How many miles of the pitch-black darkness must one walk to be deemed deserving?

In July, the story of Walter Carter, a student from Lawson State, an HBCU in Birmingham, Ala., went viral, garnering the attention of state and national news.

The story is compelling: a young college student’s car breaks down the night before he was to start a moving company job. After all his back-up options fall through, he decides to walk through the night to a job site nearly 20 miles away—a route that Google maps estimated would take roughly 7 hours. Walter began his walk shortly after midnight. Along the way, he is stopped by a police officer who, after “checking out” his story, gets him some breakfast, and drives him the last leg of his journey.

The customers of the moving company were so moved by the young man’s story and their interactions with him, they posted the soon-to-be viral social media post and started a GoFundMe page to show their appreciation.

Upon seeing the campaign, the moving company’s CEO drove to Birmingham in his own vehicle, which he presented to the young man as a gift in the presence of cameras and onlookers. “Everything he did that day is exactly who we are—heart and grit. So far, he’s batting 1,000,” said Bellhop CEO Luke Marklin.

The campaign has now raised over $45,000 and a local financial advisor has offered Walter pro bono assistance to save and manage his new windfall.

Media Script: Rinse, Repeat

Stories like Walter’s are often a welcome respite from a news cycle that seems increasingly polarized and negative. The pattern of media coverage and viral stories like Walter’s—framed around compelling personal narratives—follows a similar script.

  • Person encounters seemingly insurmountable personal roadblock in life.
  • Person overcomes roadblock with incredible personal drive, resilience, and/or faith.
  • A person of privilege, and influential social media presence, shares the story that goes viral.
  • News media pick up gripping personal narrative, with the protagonist receiving generous assistance from an online community (GoFundMe) or a wealthy donor.

Causal responsibility and remedy responsibility

For many, these kinds of stories are inspiring, providing hope in the resiliency of the human spirit and generosity of others. For others, the individual frame, however compelling, leaves an unsettling set of questions about how many others there are who face similar odds in the face of broken systems or disconnected infrastructure. There are yet another group of consumers of this type of individually driven narrative whose notions of “drive,” “personal ambition,” or “values” reinforce a separation between the “deserving poor” from the “undeserving poor.”

Experts at messaging and issue-framing rely upon research that shows the human mind is hard wired to attribute responsibility for the issues raised by Walter’s 20-mile trek. Our brains are subconsciously asking some variation on “Who is responsible?”

For some, the causal responsibility for the daunting 20-mile trek rests solely with the complex and individualized set of factors that are tied to specifically to Walter. For others, the question raises a broader set of considerations about the systems and structures that support, or hinder, mobility and access to employment and essential services. The logical companion question that frames the flip-side to how one reads this story is: “Who or what is responsible for remedying this problem?”

For those interested in dismantling traditional media narratives about the “deserving” poor, we must ask more of the coverage of stories like Walter’s.

We don’t know the full details of Walter’s current financial circumstances. And that’s not the point. If we can agree that getting bogged down in the individual components of one story distracts from a more productive conversation, the bigger question we should be asking is, “What kind of transportation infrastructure is needed to provide a ladder of opportunity for more of our neighbors?” This kind of question, whatever the specific issue, can help us create a region that ensures people who have become most disconnected from the region’s pockets of prosperity have the chance to belong, thrive, and contribute to their communities.

Over the last five years as a health insurance navigator as part of the rollout of the Affordable Care Act, I’ve met with dozens of aspiring students (and non-students) young and old, of all ethnicities and life experiences, whose stories will get never media coverage or a cash windfall.

There is the young man whose life has been derailed because of a seizure disorder, who is reliant upon expensive medication that prevents him from fully using his automotive repair talents. I’ve met countless aspiring nurses who struggle to figure out how to balance their coursework and practicum in the hospital, with obligations to financially support themselves and/or their families. When they are told by school administrators that they shouldn’t be working while enrolled in a rigorous academic program, they are presented with a decision that effectively locks out most students from securing financial assistance through the Health Insurance Marketplace, as well as Medicaid (in a state like North Carolina that has not expanded the program’s eligibility).

When we stop to imagine the magnitude of the lives that are derailed or held back because of the disjointed and broken systems that have created some version a 20-mile walk in the darkness, it presents an opportunity for us to see beyond binaries of “deserving” and “underserving” poor.

To get there, we need coverage of essential stories like Walter’s to provide us with context and history that inform how to mobilize public attention and problem solving to address a community’s critical challenges. But it’s easy to get wrapped up in the details of Walter’s story. It’s much harder to ask the tough questions about the systems that support or inhibit opportunity. Once we ask those questions, there are tough decisions and changes that a community must embrace to ensure that the conditions that underlie Walter’s story are not the defining reality for most families with limited resources.

If we are going to get serious about the challenges to creating a more equitable South—one where young adults growing up in low-wealth families can thrive—we must create a narrative and a way of storytelling that acknowledges not only individual compassion and generosity (as well as “heart and grit”), but also raises the truly important questions about the broader set of conditions for every person who doesn’t find the spotlight.

For more on how system-level investments strengthen the infrastructure of opportunity, check out our new brief: Moving on Up: Transportation and Economic Mobility.