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What It Means To Be Middle Class In America


This week, we're checking back in with people I met during my reporting in 2016. In September, I visited Prince George's County, Md., for our series on what it means to be middle class in America today. It's one of the wealthiest majority black counties in the U.S. That's where I met Evelyn and Grattan Betancourt a few months ago.


GRATTAN BETANCOURT: You know, when you look at the neighborhood, it has a look of middle-class prosperity, but many people here are fighting to save their homes.

SHAPIRO: They've worked at the same Ford dealership for more than 30 years. They've lived in their house all that time. And when I met them there, they were at risk of losing it, inundated with demands for payment.


EVELYN BETANCOURT: In my case, with my husband having a bad heart, do I decide to show it to him or share it with him, or do I put it away? And then sometimes, you put it away, and it's too late to try to be able to unravel what you've gotten to.

SHAPIRO: Mr. and Mrs. Betancourt, welcome back to the program.

G. BETANCOURT: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: Where do things stand now with your house?

G. BETANCOURT: At this point, we've been unable to reach a settlement with the lender.

SHAPIRO: What does that mean?

G. BETANCOURT: Well, it means that unless we can come up with an alternate plan to resolve the indebtedness, we'll be faced with foreclosure.

SHAPIRO: It sounds like you're less hopeful than you were in September.

G. BETANCOURT: That's true, but we still haven't given up. We're still marshaling our resources, and hopefully, you know, trying to work something out. Having been through that, there are a number of things we've learned that may be of help to others in the same situation.

SHAPIRO: What sorts of things?

G. BETANCOURT: Well, first of all, don't wait until the ship sinks. You've got to start acting as soon as you take on water. Of course you start by reaching out to your lender and seeing what things can be worked out there, then getting assistance from - there are many nonprofit counseling agencies that are fantastic. The worst thing you can do is do nothing. Start acting as soon as possible.

SHAPIRO: I'm curious how much of your situation you think is specific to your individual circumstances and how much of it reflects larger structural institutional themes. I mean I remember when I visited your neighborhood, a quarter of the homes were underwater. Mrs. Betancourt, how much of this do you think has to do with your individual choices as opposed to larger structures?

E. BETANCOURT: I guess an unfortunate thing that I just can't understand is the bank. They hear, but they don't hear. You know, you're struggling to hang on to your home. You're struggling to go to work day by day, keep your mind and your attitude positive. And in between time, you're dealing with this.

And it's just an exhausting effort to answer every letter, to answer every phone call. If it takes me a half an hour, if it takes me 45 minutes, I will explain how we got to this point and what we're trying to do to correct this point.

SHAPIRO: I'd like to ask you specifically about the role that race plays because while it's difficult to find specific actions that reflect racism by an individual, it is easy to find patterns of discriminatory behavior, especially when it comes to housing, lending, banks. As an African-American couple in a majority black county, what role do you think race plays in what you've gone through?

G. BETANCOURT: Well, I think a lot of this is a perception that we as black people have that we're up against the system; there's no way we can win. So you know, we might as well chuck it in and move on. But I think if we were to educate ourselves more and get the help and advice that's needed from the outset, that a lot of that could be avoided.

SHAPIRO: I understand that after the story was broadcast in the fall, it had some impact on your situation. Can you tell me about what happened?

G. BETANCOURT: Much to our surprise, we received letters from people all over the country. Evelyn would just like to read a portion of a note we received from someone way across the country.

SHAPIRO: Yes, please, go ahead.

E. BETANCOURT: OK. (Reading) I heard the story on NPR about the Betancourts to save their home, the situation and your neighbors who are immediately affected by the economy downturn. It's unfair. I can't do much to help, but as a descendant of slave owners, I felt it must be something I hope I can do. Sincerely - and the person's first name is Pamela (ph).

But our holiday's wishes are that somewhere along the line, if you need help, it's out there for you. Just please step up, and ask for it.

SHAPIRO: Evelyn Betancourt, thank you very much.

E. BETANCOURT: You're quite welcome. Thank you very much.

SHAPIRO: And Grattan Betancourt, thank you so much.

G. BETANCOURT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.

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