 2017 12:50 PM
Douglas Higden from Detroit

Why does no one ever point out that except for donning one's boots pulling on the straps is utterly futile. I always imagine the person who gives this advice cynically laughing his way to the bank at the fool who is uselessly applying his "wisdom" and in doing so falls further behind.

Feb. 08 2017 08:47 PM
Frank from California

Damn this was a hard episode to listen to.

Not because of the subject matter, but because of how poorly the subject was researched and how hard the agenda is being pushed.

The entire article pushes the victim mentality on anyone who wants to change their social class. If you're poor, give up because you can't change social classes. Way to go radiolab, you've become just another Public Radio program pushing your agenda instead of doing interesting investigations. I guess the good news is you'll always have a place on the radio.

Feb. 06 2017 06:12 PM
J Ferreira from New Jersey

I am a product of public education, all the way to my second masters that am finishing up now.

I immigrated to NYC from the Dominican Republic with my mother and three siblings, to live at a 1 bedroom apartment with my grandmother, my uncle and his girlfriend. Yes, you guessed correctly, 7 people in a one bedroom apartment in Washington Heights.

I currently live on my own property with my wife and two dogs. A three bedroom, basement, and attic, home for two people. I don't want to call this rags to riches, but we were poor. Rice and Eggs for dinner poor, or rice with ketchup.

What made a difference?

1. Luck (just so we cover the episode).

2. Responsibility.

- My mom was responsible for the three of us. So she worked two jobs and did not ask for government assistance (other than healthcare)

- My mom did not play when we talked about school. We had to do our school work, and if something was wrong, she would go to school to see what was going on. Very important.... The teacher was always right. The student was always wrong. No Excuses.

- As soon as we started working (my brothers and I) we were responsible for a bill in the house, cable, electricity, etc.

- We were responsible for our laundry, the chores of the house, and picking up after ourselves.

- We were responsible for our actions. My mother told us she was not going to go to visit us in Jail or bail us out if any of us got in trouble.

- At the end, we took responsibility for our own decisions.

It's sad that that lady had to go through so much. And I hope that her situation improves. However, its easier to blame it on the system than to take responsibility. We must teach our kids to be responsible for their actions, it is time for us to forget about the safety net and play the game like we he had everything to lose.

Feb. 06 2017 03:29 PM
Erin from Madison

I just wanted to note that most of the comments which are critical of the woman in this story for having six kids by different fathers are pretty much all men.

I have a good friend (who is very smart) with 3 children by 2 different men. The last 2 children she was talked into having by her now-known-to-be unstable partner.

As a woman, I know that to be pregnant is to be vulnerable; it is complicated thing involving a great many things beyond just self.

I think that, as a society, our position is not to judge whether or not the woman made a poor choice and whether or not she should be punished for it; our position should be whether or not we as a society have a responsibility for caring for our children, to the best of our ability, regardless of their circumstances.

Feb. 06 2017 11:14 AM
Joe from Los Angeles

Poorly done, Radiolab. (pun un-intended)
It is an insult to the listeners AND the subjects to be so low-resolution in your reach for some explanations. The truth is much more complicated in some ways, and far simpler than you presented in others. It does nobody any good to tow a tired, error-ridden line of polit-speak into the 21st century, when it should have died in the last. The level of rhetorical tactics and observational subtleties exhibited here were about as adroit as the script of a Sharknado sequel.

Feb. 05 2017 08:40 AM
keith from san diego

What a frustrating load of skewed misinformation this was. For example the 'no safety net' part with the unfortunate story of the mom whose kid got shot. Here's the elephant in the room: A single Mom with SIX KIDS? Really? Where's the Dad or Dads? Didn't she get the memo at let's say, um, 3 kids? Or 4? Like, if you continue down this road you are screwed? Why isn't that addressed? Moreover, by the fact she was in a homeless shelter means she DID have a safety net. She wasn't sleeping on a sidewalk somewhere. This episode had victim mentality written all overt with piecemeal information forced together to fit the narrative. Disgrace.

Feb. 04 2017 03:20 PM
Josh from NYC, NY

I generally love the show, but I felt the section of the show on income mobility was misleading, not in the facts, but how you framed the story. Jad asked the question,"What % of Americans in their life do better?" The guest then answers a different question. She answers the question how many people move from the bottom quintile to the very top. This is completely overlooking all the people that make it from the bottom to the middle class. Are people are born in poverty that grow up to buy a house with a pool in the suburbs irrelevant as far as income mobility? I think this episode has intentionally focused on the extreme because the majority of data doesn't fit your agenda. The answer to Jad's original question is that 56% of people in the lowest fifth raise out of that quintile. That's the majority of people. If you look at absolute terms 83% of people in the lowest quintile make more than their parents even when adjusted for inflation. In this country if you can graduate high school and wait to 25 before having children your chances of living in poverty are almost zero. Rich people are getting richer, but poor people are getting richer as well. That's true worldwide.
You then compare income mobility in the US to other countries with large social safety nets and infer that it is because of this they have more mobility. Correlation does not equal causation. These countries also rank higher on the index of economic economic freedom. Meaning they have freer trade, low corporate taxes, stable monetary policy, pro-business regulatory efficiency, etc... The ceiling in the US is also much higher, meaning it takes more increase in income to jump to the next quintile. These countries also have a more homogeneous cultural populations. To me you are basically saying, "These countries that are mostly white, the US should be more like them." I would like to see how these countries do with even half the population and diversity that is in the USA, because we aren't exactly comparing apples to apples here.
You have a respectable and informative show therefore I hold you to a higher standard than say Fox news. It disturbs me when I hear a story presented with the same bias and fundamentalism that they use.

