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Paid In America: The Road To The Middle

Don and Carmen Zepp describe their economic situation as "dismal." The couple bought a music store in Wendell, N.C., after leaving corporate America.
Art Silverman
Don and Carmen Zepp describe their economic situation as "dismal." The couple bought a music store in Wendell, N.C., after leaving corporate America.

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 howthey 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 Consideredhost 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.

When Phil Luby was laid off in late 2008, he decided to become an entrepreneur and open a used car lot.
Alex Cardinell / Courtesy of Phil Luby
Courtesy of Phil Luby
When Phil Luby was laid off in late 2008, he decided to become an entrepreneur and open a used car lot.

"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.

Shannon and Lee Dingle say help from family and their strong faith have helped them stay on financially sound ground.
Art Silverman / NPR
Shannon and Lee Dingle say help from family and their strong faith have helped them stay on financially sound ground.

"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."

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