The Uncertain Hour

Marketplace

Each season, we explain the weird, complicated and often unequal American economy — and why some people get ahead and some get left behind. Host Krissy Clark dives into obscure policies and forgotten histories to explain why America is like it is. The latest season examines this thing we used to call employment: what happened to it, why it happened and what a workforce made up of “nonemployees” means for our future.

Introducing ‘The Uncertain Hour’
Trailer 3 min 20 sec

All Episodes

It’s been 25 years since our country upended its welfare system – and so we’re looking back at our very first episode. We spent that first season of “The Uncertain Hour” reflecting deeply on what welfare had become. Each of those episodes can still help us understand what’s happened to one of our nation’s oldest safety net programs, on this anniversary of its so-called “reform.” In this reprise episode, we tell the story of the “Magic Bureaucrat” — the former director of a suburban county welfare office who helped launched the welfare reform movement 25 years ago, with the aid of a self-produced pop album. Check out the whole first season to learn more — from the story of a woman who exposed the racism built into the welfare system from its early days, to an investigation of some of the very surprising ways states have spent federal welfare funds in the last 25 years. Money has gone to marriage counseling workshops, college scholarships for middle-class families and religious “crisis pregnancy centers” that try to steer women away from abortions.

Aug 20

41 min 7 sec

The gig-app workforce has arrived at our doorstep. But Silicon Valley’s innovations in hiring are only the latest round of this long-running battle over what employment means in the American economy.  This concludes our fifth season of “The Uncertain Hour.” To be the first to hear about our next season, subscribe to our mailing list. 

Mar 24

46 min 29 sec

In minor league baseball, professional athletes train, suit up and play for wages that would be illegal in most sectors. Players live in crowded apartments, sleep on air mattresses, work side jobs and scrape by. This week, a story about life in the minor leagues and how the baseball industry convinced Congress to rewrite federal law — and carve an entire workforce out of minimum wage and overtime requirements. For even more of “The Uncertain Hour,” subscribe to our newsletter! Each week we’ll bring you a note from host Krissy Clark and explain some terms that have come up in our reporting. This week we’re looking at the Save America’s Pastime Act.

Mar 17

44 min 15 sec

After Jimmy Nicks’ job was subcontracted, he took both companies to court — the subcontractor he worked for and its client, Koch Foods. The “little boss” and the “big boss.” His case hinged in part on those familiar six words, “to suffer or permit to work,” and this week we’ll revisit their origins. The story begins at the scene of a deadly fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, where one witness would go on to devote her life’s work to prevent such tragedies from happening again. A century later, the law she helped craft, the Fair Labor Standards Act, served as the legal basis for Jimmy’s case — and others.  For even more of “The Uncertain Hour,” subscribe to our newsletter! Each week we’ll bring you a note from host Krissy Clark and explain some terms that have come up in our reporting. This week we’re looking at “sweating system.”

Mar 10

33 min 14 sec

When chicken catcher Jimmy Nicks’ job was subcontracted, virtually overnight, he started doing the same job for a new boss — only without the pay, protections and benefits he’d come to rely on. This episode looks at the subcontracting system that makes worker pay and safety someone else’s responsibility. For even more of “The Uncertain Hour,” subscribe to our newsletter! Each week we’ll bring you a note from host Krissy Clark and explain some terms that have come up in our reporting. This week we’re looking at “piece rate.”

Mar 3

36 min 42 sec

Over a quarter of the world’s largest employers don’t just make or sell products — they also rent out workers. Let’s talk about how we got here. For even more of “The Uncertain Hour,” subscribe to our newsletter! Each week we’ll bring you a note from host Krissy Clark and explain some terms that have come up in our reporting. This week we’re looking at “core competence.”

Feb 24

38 min 44 sec

This week we’re finally going to tell you what happened to Jerry Vazquez — and how his story relates to the 1930s case of a hotel chambermaid. Jerry and some of his fellow Jan-Pro franchisees decided to sue the company, saying they’d been misclassified as independent contractors when they should have been employees (and entitled to minimum wage, over time, and other protections). But the argument over what defines an employee has a long and strange legal history. So, we’ll dive in and explore the origins of the federal minimum wage, why lawmakers wrote the law as broadly as they did, whom it applied to and whom it excluded. And we’ll tell you about this odd but powerful phrase, “to suffer or permit to work,” that’s at the heart of lawsuits like Jerry’s. For even more of “The Uncertain Hour,” subscribe to our newsletter! Each week we’ll bring you a note from host Krissy Clark and explain some terms that have come up in our reporting. This week we’re looking at “misclassification.”