Feb. 03 2017 06:57 PM
Ruby Tuesday from Australia

By far the most provocative pod you have put together. Flicking through the listener comments confirms that many live in naivety to the mechanics of systemic and generational poverty. Well done I believe that this will be one of your seminal pods and academics will cite it for years to come.

Feb. 03 2017 12:44 AM
Sara from Oregon

I think quite a few people are being very short-sighted. Yes, this woman has 6 kids, but is that really enough information to blame her for what she's going through and say she deserves it? I noticed a couple of people mention poor neighborhoods generally have poor schools and poor education of women goes hand in hand with a high birth rate. This is important. I've known people who knew pregnancy came from sex but thought it was unlikely or had other misconceptions about prevention. I've known women who were in vulnerable situations where they knew there was a risk but they couldn't say no to their partner and had no access to contraception. There are numerous reasons she may have that many children that are less in her control than you would assume. It's so easy to talk about what someone is doing wrong when you've never had to walk in her shoes.

Jan. 27 2017 05:29 PM
Nichole from Ohio

I'm frankly disgusted by the amount of judgement being cast on this woman for have 6 children from (perhaps) multiple fathers. So many people are so quick to judge her, but none of you seem to note the system which failed her!
To say I thought this episode was important and timely is an understandmemt, and seeing so many negative comments confirms it.
Privilege doesn't make you the enemy - it makes you aware!
A privileged white woman who cares

Jan. 27 2017 05:03 PM
E Dumas from France

Very good podcast (as usual). It really made me think. I'm a lucky person and this help me see things differently. I saw this very good comic today and I thought it is really relevant to this show:

Worth having look!

Thanks a lot for what you do.

Jan. 27 2017 01:33 PM
Rachel from Florida, USA

Were any myths really "busted" here? Gladstone failed to dispel any of my mythological thoughts. The reporting done here was far from presenting a full spectrum picture. I believe that poverty's borders expand beyond the black community, yet once again, this is what the focus is on. Okay, lets focus on it.
Personally it seems that all Gladstone managed to do is perpetuate this illogical notion that the African American community is somehow absolved from having to take any accountability for it's failures as a community. I guess only white people are supposed to do that. The things is, I don't believe us lucky whites gave a road map for success to any of the other poor minority communities either yet somehow many of them have experienced upward mobility. Social or otherwise. At what point does it become about one's culture and not the boost someone gives them or lack thereof.
What irks me is that these reporters gather some stats, talk to one of two "experts" and then spend a few days interviewing "victims" and call it unbiased journalism. The reality is they don't have time to fully cover a subject.It takes weeks, months, years to get a full understanding of what is at the root of a problem.
Here's what I know from personal experience. I teach at a poverty school in the worst district in my entire state. The media and government are always all over us. The student makeup is 40% African American, 40% white, 20% Other. We provide an amazing amount of support to our student's and their families from free meals, free weekend meals, educational opportunities, after school programs, counseling, outreach, etc. If you saw the lack of parenting, the lack of respect, the entitlement, the rate of abuse, the ungratefulness, lack of commitment, negligence etc that we deal with on a daily basis you would be appalled. I wonder if Gladstone's "myth bust" would read the same if she saw what I do. It's a crappy job a lot of the time, but we give it our all, and when the student's fail repeatedly guess who takes the blame from everyone outside of the education system? Teachers and their administration. Guess which group the majority of our problems are with? I can't say which because if I do, I'm somehow a racist despite working at a school that I don't have to be at, and loving all of my kids and wanting them to succeed regardless of race.
It seems that until the African American community itself starts taking some sort of accountability, and our social welfare programs get readdressed these so called "myths" don't seem so mythical.

Jan. 26 2017 09:55 PM

I think you glossed over the fact that she had SIX KIDS from obviously multiple fathers (different last names). She didn't even mention the youngest three.

For wanting to get her life together and out of the projects, she is sure eager to keep having children.

Jan. 26 2017 01:01 PM
Barbara from San Jose

From the comments this really struck some nerves. My mother was from Appalachia and incredibly dirt poor. My father was brought up by a single mother in the Depression. My parents moved to San Jose in the early 1950s and turned their lives into a success. Although my parents weren't wealthy, their children are successful: 3 of the 4 went to college and we are in the upwardly mobile 12% described in this piece. My cousins who remained in Appalachia haven't faired as well. The difference: location. Great schools, incredible encouragement, scholarships and the expectation of intellectual success made the difference. Luck, absolutely! They thought about moving to Minnesota but decided San Jose looked like a warmer, nicer place. Great guess Dad and Mom. Lucky? I'll say!

Jan. 25 2017 08:30 PM
Bob Henry from Coatesville, PA

I'm a regualr listener and I enjoy the show. The "On the Media" summary piece you ran recently left me wondering about the reporting. I do not dispute that the woman interviewed has it tough. I have issue with reporter's treatment of her family circumstances. To provide some background: I am divorced and paid very large sums of money to the mother of my children for years. I also had joint custody and saw them regularly. I also provided their health coverage and paid their medical bills. If someone had interviewed my ex-wife and NOT asked about my status/existence/contributions, they would certainly not have gotten the whole story. How could the reporter not ask the woman about the father(s) of her children? I noticed the mother named the children using different last names so I use the plural "fathers". Where are they? Are they alive? Do they help? Do they see the kids? Is there an order of support on the books? If so, do they pay? What about other family? Her parents, the fathers's parents? Can't they help out with room/shelter? By not asking these questions, the reporter overlooks and discounts the first responsibility of parents and family in society. The social safety net is there for when the the family and extended family net fails.

Jan. 25 2017 01:02 PM
CoD from Georgia

To Jacob from Michigan,

I think it's the exactly opposite. It is this episode/On the Media Series that oversimplifies.

