Between Two Worlds

Determination, hard work and sacrifice are core ingredients in the story of the American dream. But philosopher Jennifer Morton argues there is another, more painful requirement to getting ahead: a willingness to leave family and friends behind. This week, we explore the ethical costs of upward mobility.

The transcript below may be for an earlier version of this episode. Our transcripts are provided by various partners and may contain errors or deviate slightly from the audio.

Shankar Vedantam: This is Hidden Brain, I'm Shankar Vedantam. Doing better than your parents, having a better education, living a better life, this is universally seen as a good thing. But a century ago, a poet named Hristo Smirnenski wrote a parable that raises important questions about the nature of upward mobility. The Tale of the Stairs is about an impoverished young man standing at the foot of a marble staircase. He's gazing up at the wealthy people above him.

Jennifer Morton: Who are enjoying themselves and having drinks, while the people down below don't have enough food to eat and are really suffering.

Shankar Vedantam: This is philosopher Jennifer Morton. Blocking the young man's ascent to the party above is the devil himself.

Jennifer Morton: The devil asks him if he wants to get closer to the top.

Shankar Vedantam: There's just one catch. The devil wants a bribe. The young man protests, "I am poor, a youth in rags," he says, "But I'm willing to give up my life." The devil says he doesn't want the young man's life. He wants to replace his hearing with a new pair of ears. The young man agrees. And so, the devil lets him walk up a few steps.

Jennifer Morton: Now he can no longer hear the people below who are moaning out of hunger and distress.

Shankar Vedantam: The young man is still only partway up the stairs. To go higher, the devil asks him to trade in his eyes for a new pair.

Jennifer Morton: And he can no longer see the people moaning down below and who are suffering.

Shankar Vedantam: He's near the top. The devil asks for a final bribe. He wants to replace the young man's memory and his heart. The young man protests, but the devil assures him a better heart and a new memory. The young man is now at the very top. His face is radiant. The crowns he sees below are in fancy clouds and their moans are now hymns.

Jennifer Morton: So by the time he gets to the top and he is there with the other wealthy and well-to-do people, he can no longer even really recognize the problems down below where he came from.

Shankar Vedantam: The young man has forgotten the people he left behind. As a parable, it's a powerful warning about the dangers of wealth and luxury. But in the real world, not all who climb that marble staircase are indifferent to the problems they've left behind. Many, in fact, are deeply torn about what it means to climb the economic and social ladder. This week on Hidden Brain, we consider the complex trade-offs involved in climbing the ladder of upward mobility.

Shankar Vedantam: Determination, enterprise and sacrifice have long been core ingredients in the story of the American dream. Philosopher Jennifer Morton argues there is another, less obvious ingredient in the story of upward mobility: a willingness to make ethical trade-offs. She doesn't mean lying or cheating, but something subtler and far more consequential. Jennifer Morton, welcome to Hidden Brain.

Jennifer Morton: I'm delighted to be here, Shankar.

Shankar Vedantam: What are some of the classic ingredients we recognize in strivers, the people who are on this path to upward mobility? What are the ingredients that we think go into the American dream?

Jennifer Morton: For the most part, strivers are, as you might expect, ambitious, hard working, smart, but also I think are willing to make trade-offs in the pursuit of those ambitions. Some of those trade-offs in some cases are quite difficult and painful.

Shankar Vedantam: You've spent much of the last decade teaching at a school that wanted to give people a shot at the American dream. I understand students at the City College of New York don't usually come from the 1%.

Jennifer Morton: Yes, most of our students come from working class families, immigrant families, or they're immigrants themselves. Many of them come from families that make less than $20,000 a year. They see City College as a ticket to the middle class, to having better lives than the ones that their parents have or that maybe the people in their neighborhood have. The City College of New York has held this place in the imagination of New Yorkers for a long time. When it started, it was a school that accepted Jewish immigrants when they weren't accepted elsewhere. It used to be free. It was called the Harvard of the Poor by many because it was a place where the brightest and smartest kind of working class kids could go and really have a shot at transforming their lives through education.

Shankar Vedantam: Jennifer found that more than three quarters of the students at City College were people of color and nearly half were the first in their families to go to college. But as exciting as it was to teach these strivers, Jennifer says she regularly heard from students dealing with a variety of crises on the home front. Family drama, in the words of one student.

