What Does This Sad Story Say to You?

In today’s Washington Post, there’s an incredibly affecting long article about a down-and-out family in Indiana. It’s called “Nowhere to Go But Down.” Husband and wife have both lost their jobs; there’s a teenage son and a very young daughter, and it looks like they’re all going to have to move back to Michigan to live in the basement of the wife’s mother. I urge you all to read it, and to look at the photo gallery too.

The thing is, I wonder in which direction most of you will be affected when you read it. There are a variety of options. Some readers will see the family as innocent victims of a brutal economy. Others will see them as entirely responsible for, or at least deeply complicit in, their economic failure. I have a feeling that many readers of this blog will lean toward the latter — in the photo gallery, we learn that the husband buys $20 worth of lottery tickets a week, e.g. — but I may be wrong.

Here’s a passage that is hard to ignore. The wife has just returned from her first job interview in months:

He doesn’t look up from the wall he’s touching up with white paint. The landlord is due soon.

“It’s 28 hours, eight bucks an hour,” she says. No benefits, she adds.

“You say, ‘Thank you, but –‘ ?”

“Yup,” she says. “I make more on unemployment.”

The article is also a great piece of fly-on-the-wall journalism. The writer is Paul Schwartzman. He must have spent a huge amount of time with the family to come away with a story this deep and rich. Judging from his archive page, it looks like he’s been working on this article for the better part of a few months. If so, it really shows.

I couldn’t help but think about how much money the Post spent to generate this article. Tens of thousands of dollars, I am guessing, once you account for the salaries for the writer, editor/s, etc., and travel expenses. I also couldn’t help but wonder how the family in the article would have spent that money if the Post, instead of using it to generate this article, had simply given it to them in a paper bag.

Conor - ireland

They probably would have spent the money on lottery tickets...


Any economy built on endless growth and resource extraction will eventually fail. Why do we not understand this?


Since you are including salaries for the reporter and editor(s) in your estimate of how much the article cost, wouldn't your "solution" require firing or at least laying off the reporter and editor(s)?


You are forgetting that the Post probably hasn't spent any money at all on this piece yet. You get paid after publication - regardless of the story. So this journalist is probably a few grand out of pocket and now badgering the Post to pay him and they are probably dragging their heels on doing so.


Helping one of the unfortunate families in this country doesn't help as much as calling for attention to the whole country. Americans need to wake up and understand what responsible really means.


Lets see, $20 multiplied by 52 weeks is 1040 dollars on lotto tickets.


This is a classic example of the consumerism in our society. There is nothing in this article that suggest that they would do anything with $10k but spend spend, spend, spend.

It also goes to show how ineffective our unemployment System is. When you're on unemployment, there is very little incentive to work if you are not going to make more than the allotted unemployment check.

f you receive $300/ wk from unemployment and end up finding a part time job that pays you $275 a week you keep your $275 and receive the remaining $25 from the government and an additional $25. What is the incentive to work 20 hours for an extra $50 when you can make $275 doing nothing? If the Government let you keep a bigger percentage of your check for taking a part time job perhaps it would motivate people to at least work part time.


I am in the "complicit" camp - at the top of the article it's noted that the father never bothered with savings, he was always what my mother would call a "Good Time Charlie" - spending the money on fun. Even now, on welfare, he's still spending money on beer and cigarettes.

It's a sad story, but I'd feel more sympathetic if the family had truly had "bad luck" - rather, they hit a bump that happens: people lose jobs. They should have known it could happen to them, and have prepared for the possibility.

As a side note, it also drives me crazy that the welfare rules are set up so that someone can prefer to be on welfare to taking a job. Where I live if you take a job that pays less than you receive in welfare, the welfare "tops you up" so that you still receive the same monthly amount. Sure, too many people prefer not working to working when receiving the same amount, but the hope is that people will choose to get back into the workforce, and then proceed upwards from there.



I was also struck by the fact that they watch cable TV, the kid has an X-Box, etc. They certainly don't seem to be using their resources as wisely as they could be.

The story also mentions that the husband was a profligate spender when he had a job, running up huge bar tabs and the like. It is certainly hard to commiserate too much with people who have so obviously planned so poorly for the future. I mean, living paycheck to paycheck on $53,000 a year in Northern Indiana? Crazy.


I am squarely in the latter group. Not only is this man buying $20 of tickets every week, he is sitting in a bar drinking beers for "hours." Also, did anyone else notice what the family is eating in the picture that describes the family has taken free food from the church pantry? Sure looks like delivered pizza to me.