Feb 17

47 min 47 sec

Jerry Vazquez was in the cleaning business now, and his clients liked him. They’d leave him notes, some with smiley faces drawn in. But, he says, he was barely getting by on the rates negotiated by Jan-Pro. He started feeling like had little control over a business that he owned. As Jerry would soon find out, some of Jan-Pro’s other franchisees felt similarly — they were stuck. So Jerry decided it was time to fight back. For even more of “The Uncertain Hour,” subscribe to our newsletter! Each week we’ll bring you a note from host Krissy Clark and explain some terms that have come up in our reporting. This week’s word is “franchise.”

Feb 10

44 min 40 sec

Jerry Vazquez always dreamed of working for himself. So when he saw a notice in the PennySaver advertising janitorial franchises, he decided to go all in. Pretty soon after, he was in debt to the company and earning less than minimum wage doing a really dirty job. He’d wanted his own business — and on paper, he did — but it felt like something entirely different. Correction (Feb. 4, 2021): A previous version of this podcast description misspelled Jerry Vazquez’s name. The text has been corrected.

Feb 3

41 min 44 sec

Employment as we know it is changing. The kinds of jobs where one person works for one employer for years — with health insurance, sick days, paid vacation and a retirement fund — are getting harder to find. Throughout the economy, companies have pivoted to outsourced, subcontracted, freelance, temporary or gig workers. Many of those jobs don’t have benefits; some of them don’t even pay minimum wage. And while it’s accelerated during recent recessions, the trend has been decades in the making.  This season, “The Uncertain Hour” is looking at this thing we used to call employment: what happened to it, why it happened and what a workforce made up of “nonemployees” means for our future. The new season starts Wednesday, Feb. 3. Here’s a preview.

Jan 27

4 min 15 sec

We’ve spent the past five weeks trying to make sense of this moment, where the inequalities of our society have been suddenly set in high relief. In that time, you all have written in with a bunch of questions big and small. Today, we’re going to cap off this pop-up season by answering a few of them. Questions like: What would chicken cost if plant workers got better wages and benefits? And how did health insurance get tied to our jobs anyway? We’ll also look back at two very clear moments, both after pandemics, when economic inequality started to fall dramatically. Thanks so much to everyone who listened and sent in questions. We’ll be back later this year with new episodes. Until, then, there’s always our first three seasons.

Jun 2020

28 min 3 sec

On any given night last year, half a million people in the United States were experiencing homelessness, and more than 60% of them were staying in emergency shelters or transitional housing programs. Now, those same facilities are hot spots for COVID-19. It’s hard to social distance when you’re cramped, sharing bedrooms and sharing locker-room style communal showers. Today, we’ll look back at the history of how America has sheltered unhoused people, and how those approaches can make it hard for them to get back on their feet even when there’s not a pandemic going on.

Jun 2020

43 min 1 sec

The COVID-19 pandemic arrived at a moment when the gap between rich and poor in this country had hit a record high. One place that inequality is most visible is in the neighborhoods where we live. Generations of discriminatory housing policy, and lending practices that favored white borrowers, have entrenched segregation in American cities. This week, we’ll examine the housing policies that emerged from past economic crises, policies that excluded black people and other people of color, preventing them from building the wealth that middle class white families built.

Jun 2020

31 min 56 sec

Millions of Americans who are out of work don’t receive unemployment benefits. That’s by design. Today, we’ll look at the history of the United States’ unemployment insurance system, how this country defines “unemployment,”and why the program was never intended to cover everyone who’s not working.

May 2020

34 min 38 sec

As long as there’s been such a thing as quarantine, each person’s experience under it has depended largely on their economic status. On this week’s show, we take a tour of quarantines through history, from the bubonic plague outbreaks in 14th and 17th century Italy, to the a typhoid outbreak in New York in the early 1900s and a few other stops along the way. Those quarantines looked very different if you were, say, an immigrant, or a Jewish textile merchant, or a sex worker. Crises like the COVID-19 pandemic shine a spotlight on all the inequalities already lurking in the system, and ideas of what the government owes to people in quarantine have changed over the centuries too. Long gone are the days of the government sending your family fennel sausage, cheese and wine to make it through.