Jennifer Morton: I didn't pry to find out exactly what was going on. But later, as I taught at City College for many years, I sort of uncovered what this family drama phrase meant. And what it meant for many of my students who felt comfortable enough with me to share was that they had families who were going through a lot. For example, people whose parents were getting kicked out of housing or who themselves were homeless. I had a student whose mother became disabled and couldn't work anymore and the disability checks weren't enough to cover all their expenses. And so she had to work full-time, as well as attend college full-time.

Jennifer Morton: I've had students who had to do childcare for extended family because childcare fell through, or a cousin couldn't afford childcare when they were going to a job interview. And so what I saw was that my students were playing all sorts of caretaking and financial support roles for their families and extended families and often even members of their community. And they were having all of that on their shoulders as well as trying to study for exams, write papers and do well in college.

Shankar Vedantam: Now, lots of students face challenges in college. Lots of students make sacrifices. And in fact, this is true of the workplace as well. The banker who's working 80 hours a week might be giving up a social life. The musician who's trying to get into the local orchestra might be sacrificing her health or sleep. But the challenges that your students were facing felt qualitatively different to you and you intuited that there was an ethical component to these challenges. What do you mean by that?

Jennifer Morton: What happens with strivers is that in order to succeed in higher education, they often have to deal with the fact that their parents, families, communities need them. And it becomes very hard for them to navigate both trying to succeed in college and to be carrying sisters, sons, daughters, friends, or community members. So if you're going to classes and studying for exams, you might not have enough time to, for example, take care of a little cousin who needs care or take your grandmother to the hospital. And so what happens is that these students end up feeling torn between doing the things that would seem to be required by being, say, a good grandson and doing the things that are required to be a successful student.

Shankar Vedantam: And so your sense was that these trade-offs or these sacrifices that students were being asked to make involve sacrifices about their families or their communities, perhaps even their identities. And your sense was that in many ways, these sacrifices involved an ethical trade-off. Why ethics, Jennifer?

Jennifer Morton: Yeah, I think often we don't necessarily think about ethics as playing a role here, but I think whenever a person is caught between trying to figure out what the right thing to do is when on the one hand they feel the obligation or the desire to help somebody that they love and on the other they also feel the desire to succeed in their own path, they're balancing and trading off against each other two important and valuable dimensions of what a good and flourishing life would entail. And I think what's particularly sad about these cases is that strivers will often internalize some of the decisions they make and think of themselves as, "I was a bad son or a bad sister or a bad brother or a bad friend, because I ended up going to class or studying for my exam instead of being there for this person that I love." And that's I think the really kind of poignant and difficult ethical position that strivers are in.

Shankar Vedantam: So you decided to explore this idea not just among your students but more broadly. And in fact, one of these case studies I think might encapsulate really well the ideas you're talking about. I want you to describe a few of these case stories to me. A young man, whom you call Todd, told you he grew up in Atlanta. Tell me the circumstances of Todd's childhood.

Jennifer Morton: Todd grew up in a predominantly African-American low-income neighborhood of Atlanta. He grew up with his mom who was in and out of work and with his grandparents in his grandparents' home. His whole family had been well-connected to this neighborhood. So his mom had gone to the local public school, his cousins lived in the neighborhood and his grandparents' home was kind of a hub for his extended family and friends in the neighborhood. And so his family was very well integrated into that community. Now, Todd was going to the public school, but he didn't like it because he was teased for, as he said, trying to be white. What that meant for him was that he was trying to get good grades and do well and he felt that the students were teasing him and bullying him on the basis of that.

Jennifer Morton: Todd's mother decided at some point that Todd needed to leave that school because a teacher had gotten stabbed in the school, and so she thought Todd needed to go to a different school. She then found a friend who lived in a more wealthy suburb of Atlanta and who allowed them to use her address in order for Todd to go to a suburban magnet school. So they lied to get Todd to go to this different school. Todd's life changed pretty dramatically at that point. The school offered him academic opportunities that he didn't have at his local public school. Most of the people that he went to school with were middle-class or upper middle-class, the sons and daughters of doctors and dentists and so on. Everybody at this school was college-bound, which was not true at his public school.

