Why Redemption Is More Costly For Some Than Others

Second chances are celebrated in the world of politics, and many leaders of high finance survive failure to enjoy lucrative careers. In her regular 'Can I Just Tell You' essay, host Michel Martin shares her thoughts about why so many poor Americans struggle to get second chances after a setback.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Finally today, I'm still trying to wrap my head around the fact that former South Carolina governor Mark Sanford just won back his old congressional seat in the same week that unsavory facts about Cleveland rescuer Charles Ramsey came to light. Ramsey, of course, is the man who helped rescue three women who had been held hostage for a decade. It turns out that he had done time in prison a decade ago for beating up his former wife. And the reason he happened to be home that fateful day is that he had been suspended from his job.

The issue in Sanford's past is that he finished out his term as governor, but became the punch line of comedians around the country after he cooked up an elaborate story about hiking in the woods to cover up his affair with an Argentine woman.

Yes. I know, you don't have to tell me, beating your wife is a whole different thing than stepping out on her and lying about it, even though, once and future congressmen voted Sanford, voted to impeach another politician for essentially doing the same thing - stepping out on his wife and lying about it.

And yes, I know, you don't have to tell me about the importance of forgiveness and redemption.

Still, can I just tell you? I just think it's worth pointing out how much more perfect poor people have to be to win and keep the respect of the country than the well-off ever have to be and how much harder that forgiveness and redemption seems to be to come by.

Case in point, two stories side by side in the business section of The New York Times on Sunday. On the left side, Gretchen Morgenson's column about the failures of the directors of some high profile public companies, like recruiting the wrong executives, overpaying them with no regard for performance, and failing to manage or even monitored foreseeable risks, all of which have had devastating consequences in recent years for outside shareholders - not to mention employees.

But when is the last time one of these directors or executives paid any real price for their failures? Are they blacklisted in their chosen fields? Are they kept from working at all? I don't think so.

Let's turn to the right side of the business section, where we find a profile of a man name Alfred Carpenter, who can't get a job in his field selling high-priced shoes because of his poor credit, credit that suffered because he was laid off from a previous job, then got hurt at a time when he didn't have insurance.

And the piece goes on to say that Carpenter is not alone. In 2012, half of businesses surveyed by a human resources association reported using credit checks as a pre-employment tool. The piece said that the credit reporting agencies say credit history is a measure of a person's integrity and responsibility. But increasingly, critics of this practice say all it really is is a measure of whether people have money or, I might add, families to bail them out.

I think of all the people who've written to us in recent years who are also being squeezed not just by lack of money, but by lack of time. I still remember the letter I got last year, after we did a series on elder care from a man who said he was so busy taking care of two frail and elderly relatives, trying to keep them not just safe, but financially afloat, that his own financial planning had fallen by the wayside. Surely, knowing what we know about how the country is aging and how little many seniors have managed to put away in savings, he's not alone.

My point is not to excuse carelessness or profligacy, but simply to point out that some people are paying a very high price for a bad decision or a stretch of bad luck in their lives, being in an industry where work has dried up, buying a house in an area that's been overbuilt, maybe even having a drinking problem, and they have to hear lectures about their integrity and the more hazards of helping them - which rarely happens - while other people lie, cheat or just fail. And what price did they pay, except for earlier than planned retirement to some pleasant beach house somewhere.

Back to Mr. Ramsey. So now we know, he did some bad things, he's not perfect. Let's see whether he finds the redemption that's been so readily offered to the more posher citizens who've not done nearly as much as he did in an afternoon to change someone's life for the better. And while we're at it, maybe we could think about a little taste of forgiveness for some of the other people in this country who aren't perfect, but are trying.

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MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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