Jan. 25 2017 10:36 AM
Faith from Vienna, Austria

Thank you Laurie from Ohio for your post. We need more individuals like yourself to acknowledge their privilege. There seems to be quite a bit of anger about acknowledging privilege. You don't have to be white/Caucasian to understand what privilege is, nor is it a prerequisite/requirement. I am African American, but I grew up in the suburbs and had parents that really encouraged us to stay out of trouble. My parents worked multiple jobs to purchase our first home and I had a pretty stable childhood. That in and of itself was enough to put me on the right path and gave me a good start in life. Sometimes people have a bad start by circumstances that are beyond their control and they need help, not judgement. There is a real anti-poor sentiment going on the US even when most citizens are a paycheck or a sickness away from financial ruin.

Jan. 25 2017 08:07 AM
Faith from Vienna, Austria

Thank you for bringing attention to this thought provoking five part series. I have listened to the first three and I am already discovering so much about poverty in America. It also made me reflect on the many scholarships and government programs that have allowed me to go to college and graduate school. It was not only hard work, but a huge amount of luck that has helped me succeed in life. I hope we can all work together to see that everyone succeeds.

Jan. 25 2017 07:56 AM
Sarah from New Haven

Something tells me the story about the girlfriend shooting the son over a break up isn't very true...

Jan. 24 2017 03:47 PM
Scott from Charlottesville, VA

Just wanted to let Radiolab know that I chose to unsubscribe after this episode. I'm really tired of the one-sided theme of victimization, and this episode convinced me it's a hobby-horse Radiolab can't dismount.

Jan. 24 2017 03:33 PM
Jimmy from France

A lot of these comments seem way too eager to condemn that poor woman for her so called "bad life decisions", but they don't really seem to see the whole picture.
The fact is, the education in lower income areas is often victim of way lower standards than more wealthy areas, which results in a less educated population in these areas (simple).
We also know that there are proven correlations between the level of education of women and their desire to have more or less children (plus there are things like education on contraception, which helps preventing mistakes that happen at a young age).
From these 2 points, you can probably easily see where I'm going, if a woman is born in the projects where the education standards are abysmal, she is statistically more predisposed to have more children than someone born in a wealthier neighborhood with simply better schools.
Simply put the luck involved in where you are born is definitely a major factor (although obviously not the ONLY one) in whatever "decisions" you end up making and what options you have available, and completely denying the influence of luck is simply denying the reality we live in.

Jan. 24 2017 10:27 AM
Jim Gonzales from Omaha

The stat about going from the bottom all the way to the top seems silly to me. What are you calling the top? If you mean go from homeless to being Bill Gates of course the number is going to be low. You don't give any information what going from the bottom to the top even means. I figure if you live in the U.S. and go from the bottom to the middle you are probably far richer than most of the world.

Jan. 24 2017 10:11 AM
Bethany from California

I find so many of these comments comforting. Neither one of my parents were educated and growing up was often difficult. Even though we were struggling, they never once accepted government assistance. Since I did not want history to repeat itself, I joined the military and eventually completed my degree (it took me 6 years to do so...). Now I am out and have a good job and a house of my own. I might not have gone from "rags to riches" but I worked my butt off and to achieve a comfortable middle class status. I simply cannot chalk this up to luck. I've worked way to hard for that...

Jan. 23 2017 11:47 PM
Jacob from Michigan

Some food for thought for both past and future commenters on this episode:

If you have a strong opinion on this topic, is it possible you are oversimplifying a complex issue? Have you yourself both faced the struggle of poverty and the success at the top? If there is misinformation present, does it destroy the conclusion or simply muddy the waters a bit? Is it possible for us to simultaneously look at this with both logic and heart?

Jan. 23 2017 05:17 PM
CoD from Georgia

Yet another political episode, like the latest "More Perfect". The episode would have been better if it offered some counterpoints and a more balanced perspective.
Also, it is easy to knock down "myths" when you are free to word them as you please, in essence erecting straw men. For example the "myth" of upward mobility was stated as "everybody has the same chance to succeed" or something to that effect. But nobody claims that. Obviously different people differ in talents and abilities that affects one chances. Also, nobody denies the fact that luck/chance plays a role. But people like that college professor tend to place to much importance on it. Some people drop out of school at 16. He went to school for 20+ years and earned a PhD. That takes ability and hard work. Yes, getting a tenure track position does involve some luck, but nobody denies that.
And yes, I agree that the Fox News Brit did overstate the hardships he had to endure to make it in America, lmao.

Margaret Smith though, what is there to say? A lot has been said already. Her situation is not due to some bout of bad luck but to a long string of choices (such as having six children) to bad luck (such as her son getting shot or her having health problems). She could have alleviated her bad luck by making smarter choices in life.
And she is beneficiary of the social safety net. She receives food stamps. She received cash assistance until it ran out. A note on that. When people talk of cash assistance they usually mean TANF (temporary assistance for needy families). Note the 'temporary', it's not meant to be forever.
But people tend to ignore a big chuck of free cash people with children get from the government that does not run out - refundable tax credits.
Smith has 6 children. That means (in 2016) she gets $6k standard deduction and $4k federal exemption per person (herself and dependents). That means that if she earns up to $30k per year she owes zero federal income tax if all children still live with her except for one that is adult. That's not bad right there, but it's not all. There are also refudnable tax credits, to wit EITC and additional child tax credit. EITC is income sensitive but if she earns $30k she would be eligible for $3700 in free money. She'd also receive ~$4k in ACTC. So come tax refund time she would not only get any withholding but also almost eight thousand dollars in free money! Meaning, she would go from $30k pretax earnings to $38k post-tax earnings. Not too shabby.