Jennifer Morton: And so Todd started living kind of two lives. He would go to the suburban magnet school and have friends who were more ethnically diverse. His school had been, as he described it, 100% black. The school was, there were a lot of white students, much wealthier students, more academic opportunities. And then he would come home and be back in his neighborhood. Todd described kind of feeling sometimes ashamed about where he came from and hiding that from his school friends and his school friends' parents.

Jennifer Morton: Todd eventually picked up basically from his friends how to apply to college and was the first person in his family to go to college. While at college, Todd lived where he went to college but he would still go back home. So he was driving distance from home. He would still go back home and visit his grandparents and try to stay connected to his community. But little by little as Todd starts to succeed in college, he starts to distance himself from his family. And then when his grandparents die, he starts going home less and less.

Shankar Vedantam: So once Todd graduates from college, you mentioned that after his grandparents died, he started to lose some ties to his home community. Talk to me a little bit about that. You write about how he was still in touch with some people, but some of those conversations became very awkward and difficult. Why was that?

Jennifer Morton: Yeah. Todd got a prestigious internship with the federal government and moved to the Northeast. He would still call home to talk to his sister especially, but those conversations got very difficult because his sister was always complaining about Todd not sending enough money home. Todd had started to send money back to his family as soon as he started working, but his sister thought it was never enough. And so the conversations got very tense and it would make it hard for Todd to want to call his sister because he thought, "We're going to have another argument about money." And so this led to further distancing.

Shankar Vedantam: It's interesting, at every step of the way, you can sort of see how Todd was disengaging or felt like he had to disengage from things that were very core to him as a person, his family, his community, his identity. When he was in school back in his old neighborhood, moving to the magnet school meant a new set of friends with a new set of social norms. When he moved to college, it meant adopting the norms and attitudes of his peers in college, which were in some ways very different from the norms and attitudes of his friends and neighbors back home. And as he eventually started working, he found that conversations with his family became very fraught because the family sort of relied on him to support them. And he was happy to do that to some extent, but he felt like all they wanted to talk about was money. And you can see at each step how Todd's connection with his past, with his roots is sort of becoming disengaged.

Jennifer Morton: Yes. And one interesting thing was also that a lot of the conversations around money that were difficult stemmed from his family not really understanding Todd's situation. To their eyes, he was making a lot of money. But of course, he was living in DC and he had to have an apartment. There were a lot of things that were kind of expensive about leading this middle-class life and from his family's perspective, that didn't quite make sense. So there was a disconnect also in understanding from not just him kind of becoming more and more like the people he went to college with or he was working with, but his family not fully understanding this new world that Todd had entered.

Shankar Vedantam: The interesting thing is, if you look at Todd's life from the outside, from our perspective, you might say here's someone who started out life with a deck stacked against him. He figured out a way to get himself a good education and get himself a great job and he's clearly, he's the standard bearer for the American dream. What we're not seeing in some ways is what's happening under the surface, all these things you're talking about.

Jennifer Morton: Yes. And I think what we're not seeing is that as Todd loses friends and his relationships with his family gets strained, it's also true that the community he grew up in, those people he was friends with, his extended family, his family is losing somebody too. So I think if we look at it from both sides, the ethical cost that Todd pays also reflect an ethical cost paid by the community and that family and those friends.

Shankar Vedantam: Strivers are often told the trade-offs you make are good. The personal and social relationships you will form in your new life will compensate you for the ones you have sacrificed. When we come back, why the logic of exchange and transaction breaks down when it comes to our relationships and our identity.

Shankar Vedantam: Jennifer Morton is a philosopher at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. In her book, Moving Up Without Losing Your Way, she explores the ethical costs that arise at the intersection of communities that face concentrated social disadvantage and the strivers from those communities who are on the path to upward mobility. Jennifer, if you're born into a family that is in the bottom 10% of the income spectrum and you're black, you have a 42% chance of staying in that income band all your life. Many of your friends and relatives are also very poor, so making it for many strivers from such a community usually means making it out. Can you talk about this idea for a moment, which is that part of the problem that you're describing has to do with the concentration of disadvantage not just in communities within the United States, but across the world.

Jennifer Morton: Yes. I think an important part of the ethical cost that strivers pay in both the fact that they're growing up in communities in which poverty is concentrated, what that means is that you're growing up in a family that's poor, but you're also making friends and developing connections and being connected to a community in which everybody is in a similar situation. And so you don't have the chance to develop friendships or relationships with a lot of middle-class or upper-middle-class people, and there are a lot of consequences to that. The first is that once, if you do make it into a college or a middle-class workplace, you might not have had as much experience with the culture and the norms of the middle-class people that populate those spaces. And so you might feel like an outsider.