May 2020

27 min 2 sec

Chicken is America’s most popular meat. But chicken supply chains — in fact, many of our food supply chains — are in danger of breaking down. Part of the reason is the workers who process and package those goods are getting sick. In some cases, they’re dying. For the first episode of our new season, “A History of Now,” we focused on America’s chicken supply chain because it raises a huge, looming question: How is it that essential workers don’t have essential protections? How do we get through a crisis — any crisis — if we can’t be sure our food-producing workforce is safe?

May 2020

29 min 51 sec

There’s not much more uncertain than our current moment. Our day-to-day lives and our economy have been upended by the coronavirus pandemic. On this season, “A History of Now,” we’re digging into the history and policies that help make sense of this current moment, a time where issues of wealth and poverty feel even more stark than usual. New episodes start May 13.    

May 2020

3 min 36 sec

We just found the answer to a really big question that’s been bugging us for years, about why the opioid crisis has hit some places so hard while other places have been relatively protected. The answer comes in the form of new academic research, that builds upon our reporting. Specifically, a secret internal marketing document from Purdue Pharma that senior producer Caitlin Esch discovered in the bowels of a county court house. She’s on this bonus episode to talk about it.

Dec 2019

15 min 42 sec

On this day, 30 years ago, President George H.W. Bush gave his first address from the Oval Office. Bush held up a baggie of crack he said had been seized just outside the White House. Today, we’re revisiting our episode about that speech, the events that led up to it and the lives it affected. For more on America’s drug war, listen to season 3 of our show.

Sep 2019

45 min 37 sec

Many people in Wise County agree that they can’t jail their way out of a drug epidemic, but there’s a lot less agreement on what to do instead. And we find out what happened to Joey Ballard.

Apr 2019

49 min 28 sec

It’s not easy being an undercover cop in a county of just 40,000 people. But drugs were making it hard for Bucky Culbertson to run his business, so he made it his business to get rid of drugs.

Apr 2019

40 min 36 sec

It’s the deadliest drug epidemic our country has ever faced. We go to ground zero, where “nothing changes except for the drug.”

Apr 2019

35 min 55 sec

The drug bust and the trial were a “farce,” but the full force of the law still came down on Keith Jackson — and thousands of people like him. That didn’t end the crack epidemic, so what did?

Mar 2019

48 min 12 sec

One day, early in the semester, Keith Jackson didn’t show up to class. He’d been arrested for selling crack, but for his classmates, that wasn’t the surprising part.

Mar 2019

32 min 38 sec

It was the perfect political prop: drugs seized by government agents right across the street from the White House, just in time for a big presidential address. The reality was more complicated.

Mar 2019

45 min 37 sec

Thirty years ago, President George H.W. Bush held up a baggie of crack on live TV, and said it had been seized right in front of the White House. The Uncertain Hour’s third season looks at how the policies launched that day continue to reverberate – even as the crack epidemic has faded into history. New episodes start March 21.

Mar 2019

2 min 26 sec

President Donald Trump and Republicans in Congress rolled back a gun regulation last year that would have restricted some people with mental disabilities from buying guns. Now, this story isn’t about gun control, but the law they used to erase that rule and 14 others last year. It’s a tale that goes back decades, and it starts in Kenya in the 1960s. Along the way, we’ll meet a man in a white suit and an army of used car dealers. This story is also the last episode of our second season, all about who writes the rules, who gets to unwrite them and who gets written off.

Mar 2018

1 hr 19 min

There are lots of different ways to commit a crime. Some of them are obscure — it’s a crime to sell Swiss cheese without holes, for example. Some deal with serious safety and environmental issues — it’s a crime for a refinery to release more than a certain amount of the carcinogen Benzene. There are people who argue there are just too many federal regulations with criminal consequences, that with thousands of potential criminal acts on the books, how can you know if you’re doing something wrong? And that argument has some very powerful forces behind it. In this episode, we look at the issue that’s come to be known as “overcriminalization,” and the debate about what’s a crime worth enforcing and what’s bureaucratic overreach.

Jan 2018

1 hr 9 min

The U.S. Constitution doesn’t mention corporations once. But if you want to talk about federal regulations, you have to talk about private enterprise, too. They’re yin and yang, intertwined over centuries, locked in an eternal struggle. This week, we’re tracing that history back to the 13 colonies, when corporations helped to create the basic framework of our democracy. And we hear how railroad companies, the country’s first big homegrown corporations, regulated the people before the people regulated them.

