Life With No Safety Net

Unknown-1“When you ain’t got nothin’, you got nothin’ to lose,” goes the Bob Dylan song. Rochelle certainly has nothing, but, because she has three children, she has everything to lose. In a perfect month she can balance her budget. She earns only $7.65/hour and works just thirty hours a week, but her monthly income meets her monthly expenditures. At least it does on paper in an ideal month. If she did not receive federal assistance she and her children would be on the streets and starving. Her net income is $1818/month. Her fixed expenditures are $1656/month. These figures show nothing spent for clothing and nothing extra. Her estimated expenditure for food is only $40/month more than her food stamps, but surely this can’t be right, even though her children qualify for free school breakfast and lunch.

Rochelle receives $248 in food stamps, now called SNAP; her rent is only $220 due to qualifying for Section 8 housing subsidy; plus she receives Social Security (SSI) for her disabled daughter. In a month, with no financial surprises, Rochelle makes ends meet. Most months do have financial surprises. It might be a car repair or an unexpectedly high electric bill due to an extremely hot Texas summer. In the real world, Rochelle’s income almost never matches her required cash outflow. Today she is driving 30 miles in her unreliable car to a church in a nearby town that has agreed to pay her $400 overdue electric bill.

Rochelle has no safety net. Her relatives and friends are also poor. They are in the same desperate position she is, and she can’t turn to them in an emergency. She has no savings because she has always worked low paying jobs. She has awful credit, partly because she was never taught how one gets and keeps good credit. She grew up seeing her friends and family surrounded by the “fringe banking” world of payday loans and pawnshops. All it takes is one extra expense a month for Rochelle to have a financial crisis. When this happens the only place she can go is to high interest finance companies, higher interest payday loans, or pawnshops. Currently she spends $433 each month to make payments to five different finance companies. When a new crisis arises she re-finances one or more of these loans and then owes even more in interest payments. The five finance companies are like balls she is constantly juggling. “This is just what we do,” she told me. As the title of David Caplowitz’s 1967 book puts it, “The Poor Pay More”, They pay a lot more.

Rochelle’s financial hole is dug deeper every year because life never progresses ideally. Minimum wage and low wage jobs are not living wage jobs. If there were another wage earner, even a minimum wage earner in Rochelle’s household, life would be tolerable. But Rochelle’s situation is much like that of the other 25% of American households headed by single women, where the median income is $23,000, just slightly higher than Rochelle’s. That’s less than half the overall US median income for 2013, estimated at roughly $51,000 . Working hard at low wage jobs has not allowed Rochelle to move forward. I’ve worked with Rochelle, and she is smart and very hard working, but she needs to see some light at the end of the tunnel for her hard work. So far, after losing her job when the department store closed, she has actually moved backwards.

Tomorrow will be Rochelle’s first day at her new job. She’ll be working as a cashier for a very successful grocery store chain. This job provides higher pay but fewer hours than her current job. She plans on working at least some hours in her old job so that she can try to get ahead. Rochelle hopes she will get full time work with the grocery store if she shows them what a good employee she can be. She is keeping her fingers crossed and so am I. Living with no safety net is an exhausting life.

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David at Age Twelve

maxbaby1c“How many cats would you have if you could afford it?” Rochelle had brought her twelve year old nephew to my house. He loved animals and asked me this question after playing with my two cats. Rochelle had called at 6:45 a.m. to say she wouldn’t be able to come for her weekly interview because her sister, David’s mother, was in the hospital. I called back later and suggested she just bring David with her and we would all just go out to breakfast.

David’s mother is a stripper and frequently brings men home. David’s father has been in prison the past nine years. David and his mother have moved frequently, and he was held back a year in school. He seemed polite, nice and intelligent. Rochelle tells me he is beaten at home when he can’t do his homework or when he gets bad grades. His focus seems to be on his pet rat. He loves that rat and told me all about it. I told him they are great pets and that I had two when I was a child and even had one when I was in my twenties. He would like a dog but they can’t afford it. I told him his rat was perfect.