Jennifer Morton: But it also means that if you're going to access those middle-class jobs and opportunities, you're going to have to leave your neighborhood in order to access them and you're going to have to leave behind many of the people who you love and care about and you grew up with. And staying with your community, staying with your friends and your extended family often means being resigned to stay in poverty.

Shankar Vedantam: And of course, this is not a choice we ask of everyone. If you grew up in a wealthy city or a prosperous community, you often don't have to leave your neighbors and communities in order to go to a good school or find a great job.

Jennifer Morton: Exactly. For someone who grows up in concentrated poverty, accessing the kind of educational and career opportunities that would propel them into the middle-class requires leaving their community. A middle-class student in a middle-class suburb who wants to leave to go to a boarding school, or maybe they have a dream of going to California or something like that, that's a choice they're making but not a choice they're required to make in order to have the kind of middle-class life that their parents have and the people around them have.

Shankar Vedantam: We all love to hear stories of poor students who are the first in their families to go to college. We applaud first-generation college students for their grit, for their determination. We don't usually talk very much about the social and emotional costs they might be paying. And I'm wondering if those costs might be behind some of the astonishing statistics you cite. Only 21% of low-income first-generation students who enroll in college actually finish compared to about 57% of other students.

Jennifer Morton: Yes. We know that first-generation and low-income students face a lot of obstacles in college. Some of these are purely financial. So it might involve the cost of books or the cost of housing or the cost of food in addition to the cost of tuition. But it might also involve the kind of sacrifices that their families are able to make to support them through college. So we know that there's a financial component to the fact that students find it hard to finish college. But I think something we don't talk about is that for students, it can be very difficult emotionally and psychologically and ethically to make it because they feel torn between helping their families, being there for their friends, staying connected to their communities and succeeding in college.

Jennifer Morton: And when students feel torn in that way, I think sometimes it's very reasonable for them to think, "Well, I don't think finishing college is worth everything I'm giving up." So I think one of my goals in writing this book was to help us understand how someone could be in a situation where potentially they have this opportunity for upward mobility and they end up not taking it or dropping out of college because they find that the sacrifices are too much. I think many of us understand that if we were asked to sacrifice our relationships with our friends and family and become disconnected from our community, we might not do so even if we could make more money and get a better job by doing so.

Shankar Vedantam: Once you started working on the book, one of your best students, whom you call Carlos, was eager to tell you his story. And some of this had to do with a very troubling series of events involving his brother. Tell me what Carlos told you, Jennifer.

Jennifer Morton: He had the kind of story that a lot of other strivers have. He was hardworking, smart kid, made it into City College, but his brother got accused of rape at one point while Carlos was in college and went to prison. After his brother left prison, it was actually very hard on the family to deal with this whole process of his brother going to prison and trying to find legal aid for him to have a good defense. But then once he came out of prison, his brother developed a mental illness. The mental illness was very hard on Carlos and his mother and an uncle that was kind of like a parental figure in his life. Everybody was finding it really hard to figure out what to do. They couldn't afford the kind of care his brother needed.

Jennifer Morton: And finally, his brother went back to prison and Carlos told me that he felt so guilty about how relieved he felt once his brother went back to prison, because obviously he loves his brother but he also felt like it was really destroying his ability to continue to pursue higher education and to make something of his life, dealing with his brother's mental illness.

Shankar Vedantam: Carlos felt like a bad brother for feeling relieved when his brother went back to prison. But someone might tell Carlos, "Look at it this way. Once you get a good job and move into a nice middle-class neighborhood, you're going to make lots of friends and you're going to have relationships that in some ways compensate you for the relationships that you might've lost." And in many ways, this model is the model we have when we think about sacrifices in general. You drive a cheap car today in order that you can save money to make a down payment on a house tomorrow. But you argue that relationships don't work this way. Why is that, Jennifer?