Jan. 23 2017 12:41 PM
Jim Gonzales from Omaha

"I am a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it." Thomas Jefferson

Jan. 23 2017 10:25 AM
Jim from PA

This is the worst type of political skree that taints NPR and its various appendages as mouthpieces for the liberal agenda. The report failed to address decades of academic research on the causes of poverty. I would suggest beginning with Thomas Sowell's Ethnic America. Allow me to address a number of issues Ms. Gladstone raised.
1. Ben Franklin's "rags to riches" life, just as Barack Obama's, William Jefferson Clinton's, and Ms. Gladstone's own fortunes, are not a myth, they are a most definite reality. Just are the lives of approximately 6%of the US population.
2. There is no "correct" percentage of people who experience this good fortune. When comparing San Jose to Memphis, one needs look at a number of factors : ethnicty/culture, household stability, percentage of 2 parent families, hours worked per week (lots of start-up businesses in San Jose), substance abuse, number of books read per week. Denmark is a small relatively homegenous population, so it is not surprising that there are a greater number of people going from "rags to riches". BTW - the range of rag to riches in Denmark is much small too.
3. Don't ignore the 600 lbs gorilla in the room. 5 children with 3 or 4 different last names and no mention of the kids staying with their father or child support. As sad as the mother's story is, and regardless of how earnest she is now, life's decisions have consequences.
4. Life isn't fair. Would Jen have been been better off not marrying and having children with someone with mental illness. Ben would have been nicer if he would have helped care for his parents. Why is that an indictment of American Capitalism?
5. Let's look at generational poverty with precision, not with the anguish of an NPR reporter guilt over making it. Perhaps starting with longitudinal data from Oklahoma, now that they have government paid day care and all day kindergarten.
6. Looking at the data, more than 70% of American's population change ecomonic strata in 2 generations. That, at least to me, is a fluid economy, that rewards education, risk taking and luck. There is recent data that suggests the most important factor in improving your ecomonic status is not intelligence (although that helps), but grit - persistence to task

Jan. 22 2017 01:30 PM
Shani from Maryland

I find the comment section very frustrating for many reasons, especially when it comes to the latter portion of the episode where the woman is sharing her struggles with poverty, housing, etc. Jad shared this in the episode to illustrate what the prior portion was explaining (that so many people live without a safety net and are one accident/tragedy/mishap away from their life being completely flipped. Argue that point and whether or not it's true. Argue whether or not there are safety nets or options for people in situations like this. Argue about the clause in her housing that resulted in her eviction even though she and her family were the victims of a crime. All of this makes perfect sense to debate. What makes no sense is to blame this woman for having too many children. That's irrelevant. There are people that have 2 kids that couldn't rebound from this situation easily. Come on. That's the point. You have control and are managing life, and then something happens and you aren't able to do so.

Michael has said time and time again that they rarely and never try to solve anything in an episode. All this woman did was share her struggles. She didn't ask for a hand out. There was no fundraising app you were offered to donate to her. The point was to hear someone in that situation, possibly someone fairly different from you. Leaving the story at the number of children she has might make it easier for you to feel as though you won't ever be down and out like her; but it's a cheap and small minded summary at best.

Jan. 22 2017 03:24 AM
Frances Worster

Is there a way to get transcripts?

Jan. 22 2017 02:10 AM
Anonymous from Hell

The American dream for some is profiting from destroying another's life.

Jan. 21 2017 06:32 PM
Franco from Argentina

First RadioLab episode I don't like. I agree with the original premise of the episode, the fact that making it to the top is harder for some people. But then you went and chose a terrible example. You are going to make it to the top if you are witty, hard working, have talent or are very smart and yes, lucky... but how is having 6 kids with an unstable marriage while in poverty ANY of those things? Luck is a factor but I mean, NO ONE is THAT lucky. If having multiple kids was a path to success all americans would be rich and famous by now, "it's easy, just have a thousand kids". As you said in the episode, it's a 'snowball effect', but it started way before her children got shot. You should have interviewed someone above the average, someone really smart or talented, that didn't make it because he/she was discriminated or put aside for reason that where beneath him/her.
As I see it, society tried it best to help this woman (she is in a shelter, her kids are not in the street), but everything has a limit. I'd really like to know what she expected to happen

Jan. 21 2017 10:00 AM
Dave from USA

Regarding Scarlett's comment.

Obviously Scarlet is not getting our point. There are safety nets galore. The reporter Ms. Gladstone's premise was a LACK OF a SAFETY NET. We are simply pointing out that is not correct.

Furthermore her comparative use of statistics would get her an F in a Statistics 101 class. Absolutely pathetic comparing income distribution in Denmark to the United States along with a false metric such as "what % of the poor make it into the highest income percentile in the US.

This certainly doesn't help her case with anyone who understands statistics and economics.

I have spent a lot of time working in inner city areas. And what I learned was the primary objective of the liberal politician is to keep the poor anchored to the government's handout, in this way the politician will insure his or her re-election.

The irony is that most, if not all the people that Scarlett takes exception to are pointing out the obvious hoping a change will come that truly helps people like the woman in the story escape poverty instead of the reporter's attempt to arouse empathy, a false empathy to that woman and her family.

Jan. 21 2017 07:38 AM
Ellie from Saudi Arabia

What an excellent episode. I haven't listened to On the Media in a long time amd that's about to change. Thank you for sharing it.

Jan. 21 2017 04:36 AM

Obviously, most of these people commenting have never actually experienced poverty.

Jan. 20 2017 08:07 PM
jader3rd from Monroe, WA

I listened to the podcast last night and loved it. I just listened to Freakonomics current podcast - Is the American Dream Really Dead - and they cited a lot of the statistics that this podcast did. One thing they mentioned about the Canadian upward mobility rate, is that the difference between the upper quintile and lower quintile, in Canada is less than what it is in the US. Perhaps the difference in mobility is mostly due to that.