Jan 2018

45 min 40 sec

We’re working on the next batch of episodes for season two, but this week we’re taking a quick break over the holidays to bring you a sort of reporter’s notebook, a glimpse behind the scenes. First we’re going to answer some of your questions about the stories we’ve brought you so far in this season. Then, because regulations have been in the news so much, we’re also wanted to give you some helpful context for what you’ve been hearing. Subscribe to The Uncertain Hour podcast.

Dec 2017

27 min 32 sec

When OxyContin went to market in 1996, sales reps from Purdue Pharma hit one point particularly hard: Compared to other prescription opioids, this new painkiller was believed to be less likely to be addictive or abused. But recently unsealed documents in this investigative episode shed light on how the maker of OxyContin seems to have relied more on focus groups than on scientific studies to create an aggressive and misleading marketing campaign that helped fuel the national opioid crisis. Welcome back to The Uncertain Hour. Where the things we fight the most about are the things we know the least about. Subscribe on your favorite podcast app.

Dec 2017

1 hr 5 min

For the past two episodes, we’ve been telling you the birth story of a single regulation, one of the most misunderstood, and yet pivotal, regulations in American history: The number of peanuts that should be in peanut butter. Today, that story comes to an end. We’re picking up the action in 1965. It’s been more than six years since the Food and Drug Administration discovered a bunch of big peanut butter brands were using fewer peanuts and more artificial additives. Those heavyweights went back and forth with the government, and consumer activists like Ruth Desmond made their voices heard. It all lead up to the surreal moment when peanut butter was put on trial. There’s more to come in season two of The Uncertain Hour, where the things we fight the most about are the things we know the least about. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, or your favorite podcast app.

Nov 2017

38 min 37 sec

It’s 1959 and Ruth Desmond, the gurney-climbing, cook-from-scratch co-founder of the Federation of Homemakers was prowling the halls of the FDA, about to earn her “peanut butter grandma” namesake. She stumbled upon this unassuming, but ultimately history-changing memo. It was four little paragraphs, a proposal to regulate one of the most popular foods in the country. The government was trying to answer an existential question: how many additives can you put into a jar of peanut butter before it’s not peanut butter anymore? Trying to answer it kicked off a years-long battle that upended the, uh, peanut butter industrial complex. And honestly? Battles like this are how a lot of regulations get made in this country. Welcome back to The Uncertain Hour. Where the things we fight the most about are the things we know the least about. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, or your favorite podcast app.

Nov 2017

37 min 42 sec

Donald Trump, the business man president, isn’t the first politician to rail on government regulations. In 1979 Jimmy Carter, the Democrat peanut farmer president, told a crowd: “It should not have taken 12 years and a hearing record of over 100,000 pages for the FDA to decide what percentage of peanuts there ought to be in peanut butter.” That really happened. It’s one of the most ridiculed, infuriating and misunderstood moments in American history, and it caught the attention of one Virginia housewife.  Ruth Desmond, or the “Peanut Butter Grandma,” as she came to be known, first traveled to Washington, D.C., to learn about the risks of food additives.  She ended up taking on corporations, and tipping the U.S. into a regulatory state. This is her story. Welcome back to The Uncertain Hour. Where the things we fight the most about are the things we know the least about. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, or your favorite podcast app. 

Oct 2017

33 min 30 sec

Join us this season as we go down the strange rabbit holes of history to find the origins of one of the most important but least understood battles in our economy today.  We’ll bring you tales of peanut butter, “unelected bureaucrats,” the federal register, and a youth jazz orchestra. It’s all to make sense of that unassuming buzzword that shapes every moment of our lives: federal regulations.

Oct 2017

4 min 10 sec

Loyal listeners of The Uncertain Hour podcast may have had motivational work songs stuck in their heads (our apologies!). As you know, this season we dug deep into the story of what the heck welfare is today. Episode one featured music produced by a county welfare department in Riverside, California. We also annotated the lyrics to the first track. The album, “Work Makes the Difference,” was created to play in waiting rooms, over PA systems and as the hold music for incoming calls. After that episode, we received many requests for the entire welfare-to-work, synth-pop CD. And now, finally, after many emails with the Riverside Department of Public Social Services, we are releasing what we hope will be your summer soundtrack. Enjoy.

