Paid In America: The Road To The Middle

Oct 30, 2012
Originally published on October 30, 2012 6:07 pm

As the presidential campaign has unfolded, the candidates have traded polemics about wealth, class warfare, taxes, dependency and the role of government.

And while it may be uncomfortable to admit, some Americans are simply more financially successful than others. But why do some achieve wealth, while others struggle? Why does one woman make it to the executive suite, while another man drives a taxi? And what do we think explains our prosperity — or lack thereof?

All Things Considered host Robert Siegel visited North Carolina's Research Triangle area, to ask people from very different walks of life how they account for their economic station in life. In the second of a three-part series, several middle-class Americans, with incomes solidly in the mid-five figures, describe why they feel they've landed on the middle of the nation's economic ladder.


In Carrboro, N.C., just outside Chapel Hill, a group of 20-somethings are sitting around a table. They met at the University of North Carolina.

One of them, Sarah Bidgood, came here for a master's degree in Russian studies. She was a Russian language and literature major at Wellesley College.

Life agreed with Bidgood in this prosperous patch of North Carolina, ringed by universities and high-tech businesses. After earning her master's degree, she got a good job that bears almost no relationship to her education: managing editor of the Journal of the American Society of Echocardiography.

At 25, Bidgood is self-supporting. When asked what factors contribute to her sense of success, she tells All Things Considered host Robert Siegel that she is indebted to a family that ensured she entered adult life debt-free.

"My parents were fortunate enough to do the majority of their adult work in a really prosperous economy, so I actually don't have any debts, which is part of the reason why I'm able to have only one job and a job that doesn't pay me $150,000 a year — I'm not paying anything off," she says.

Her parents also pushed her to pursue the things she was most interested in as opposed to things that would be most lucrative, she says.

And while she has worked hard, she also credits her intelligence for her success.

"I think as much as anything having good social savvy and having good sort of social brains has helped me just as much as having book smarts," she says.

Bidgood also says it helped having two parents with doctoral degrees who were knowledgeable about academic journals and the kind of work she ultimately found.

"I know the economy is terrible, but I've been lucky to have great opportunities."

Corporate Refugees

If Bidgood is on the economy's "up escalator," she's passing the Zepps, who are happily on the way down.

Donald Zepp, 67, and his wife, Carmen — 26 years his junior — have a 4-year-old son together. Both have been married before and both were well-employed before. Donald taught at Cornell and worked for the multinational agrichemical company Rhone-Poulenc until he was downsized. Carmen worked in the finance department of the pharmaceutical firm GlaxoSmithKline but quit after surviving ovarian cancer.

"It was eight years before I joined the legion of people who on getting out of corporate America say, 'That was the best that ever happened to me,' " Donald says. "It took eight years, but I did reach that point where one day I said, 'You know, I'm really happy, this beats the hell out of working.' "

The Zepps live in Wendell, N.C., 20 miles east of Raleigh, where they bought the local music store. Together, they've gone into business selling banjos. Donald says he loves them so much that he was tossed out of college once for his lack of interest in anything else.

"The banjo was a sort of a sidetrack because when I really learned to play, I was playing about eight hours a day and that's when I was a freshman in college and I was supposed to be going to classes and things like that, so I got flung out of college for playing banjo all the time," he says. "The good part was I put myself back through school, by teaching and playing banjo."

The Zepps cheerfully describe their economic situation as "dismal" and say they get by, for the most part, on his pension and Social Security. Carmen says the path to their present economic station reflects a variety of factors — including help from the federal government.

"There are many factors obviously, but when I was first married my husband was an airman, we qualified for food stamps and nutrition programs for young children, so government has certainly played a role," she says, adding that there is no one factor that has gotten her to where she is today economically.

The Drive To Succeed

Phil Luby is another refugee from corporate life who struck out on his own. He says he used to make $200,000 a year marketing pharmaceuticals. When he was downsized in 2008, he rolled the dice on the used car business. It was a tough business to get into then, but he says things are improving.

Luby, 51, points to his upbringing as a key to his resilience.