Jan. 20 2017 11:57 AM

We're not missing the point, we're simply not ignoring the other facts presented in the use case. If she didn't have 6 children, perhaps she wouldn't be in poverty to begin with. If she hadn't already received 60 months of cash assistance, she could of used that assistance when her son got shot.

Your argument is that "one horrible thing happened and she lost everything." This simply isn't true. Her multitude of bad decisions led her to her current situation.

Jan. 19 2017 07:53 PM

It seems some commenters are missing the point. Sure, she had a lot of kids and there was no mention of the father, but she had a job and was supporting all of them. Then one horrible thing happened, and she lost her house and her job and was unable to keep her family together. The point of the story was to show how easy it is to go from managing to not managing.
If she'd only had the one son, how would this story have been any different? She would still have lost the rental property through no fault of her own and lost her job because her son needed her. Maybe she would have had more savings, but that doesn't satisfy landlords who want to know about your income before renting to you, and savings don't last long when you have no income.

Jan. 19 2017 07:18 PM
Dave Corsi from USA

This might have been one of the worst podcasts I have ever listened to. If this podcast is indicative of Ms Gladstone's entire series, one in which she stated she worked harder at than any other job save one, she really needs to spend some time studying basic economics and statistics.

For example: Ms. Gladstone tells the hosts that America is behind other nation's in Americans moving from the lowest percentile to the "very top" in income. She quotes approximately like 7% and state other countries have a higher rate. That is like comparing climbing a 2,000 feet mountain to climbing Mt Everest. The highest incomes in the US are much higher than in Denmark. And since the US has 64x the population a greater disparity is inevitable.

What she should look at is the number of Americans who during their lives move from the lowest wages to the top 25%. In which case she would find that rate is over 80%. That is a much more accurate indicator of upward mobility.

It is said we are a nation of immigrants which is absolutely true. It is also true that we have the largest middle and upper middle class in the world. Since we are all the ancestors of these impoverished immigrants does it not stand to reason that the story of America has been upward mobility? And a story that is true in many other nations.

Another example is Fox Business News host Stuart Barney who takes offense at his guest's ridiculous claim that hard work doesn't account for much, it is mostly "luck". In his case I would believe it (it was mentioned he was a college professor) but for many others it was hard work with some luck that led to their success. As stated previously since we are a nation with the largest upward mobility of any nation it seems that "luck" is fairly common. Luck is otherwise known as limited government and free enterprise, unfortunately something we have drifted away from.

Finally we hear the story of a "lack of safety net". A young man is shot and taken to the hospital in an ambulance. I guess Ms. Gladstone did not figure that the ambulance and the health care the young man received was part of the safety net that she was claiming doesn't exist.

The young man's mother is now living in a shelter (another safety net) with some of her children while her other children are living with relatives (another safety net). Meanwhile she mentioned the woman had received food stamps ( yet another safety net).

Yet this part of her report is on the lack of a safety net. Hopefully the young man is doing ok. As for Ms. Gladstone may I suggest spending some time with books such as; "Basic Economics", "Applied Economics" and "Wealth, Poverty and Politics" by the great Thomas Sowell.

Jan. 19 2017 06:46 PM
Selena Dixon from Dallas

This "case" for this show was so poorly argued, I was angry with you by the time it was over; and you tried to do it under a tone of compassion. Data was about at the level of an investment infomercial. Really sad you wasted an opportunity to make some headway into the realities of disparity.

Jan. 19 2017 06:43 PM
Randy Thomas

Looking at the comments here, I can say with some confidence: this is why America will continue to fall behind when it comes to economic mobility and care of those who are the most disadvantaged.

Jan. 19 2017 05:57 PM
Michael from New York

The first two thirds of the program do a good job debunking the myth of American society as being somehow exceptionally upwardly mobile. The producers do an excellent job describing how if you are poor, there is a large host of factors conspiring to keep you poor. This is all very well done.

The last third, however, attempts by way of a single extended anecdote to show how an isolated stroke of bad luck is sufficient to sink an otherwise normal, healthy individual into desperate poverty. The producers had no real need to go down this rabbit hole. There were numerous other ways for them to continue and elaborate their discussion of poverty and social mobility, and I think it's safe and fair to say that their choice of direction was ill-advised.

The piece attempts to suggest that tragedy befell Margaret Smith like lightning out of a clear blue sky, and that our society grossly neglected and failed her. But this narrative does not hold up under scrutiny. Margaret Smith has 6 children. The piece mentions her suicidal depression following the death of her own father, but makes no reference to the father(s) of her children. Her son was shot after she had already exhausted 60 months of public cash assistance. Diverticulitis. A growth in her throat that needed to be surgically removed. One hip replacement already and now another deemed necessary (how old is she???). Heartlessness is a shameful attribute for a person or a society to possess, but one does not need to be heartless to recognize that Margaret Smith is an emotionally and physically unhealthy person. The question we should be asking is not whether she is morally deserving of our help, but rather, how can we more effectively and sustainably help such a person? How can we effectively reduce the number of people living lives like hers? Is it even possible? Might certain approaches potentially do more harm than good? One does not need to be heartless to acknowledge the serious difficulty of those questions.

She talks about desperately needing to leave the [public housing] projects. But what is so deleterious about living in the projects? Do they lack clean water and sanitation? Adequate heating, cooling, insulation? She doesn't point to any such factors. She points to the gangs. She points to the other people living in the projects - people probably not so different from herself (that is the message we are supposed to come away with, isn't it?). Given that, is it any great surprise that even after physically removing herself and her children from the projects, the projects still managed to follow her home?

Jan. 19 2017 04:33 PM

Yes, give more welfare, worked good so far. Most people do better earning for themselves instead of the prison of welfare.

