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New Guaranteed Income For Families With Children Is 'Stunning,' Poverty Expert Says

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross who's off this week. When Congress passed the $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill earlier this month, there were debates about the cost of the measure, the size of stimulus checks and a proposed increase in the minimum wage, which wasn't included in the final package. But a provision that hasn't gotten much attention may be among the most far-reaching. The bill includes an expanded child tax credit that will result in monthly payments to millions of families and will do more to reduce poverty in the U.S. than any government action in decades.

To talk about the change, we've invited New York Times senior writer Jason DeParle, who's reported on poverty and efforts to fight it for decades. In a recent story, he wrote that the new child benefit has the makings of a policy revolution. Jason DeParle is a recipient of the George Polk Award and a two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He's also written about immigration. His latest book, based on his 30-year relationship with a family from the Philippines, is "A Good Provider Is One Who Leaves: One Family And Migration In The 21st Century." He joins me from his home in Chevy Chase, Md.

Jason DeParle, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

The provision in the stimulus bill, you say, has the makings of a policy revolution. Let's understand exactly what this is. Technically, it's an expansion of an existing child tax credit. Right? You want to explain what that means?

JASON DEPARLE: Yeah, Dave. Don't think about it as a child tax credit, which makes it sound convoluted and obscure. What it really is is a guaranteed income for families with children. It offers up to $3,600 a year per child to most families in the United States.

DAVIES: And it's a little more generous for younger kids, right?

DEPARLE: Yeah. It's $3,600 for children under 6 and 3,000 for those 6 and older. So a family with a couple - two to three kids, you're talking about somewhere between seven to 10, $11,000 in guaranteed income.

DAVIES: Is it income-based? Can people of any income get this benefit?

DEPARLE: Ninety-three percent - so all but the most affluent. Unlike the current child tax credit, which is paid in a lump sum at the end of the year, it's paid out on a monthly basis. So families would be getting between 250 and $300 a month per child, which helps smooth out the income fluctuations, particularly of the kind we're seeing right now, where families may be out of work for a few months at a time or waiting for other government assistance for a few months at a time. It's supposed to provide a monthly floor beneath which no child should fall.

DAVIES: Right. And just to clarify, you know, when we think of tax credits or tax deductions, we tend to get them at tax filing time. And of course, you generally only get tax deductions or tax credits if you earn enough to be paying taxes. This is very fundamentally different, isn't it?

DEPARLE: Yeah, that may be one of the reasons why, politically, it's advanced because saying that we're offering a child tax credit sounds less ambitious or less revolutionary than, say, we're providing a guaranteed income for families with children. But I think the latter is more accurate.

DAVIES: It is written so that families that have six-figure incomes can still take advantage of this, right? I think some people would find that surprising.

DEPARLE: Yeah. Families with up to about $180,000 a year, which, by the way, is less than current law. So under President Trump, the child tax credit was extended up to families with $400,000 worth of income. So you know, all but really the top 1%. This narrows the eligibility somewhat at the top, but it's still almost a universal benefit.

DAVIES: So if you're poor, you're going to get this not as a tax credit, per se - you're going to get a monthly check. What is the estimated impact on poverty in the United States of this?

DEPARLE: It would roughly cut poverty in - child poverty in half. Remember, this is about children, about families with children, and it's aimed at cutting child poverty, not poverty, per se.

DAVIES: Still, it is far-reaching, right? I mean, this is a major assault on poverty in the context of federal legislation, isn't it?

DEPARLE: It's stunning in the American context. It's kind of the norm among other affluent countries. I think 17 other rich countries have some version of a child allowance. Canada offers the child subsidy up to $4,600 a year per child, and they've cut their child poverty rate there by a third. The U.K. has had a child allowance since the end of World War II. I think these - these policies are based on the idea that - a twofold idea, really, that kids are expensive, and society has a shared interest in seeing them thrive.

The United States has always been atypical in its aversion to these kinds of policies, I think based on the notion that there was more opportunity in the U.S. and people had more of a chance to rise on their own. I think in the past generation, that notion has been called into greater question. And that waning faith in class mobility, I think, is one reason why we're seeing more interest in a child allowance here.