"The way I was brought up, my background, my faith, and the belief that tomorrow is another day just kept me going," he says. "I'd say that brains are pretty important, but it's not everything."

The Ohio native wasn't able to identify any federal government programs he had gotten any assistance from, but Luby did talk about one that he says hurt his used car business: Cash for Clunkers.

"Just look at over a million cars being taken out of our circulation. Everybody on our side of the fence suffered — the car recyclers, the used car business, used car parts went up," he says. "What's happened is the prices have been elevated ever since, but we've never recovered from that."

Luby's income these days is in the mid-five figures.

Faith And Finance

That's also true of the Dingles — Lee, 31, his wife, Shannon, 30, and their three small children.

Lee is a structural engineer; he says he makes a little more than $60,000 a year. Shannon is staying at home with the kids, including 11-month-old daughter Zoe, who has cerebral palsy and was adopted from Taiwan.

Shannon conceded that hard work comes into play, but she also recalled her time in the public school teaching program Teach for America, after she graduated from the University of North Carolina.

"When I lived in South Texas, I lived in the county that, at that time, was the poorest county in the United States. I knew lots of people who worked really hard and who were not comfortable or content with their economic situation," Shannon says.

Lee and Shannon both have supportive parents who pushed them to be educated and helped with a down payment on their first house.

But most important is their Baptist faith. Lee says they try to make all of their decisions through Christianity, though many times they fall short.

"Our faith is very important to us and we do believe that God is sovereign over finances, economic state, all of those things," Shannon says. "We can't fully explain — because he's God and we're not — how that plays out in terms of why we're so comfortable whereas we have friends and loved ones who aren't."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Why do some of us prosper more than others? Why does one woman make it to the executive suite, while another man drives a taxi? Well, those questions aren't explicitly part of the public discourse in this election season. But they seem to lie just beneath some of the arguments we've heard about wealth and taxes, the role of government and charges of class warfare.

Earlier this month, I put some of those questions about why we think our economic status is what it is, to Americans of various income levels. They all live in and around Raleigh, North Carolina. Yesterday, we heard from some very high-income North Carolinians. Today, some middle-class folks, people with solid mid-five figure incomes.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: He was driving by the IKEA. He was going to stop and put some furniture...

(LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: A table of 20-somethings in Carrboro, just outside Chapel Hill. They met at the University of North Carolina. Sarah Bidgood came here for a master's in Russian studies. She was a Russian language and literature major at Wellesley.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONVERSATIONS)

SIEGEL: Life agreed with her in this prosperous patch of North Carolina, ringed by universities and high-tech businesses. After getting her master's, she got a good job that has just about nothing to do with her education. She is managing editor of the Journal of the ASE, the American Society of Echocardiography.

At the age of 25, she is self-supporting. And I asked her what factors contribute to her sense of success. And first, she said, she's indebted to a family that saw to it she's not indebted.

SARA BIDGOOD: My parents were fortunate enough to do the majority of their adult work in a really prosperous economy, so I actually don't have any debts, which is part of the reason why I'm able to have only one job and a job that doesn't pay me $150,000 a year - I'm not paying anything off.

SIEGEL: And the reason you're not paying anything off, as you say, is that your parents had the money to pay for that. And because they were earning during a time when the country was more prosperous.

BIDGOOD: Exactly.

SIEGEL: One central factor that you cite here is your very wise choice of parents.

BIDGOOD: Absolutely, yeah. I mean I would like to take credit for choosing them.

(LAUGHTER)

BIDGOOD: But they are very, very savvy people. They have done a good job of letting me know that I should pursue the things I'm interested in, rather than the things that are going to be most lucrative.

SIEGEL: Hard work.

BIDGOOD: Hard work, definitely. I think I developed really good writing skills, really good critical thinking skills and worked hard to develop all of those. And I think those are the things that have translated into success here at my job.

SIEGEL: Brains.

BIDGOOD: Brains, definitely. Students who get into Wellesley are good thinkers and have good brains and are pretty smart. I think as much as anything, having good social savvy and good sort of social brains has helped me just as much as having book smarts.

SIEGEL: And you feel good about your prospects to advance over time?