Aug 2016

14 min 8 sec

What’s the best path out of poverty — work or education? Twenty years ago, welfare reformers came to this fork in the road and had to ask the question: Is it better to encourage welfare recipients to get a job, any job? Or is it better to support them while they get training and education that will eventually help them get better-paying jobs? In the end, welfare reformers adopted a “work-first” strategy that required most folks to work in order to receive cash welfare. In this episode, the what if…. We meet two women. One dropped out of college so she could work and continue to receive cash welfare. The other was part of a program that allowed to finish her degree. Welcome back to “The Uncertain Hour,” the Wealth & Poverty desk’s new podcast hosted by Senior Correspondent Krissy Clark.

Jul 2016

43 min 5 sec

When Brandi David discovered she was pregnant, she knew she wanted an abortion. Brandi was a graduate student at the time and didn’t feel ready to be a mother. She wasn’t sure where to go for help. But then she remembered a billboard at a busy intersection in South Bend, Indiana that she had driven by many times. It said: “Pregnant? We can help.” So she called the number. What happened to Brandi next… well, that’s what brings us to Indiana–the last stop on our cross-country trip where we investigate how states spend federal welfare dollars.  If you’re curious about how your state spends federal welfare dollars, check out this online tool from Marketplace. Welcome back to “The Uncertain Hour,” the Wealth & Poverty desk’s new podcast hosted by Senior Correspondent Krissy Clark.  

Jun 2016

26 min 30 sec

What do college scholarships, marriage counseling classes and crisis pregnancy centers have in common? In some states, they’re funded by federal welfare dollars. We are continuing our cross-country tour where we drop in on states to investigate how they spend welfare money, known as Temporary Assistance to Needy Families or TANF.  This week: Michigan.  The state spends about $100 million a year in TANF dollars on college scholarships—and many recipients are from families that earn more than $100,000 year. Meanwhile, just 18 out of every 100 families living in poverty receives basic cash assistance. If you’re curious about how your state spends federal welfare dollars, check out this online tool from Marketplace. Welcome back to “The Uncertain Hour,” the Wealth & Poverty desk’s new podcast hosted by Senior Correspondent Krissy Clark.  

Jun 2016

23 min 55 sec

What do you think of when you think of welfare? Probably something along the lines of help or money given to families living in poverty.  Or, work requirements to receive assistance. But actually, in 2014 only 23 out of every 100 poor families received basic cash assistance. That’s partly because states have a lot of discretion in deciding how to spend federal welfare block grants, known as Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, or TANF. States spend welfare money on the obvious things, like childcare and work-related activities. They also spend a significant chunk on some very surprising things, which you can see using this online tool from Marketplace. We took a trip to Oklahoma to hang out in a marriage class for middle-income couples, funded by — you guessed it —  your taxpayer dollars. Welcome back to “The Uncertain Hour,” the Wealth & Poverty desk’s new podcast hosted by Senior Correspondent Krissy Clark.  

May 2016

34 min 23 sec

Perhaps more than any other group, women on welfare have been stigmatized. In this episode, we introduce you to two women who’ve relied on welfare through the years: Ruby Duncan, an 83-year-old welfare rights activist in Las Vegas, and Josephine Moore, a 59-year-old mother of six in Kermit, West Virginia. Duncan grew up picking cotton in rural Louisiana. As a young woman, she moved to Las Vegas where she worked as a maid in hotels and a cook in casinos. After an accident left her with severe spine damage, Duncan sometimes relied on welfare to support her seven children. The racial discrimination she experienced in the 1960s and ’70s led her to become a prominent welfare rights activist. We first met Josephine Moore almost 20 years ago when Marketplace followed her transition from welfare to work. That was right after the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (aka welfare reform) passed in 1996. So two decades later, we drop in on Moore where she lives, in a tiny coal-mining town, to see how life after welfare reform has been for her family. Welcome back to “The Uncertain Hour,” the Wealth & Poverty desk’s new podcast hosted by Senior Correspondent Krissy Clark.  

May 2016

34 min 1 sec

In the summer of 1996, on the lawn of the White House Rose Garden, President Clinton signed a bill that would dramatically transform the country’s welfare system. Twenty years later, what the heck is welfare anyway? And we should make it clear — we’re talking about cash assistance to poor families, not food stamps or medicaid. Welcome to “The Uncertain Hour,” the Wealth & Poverty desk’s new podcast hosted by Senior Correspondent Krissy Clark. In the first episode, we’ll introduce you to the “Magic Bureaucrat” — the former director of a suburban county welfare office. You’ll hear about his foray into synthpop music production and how he launched the welfare reform movement. Because the things we argue most about are often the things we know the least about.

Apr 2016

41 min 7 sec