Jennifer Morton: The reason that relationships don't fit this economic model of trade-offs is because when we love somebody, we love that particular person. I have a charming three-year-old daughter who is very funny and a little loony as three-year old are. Imagine that one morning I wake up and go into her room and it's not her but it's another three-year-old who is equally funny and equally loony. And you might say, "Well, you lost your daughter, but there's this other equally funny, equally loony three-year-old you now get to take care of." Of course I would be devastated if that were to happen. That's because when we love someone and we're attached to them, we don't only care about their qualities or the role that they play in our lives, we care about them, that particular person.

Jennifer Morton: And when we lose that, we lose something that in a way cannot be replaced, as any parent who's lost a child knows in the most dramatic case, but I think most of us who've maybe lost a friendship know that, yeah, of course you make new friends and those new friends are great, but you might still mourn the friend that was lost even as you appreciate the new friends that you make. And so I think when strivers are losing these relationships, or maybe those relationships are getting weakened by upward mobility, they still have a right, I think, and good reason to mourn what they have lost, even if there is much to be gained from those losses.

Shankar Vedantam: And of course we've hinted at this earlier. When strivers leave their homes and communities, when their new lives make it difficult for them to retain their ties with those communities, the losses are not experienced merely by the person who has left. In many ways, the losses may be even more acute for the people who have been left behind.

Jennifer Morton: Yes, I think that is right. And one of the questions that remains in my mind after having worked on this book is that I interviewed strivers, but I also wanted to know more about what their families and communities experience, because families, friends, communities also lost someone valuable when the striver moved away or when those relationships were fractured by the stress of upward mobility. And so I wonder what the families think about that and what the members of the community that stay back think about having lost someone in this way.

Shankar Vedantam: We talk about this idea sometimes in the context of migration where we say, we call this brain drain. But I think the point you're making is actually a subtler point. It's not just about people who are talented leaving a community and going somewhere else, you're also losing someone who was an important relationship in your life. So in other words, there's an emotional loss in addition to any kind of professional or intellectual loss when someone leaves your community.

Jennifer Morton: Yes. And I think a loss that potentially makes your life worse, at least for a while. And I think the pandemic gives us a way to recognize this, because some of us are feeling that loss that distance brings and how it makes our lives not as rich as they were before. And so I think in a way we can relate to that experience of having to distance ourselves from people that we love and care about and feel that our lives are not as rich as they were in virtue of that.

Shankar Vedantam: So strivers want to move on from their origins, but simultaneously feel like they can't. You tell the story of a young man from Austin who compared his life to the story of crabs in a bucket. Tell me that story and what he meant by it.

Jennifer Morton: Yeah. This young man, the name I give him in the book is Jiran, grew up in a predominantly minority, low-income neighborhood of Austin. His life was much more difficult than even the life of Todd, who I talked about earlier. Jiran's mother was addicted to drugs and his home life was very chaotic to the point at which in high school, he left home and was basically homeless and living on other people's sofas. He had a bucket in which he kept all his belongings. His football coach found the bucket and sort of asked him what was going on and Jiran told him. And basically this coach took him in and helped him apply to college. Jiran, when I talked to him, was working to support exactly the kind of student he had been at our college. So he was, I think his role was something like a residential advisor.

Jennifer Morton: And so he had done really well for himself as well. But one of the things that he told me about was that when he went to college, he felt like he had to completely reinvent himself, like basically start from scratch. He had to change his demeanor, how he trusted, how he talked, how he behaved. He told me that that was because of crabs in a bucket. I had never heard that phrase, so I asked him what he meant. Then he said, "Well, when a crab is trying to get out of a bucket, the other crabs are pulling them down." He was afraid of getting pulled down by staying connected to his community or having any remnants of his old self remain. And so he thought, "I have to leave all of that behind, start over." And that's how he made it.

Shankar Vedantam: When we come back, how to battle the ethical cost of being a striver. Stay with us.

Shankar Vedantam: Philosopher Jennifer Morton has thought deeply about some of the ethical costs of upward mobility, the pursuit of the American dream. A lot of this comes from her research, but some of it is also informed by her own story. Jennifer, I understand that you were largely raised by your grandmother. Can you describe that childhood for me, please?

Jennifer Morton: Yeah. I grew up in Lima, Peru. My mom got pregnant with me when she was 17. Peru in the '80s was beset by terrorism, high inflation, political instability. I mostly grew up with my grandmother, but I also had a wealthy aunt. My mother's sister had married a very wealthy man. So I was able to go to a very expensive private school, the American School of Lima. So I wouldn't say that I grew up poor. By the standards of Peru, I think I grew up middle-class, but I definitely had the experience of growing up in a working-class home. My grandmother had immigrated from the mountains of Peru to Lima.

