At The Economy's Bottom Rungs, Striving To Climb Up In the last of a three-part series, All Things Considered talks with several North Carolinians who are living in poverty, but aspire to the middle class. Hard work is key to a better life, they say — but it's not easy to keep moving up the ladder.
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At The Economy's Bottom Rungs, Striving To Climb Up

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At The Economy's Bottom Rungs, Striving To Climb Up

At The Economy's Bottom Rungs, Striving To Climb Up

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

During this presidential election year, the polemics have occasionally touched on class warfare, government dependency, and the centrality of public programs to private success. It all made we wonder what people think about their success in the economy or their relative lack of success. Why do I figure I'm better off than the next guy, but no so well off as the guy next to him?

I put those questions to some people who live in and around Raleigh, North Carolina and this week we've heard from them - some very rich people, and some middle-class people. And in our concluding part of this series, three people who aspire to the middle-class. They are poor.

YESENIA CUELLO: I mean, I have to purposefully keep my mileage down.

SIEGEL: This is Yesenia Cuello at a board meeting of NC Field, a North Carolina NGO that serves farm workers. A consultant with a flip chart is going over budget assumptions and fundraising goals.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: OK, good. We were talking about travel and transportation specifically...

SIEGEL: Yesenia is here because she's the president of the farm workers' youth group. She's 20. She was born in Los Angeles, but lives in the tiny town of Pink Hill, North Carolina. Her Mexican-born mother, who is single, moved East and took the kids with her.

CUELLO: There was four of us at the time. Right now, there are six. So my mom was mother and father for all six of us.

SIEGEL: Her mother works in the fields so do her brother and a sister, and she has, too. At age 14, she was picking tobacco.

CUELLO: We reach underneath the plant and we pull out the ones that are growing out. It's mostly bending over and then just making sure you get everything done in taking off the flower.

SIEGEL: Sounds tough.

CUELLO: The heat is what's tough.

SIEGEL: How much did you get paid for that?

CUELLO: I believe it was 7.25 an hour, if I'm correct.

SIEGEL: Yesenia says those wages are attractive enough to make her siblings go back to work in the fields. As for herself, she says, she is not going back to that kind of work.

CUELLO: Whenever I was working there, I was like, this is not what I'm going to be doing for the rest of my life.

SIEGEL: Yesenia is pursuing a nursing assistant certificate and she hopes to finish college and become an RN. How does she support herself?

CUELLO: McDonald's.

SIEGEL: How many hours a week do you work at McDonald's?

CUELLO: Now, I don't put in as many hours as I used to. Let's say about 30 hours a week.

SIEGEL: At that rate, Yesenia Cuello figures she can make about $12,000 a year.

Like most of the people we've heard this week, whom I asked about their economic situation, she says she believes in hard work, family and education. Prayer, she says, helps her relax. But she cites one key decision of hers to account for her current upward mobility out of the fields and away from the life of a farm worker.

CUELLO: I don't have children.

SIEGEL: Do other kids your age - girls you went to high school with have children already?

CUELLO: Yes, they do.

SIEGEL: Your decision is all that comes later.

CUELLO: Yeah, everything comes later. Like, I'm not ready for that.

SIEGEL: Do you think luck plays much in where you are in life?

CUELLO: I don't believe luck plays much in where I am at.

SIEGEL: And how important do you think just brains are? Being smart, how important do you think that is?

CUELLO: Being smart, I don't think that somebody is academically gifted. It's all based on, I believe, studying and work. I did a whole lot of studying. There were some people, they'd be like, oh, you know, I didn't study and I would ace this test. And I'd be like oh, well, maybe you've learned the material some time in your past. But I don't believe it just comes to them. I believe it's just a whole lot of studying and memorizing stuff that gets you where you are.

SIEGEL: Government programs. Have government programs figured much in your life?

CUELLO: Yes, my mother received food stamps and we get Medicaid. They're a lot of help, right there.

SIEGEL: Also, free school lunch, training in English as a second language and, of course, her education.

Twenty-one-year-old Oscar Chairez of Clayton, North Carolina has also had the benefit of a public education. I met him one evening on the porch of his uncle's home in a trailer park.

OSCAR CHAIREZ: Let's see. Well, I grew up for the first three years of my life in Mexico. Then my mother brought me to North Carolina, pretty much Clayton to start out with when I was three years old. Since then, I've gone to elementary school, middle school, high school, and now I'm currently attending college. And here we are now, still in Clayton.

SIEGEL: After high school, Oscar Chairez got a full-time job at the factory where his mother swept floors. He even became a supervisor. All was going well until earlier this year when he says Homeland Security came to the plant and checked Social Security Numbers. He says he and his mother, both undocumented, both lost their jobs.

He's in a bad way but he says other young people are a lot worse off.

CHAIREZ: I know of people younger than I am. They have to work jobs not to support themselves, but to support their family. Their mother may be unemployed. And he might have or she might have three or four more younger brothers and sisters.

SIEGEL: His siblings live with his mother, Oscar says, and they're doing OK.

CHAIREZ: They're making ends meet.