I asked Rochelle if we should take David to school but Rochelle told me the school he went to was a secret. He had changed schools about six months earlier, and his mother told him not to tell anyone where he went. Rochelle has no idea why this happened, and her sister wouldn’t tell her.

At age twelve, with a difficult life, David still seems like a very nice and friendly boy. It is hard not to wonder how long this will last in his environment. It is very unlikely things will get better at home. Twelve is a rough age for a lot of children, but it is rougher for a boy whose father is in prison and whose mother strips for a living and beats him for bad schoolwork. At least he does have his pet rat to talk to and play with at home.

We went to breakfast and I asked David what subject he liked in school. “Hands on science,” he said. Then his mother called and said she was being released from the hospital. He looked relieved. As we went our separate ways I told him it was nice to have met him. “Nice to meet you too,” he said. “I really liked playing with your cats.”

Life Choices

ChoicesThis is not a post from the usual author of Rochelle’s World.  She is the middle sister, Rochelle’s friend and former co-worker.  It’s not from the youngest sister, the tech-savvy film professor, who set the blog up and keeps it running.  I’m the oldest sister, the anthropology professor, and I’ve been thinking about choices.

We hear a lot these days about people like Rochelle, who, as politicians like to say, “have made poor choices.”  The idea is that they could and should have made “better choices.”  And since they didn’t, now they are just going to have to suffer the consequences.  They are going to have to pay for their choices.

There are several things wrong with this simplistic approach.

First, how much “choice” do Rochelle and people like her really have?  Rochelle’s mother, her sister, her cousins, and her friends all live in acute poverty, have little education, few job skills, and have had children without husbands.  None of this makes for a happy, secure, or comfortable life, but it is no more the result of conscious, reasoned choice than the life trajectory of a middle class person like me.  When I was young I didn’t think through what I should do, either.  I just did well in school because that was what was expected of me.  I went to college for the same reason.  I had my only child once I was married because that was what middle class women did.  Pretending that people’s youthful activities, largely conditioned by the culture they grow up in, are “choices,” is self serving and unrealistic.

Second, consider the differential price we pay for our “bad choices,” depending on the worlds we inhabit.  Rochelle was not a great student; school was not important to her or to her friends and family.  She never went to college.  She developed no job skills.  She had three children with no one to support them but herself.  So she is desperately poor.  Though I was a great student in elementary and high school, I bombed in college, dividing my time between the movie theatre and Victorian novels (not an adaptive strategy for a philosophy major).  When I graduated, with lousy grades and no job skills, I could still get a job with benefits and reasonable pay, because I was a middle class white person with a BA.  And because of those accidental features of my life, I was able to get a second chance.  I went to graduate school, got a PhD, and now have a secure job with good benefits and a comfortable salary.  I paid way less for my lousy choices than Rochelle is paying for hers, and none of it has to do with greater virtue on my part.

Third, when my husband was in graduate school and I was providing most of the household income, I got pregnant by mistake.  But, being a middle class person, I feared that a baby at that point would derail our lives, so I had an abortion.  Years later, when our incomes were more secure, I had my only child.  That child, now, ironically, the same age as Rochelle, will graduate from medical school in three weeks.  An accomplished violinist, she graduated from the same Ivy League college I did.  She has traveled all over the world and served two years in the Peace Corps.  Not only did I pay very little for my lousy choices, but my daughter has paid nothing for them.  Rochelle’s three children, on the other hand, are already paying for their mother’s lousy “choices,” and they will almost certainly continue to do so for the rest of their lives.

Rochelle works hard at an unrewarding and poorly paid job to support herself and her children.  She helps out her relatives when she can.  She doesn’t drink or smoke, and she doesn’t touch drugs.  She is concerned with her children’s education, and she goes to their parent-teacher conferences and to their school performances when she doesn’t have to work.  These are choices, too; good ones.  But the cost of her earlier “choices” is so great that it is terribly hard to overcome them.   It’s like the cost of borrowing money from the finance companies that prey on the poor (and that Rochelle knows well): you never get out from under the interest.