Jan. 19 2017 04:23 PM
Robert from Los Angeles

I wonder if the USA being less able to move out of lower income to upper income is a consequence of the USA moving lower in the free market index.
Rhetoric tells us we are a tax free, capitalist market economy.
Not really and both parties make it less so

Jan. 19 2017 03:16 PM
Ed from Portland Oregon

The liberal use of comparing a small country to the United States is a method to alter the outcome of the statistics. Size does matter when it comes to the pool of figures made to complete the statistics.

Jan. 19 2017 02:14 PM
Robert Slack from Los Angeles

On your busted series, I was surprised by omission. How the cost of entry to market is getting more expensive. How restrictions by either occupational licensing and regulations, make it expensive for new enterprises.
I was a sales person in South Los Angeles and noticed in the 90's many manufacturers left this area to other areas more business friendly.
These businesses left behind many unemployed unskilled labors.

Jan. 19 2017 11:58 AM
Frank Turk from Arkansas

Hi folks -- I am a long-time listener of RadioLab podcast, and as full disclosure I am also politically far to the right of the POV RadioLab usually presents. I listen because I think it's completely worth-while to hear the other side on any topic from the mouth of its advocates rather than through a filter (especially: an unfriendly filter).

This episode about the myths of economic mobility was unhelpful at best. My key objection to the episode is its simple overstatement of key definitions. To say, as the piece does, that the only and most-important measure of mobility is how many came from the bottom quintile to the highest quintile in income is to ignore at least 3 other key indicators of mobility: relative measure against parents' income; upward migration less than to the extreme; and downward migration. The U.S. Treasury said in 2010 (during the Obama administration) that 80 percent of taxpayers had incomes in quintiles as high or higher in 2005 than they did in 1996, and 45 percent of taxpayers not in the highest income quintile moved up at least one quintile.

That data is completely ignored -- as if moving from poverty to middle class is somehow a trifle. If that sort of comparison was added to the story you presented, I think the complete message changes significantly, and you should consider it in a future recap of this issue.

Jan. 19 2017 11:58 AM
Megan from Washington, D.C.

These comments are unbelievably heartless. So because a person had 6 kids and doesn't have a husband her children deserve to be sent out to live with relatives and she deserves to be sent to live in a shelter with her two kids? What is wrong with you? You are asking Radiolab to ask the WRONG questions. The only question that should be on our minds is how can we help these children get back to the family life they had before? How can we help their mom provide for them so they can make their lives better when they are adults. The kids didn't ask for this. And from what it sounds like, mom was an excellent care taker and a hard worker and doesn't want to be a charity case. All of you who wrote disparaging comments about her choices are despicable because you would rather BLAME someone for their circumstances and say WELL THEY DESERVE IT than actually HELP! Unbelievable.

Thanks Radiolab for airing this episode, I went straight to On the Media and listened to the rest of the series, which was absolutely phenomenal.

BOTTOM LINE: People who aren't in poverty make crappy decisions all the time-- but those in poverty who fall on bad times or make mistakes pay more, and pay dearly for those mistakes. Do not punish them or BLAME them for their unfair circumstances-- YOU probably don't know what YOU would do in their shoes. Do not turn your heart against those in need, especially children, and hard working parents who only want to do better for their kids.

Jan. 19 2017 10:03 AM
Kim from Detroit

The United States is the least socially mobile industrialized country in the world.Rates of poverty are lower in Europe because people make conscious decisions to support one another

There are social economic reasons why people in power in United States choose to do otherwise and too manu people without clout support the status quo. That is at the root of why the poverty rate in the richest country is so very high, why the rate of homelessness is so very high and they are not based on individual decisions made by the vast majority of people who live in poverty.

Yes there are bootstrap success stories that are exceptions to the rule, there will always be exceptions to the rule. They don't apply to most us. What we have to look at is the big picture the overall. We have to look at patterns.

We can't solve the addiction crisis in rural white America by looking at the one or two people who overcame the addiction with no help. That will not work for most people. The individuals and families directly affected must do some work to overcome. But they can't do it based on their own resources.

Black inner-city youth did not create the school to prison pipeline. Dismantling it will require all of us admitting that it exist and that we have a responsibility to one another as human beings, not just as black people not just as white people not just as brown people, but as homo sapiens.

Large numbers of people do not overcome addiction or poverty or other dire circumstances with out outside resources. It simply and utterly does not happen. Romatic myths about individuals rising to greatness being examples for us all need to be replaced with the reality that the vast majority of us rise and fall together.

We have to realize we are all human beings and we have to support one another, and yes that means spending tax money, with more coming from the rich and less coming from the not rich. Tax money along with the rule of law is what supports civilization as we know it.

Jan. 19 2017 08:58 AM
Sarah from Washington, USA

Be from ABQ, transcripts are available for each episode here:

Alice from Hamburg, if you follow that link and click on individual episodes, there are links to paypal accounts for some of the individuals highlighted throughout the series.

Jan. 19 2017 01:40 AM
Be from ABQ

Can you please post the transcript for this show? Thanks!

Jan. 18 2017 11:58 PM
Joe from USA

Life is a series of thousands of decisions. While some start out with fewer benefits and opportunities, it is these decisions that determine where we go in life. You can usually make a few small stupid decisions and make out OK but 1 big one (rob a bank) or many small ones (smoke cigarettes) can have drastically negative consequences. Some choices seem small and inconsequential but over time they frame your life. Bad luck happens, but to attribute all success to luck is just incorrect.

Jan. 18 2017 11:52 PM

Can you please post the related research to this podcast and the related series? Thanks for posting another podcast, like the debate one, about the parade of victims.

Jan. 18 2017 11:50 PM

This podcast was pretty difficult to listen to. The first part I found very interesting, and very well done. The overall production quality was top notch.