BIDGOOD: Yeah absolutely. I mean, I think, you know, I know the economy is terrible, but I've been lucky to have great opportunities. And I think I have a really supportive group of people here at ASE, who want me to succeed and want me to do well. And I feel like that really bodes well for my future.

SIEGEL: Sarah Bidgood also said it helped having parents, both with PhDs, who knew about academic publishing and journals and the kind of work that she ultimately found.

If Sarah is on the up escalator of the economy, she is passing the Zepps who are happily on the way down.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIEGEL: That's 67-year -old Donald Zepp on banjo. His wife Carmen is 26 years his junior. They have a four-year-old son together. The Zepps were both married before. And they were both well-employed before. Carmen was in the finance department of the pharmaceutical firm GlaxoSmithKline. After surviving ovarian cancer, she quit. Donald was a Cornell entomologist and worked at the multinational agrichemical company Rhone-Poulenc. He was downsized.

DONALD ZEPP: It was eight years before I joined the legion of people who, on getting out of corporate America say, that was the best that ever happened to me. It took eight years. But I did reach that point where one day I said, you know, I'm really happy. This beats the hell out of working.

SIEGEL: The Zepps live in Wendell, North Carolina, 20 miles east of Raleigh, where they bought the local music store. Together, they've gone into business selling the item that Donald says he loved so much, he got tossed out of college once for being interested in nothing but. The store sells banjos.

ZEPP: The banjo was a sort of a sidetrack because when I really learned to play, I was playing about eight hours a day. And that's when I was a freshman in college and I was supposed to be going to classes and things like that, so I got flung out of college for playing banjo all the time. Or by playing banjo all the time. The good part was, though, I put myself back through school by teaching and playing banjo. So it sort of worked out in the end.

CARMEN ZEPP: Yeah, it sort of went full circle, really.

SIEGEL: The Zepps cheerfully describe their economic situation as dismal. They say they get by for the most part on his pension and Social Security. Carmen Zepp says, for them, the path to their present economic station reflects a variety of things, including help from the federal government.

ZEPP: There are many factors obviously. But when I was first married, my husband was an airman. We qualified for food stamps and nutrition programs for young children. So government has certainly played a role. Lots of environmental factors played a role. I was encouraged to read and learn. And corporations have certainly played a role. I mean I worked at GSK for 15 years and I finished my education through the company. So it's all intertwined. There's no one factor that has gotten me where I am now.

SIEGEL: Don, when you think of factors that describe where you are today economically.

ZEPP: I, too, had a public school education, went on to grad school without an assistantship. I never did have any student loans.

SIEGEL: Some of the ideas that come up in these conversations about why some people thrive more than the rest of us are all about hard work, social skills, brains, luck. Do any of these resonate more than the others to you?

ZEPP: Luck.

(LAUGHTER)

ZEPP: I think a lot of it is luck.

ZEPP: Yeah, I think just in general, I think these things are largely dictated by good fortune and who you know.

ZEPP: Or where you're born and your parents' education. Then, you know, the color of your skin.

SIEGEL: It helps to be white.

ZEPP: I think, yeah. Sex, gender is not thing the people who say, oh, it's just hard work.

SIEGEL: Do you think competitiveness figures much in how people thrive in the economy?

ZEPP: Certainly competitiveness has something to do with it. But it depends on, you know, what your priorities are and why you're being competitive, what the impetus is for that.

ZEPP: The businesses that I've been in have been highly competitive. I think it's one of the reasons I wanted to get out. I don't enjoy that because I'm a person who obligated to be competitive.

SIEGEL: Well, now you're in the cutthroat banjo trade.

ZEPP: Oh, yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

ZEPP: And soon to cut my own throat.

(LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: Don Zepp sells a lot of banjoes on the Internet, where customers can see videos of the instrument and of Don playing it.

Phil Luby's customers typically want a more hands-on experience.

PHIL LUBY: In fact, the air conditioning is the first thing. I'll check all the windows to make sure they work. And then, they'll drive the car by themselves without us.

SIEGEL: Phil is also a refugee from corporate life who struck out on his own. He says he used to make $200,000 a year marketing pharmaceuticals. When he was downsized in 2008, he rolled the dice on the used car business. It was a tough business to get into then, but he says things are improving.