DAVIES: In your story about this, you wrote about a woman in the Atlanta area that you spoke to and the impact of this bill - potential impact on her life. It's kind of instructive. You want to just share her story a bit?

DEPARLE: Oh, yeah. A woman named Anique Houpe - Nikki (ph) Houpe. I could tell her story in two different ways. So you know, Phase 1 - she's a postal worker with a child of her own and an adopted child, a nephew that she's raising as a child - so raising two boys, working as a postal worker. She buys a rent-to-own house in the suburbs of Atlanta. She starts a second business on the side, catering picnics. You know, if you caught her in that moment, she would seem upwardly mobile, striving - about to enter the middle class. And coronavirus hits. She has to quit her job at the post office to stay home, take care of the boys. She's disqualified for unemployment insurance for reasons she doesn't quite understand. And just all of a sudden, the bottom falls out, and she gets an eviction notice.

So you know, depending when the snapshot's taken, she's either a striving emblem of upward mobility or a woman on the verge of homelessness. We used her as an example of what this policy would mean because she went months with no cash income during the pandemic. Under - with the child allowance that just passed, she would have been getting $500 a month, 250 for each child. She argues that might have saved her job because she would have been able to hire child care, have somebody come in and watch the boys so she could have stayed on her job at the post office.

DAVIES: You know, it's worth noting that she didn't want to leave the post office. But what she found was her boys, when left alone - and you know, schooling was virtual - it wasn't working. They were not - it just wasn't working, and they weren't doing what they should do. And she felt like, if I got to make the choice, I'm going to take care of my kids.

DEPARLE: Yeah. She was gone 10, 12 hours a day working at the post office. And two boys, teenagers, left home alone trying to do remote schooling - one had been on the honor roll and was suddenly making F's - she was very worried about what direction they were going to be headed on their own. She put off quitting for six months. She gutted out last spring. She made it over the summer. And when the boys were failing again in the fall, she just felt like, as she put it, she had to choose between her job and her children. And she quit to stay home and be with them. And next thing she knew, she had marshals knocking on the door with eviction papers.

DAVIES: Now, it's one thing to provide this kind of support in a moment of crisis, like in a pandemic. This is really a revolutionary change in policy if it is ongoing. That's not right? This is a one-year measure so far, right?

DEPARLE: Absolutely. Yes. The Democrats got it through on a one-year basis. They've made it clear that they want to make it permanent. We'll see.

DAVIES: This kind of came in under the radar, at least for a lot of people and with - at a lot of public opposition from Republicans. Let's take them first. Why - you know, why didn't we hear more from them about - they certainly weren't shy about criticizing some things in the bill, right?

DEPARLE: Maybe it would help by saying why under normal circumstances they would criticize it. You know, if you recall, we had passed a welfare law 25 years ago that basically abolished cash guarantees to families with - poor families, with children. That bill is signed by a Democratic president, Bill Clinton. But Republicans in particular have been adamant that aid to low-income families should be attached to work. It should only go to families who are working in a form of wage subsidies or health care or child care. But the whole idea is there should be work requirements on government aid. You know, this is quite the opposite. This says unconditionally if you have a child, you should get this income floor for the kids. So it's 180 degrees different than everything the Republican Party has stood for in social policy for the past quarter-century. And it passed with barely a peep of Republican opposition.

DAVIES: Right. And so that's the interesting question. Why weren't they noisy about this? They did not hesitate to criticize some aspects of this bill.

DEPARLE: Partly, I think there's just a lot of other things going on, so it passed as a $100 billion measure in a $1.9 trillion bill. So it almost amounted to a rounding error that it was lost in other elements of what was going on. Second, it's only for one year. It's temporary. Third, there's just enormous need out there. And it may be politically untenable to stand against aid to needy families in a time like this. I think there's a fourth theory, which is that perhaps the politics of public assistance are changing in a way that softens conservative resistance to measures like this. Senator Mitt Romney, of course, the Republican senator from Utah, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, has his own plan for a child allowance that's even more generous than the Democrats'. You would pay for it a little differently by cutting other poverty programs. But he's embraced this idea. I think there's some thought that because of shifts in the American economy and the greater vulnerability of the working class, especially the white, rural working class to whom the Republicans are trying to appeal, that the party may be more sympathetic to this kind of policy than it's been in the past. That very much remains to be seen. But there's a possibility of that.

