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Climbing out of a life of poverty

Marketplace Staff Jan 20, 2010

Climbing out of a life of poverty

Marketplace Staff Jan 20, 2010


Kai Ryssdal: There are, according to the United States Census, almost 40 million people living in poverty in this country. A lot of them are stuck in what’s called generational poverty, where decade after decade families have grown up poor. Research shows that if you’re born poor, there’s an even chance you’re going to die poor. And the Great Recession is making it more difficult for people to break that cycle.

Stephen Smith from American RadioWorks reports now on the long, hard climb out of poverty.

RUSSELL BROCKMAN: Biggie, Biggie, you have two slices of pizza in the microwave.

Biggie Williams and Russell Brockman are friends who met at a work training program in Minneapolis. They like to hang out, play dominoes, and drink and eat. Both men say they are determined to leave their past lives behind.

BIGGIE WILLIAMS: I never wanted the life I had.

This is Biggie Williams.

WILLIAMS: All my life I’ve been in a single parent home. I always was teased because of the clothes I wore. It wasn’t the best clothes, it wasn’t the best shoes. So I always told myself I’m going to strive to do better. I’m going to strive to have more.

Biggie is 22 years old and lives up to his name: He’s big, six feet tall and more than 300 pounds. Russell’s even bigger and older. Russell is 44, a product of Chicago, and that city’s notorious street gangs. Russell Brockman spent nearly half his adult life in prison or committing crimes.

BROCKMAN: Prior to a year ago, you wouldn’t have wanted to know me. I was not a nice guy. I mean I was a drug dealer, I was mean. Unless you was offering me drugs, or sex or money, I didn’t really want nothing to do with you.

A year ago, Russell decided to quit the criminal life. As he entered middle age, Russell says he got tired of always watching his back and that he wanted to become a better and more productive person. That’s when Russell heard about a local anti-poverty project called Twin Cities RISE!, which helps chronically unemployed people land well-paying jobs with benefits.

Peggy Yusten runs the non-profit agency. She says that most students take at least a year to learn the skills and the attitude they need to get a job.

PEGGY YUSTEN: We have to work at giving them a lot of confidence; and helping them be sure of themselves as they go out into this world. And we do it by setting some pretty high standards here.

Standards like a dress code, a strict attendance policy, and drug testing.

YUSTEN: And we say to them: We’re just like the employer out there. And you have to meet those standards. If you’re successful here, you will be successful when you leave here.

RISE students learn so-called soft skills like: punctuality, discipline, and professional behavior. These are lessons that are common in middle-class schools and communities, less so when you grow up poor. When a student is ready, he or she gets a paid internship at a local small business or a big corporation. It’s like a starter-job to get used to the work world.

Russell and Biggie both interned at the warehouse of a Twin Cities nonprofit that gives furniture to people in need.

Biggie and Russell made a great impression at the internship. The founder of the warehouse, Fran Heitzman, watched Russell heave a big oak table onto a waiting semi truck and marveled at his work ethic.

FRAN HEITZMAN: I’ve been in business all my life, hired people all my life. And that’s a good one there. Anybody gets him on his work force, they got a gem.

But sometimes a gem has deep flaws. Biggie tells what happened to Russell.

WILLIAMS: He was in the back of the warehouse picking up some items for pickup and saw or heard the police out front. And left out the back door.

Turns out that Russell had robbed a Minneapolis bank the day before. Police matched his handprint on the bank counter to his criminal record, then tracked him down. Biggie couldn’t understand why Russell did it. Especially since they had just been paid for their internship.

WILLIAMS: The thing that just keeps going through my head is he had money, he had money in his hand. Why would he need to do this? For what?

The fact is that escaping a life of poverty often means trying to escape other problems, like addiction. When you live close to the edge your whole life, it’s that much easier to fall.

BROCKMAN: I was waiting on the bus and a prostitute walked up to me. She looked damn good, so we went to the liquor store, went to somebody’s house, had alcohol, sex and crack cocaine. After it was all gone I left, I was trying to go home, but I was still very high and the craving just got the best of me so I went to the bank.

SMITH: Cravings got the best of you so you went to the bank.


Russell blames himself for what he calls a stupid decision, and he pleaded guilty to the bank robbery. He expects to go back to prison for maybe up to 20 years. Meanwhile, Biggie Williams recently got promoted to a full-time job at the warehouse. Giving out furniture to poor folks reminds Biggie of the days when he slept on a cold floor with no blanket. He’s determined not to drift back to his old life.

WILLIAMS: This situation I’m in right now, I’ve been working on it for a year or so now. And it’s looking up. Everything’s starting to move in a better direction. So, I’m not going to stop now, I’m not going to let anything derail me now.

Optimism helps because turning around a life lived in poverty is typically slow and difficult. Of the nearly 100 unemployed people who started at Twin Cities RISE! with Biggie Williams and Russell Brockman, most were still in the program a year later. So far, six of them have reached that hard-won goal: full-time jobs.

In Minneapolis, this is Stephen Smith for Marketplace.

RYSSDAL: A note of disclosure about our story today. The founder of Twin Cities RISE! also sits on the board of directors of our parent company: American Public Media.

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