It is apparently comforting for the middle and upper classes to talk about “poor choices.”  Not only do they conveniently forget their own poor choices, which have had relatively few consequences, but the idea of “choice” allows the affluent to blame the poor for their poverty and its complications.  Can’t people transcend the limitations and conditions of their surroundings?  Of course, they can, or at least remarkable people can.  But in truth, most of us cannot and do not.  We are far from remarkable.  It would have been as hard for me not to go to college and to have three children without a husband as it would have been for Rochelle to have got a PhD and had only one child once she and her husband (what husband?) had achieved economic security.  As noted, I paid very little for my bad choices, and my daughter has paid nothing for them.  Rochelle is paying for her mother’s choices, as well as for her own, and her children are also paying for hers.  In the end, of course, Rochelle and her children are paying for choices our ancestors made centuries ago, and indeed, all of us are paying for them indirectly.

Baby Steps Forward

footstepsSome days are good days for Rochelle.  Some days the car starts; bills get paid; there is food in the refrigerator and gas in the car.  When those days come, Rochelle can think about what to do tomorrow and next week.  She can make future plans.  She can’t really waste that time sleeping or watching television because those times come too infrequently for her.  Moving forward means using any free time she has to do things with a positive effect on her future.  “Free time” is only “problem-free time” for her.

Since last September, when I began interviewing her, Rochelle has received free health and dental insurance through a city program.  She has used it for a medical check-up and has also had four dental clinic visits to repair what a lifetime of dental neglect had done to her teeth.  Her children are covered by Medicaid.  This week she starts training for her new, higher paying job.  The job pays only $9.00/hour to start, and is only part-time, but it is for a well- respected company. The company gives raises twice a year for the first two years, then once a year after that. The $9.00/hour, while still less than she was earning at the department store, is much more than her current $7.65/hour.  The job is quite close to her apartment, plus her current employer says she can also work part-time with them if she wishes.  Rochelle started part-time at the department store and turned it into full-time work.  The same is possible with this new job. The problem of childcare, however, still looms. If her mother backs out of her offer to increase the days she cares for the children, or if her mother gets sicker, what will Rochelle do?  Everything, really, hinges on childcare. When one is a mother everything pivots around childcare.

Today, actually, food is on the table because Rochelle pawned everything of value she had.  These were not family jewels. She has no family jewels.  She pawned the electronics, which had mostly been presents for the children.  It is not the first time she has done that.

Tomorrow there may be another crisis.  If there isn’t one tomorrow, then most likely there will be one within the next few weeks.  That is what happens when life is lived on the edge.  Baby steps, however, if successful, can turn into giant steps.  That can happen too.  Rochelle believes that.

Abusive Men

abusiveRochelle didn’t look good when she arrived for her weekly interview.  Immediately she started crying.  Big sobs.  “I’ve made the biggest mistake of my life,” she told me. “Jamail, the kids’ father, had to move out of where he was staying.  Everyone knows I’m desperate financially so he asked if he could store his stuff in my place.  He wouldn’t live there, he would just store his stuff and he would pay me for doing that.  So I did it and now it is the worst mistake of my life.  He’s not paying me any money, he’s using utilities, he stole my daughter’s apartment key and let himself in last night at about 2:00 in the morning.  I was scared since it was dark and I was asleep.  We started fighting.  I told him he couldn’t stay there.  The kids woke up and were scared.  He hit me in the face and told me to call the cops if I wanted to.  We started going after each other.  He called me a whore in front of the kids.  Said I was good for nothing.  He said the rest of his homeboys had women who worked so their men didn’t have to.  Then he said I was flirting with men and wanted to see my Facebook page and my cell phone.”

I asked Rochelle why she didn’t call the police for a restraining order.   “I have too many things going on.  I can’t deal with Child Protective Services now; they might call them.  My car’s engine light is on; I have no money, and it is the beginning of the month; and I’m changing jobs.  And I’m just hoping my mama is going to care for the kids like she now said she would,” Rochelle answered.  “I am at my end.  I want to kill him,” she then said.  “I just want to kill him.”