DAVIES: We need to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We're speaking with Jason DeParle. He is a senior writer at The New York Times. We're talking about the impact of new benefits for families with children in the COVID relief package. We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF AMY RIGBY'S "PLAYING PITTSBURGH")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Jason DeParle. He's a senior writer at The New York Times who has written about poverty and policies to address it for decades. We're talking about the impact of new benefits for families and children in the new COVID relief package.

So if we look at what's happened in recent years, in 2017, there was a tax bill which President Trump signed, and it actually provided for a child tax credit, which, as you note, is not the best way to describe what's just happened, which provides for monthly payments for families. But there was a child tax credit designed to help working families care for their kids in 2017. It was a very different kind of bill, right? What did it do?

DEPARLE: There was a previous tax credit of a thousand dollars per child that mostly went to families that had tax liability. So that really was a tax credit. At the end of the year, you could reduce your taxes by a thousand dollars per child if you were - if you had taxable income if you were middle class or above. The Trump tax bill doubled that to $2,000 and extended it way up the income ladder to families with incomes of $400,000. But at the same time, it left out the bottom third or so of American families because they didn't earn enough to have sufficient tax liabilities to fully benefit. So you had a policy that left out the children who needed the help the most. And I think that may have partly set the stage for what followed because it kind of underscored - it put a spotlight on the upside-down nature of the way American policy was subsidizing child rearing.

DAVIES: Right. So very affluent families got the full credit. People who were poor got very little, if anything.

DEPARLE: Correct. About a quarter of American families got a partial credit because their incomes were too low and about 10% got nothing. So the poorer you were, the less you got. And Republicans would say, hey, this makes perfect sense. This is a tax credit, right? So if you don't make enough to pay federal income taxes, you don't get it. So by the logic of economic equality, it was absolutely upside down. It was saying we're going to, you know, do the least for those who have the least.

DAVIES: And I gather that there are some conservatives who have found other things to like about this - its effect on fertility, for example, right?

DEPARLE: I think there's several reasons a child allowance might potentially appeal to conservatives. One is it does incentivize having kids and there are, you know, pronatalist conservatives who are worried that American families aren't having enough children. A second is I think there's a kind of popularity among social conservatives because it doesn't disadvantage mothers who stay at home. A policy like child care subsidies only help you if you're out in the workforce, whereas this treats non-working parents equally with working parents. There's a kind of libertarian appeal to it. It gives you the money and says do with it what you want. You know, other programs, housing or health care or food stamps say this is a discrete benefit for specified purposes. A cash allowance says we trust you to do what you think is best for your family.

I think there's also - it addresses an economic concern that conservatives have with classic welfare, which is that when people go to work, their benefits are reduced almost dollar for dollar. So it serves as a kind of tax on work. You know, the more you work, the less you get. So it can be a kind of work disincentive. A child allowance really doesn't phase out until you're solidly into the middle class. So a low-income family has just as much incentive to work with a child allowance as it does without it. So it reduces that concern about social policies having an anti-work effect.

DAVIES: You know, we also have to take note of the racial element of the conservative attack on welfare back in the '80s and '90s, right? I mean, Ronald Reagan attacked the so-called welfare queen, often citing statistics which proved inaccurate about a particular person. I wonder, has the complexion of need changed in ways that make it more broadly popular? Is it now more acceptable to politicians who really court white voters?

DEPARLE: When I first started the poverty beat at the The New York Times, there was a lot of concern about the urban underclass, mostly Black or Latino central city, multigenerational poverty that seemed to stand apart from the broader prosperity of the society and the broader upward mobility. In broad strokes, the idea was we have a generally prosperous society, but some people aren't participating in it. Why is that? And some critics of the welfare system said that it was filled with disincentives that kept people from getting out into the workforce and prospering. And those, by the way, those inner-city poor people were mostly represented by Democrats, so there was little Republican hazard in cutting programs that supported them.

