When A Dead-End Job Isn't A Dead End

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How does a guy whose mom is a heroin addict — a guy who drops out of high school, has a kid, and starts working a minimum-wage job at a fast-food restaurant — climb out of poverty?

On today's Planet Money, we hear the answer from Katherine Newman.

Newman, a sociologist, found 300 people who were working at fast-food restaurants in Harlem in the early '90s. She followed them for the next eight years and told the story in a book called Chutes and Ladders.

About a third of the people she followed managed to rise out of poverty during that time. A lot, of course, had to do with individual initiative — taking the civil service exam, landing union jobs, that sort of thing.

But, she says, a lot also had to do with broader economic conditions that ordinary people can't control. And those conditions are really grim right now:

I'm worried about what's going to happen to the children of these people. Because they are coming into an economy that is very unfavorable. And if you start there, and it takes a long, long time for the economy to pick up, you could be scarred by a labor market like that. ... In a persistently bad economy, you can hit a point where it's almost irretrievable, and even when the economy recovers, you're too damaged.

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