I ran my checklist of possible factors past Phil Luby and, like nearly everyone I spoke to, he talked about his upbringing.

LUBY: The way I was raised, my faith is right at the top of the list. My parents did a great job raising us and we all went to Catholic grade school, Jesuit high school. And everyone has been to college.

SIEGEL: Hard work.

LUBY: Absolutely.

SIEGEL: Very important?

LUBY: Yes.

SIEGEL: Perseverance.

LUBY: Very important.

SIEGEL: People skills.

LUBY: Very important.

SIEGEL: Brains.

LUBY: Pretty important.

SIEGEL: Pretty important?

LUBY: Yeah.

SIEGEL: That's lower than the others.

(LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: We overestimate brains, perhaps?

LUBY: No, I just think that your people skills are going to go a long way. Yes, I say the brains are pretty important but it's not everything.

SIEGEL: Another item on my checklist was federal government programs. Phil Luby didn't mention any that had helped him. But he did talk about one that he says hurt his used car business, Cash for Clunkers.

LUBY: Just look at over a million cars being taken out of our circulation. Everybody on our side of the fence suffered - the car recyclers, the used car business, used car parts went up. So it didn't help us. What's happened is the prices have been elevated ever since, but we've never recovered from that.

SIEGEL: Phil Luby's income these days is in the mid-five figures. That's also true of the Dingells, 31-year-old Lee, his wife Shannon who's 30, and their three small children.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN PLAYING)

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Daddy, I'm up high.

SIEGEL: Lee is a structural engineer. He says he makes a little over $60,000 a year. Shannon is staying at home with the kids, including 11-month-old Zoe who has cerebral palsy and was adopted from Taiwan.

When I went through my checklist, Shannon conceded that hard work comes into play, but she recalled her time in Teach for America, after she graduated from the University of North Carolina.

SHANNON DINGLE: When I lived in South Texas, I lived in the county that, at that time, was the poorest county in the United States. I knew lots of people who worked really hard and were not comfortable or content with their economic situation. And so there's definitely more than just working hard.

LEE DINGLE: Yeah, I completely agree. I don't think it was just hard work. There are many other people that helped us along the way. It was definitely not all us.

SIEGEL: Lee and Shannon have supportive parents who pushed them to be educated and helped with a downpayment on their first house. But most important, they say, is their Baptist faith.

DINGLE: Our faith is very important to us and we do believe that God is sovereign over finances, economic state, all of those things. We can't fully explain, because he's God and we're not, how that plays out in terms of why we're so comfortable, whereas we have friends and loved ones who aren't.

DINGLE: We can't explain it. Why does God bless some people with great wealth and then other people who may be better studied in His Word, why are they unemployed right now? I really don't know the answer. But I think, like Shannon said, we try and do our best and make all our decisions through Christianity and many times, honestly, we fall short.

DINGLE: And we do things that God is intimately involved with the details, too. We seek His wisdom in decisions, little financial things that might seem silly to others, we'll pray about, whether or not we're going to - for example, we bought new bookcases for the front room and we prayed about that decision, going, OK, this is going to be a different expense than usually is in our budget and let's take some time to pray about this and seek God's wisdom.

SIEGEL: You're not expressing an explicit faith in divine providence that that lots that people enjoy are predestined or are you? It would make the world hard to, constantly hard to understand, at that rate, as to why we would have the kinds and puzzling inequalities among people.

DINGLE: Well, I think that there's a balance between God's sovereignty and in the way God created the world, his allowance for free will, there is a level of human agency that comes into play. I can make great choices that are God-honoring and I can make ones that are lousy and not at all God-honoring in the course of five minutes. And they're going to have different outcomes. God allows us to sin.

SIEGEL: Shannon and Lee Dingle of Raleigh, North Carolina. They were among the middle class Americans, people with mid-five figure incomes whom I asked about what factors they think contribute to their economic station in life. Tomorrow, we'll put the same questions to people whose incomes are further down the economic ladder and who hope to move into the middle class. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.