My Favorite This American Life episode

This American LifeI am a proud National Public Radio junkie listener, and one of my favorite programs is This American Life. If you’ve never listened to the show, you need to stop right now and check it out. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

I don’t usually listen to any shows live, instead I download podcasts and play them when I have a chance. It really makes grocery shopping, doing dishes, or long drives MUCH more enjoyable to listen to Ira Glass rather than my own children.


This past week, in celebration of their 500th episode, the good folks at This American Life showcased the favorite or memorable episodes of many of their producers. It was a great hour of radio because it both reminded me of wonderful TAL moments from my past and introduced me to a few I’d never heard before. And, it inspired me to share my favorite clip from my favorite episode of This American Life.

It may help to explain up-front that what I love most about the show is when I get to experience another person’s perspective and understand how differently they see the world. This clip comes from a recent episode–it aired on March 22 of this year–in which Chana Joffe-Walt visited one of the rural communities in the US where disability claims have reached epic levels. In Hale County, Alabama nearly 25% of working-age adults are on federal disability. Joffe-Walt put together a fantastic set of visuals to accompany the article and I recommend checking it out.


The most startling moment in the story comes when Joffe-Walt is trying to figure out why so many adults in this community who seem healthy other than chronic back pain, and who are eager to earn more money than disability checks provide, are choosing to sit out of the workforce. You can hear the exchange between Joffe-Walt and a local woman on disability at the 15:33 point in this clip. Here is what Joffe-Walt says after hearing the woman, Ethel Thomas, say that her dream job would be to work for the Social Security Disability Claims office:

“At first, I thought Ethel’s dream job was to be the lady at Social Security, because she thought she’d be good at weeding out the cheaters. But no. After a confusing back and forth, it turned out Ethel wanted this woman’s job because she gets to sit. That’s it. And when I asked her, OK, but why that lady? Why not any other job where you get to sit? Ethel said she could not think of a single other job where you get to sit all day. She said she’d never seen one.” [emphasis mine]

This was that point in the story where I had to pause the podcast. I had to sit back and just consider what that meant. That there were people who didn’t just think “sit down” jobs were beyond their expertise–they couldn’t even picture one. This life experience was so different from my own that I was shocked. And sad. And grateful that my own perspective was widened.

And, it’s this widening of perspective that makes us all more global citizens and more tolerant neighbors.  We are better teachers when we see world through our students’ eyes, and we are better policy makers when we consider the desperate conditions that surround so many of the “stakeholders” affected by our decisions.

And that is the power of This American Life. What’s your favorite episode?

One thought on “My Favorite This American Life episode

  1. P,

    @ 20:25 . . .

    “Joseph & Ethel Thomas live in a depressed town in a poor state in a national economy that is basically in the process of fully abandoning every kind of job they know how to do. Being poorly educated in a rotten place? That in and of itself has become a disability. This is a new reality: This gap between workers who are fit for the US economy, and millions of workers who are increasingly not. And it’s a change that’s spreading…”

    “…That in and of itself has become a disability.”

    It was that line where I had to hit pause.

    It’s always been true that an education is important, but never like it is today. There are no other options anymore. Textiles, steel, the auto industry…blue collar work is simply drying up in this country.

    So, at a time where we should be doubling down our investment in education: extending the school year, shrinking the class sizes, giving teachers access to every piece of data, resources, and technology available, and flooding the teaching workforce with professional development on how best to help each learner meet the demands of this new reality, our country seems decided on doing the exact opposite.





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