Unfortunately when it got to the example mother, the argument completely fell apart. If we want real discussion, we have to talk about both sides of the spectrum. Yes this lady has had it hard. Being evicted because her son had been shot is absolutely horrible. However, we also must recognize her poor decisions that lead her to this current situation.

Having six children isn't necessarily a problem. I personally don't think its responsible for any one family to have that many children, the carbon footprint from that many humans alone is pretty insane. Putting that fact aside, having six children while below the poverty line shows a huge lack of judgement. Had she been able to save more money, when this horrible situation occurred, she could of been more prepared.

Also, perhaps I misheard, but didn't the narrator state that she had already received 60's months worth of assistance prior to this entire situation with her son? From what I recall she was too depressed to work because her father died. While I can empathize with her about her father, that's life. When you decide to have 6 children, you need to provide for them no matter what.

To wrap things up. This entire podcast was about the principle of "pulling yourself up by your boots straps" being a failed ideology. But when we reach the end of the podcast we hear a story from a woman who 6 children, no father in the picture, was on social assistance already for 60 months, and is now in a shelter with food in her belly. If we're going to provide more social services to help these individuals, I would start with education.

I know this sounds harsh. I DO sympathize with this woman, but PLEASE, don't bury your head in the sand and ignore the other side of the equation. We should empower these people to help themselves, not give more free handouts... hence "pulling yourself up by your boot straps."

Jan. 18 2017 11:00 PM
Sarah from Washington, USA

As a woman who has experienced poverty and has 5 kids, I find these comments despicable.

Before you ask or blame - yes, my kids have a dad present. We've been married for 15 years and had children after marriage. (Didn't even have sex before marriage, not that it's any of your business.) We're both white. We're both college graduates. We work very hard and both had professional careers right out of college. We never expected to become poor. Does that make it ok that we had lots of kids? Do you hate big families, or just poor people with big families?

Our path into poverty came when we followed the American Dream by starting our own business. Things don't always work out as planned, and sometimes the dream becomes a nightmare. We had our power shut off and had to rely on the food bank at the same time that we were providing a living wage for our employees. Would you like to blame us for poor business management or being undercapitalized at our launch? Does that make you feel better that you disdain my need for assistance to feed my children?

Does the fact that I have 5 kids make me more culpable for our business failure? Does it automatically disqualify me from your sympathy? Does it negate the reality that our hard work proved entirely fruitless for years, despite our background and education? Are poor people less deserving of a family, and all the joys that come with being a parent? Why do you have the audacity to judge the reproductive choices of others in this context where you disapprove? Do you only support reproductive freedom if those freedoms enable and encourage us to have *fewer* children rather than more?

Go listen to the rest of this series and make an attempt to listen with a compassionate ear.

Jan. 18 2017 09:05 PM
Alice from Hamburg

How can we donate to the family? Please provide a link. I don't have much to give but can't bear to even sleep without at least asking. How terribly awful.

Jan. 18 2017 08:14 PM
Erik from Seattle

I will keep my subscription for the GREAT science episodes, but this one was so devoid of journalism that I almost stopped listening. The story that was supposed to break my heart and have me convinced of your narrative didn't sway me at all. Nobody asked where's the dad? Why six kids when you can't care for yourself?

Is the safety net responsible for saving everyone who makes recurring horrible life choices?

I don't believe I want to live in a society where that is true.

Jan. 18 2017 07:33 PM

It has been said liberals look at the poor and see that something needs fixing, and conservatives look at the poor and see someone to blame. But they are both wrong because both miss the dignity of each person. I noticed some of the critical comments did not take issue with the quote from Dr. King in the podcast. They did not take issue with anything specific, other than the fact that the woman who had her son shot outside her rented home did not currently have a husband and has 6 children. Notice both of those statements are blaming statements. Blaming statements serve to disconnect people from any sort of compassion to a situation. If I can tripe about her 6 kids,or lack of a current husband I don't have to care about her current situation.
Yes statistics state that people from 2 parent families do better in almost every category, but the program was not saying anything to the contrary. You don't think there are 2 parent poor families who are living beyond their means or suddenly lose thier homes? You don't think that there are couples without children who are dirt poor and yes, sometimes, through making poor financial choices?

Jan. 18 2017 04:03 PM
Taylor Ryan from Copenhagen, Denmark

We're not even allowed to question the last woman's decisions to have 5 kids? I understand having one by accident... maybe two.... but if she's struggling to take care of herself why on earth would she have 5 kids?

And you can't even ask this person... why did you have 5 kids???!

I do not feel bad for this person. Yes it's unfortunate but why on earth did you have that many children as a single mother?! Ask that question Radiolab... you're better than that.

Jan. 18 2017 03:41 PM
Lois R from Baton Rouge

Is it me or does it seem that having children especially unplanned or unhealthy ones appear to greatly increase the chance that the next misfortune that pops up will light the fuse on a downward spiral or poverty?

Jan. 18 2017 02:35 PM
Channel from Washington

This episode reminded me of an interesting challenge on redrawing the equality vs. equity graphic I stumbled across recently:

Jan. 18 2017 02:31 PM
Danny Key from any where but here

OTM did this series a few months back. It was pretty good, but has nothing to do with Radiolab at all. Is the RL team so devoid of ideas that they walk around the halls of WNYC to see if they can borrow podcast topic from other people. When they stick to Science they are the best in the land. The last year or so they are not even the best in the WNYC building. Sad...this year I'll skip donating to RL and give my money to Freakonomics Radio.

