Bursting into their small home kitchen in Memphis, Tenn., the ten-year-old girl found her mom cooking. Her observation came out of the blue: “Mama, you need a husband.”
Contrina Luckett, today age 41, spoke in a phone interview and recounted this conversation from four years ago. “Who’s talking about me? Who told you to tell me that?” she recalled her sharp response. “For my child to say that, it was like salt on a wound.”
Yet her daughter had uttered the remark innocently. “I’m just saying it because of my grandparents,” said the girl, recently back from visiting one of few married couples in her life. “Grandma takes care of Granddaddy, and Granddaddy takes care of her. Mama, that’s what you need.”
A mother of two and a small business owner, Luckett has overcome many barriers to succeed and inspire those around her. She grew up in a public housing project in Memphis. Her father was incarcerated for much of her early life. Both men who fathered her daughters have spent time behind bars. And, in recent years, her previously unexplained health issues were diagnosed as multiple sclerosis.
Her story is one of several vignettes about family, poverty, and economic upheaval presented in the documentary film “America Lost,” which airs nationwide on PBS World Channel on October 27. Director Chris Rufo, a research fellow at the Discovery Institute, told me that “Contrina is the most inspiring person that I met” during his years working on the film.
“It would break many, many people to fight those circumstances,” said Rufo in a phone interview. “Despite all these obstacles, she has a remarkable way of always trying to improve her life and an unbelievable conviction for helping her two daughters.”
The documentary presents a holistic picture of a changing America through accounts of three different cities. In the southern city of Memphis, black families work to better their children’s lives despite trends in inner-city neighborhoods. Closed steel mills define the Rust Belt landscape of Youngstown, Ohio, with a predominantly white working class. Finally, Rufo journeyed to Stockton, California, an area where Latino culture reflects the majority.
Initially, he planned to film for only a year and come away learning what policy decisions could be improved. “But that missed a deeper dynamic,” said Rufo. “Because the problems that plague America’s poorest cities are no longer just economic or political. They’re social, cultural, and personal in nature.”
Master Chef Beats the Odds
During our call, Luckett juggled preparing meals for her loyal take-out lunch crowd and checking in on her teenage daughter busy with virtual learning. She said the last thing she is looking for is pity, especially regarding her medical diagnosis.
“Don’t doubt me because of multiple sclerosis,” said Luckett. “I don’t let anybody feel sorry for me. I look at this as the walk the good Lord gave me. Maybe it’s to help somebody else who may not be as strong. I learned it from my mom, who always worked hard.”
She does not dwell on the difficulties of childhood, with her father out of the picture, though it’s a backdrop Rufo brings forward in the film. “Because of tragedies that had come her way at a young age, social science tells us she had little chance of success,” he said. “What we hear from Contrina is a kind of hidden knowledge, which I believe we need to listen to closely.”
Five years ago, a low point in her journey compelled Luckett to start her meals-to-go business. One night, she visited the local E.R. due to excruciating internal pain. When she had no fall or traumatic incident to report, she said doctors assumed she was seeking pain medicines — “that I just wanted a fix.” A series of tests revealed she had multiple sclerosis, a chronic disease affecting the central nervous system.
On the heels of decades of family difficulties, this diagnosis sent her into an emotional tailspin. Her oldest daughter, today age 20, soon had two part-time jobs to make ends meet for the family. “I’m not going to lie, I still feel embarrassed,” said Luckett through tears. “She took on responsibilities that she shouldn’t have had to. But that’s what made me start cooking.”
Finding the good in her family heritage — her mother’s years in the hospitality industry — she was able to build on it. “Though my mom made only minimum wage at first, eventually she had her own restaurant,” said Luckett. “It’s something I realized I knew a lot about. So I started fixing plates of food and selling them from my home, which became a blessing to the girls and me.”
Although the new income was not much, Luckett stretched it farther than just her family. “My daughter made the swim team and I was able to buy her swim kit,” she said. “I also blessed another mom, helping her get all the swim stuff her little girl needed.”
The Hidden Value of Human Capital
Luckett and her family in Memphis serve as a centerpiece example in “America Lost.” The narrative shows how some families overcome many strikes against them, including in communities like Youngstown and Stockton that appear nothing like the South.
“These three cities represent collectively the geographic and racial diversity of the country,” said Rufo. “You have north, south, and west. You have white, black, and Latino. And they’re all struggling with the same phenomenon of poverty.”
While it spotlights success stories, the film does not gloss over ingrained devastating trends of these communities. Generational cycles of insecurity and job losses multiplying over decades raise questions on the role of government assistance in anti-poverty initiatives.
Rufo brings up one telling statistic. “In Youngstown, roughly two-thirds of all household income is transfer payments and benefits from the federal government,” he said. “When the majority of funds circulating in a city is dictated by federal policy, essentially in perpetuity, that can create long-term harm.”
The filmmaker can quickly put on his policy-wonk hat. Citing Heritage Foundation research, he speaks of how the Great Society programs initiated in the mid-1960s attempted to “reduce human beings to a factor in a variable equation” — resulting in expensive programs with dubious results. “We’re spending now more than $1.1 trillion a year on means-tested anti-poverty programs,” said Rufo. “Yet the poverty rate hasn’t changed since the Great Society first got up and running, about 50 years.”
The film addresses welfare policy with nuance, recognizing the role of a societal “safety net.” For instance, in addition to a small amount of public assistance her family receives, Luckett recently was approved for Medicaid to help defray some costs of her MS treatments.
“It would be shortsighted to say: ‘It’s all bad, and if we cut everything, it will all be good,’” said Rufo. “But we should really grapple with how anti-poverty policies haven’t worked at their stated objectives. The federal government has a role in helping people, but the system we have now doesn’t do that.”
Most policymakers view public assistance in terms of dollars and budget categories like ‘mandatory spending.’ By contrast, “America Lost” brings social capital to the forefront — including how churches and faith communities help individuals through practical outreach and training.
Marriage and Social Capital
In the film, a pivotal scene shows Luckett giving life advice to her two daughters. “I just want to break that generational cycle,” she states. “First, I want y’all to finish high school. College is a must. And get married before having kids.”
The single mom voices a countercultural message, particularly in her community. “America Lost” cites how, in South Memphis, 93 percent of family households are headed by a single mother. “Academics in social science talk about the ‘success sequence,’” said Rufo, referring to policy research on family structure. “In the film, Contrina points out that same path as the way forward.”
Today, Luckett uses her culinary and hospitality skills as a resource for local couples. “Look, I’m not even a married woman,” she said. “But I love to get a couple together and teach the wife or husband simple foods to prepare to make a happy home. You can go all the way around the world in the kitchen. If I want to go to Paris, I fold napkins a certain way and do a little décor. When you make the pasta dish yourself, you’ll like it even more.”
Rufo notes that “perverse incentives” in current policies, such as the marriage penalty in some assistance programs, have often held back economic opportunities for those most in need. While the film speaks to all Americans, he hopes one message gets through to policymakers.
“Have some humility when you’re thinking about poor communities,” he said. “Don’t feel like you can ‘engineer’ them to health. Because if we keep going with the status quo, cities like Youngstown, Stockton, and Memphis are only going to get worse.”