Jennifer Morton: She was a secretary, very smart, loves reading the paper, but she definitely didn't have the kind of education that I saw my friends' parents had, because a lot of my friends were friends from school. So I grew up in kind of like having a working-class family life and then going to school with extremely wealthy people, some of whom were the children of the prime minister or owners of big companies in our country. And so it was very strange. I grew up straddling these two worlds and that's I think where my interest in this topic started.

Shankar Vedantam: Eventually you make it to the United States. You come to college to go to Princeton and most people might look at your story and say, "Okay, she's made it. I mean, this is terrific. She's at an Ivy League school. That's fantastic. This is her ticket up." But in many ways you did not feel such confidence while you were at Princeton. Why not?

Jennifer Morton: There were a lot of aspects of being at college that I had trouble navigating but I didn't really know who to ask. The story that sticks out of my mind is that I went to Princeton thinking that I would major in math or philosophy. And so I was placed into a very advanced math class because I had done very well on my international baccalaureate math exam. The first day I walked into this class, there were 40 or so students. I think there were only two or three other women and the professor never made eye contact with us, he just wrote on the board. The professor was famous because he had just won a big prize.

Jennifer Morton: And so I was excited about taking a class with this famous mathematician, but nothing he said made sense to me and I just assumed immediately, as I think a lot of students who are first-generation would in that situation, that I just wasn't well-prepared and I should never take another math class again. Later I found out that a lot of the students in that class, they didn't know what was going on and that they had gone to talk to some of the graduate students at these problem set sessions, and that my experience in a way hadn't been that dissimilar from theirs. But I immediately, because I think I felt very much like an outsider, assumed that it was that and that I just didn't belong there.

Shankar Vedantam: It's interesting, because strivers have to navigate very different identities, they often become expert in what is sometimes called code switching. You have two surnames, Morton and Galdos, I hope I'm pronouncing that correctly. You say that while you were at Princeton, Morton became the name of my American self and Galdos the name of my Peruvian self. Morton became my dominant public self when I live in the United States while Galdos sprang to life again on the streets of Lima during your trips home. Tell me about this experience with code switching, Jennifer.

Jennifer Morton: Yeah. It's funny that I have the last name Morton because it's the name of my first stepdad, but it kind of enabled me to do this thing of compartmentalizing myself in a way between the person who is more at home in an American college versus the person Galdos who carries the name of my family back in Peru who I am when I go back home. And so I was always navigating these two worlds and still do to some extent, although now that I've been in America for so long I feel like Morton has overtaken many aspects of my identity.

Jennifer Morton: And I saw this and when I talked to the strivers for my book, a lot of them felt like they were navigating two identities. They were going back and forth between the person they were at home or with their friends they grew up with and the person that they were at work or at college or in their professional lives. And this kind of going back and forth can sometimes lead to some tension, right? And I think for some strivers, you might feel inauthentic sometimes in the professional world because there is a part of your identity or the way that you are or the way that you talk that you're withholding.

Shankar Vedantam: You write, "I can now make a good living and spend most of my hours engaged by work that I find fulfilling and rewarding, but I'm ever-more distant from my country, my culture and, crucially, the people I grew up with." Tell me about that, Jennifer. It sounds like you feel in some ways guilty that you have become disconnected from your roots in Peru.

Jennifer Morton: Yes. I do feel guilty, although at the same time, I understand that there were a lot of factors involved in making it so that this was the path upward for me. But it is hard, I think, to go back home and to feel not as comfortable and not as at home as I used to feel, and to have lost touch with many of the people that were a part of my life growing up. And so it is sad to me that I have become so disconnected from the community in which I grew up.

Shankar Vedantam: Do you feel like you want to do more for your grandmother? I understand she still lives in Peru.

Jennifer Morton: Yeah. And I still talk to her fairly frequently and one of the saddest aspects of the pandemic is not being able to go visit her or to have her come visit me. I know that one of the sacrifices I made in coming here is not being able to be as close to my grandmother. And I was extremely close to her growing up. I mean, for me, she was the world. And now to not be able to be as close to her, it's a very painful cost.