Rochelle and I discussed the seriousness of having a violent man in the apartment.  One who hits her, curses her, checks her email and Facebook, and accuses her of flirting, even though they are no longer a couple.  This man has no job, no place to live, and rarely gives Rochelle any money to support his kids.  And yet this same man has the nerve to tell Rochelle that his “homeboys” have women who go to work so their boyfriends don’t have to. He asks her why she can’t be like them.  Of course, Rochelle does have a job, which barely supports her and her children.  She certainly has no extra money to support an abusive ex boyfriend, even if she had the inclination to do so.

We continued talking about how this was a serious and dangerous problem, and way too common.  We discussed how such situations can and do lead to someone’s getting killed.  It is bad for the children to see and hear.  Not only are they frightened, but it can easily reinforce the notion that it is acceptable for men to act like Jamail, and that women have no option but to endure it.  More important, it can  lead to someone’s death.  There were some other topics I had wanted to discuss in the interview, but this was enough for one hour.  I briefly mentioned the other topics, and again told Rochelle, “This is a dangerous situation.  You need to keep away from Jamail.”Abusive men are often a complication in worlds like Rochelle’s.  But achieving a split with them is difficult.

The Worstest Day

auto-insurance-grace-periodIt started out with just a phone call:   “ I have just had the worstest day,” Rochelle told me when she phoned.  “First I got a ticket for going through a red light, and later I had a car wreck.  I got another ticket because the wreck was my fault.”  I asked Rochelle how her car was and if anyone was hurt. “Well, it’s not good but they’re going to tow it to a body shop later today.  I did drive it home.  We’re fine but the other lady was taken to the hospital.”  For the first time in her life, Rochelle had car insurance.  She had to have insurance this time because the car had been expensive and she wouldn’t have been able to buy it unless she also had insurance.  Her previous car had been repossessed.  She had stopped making payments because it was a lemon.  It had also been in a wreck where the at- fault- driver fled the scene.  Rochelle had no insurance then.  That car is now part of her very bad credit report.

The wreck and two tickets were just the beginning of a very unfortunate tale of car repair.  Rochelle had the car towed to a body shop chosen because a friend knew a friend who had taken a car to be repaired at the place.  That information, plus a rumor that this body shop discounted the deductible, was enough to make Rochelle’s decision.  I started to have a very bad feeling about the whole thing.  I looked the company up and saw that the body shop was rated an “F” by The Better Business Bureau.  The information came too late because the car had already been towed off.

Because Rochelle had insurance, she was able to get a rental car.  The rental car solved her immediate transportation problem so she wasn’t worried about that.  She was, however, very worried about the cost of the two tickets and the cost of the insurance deductible.  That wasn’t going to go away, and Rochelle had no money to pay for those things.  I suggested that something besides another payday loan or high cost finance company loan should be the solution if that were possible.  Rochelle was already $34,000 in debt due to loans for attending for profit colleges, repossessed cars, non-payment of debts to banks and department stores, and debts to hospitals due to the lack of health insurance.

A couple of weeks went by, and Rochelle did not hear from the body shop.  I suggested she call to find out when the car would be ready.  She called and was told they had only just talked to the insurance company.  They would also fax over a form she needed to sign.  The form said that the body shop would become the owner of the car if she didn’t pay in full when the car was completed.  I had never signed such a thing and suggested she not sign it, either.  She didn’t.  Things were sounding stranger and stranger.  The insurance company said no work was being done on the car.  They had been to the body shop several times to check on things.