I have nothing against any of the actions if the family wasn't in such dire financial straits. Sure, it isn't entirely their fault that they are in the shape they are, but they must shoulder some of the blame. It looks like in edition to finding new jobs they should take some classes on fiscal responsibility.


Here's a totally different take--

Thank goodness this family has an extended family to rely on. This underscores the importance of a strong, healthy, and mutually supportive family, particularly in difficult times.

The institution of marriage and family is a far better stimulus than borrowing from future generations to hand out $4,500 like candy to people to trade-in for new cars.


This article is fascinating. These people are blaming the economy, which certainly hasn't helped, without considering many of their problems are the result of their own choices. The guy drinks 8 beers as soon as he gets the unemployment money. He half heartedly looks for jobs. He says he doesn't want to pursue further education b/c he has a folder full of certificates which never got him anywhere. One of the certificates is for Glass Installation training. He wants to be completely unskilled and make big bucks. Welcome to reality! Picking the least effort path, wasting money, and making bad choices is what is causing this family's issues. They got by with this behavior when the economy was fat, but it simply is not a successful long term strategy.


After reading the story, my reaction - to it, not to your post - is complicated.

1. People don't get what they deserve; they get what life gives them. Very few people have control over the forces that knock them around. I can't blame this family any more than I can blame my ancestors who failed to leave Europe and thus were murdered in WWII.
2. People can't be judged on an objective scale. We all make bad decisions. Some of us get away with a lot of bad choices and some get screwed or even killed by just one mistake.
3. While the tone of the article was Grapes of Wrath-like, I thought the family has a lot going for it. This is a tough time for them, a terrible time, but they'll come through it.


I agree with Brian. The first thing I though about when I read they would go to live in her mother's basement was "They are very lucky to have family."

I know that if anything happened to me, I have family. Not everyone can say that.

Brian Boyd

Read the story, and it is incredibly affecting. How sad. But you're right: I would have a lot more sympathy for the Nicholses if they had made better financial decisions. Oddly, I can't help but think there is something distinctly irrational about the economic choices they've made.

A Cynic

I'm one of the latter. When I intially read the article, I thought I may have been classified in the first catergory which sympathized with their economic misfortune. This is just a grasshopper / ant situation. Poor financial management.


I do sympathize with someone who cannot find work for months. As a man, I cannot imagine any greater indignity than not being able to provide for his family. On the other hand there is no excuse for someone like scott to spend money for 7 beers, 4 packs of Marlboro and lottery tickets, when he could have used that money to buy baby food for his two year old daughter.

However, I do not want to completely trash scott for his irresponsible behavior because I see pieces of my own past self in him. I went thru similar situation in the last recession of 2001, I too had to move in with my in-laws and had to claw my way back to financial stability. Looking back to those days, I can safely say that was the best thing that could have happened to me.


95% their fault.


I'm confused what the purpose of the article was. From what I can tell, it's to create resentment for the unemployed. These people are stupid, lazy, and receiving tax dollars they don't deserve. They never saved, they spend money on far more than the essentials, they gamble, and they really have no one to blame but themselves. This is probably the reaction you expected at Freakonomics, but what did the Post expect?


Most commenters seem overly harsh.

Sure, it is unfortunate that they didn't save. But what is the solution? Certainly not blaming them now. We should recognize that people aren't very good financial planners. This family demonstrates that. No amount of economic models with rational agents change that. People are irrational, underestimate the risks of unemployment and undersave. The government must make saving mandatory. The unemployment insurance is not enough as it is. Unemployment benefits need to be enough that people have not only what to live by, but also some expendable money.

Secondly, unemployment benefits need to be created in such a fashion that taking jobs is economically rewarded. This is quite obvious, of course, but generally governments fail at it.

FInally, I'm not seeing a lot of empathy for the children. Even if you decide that the parents should suffer because they were stupid, surely the kids can't be blamed for it? They deserve a decent, normal childhooh. And yes, that includes the occasional pizza, x-box, tv, etc. Denying these is to rob them of a normal american childhood experience, which really does set them up to fail in life. They suffer quite enough as it is.

There is enough wealth in the world to ensure that even the unemployed have liberty. Without expendable income there is really no liberty.

The sort of laissez-faire world, with rational actors who plan for the future, is pure fantasy. It really does take an economics degree to be truly rational. As long as half the people are dumber than the median, we really do need goverment imposed solutions. There is a lot the States could learn from Europe. This sort of thing doesn't need to happen, all that is requires is for us to accept a small bit of inefficiency. When faced with a trade-off between inefficiency and human suffering, I certainly hope that most would choose the inefficiency.