Shankar Vedantam: You had a wonderful insight in the book about one way to overcome some of the ethical challenges of upward mobility, and this insight comes from your own family. You say that going back three generations now, your family has been made up of immigrants, people who've basically migrated from one place to another often looking for better economic opportunities. I'm wondering if you can describe for me how the frame of immigration might be a defense against some of the ethical dilemmas we've talked about today.

Jennifer Morton: Yes. I think personally the immigrant narrative that I had really helped me navigate challenges that I faced as a college student, as a graduate student, because I think it does a few key things. The first thing is that it acknowledges the value of what you're leaving behind. As immigrants know, we miss not just the people back home, but the food, the culture. There are all sorts of things that are valuable that we're leaving behind when we immigrate somewhere for economic opportunities, and the acknowledgement of that can be so important and that's why I think when an educator is talking to a student, just acknowledging it must be so hard that your brother is going through this and you can't be there for them, that can really be quite powerful.

Jennifer Morton: But I think also immigrants know that they're making these trade-offs. Like I was taught from very early on that you're going to have to go somewhere else to find opportunity, and that will come at a cost. It might be, you might feel sad, you might feel lonely. It might be challenging to navigate this new culture, this new community, and it helps the person tell themselves a story about the challenges that they're confronting. That it's not just about them, and I need to figure out a way to understand the situation so that I can succeed.

Shankar Vedantam: You had an insight in the book that I thought was really interesting. You point out that there are lots of Peruvians who made a different choice than you did. They could have left Peru, but they chose to stay. You write, "It would be preposterous for me to blame my fellow Peruvians who chose to stay, even if as a result their educational or economic achievements were diminished. Yet it's not unusual to hear or read that same sentiment about those who remain in impoverished communities in the United States." That's a really interesting insight, Jennifer. Talk about that.

Jennifer Morton: Yes. I think when we start to see the sacrifices that people have to make in order to be upwardly mobile, we start to see why people might not choose that path. So in the case of myself, I saw that there were lots of people who stayed at home and I think it would be preposterous, as I say in the book, for me to think that there were being irrational or to blame them or to hold them to account for doing that. In some ways they were choosing valuable aspects of their lives over economic advancement, whether that was staying close to family or friends or being somewhere where they felt at home and where their identities were valued.

Jennifer Morton: And so I think there's a lot to be said for being deeply rooted and connected to a place. And so I think in the case of students and young people who are growing up in concentrated poverty in the United States, there's a similar rhetoric that opportunities are elsewhere and that they would be lucky to leave. And then puzzlement at those who might've been able to leave and don't leave, as if they're making some sort of mistake. But I don't think in many cases they are making a mistake. They are prioritizing other valuable things in their lives over economic advancement and opportunity.

Shankar Vedantam: Jennifer Morton is a philosopher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She's the author of Moving Up Without Losing Your Way. Jennifer, thank you for joining me today on Hidden Brain.

Jennifer Morton: Thank you. This was fantastic, Shankar.

Shankar Vedantam: Hidden Brain is produced by Hidden Brain Media. Midroll Media is our exclusive advertising sales partner. Our audio production team includes Brigid McCarthy, Laura Kwerel, Autumn Barnes, and Andrew Chadwick. Tara Boyle is our executive producer. I'm Hidden Brain's executive editor. Our unsung hero this week is Alice Yeh. Alice is a PhD student at the University of Chicago, and she did a fellowship at NPR some time ago. Working remotely from home, Alice went on a great sleuthing expedition for us identifying a number of guests for our show. If you enjoyed our conversation today with Jennifer Morton, you have Alice to thank for finding her. We're so grateful for your help, Alice, and wish you the best of luck as you finish your PhD.

Shankar Vedantam: We're working on some new episodes and looking for great personal stories that reveal interesting psychological concepts. Was there ever a time in your life when your own behavior shocked you, where you found yourself asking, who is this person? If you're willing to share a personal story about such a time, please find a quiet room and record a short voice memo on your phone. Email it to us at [email protected] That email address again is [email protected] Be sure to include your name and phone number and use the subject line, Stranger. If you liked today's episode, we have two requests for you. Please tell one friend about Hidden Brain, and if you haven't already, please subscribe to the podcast so you'll get our episodes every Monday. Thank you for listening. I'm Shankar Vedantam, see you next week.


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