SIEGEL: Were they born in this country?

CHAIREZ: They were.

SIEGEL: So they're citizens.


SIEGEL: They don't have that problem.

CHAIREZ: No, they do not.

SIEGEL: I want to ask you - I want to run a few things past you. And you tell me if they figure a lot in determining where you are economically, to the obviously your immigration status...


SIEGEL: That figures a lot. Hard work, does that account for why you're in the situation you're in?

CHAIREZ: Yes, it does.

SIEGEL: How so?

CHAIREZ: I'm fine. I'm great. I'm doing a whole lot better than a lot of other people, and that's because of hard work. And if I'm still not as far ahead as I want to be, it's because I haven't worked hard enough.

SIEGEL: Brains, how important do you think it is to be smart?

CHAIREZ: A whole lot. I consider myself smarter than the average bear, and I look at where I am and what I can do with my own hands. And then, I know for a fact that there aren't other people quite as academically gifted as I am. I kind of know that they've got a hard road ahead of them.


CHAIREZ: I can probably take a few of the other factors, such as hard work and brains, and make my own luck.

SIEGEL: Oscar Chairez is trying to stay in the U.S. under the program President Obama introduced this year that allows undocumented immigrants who came here as children to remain. He's single, no kids, no financial aid for college, and he says he's making about $15,000 a year with part-time work, presumably being paid by someone off the books.

The last person we'll hear from about why we think our economic circumstances are what they are, is 35-year-old Johnita Ellerby.

JOHNITA ELLERBY: All right, Tobias, did you write down notes today?

TOBIAS: Yes, ma'am.

ELLERBY: OK, good.

SIEGEL: Those are Johnita Ellerby's kids addressing her as ma'am. She's a single parent of three younger children and a 19-year-old. They live in Sanford, North Carolina, her hometown. She works full-time as a certified nursing assistant at a long-term care facility. And she attends college on a scholarship. She's studying social work.

So, how would you describe right now, your economic situation? Is it good? Is it tough? Is it comfortable? What would you say?

ELLERBY: I wouldn't say it's comfortable because I still have that uncertainty about what could happen if my scholarship stop. Sometimes I get scared. Sometimes, you know, I get afraid that what I'm doing now, how long can I do it, how long will the safety net be there for me?

SIEGEL: Johnita Ellerby grew up poor, black and religious. It was a loving family, she recalls, but she also says she was molested by a male relative as a child and later abused by a husband.

Unlike Yesenia Cuello, whom we heard earlier, Johnita Ellerby thought the way out of poverty was to have kids.

ELLERBY: When I was 12th grade, my child was already about going on three years old. I had my first baby at 15. Academically, I was very smart. Teachers would often tell me I was smart, would often even find out that I was in the wrong classes. I should have been in higher classes. But I think the fact that I had a child, no one took the time to say, OK, you can still go to college anyway.

SIEGEL: She says her kids give her great joy and she loves raising them. As for the factors that put her at her current economic station in life? She talks about the people around her.

ELLERBY: I have the greatest support from my community, my friends and my family that supports my journey with my education. You know, offering something like a bag of groceries, a jug of milk. Offering to watch my kids while I work a 16-hour shift just to keep an eye on them, has been the way I've been able to survive.

SIEGEL: Well, I'll run some ideas past you and you tell me if they figure in how you got to be where you are. Hard work.

ELLERBY: Oh, yeah. Hard work has never been an issue for me. I've always been a hard worker. I came from a line of people that did nothing but hard work.

SIEGEL: Perseverance.

ELLERBY: Yeah, I've always been the type to not give up; to, you know, keep going when the going gets tough - that cliche. So I've always persevered. I've always looked for the opportunities. I've always just not taken the word no lightly. But I've always challenged.

SIEGEL: Social skills, how important do you think it is to have good social skills?

ELLERBY: Wow. Social skills to me is very important. Opportunity and social skills have paved the way. Just knowing how to treat people, how to interact with people.

SIEGEL: And Johnita Ellerby gives special credit to an act of philanthropy. To go to college and live in the community where she does, as opposed to the gang-infested part of Sanford where she used to live, her rent is paid by Doris Buffett's Sunshine Lady Foundation. A scholarship makes her ambitions possible, and that means her children are starting out in a lot better place than she did.

ELLERBY: And then you get to go outside and play. But you have to do your homework, OK? OK, good.

SIEGEL: Some of the people I interviewed in Raleigh have realized ambitions or are pursuing ambitions that go far beyond the circumstances they were born to. Not just Johnita Ellerby, but Bob Hatley, whom we heard on Monday, the son of a career Army enlisted man who left a Carolina mill town to start a commercial bank. Most, when speaking of what directed them to the middle class, what helps them prosper or even get rich, most spoke of their upbringing, what their parents expected of them and provided for them.

Beyond that, the people I interviewed had pretty different views of how much luck, faith or brains contributed to their circumstances. As the country goes to the polls next week, with the economy on everyone's mind, we might recall that some of the most fundamental assumptions about why we prosper are very different, even within the same community.

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