I think we have a different political and economic landscape now. I think economic insecurity has traveled farther up the class ladder into what we might call the working class. And it's also many of the same problems that were focused in the inner-city are now common in rural areas that Republicans - among white voters that Republicans are courting. There's a drug epidemic in rural America. There's a rise of single parenthood in rural America. Twenty-five years ago, those problems tended to be more associated with inner-city minority areas. I think the prevalence of these problems among rural white voters has given the Republican Party potentially a different incentive to address them.

DAVIES: So in a year or so, when the renewal of this additional benefit comes up before Congress, do we know how moderate Democrats are going to stand on this, people like Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who's seen as such a pivotal vote?

DEPARLE: Dave, the policy landscape has changed so radically in the past year that the idea of projecting it on another requires the kind of crystal ball that I certainly don't have.

DAVIES: OK.

DEPARLE: This benefit costs more than $100 billion a year. The Trump tax cuts in 2017 cost about twice that. So the Democrats would say if you can afford $200 billion a year to subsidize mostly wealthy families, we can afford a $100 billion a year to cut child poverty in half. And you can bet that if the Republicans oppose it, the Democrats will say they're raising taxes on poor people. Since it's technically a child tax credit, its expiration would technically be a tax raise, tax increase on poor people. So I think one thing that the Democrats are hoping for or counting on is that it's harder to take away a benefit when you've given it than it is to give it in the first place. Once you've cut child poverty by half, it's harder then to say never mind. We're now going to double child poverty in the next year by cutting this benefit. So I think they've been surprisingly united around this policy. And I think their hope is that its effectiveness will make it so popular that its repeal will become politically impossible.

DAVIES: We need to take another break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with Jason DeParle. He's a senior writer at The New York Times. We'll talk more about the impact of new benefits for families with children and about DeParle's latest book, "A Good Provider Is One Who Leaves," after a short break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. We're speaking with New York Times senior writer Jason DeParle, who's written for decades about poverty and about immigration. He wrote recently in The Times about a new child tax credit in the COVID relief bill that will provide monthly payments for millions of families and significantly reduce child poverty in the United States.

There's interesting policy history about - around welfare payments and payments to families with kids. Let's just talk about this a bit. You know, years and years ago - I mean, decades ago - the United States had a program of cash assistance to families with kids. It was called AFDC - Aid to Families with Dependent Children. In 1996, the Democratic president, Bill Clinton, led this push to, quote, "end welfare as we know it." And some landmark changes in government assistance were made. Generally speaking, what were the concerns motivating this effort? What was wrong with the program in the view of its critics?

DEPARLE: I think there were two concerns about welfare. One was that - one concern was that it was anti-work, that, you know, for a portion of the caseload, welfare served as a disincentive to get a job. I think a second concern was that it was anti-family, that it encouraged single parenthood and discouraged marriage.

DAVIES: And why would the structure of the payments discourage marriage?

DEPARLE: Because you could lose your payments once you had a second earner in the family, a second adult in the household. You could be disqualified for aid.

DAVIES: What did the so-called Welfare Reform Act do? What were the provisions?

DEPARLE: It abolished what had been a federal guarantee of aid and pretty much handed the program over to the states with wide latitude to do what they wanted. At the same time, it also imposed time limits and work requirements. And this combination of state control and time limits and work rules ended up cutting the roles by roughly 80%, I think in maybe eight states, down more than 90%. You know, Bill Clinton ran for office with a pledge to end welfare as we know it. And I think the astonishing result was that it really did end. You know, usually, slogans like that are taken with a kind of grain of salt. But welfare ended. Yeah. There's virtually no cash assistance to poor families anymore. It's very hard to get.