Jan. 18 2017 02:30 PM
Lauren from Ohio

I'm not sure everyone listened to the same podcast I did. What I heard is that hard work alone does not bring someone out of poverty or make someone successful - there's an element of luck to it. Some people are born into situations that are lucky, but society doesn't acknowledge them as lucky. I was born into a white, middle-class family with working parents who emphasized education and personal responsibility. If I change just one aspect of the circumstances of my birth - whether it be my skin color, our socioeconomic class, my parents' insistence on a good education - my life would likely be very different today. Because of the color of my skin I've had the privilege of living in the racial majority all of my life. I've been hired and interviewed for jobs that people of color may not even receive a call back for simply because of their name. I've received a warning from law enforcement when pulled over for a burnt out headlight. Because of my socioeconomic background I was able to attend a decent public school with great teachers. My parents were able to help me pay for college, allowing me to graduate with less debt and starting saving for the life I wanted more quickly. Because of my parents' insistence on hard work and education, I didn't have the freedom to choose between play time and schoolwork when I was a child and not capable of seeing the long-term effects of my choices. All of these circumstances are attributed to luck - I didn't choose these things as a baby - I was born into them.

And, somewhat off-topic, anyone who lives in America and doesn't see themselves as lucky when there are 3 billion people in the world who live on less than $2.50 a day is out of touch with reality. Over 20,000 people die from hunger each day (over 7 million per year) when the world produces enough food for each person to eat 2,700+ calories per day. The main cause of dying from hunger is poverty. So as a species we allow 7 million of our own to die each year because they are too poor to afford food. That's despicable and unconscionable. For anyone listening to this podcast or reading these comments who doesn't think themselves lucky, I suggest considering where you were born, when you were born, and to whom you were born. All of these bring with them advantages or disadvantages, and when compared to the full spectrum of the human experience, you'd be hard pressed to not be considered lucky by a large portion of the world's population.

Jan. 18 2017 02:19 PM

Nick from USA, this is not how the podcast made it out. The podcast made it out to sound like people that are successful were lucky. Luck comes in good and bad forms and throughout life you will statically have just as much bad luck as good, so it's a moot point.

Jan. 18 2017 12:55 PM

Can we acknowledge that poor people suffer from both their bad decisions and obstacles created by our society and the laws of nature? In the case of the woman who was evicted--can we acknowledge that having 6 children is a bad decision for almost anyone, and has worse consequences for poor people?

What some other commentators miss, this mother seemed to really care about her children and does have a work ethic.

Jan. 18 2017 12:45 PM

Amanda Rausch from USA

I hope you never become a single mom.

Jan. 18 2017 12:12 PM
Amber from Earth

Eric from Canada: How do you know her situation? What if she was married and between the both of them, had an income that supported their growing family until he left or died or whatever.

I can say that because my husband and I got pregnant when we were making more than enough money to survive, then the "great recession" happened and we were both laid off. We blew through savings and still hadn't found jobs so we had to rely on the kindness of family to see us through. We're doing even better now (making more money than we did before the recession). The point is, assuming is never a good idea. Reserve judgment until you know the full story.

Jan. 18 2017 12:09 PM
Eric from Canada

While luck is certainly important in success, the lady interviewed made the decision to have 6 children. Up until the interview, the podcast was interesting, but that interview completely discredited the whole argument... 6 kids, that isn't luck, that is poor choices.

Jan. 18 2017 11:29 AM
Nick from USA

Despite facts from economists and being presented data, the American Dream myth isn't broken even here in the comments. Nobody is saying everything you have is based on luck, but luck is a factor. If you can't acknowledge that you needed luck along with hard work, you think far too much of yourself.

Jan. 18 2017 11:21 AM
Matt from Boston

I am slightly disappointed by the comments here.
Mattoni from USA: The premise you use to draw your conclusion from is fatally flawed. If you agree that lack of a father is not a choice of a child, which I assume you do, then your conclusion that life choices are how you get out of poverty makes no sense.

You missed the point of the podcast and I suggest you listen to the entire series.

Jan. 18 2017 10:24 AM
Shawn from Hong Kong

Unlistenable. I''m a subscriber to On the Media and like most of their episodes but this is a whole different level of self-righteous trash. My least favourite Radio Lab to date.

Jan. 18 2017 10:08 AM

This was a poisonous and infuriating podcast. Luckily (pun intended), I'm starting to see some success in my life and I know, contrary to this podcast's message, that if I keep working hard I'll see more success. However, if I'm a ~20-year-old college student listening to this podcast I might as well give up because it's all based on luck and the American dream doesn't exist.

Jan. 18 2017 09:15 AM
Amanda Rausch from USA

Adam Carrolla said it best, family and education. Single moms are not the backbone of America, they are the number one contribution to lack of upward mobility. But we can't talk about that on public radio because, you know, feelings.

Jan. 18 2017 09:05 AM
Mattoni from USA

I love Radiolab, but sometimes episodes like this are just infuriating. You make a sob story out of a poor woman whose son was shot and pile on all the reasons how the landlord wronged her, the government wronged her, the system wronged this hard working woman who is doing everything that she can. How disgustingly typical. What would be refreshing? if you DARED to ask the real questions. Why did she have a thousand kids with no education. Where are the daddies. Where is HER dad? OF COURSE it's impossible to escape poverty with her life plan. Pulling yourself up takes not only hard work at a cash register, it takes a little bit of thinking. Ask millions of immigrants that come here without a dollar and broken English and little by little almost all succeed. WHY? because they're not entitled to and therefore don't expect a handout from the government. Instead, they take control of their own lives. Their kids become engineers and doctors WHY? because there are one or two children. There is DAD. There is discipline. You're just prolonging the misery by shifting something as straightforward as personal responsibility on a problem so enigmatic that it's impossible to tackle. "A country must build infrastructure" how beautifully vague. We have infrastructure. It's called education, contraception and work placement programs. Those are all the bootstraps you need if you have half a brain and a pinch of ambition.

Jan. 18 2017 07:22 AM

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