DAVIES: And then in 2017, the tax bill that President Trump signed got - increased some assistance, a child tax credit, but really went to working people and even very affluent people. What - where did the momentum come for this change that we've now seen, you know, the cash assistance to - for people with kids? Was it Bernie Sanders? Was it progressives?

DEPARLE: Obviously, the precipitating moment is the pandemic crisis. But I think this is actually the flowering of trends that have been underway for several decades. And one is just the increased recognition about the importance of early childhood. I think we now understand that it sets the stage for life in more deeper and profound ways than we earlier did, so that what happens to kids in those early years is just really essential. Second, I think there's been fading faith in the prospects of income mobility, upward mobility.

Childhood poverty, while always bad, could in some ways be tolerated, I guess, if it was seen as a phase, not a fate, you know, if it was something you went through for a year or two while your parents were struggling. And then, you know, you passed through it and got over it and moved on. Whereas I think there's less faith that that's what's happening now. And importantly, there's also been a body of research that has shown that cash subsidies actually help poor kids. And that idea was quite in doubt at the time of the 1996 welfare bill. Welfare was seen as the enemy.

Whereas a generation of research, I think, has shown that cash subsidies - that children with cash subsidies do better. They do better in school. They grow up to be in better health. They earn more. They have less involvement with the criminal justice system. Yep. There's a really interesting experiment that came out of a Cherokee reservation in western North Carolina. Some researchers from Duke University were following a group of families in rural North Carolina for completely unrelated reasons - for studying mental health in rural North Carolina - when a Cherokee reservation in the midst of their 11-county study area started a casino. And the casino generated profits. And every adult member of the tribe got a $4,000 subsidy in the midst of this other experiment.

So you had a natural experiment where some group of the families they were following suddenly got, in essence, you know, an allowance, a cash subsidy, while others didn't. And these researchers spent 30 years studying the children of those families versus the families that didn't get the cash aid. And they found that the children with the cash subsidy just did much better. They did much better in school. They had better health. They had better relationships with their parents. There was less family stress. They got in trouble with the law less often. There've been a number of experiments like that over the past two decades that, I think, have pointed to the idea that poverty itself is damaging and aid, rather than being a problem, can be a solution.

DAVIES: We need to take another break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with Jason DeParle. He is a senior writer at The New York Times who's concentrated on poverty and policies towards poverty over the years. We'll be back in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BAD PLUS' "THE BEAUTIFUL ONES")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with Jason DeParle. He is a senior writer at The New York Times who's focused on poverty and policies to address it for decades. He's written recently about the impact of new benefits for families and children included in the COVID relief package.

I want to talk a bit about the book that you published last year. It's about a Filipino family that fought poverty by migrating and becoming guest workers in foreign countries. The book is called "A Good Provider Is One Who Leaves." And this is a family that you followed for more than 30 years. Not many reporters can say that about their subjects. It did not begin as a migration story, did it?

DEPARLE: (Laughter) Yeah. Gosh, more than three decades ago, I was a reporter, younger reporter living in Manila. And I, interested in shanty towns, wound up moving into one with a family. You know, my interest was in slum life, not migration. But it turned out that migration was how the family survived. The father of the family was away in Saudi Arabia working as a pool maintenance man for - at a Saudi air base and sending home his money to the mother, who was raising the kids on the remittances. She raised five children on the money he was sending back from Saudi Arabia. I grew close with the family and stayed in touch. And all five of those kids grew up to become overseas workers like their father.

So I had, at the time, perceived it as, you know, a short term solution to their terrible poverty. And it turned out to become more like a way of life. All five of them went abroad. The one I knew the best or know the best, Rosalie, became - used the - her father's remittances to make the leap from the slums to nursing school and became a nurse in the Middle East for many years and, eventually, migrated to the States. So her - I tell her story. I met her when she was 16. She's - she was a 16-year-old girl in the middle of slums. And she's now a 49-year-old mother of three working as a registered nurse in Houston.

DAVIES: You know, I love the way the book begins. I mean, you're this 26-year-old kid. And you ask a nun who's active in this slum - you essentially wanted to live with the family. How did this happen? What was the experience of getting fixed up with this family? And what was your life like?

DEPARLE: Well, the nun wanted nothing to do with me at first. At first she was like, are you CIA? Well, you wouldn't tell me if you were, would you? So she kind of hazed me and tried to get me to go away and said I would be a burden and the people would have to cook me special food and it would never work. And then she kind of waved a hand above her head and said, you know, that's all up here, speaking of her political disagreements with the United States, and said, we need to do more to build bonds between the first and third world. So she said, come back in a few days. And I'll see what I can do.

So I thought she was going to use the time to go screen a family or two that might be willing to take a boarder. And instead, she just led me by the hand and into the shantytown and auctioned me off on the spot, you know? The first family she came to, I knew just enough Tagalog to know that they were horrified. No, sister, there's no room. Can't - it's not possible. And she took me to a couple more families. And she lost her patience. And she introduced me to this woman and said, if you don't want him, pass him onto somebody else. And don't cook him anything special. If he gets sick, too bad. And that woman was Tita and - the mother of the family that I ended up moving in with.

DAVIES: They didn't have a room for you, right? (Laughter) Where did you sleep, you know, eat, all that stuff?

DEPARLE: They had two - they had a two-room house. And there were nine of us. So there were the five - the mother and the girls were upstairs. And then the boys were downstairs. So I slept on the floor on the downstairs.

DAVIES: Right. You were there for - on and off for eight months kind of in this first encounter with these folks, right?

DEPARLE: I was. Yeah.

DAVIES: Got to know them well. You know, one of the thing that's striking, as you tell this story, is just how much money gets sent by workers in foreign countries to families at home. What's the scale of these remittances?

DEPARLE: You know, I knew migration was a big deal for this family. And I knew it was a big deal in the Philippines. But the lightbulb moment for me when I really discovered the importance of migration globally was when I discovered that remittances, the money that foreign workers send home to their families, was three times the amount of the world's foreign aid budgets combined. I mean, it's the world's largest anti-poverty program. If you think that poor people should do more to help themselves, you know, migrants do. The father of the family, Emet, was a pool maintenance man in Manila. By going abroad, doing exactly the same work, he raised his salary tenfold.

DAVIES: And the kids managed to - the family managed to get, you know, doctor's care and improvements on their homes. All of the kids, all of Tita's kids, this woman that you met, all of them became foreign workers. And the one that you focus on a lot is a daughter named Rosalie. Just tell us a bit about her and where her journey took her.

DEPARLE: Rosalie was a 16-year-old schoolgirl when I met her, shy, self-effacing. The nun who introduced us was courting her for the convent, wanted - Rosalie's very religious - wanted her to become a nun. If you looked around the slum, the squatter area, and tried to identify, like, what kids got the grit, the drive, the gumption to get ahead, you wouldn't have picked Rosalie, right? She's quiet. There are other kids who are better in school, who are more self-confident. But Rosalie just had this quiet determination, this resilience that made it self-evident only over time.

If you looked at her high school transcript, the most revealing element of it wouldn't be her grades, it was her attendance record. In four years, despite living in, you know, terrible hardship of shantytown poverty, she never missed a single day. So she goes from there, with the help of her father's remittances, to nursing school. She almost flunks out. Her name is actually posted on a list of students who - you had to have an 80 average to continue after two years. She had a 79.5. And they told her to leave and then rounded her up and let her stay.

And she goes through five or six of these, like, you know, near-death experiences in the education system of almost, you know, not making it - passed, eventually gets to the Middle East thinking she's going to come to the states in a few years and ends up taking 15 years to pass all the language exams and the foreign nursing exams and then wait for a job opening. And she's just about to give up while she's living in the Middle East when a hurricane hit Galveston, Texas, and destroyed the local hospital. And it couldn't get enough nurses to come back in. And they decided to hire abroad and bring in 24 nurses. So Rosalie had her chance.

DAVIES: And she made a life for herself in Galveston?

DEPARLE: By this time, she's married. She has three kids who were back in the Philippines. So Rosalie and her husband, Chris, were in Abu Dhabi for, like, a decade while her children were back home with her parents in the Philippines. She came ahead and then brought her husband and kids with her. You know, one of the challenges they had to face in Texas, they weren't just learning to live together in a new country, they were learning to live together as a family because they hadn't really done that. The kids were 5, 7 and 9 when they arrived. And they were kind of strangers to their parents. It was a, you know, fascinating dynamic to see them having to adjust twofold, to each other and to the country.

DAVIES: You find Rosalie's story uplifting, though.

DEPARLE: Oh, my God. In decades of writing about poverty, I've never witnessed a more profound success story. I mean, she was born in a house - parents too poor to afford a toilet. And after three years in Texas, she ends up buying a four-bedroom house on a suburban cul-de-sac in Texas City, Texas. I mean, it's a story of upward mobility just of astonishing proportions. You know, we spend so much time looking for statistically significant differences of 2% or 4% or 5% in somebody's earnings or education, you know, in these - in our social experiments. And, you know, Rosalie's a 1,000% improvement over where she would be had she continued to live in a Manila shantytown.

DAVIES: But, you know, it struck me as I read this that it was and is a path to prosperity for so many to become foreign workers. But it also - just the human cost seems really high. I mean, years of separation from loved ones, you know. Rosalie and her, you know, her kids were really separated for a long time. That's quite a price to pay, isn't it?

DEPARLE: One of the hardest things I've found to convey was the difference between American attitudes towards what you just said and the Filipino attitudes. So I had exactly that same experience. When I first - when I went back to the Philippines to start working on migration, I figured I would find a nationalist contingent in Filipino society or just, you know, a group of really strong anti-immigration critics. And they're really not there. Migration in the Philippines is what cars once were to Detroit. You know, it's the civic religion.

And it's not that people don't know the hardships they're getting into. In fact, when Filipinos go - say they're going abroad, they don't say, I'm going to make my fortune. They say, I'm going to try my luck. It's the idiom. You know, they know it may not work out. They know it may involve - they know it will involve lots of hardship and suffering. But, you know, shantytown poverty involves lots of hardship and suffering, too. And I think, by and large, Rosalie went clear-eyed into those years of sacrifice and separation from her children, and I think most Filipinos do. I think they know what they're taking on.

When I went back to the Philippines, I thought, poor Rosalie. She has to go abroad. And she thought, lucky me, I get to go abroad. It's the more fortunate of the poor who migrate. If you're really poor, you can't afford the passport or the - you have to pay recruiters fees and travel money. You know, it takes money to migrate. So it's an aspiration among many of the poor people in Manila, in the Philippines, to go abroad. Rosalie thought she was being given an opportunity, and in essence, she was.

DEPARLE: Yeah. I wonder, when you talk to Filipinos about working abroad, I mean, there are stories of people ending up in circumstances that are, like, akin to slavery or indentured servitude, you know, on fishing boats and the like. Did you hear experiences like that?

DEPARLE: Oh, absolutely. Yeah. The biggest - one of the biggest areas of abuse involves domestic workers. So I should say when Rosalie went abroad as a registered nurse, which is like, you know, top of the heap, I mean, in terms of working conditions and protections, she had cousins who went abroad as nannies. And that's often very dangerous work because you're not in public. Often the employers take your visa. You're not - you can't leave the country, all kinds of sex abuse. I mean, just constantly stories in the Philippine press about raped and sometimes even murdered, you know, domestic workers all across the Middle East. I mean, there was all kinds of sorrow and hardship and suffering and alienation from children and marriages broke up. I mean, the social cost was high. The chances of encountering a dangerous work situation or abusive employer were high. Yeah, it's not easy.

DAVIES: Well, Jason DeParle, thanks so much for speaking with us.

DEPARLE: Thanks, Dave.

DAVIES: Jason DeParle is a senior writer at The New York Times who's written about poverty and immigration for decades. His latest book is "A Good Provider Is One Who Leaves: One Family And Migration In The 21St Century."

Coming up, John Powers reviews "The Man Who Sold His Skin," a film that's earned an Oscar nomination for Best International Feature. This is FRESH AIR.

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