Things went from bad to worse.  The car was not getting fixed.  The time limit on the rental car was running out.  Rochelle was just about willing to throw it all in with frustration and let the body shop have the car.  At first she tried to get it moved to another body shop, but it couldn’t be moved without paying an expensive “storage fee” for the time the car had been at the original body shop. Rochelle was between a rock and a hard place.  The body shop kept finding new things wrong with the car and asked the insurance company for more repair money.   Sometimes the insurance company would agree, but often they would not.  No work had been done on the car after it had been at the shop for 4 weeks.  Then, miraculously, the body shop suddenly claimed the car would be done on Monday.  The rental car had to be turned in and was.  The car was, by no surprise, not ready on Monday.  More work and more insurance money was needed.  “I’m just turning it over to God.  I don’t know what to do, and I can’t control it,” Rochelle told me when she called in tears.  I was not a miracle worker nor was I a lawyer. I had no immediate fix for the problem either.  Rochelle did manage to get the shop to give her a loaner car to use.  They had said they would if she had to turn in the rental car.  They did that, but it took  hysterical crying by Rochelle to achieve that goal.  She was at wits’ end.

Finally, six weeks after her car was towed to the very questionable body shop, Rochelle had her car back.  She paid a $250 deductible, which was half of the $500 her insurance company required.  Many, many “supplemental” insurance claims had been made to the insurance company over the six weeks the car was at the shop.   A well-respected body shop offered to check her repaired car for the quality of work when they heard her problem.  It would be at no cost.  That didn’t happen.  “I’m just so tired about the whole thing I don’t want to talk about it any more,” Rochelle told me.  “I don’t want to find out if anything else is wrong.”

What started out as “the worstest day” turned into a worse six weeks.   Luckily Rochelle did have car insurance.  Without it she could have landed in jail and had lawyer’s fees.  “Why do these things always happen to me?”  Rochelle asked.  She asks this question often.  We know each other fairly well now, but my answer is still hard.  “You don’t have a lot of people around you who have learned the right answers,” I tell her.   “They give you bad advice.”   Rochelle grew up and lives in a culture of poverty.  She does what her experience tells her to do and what those around her tell her to do.  Now her experience will tell her to keep her eyes wide open when dealing with auto body shops.  And maybe these “worstest days” will become fewer.  One can only hope so, for her sake.

Jobs and Childcare

Black-African-American-child-playing-jpgWhen I met Rochelle about 10 years ago she was a new mother and a recent high school graduate.  She was working part-time in sales at the same department store where I was employed.  She picked up extra hours when she could, but that didn’t grant her full-time benefits such as sick days, vacations, and health insurance.  Some time later she was offered full-time work and she took it.  Her mother cared for the baby when she was at work.  Rochelle worked hard, got small raises and was even named one of the top sales people in the store one year. Eventually she earned some benefits.

Three years after her first child was born, Rochelle had her second child.  Though working full time and eligible for health care benefits, Rochelle could not afford the cost of the benefit and so Medicaid paid for the birth of her second child as well.  Her mother continued to care now for two children and Rochelle continued to work full time.  Two years later she had her third and last child.  She still had no health insurance and so again Medicaid paid for the medical expenses.  When asked why she had a third child when she was having a hard time paying the expenses for two children, Rochelle really had no answer. “I don’t know.  I just didn’t think about that,” Rochelle always tells me.  She did, however, listen to her doctor and decided to have her fallopian tubes tied at the time of the birth of her third child.  She was 24.

A few years later the department store closed and Rochelle was left without a job.  Her mother’s health problems had increased, and she was no longer able to care for the children as much as she had done previously.  The economy had taken a severe downturn so jobs were not plentiful.  When Rochelle’s unemployment ran out she accepted a job at a residential adult care facility for $7.65 an hour.  This is where she currently works.  $7.65 per hour is much less than she had earned at the department store, and the hours she now works make for very long days.  Rochelle works from 6:00 a.m. until 10:00 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.  This means her mother cares for the children only two days a week.  Rochelle hates the job.  The pay is low, the hours are awful, and management appears not only to be lax in the care of the residents, but someone, or many, are stealing money, supplies and food from the facility.  Rochelle has called me in tears from work telling me she is about to quit.  When she started, the home was staffed with two people per shift, but now she is usually by herself.  That means double work.   But she can’t quit.  She needs the job.  She has herself and three children to feed and clothe and house.  Somehow Rochelle needs to find better employment.

Rochelle is actively looking for a better job.  She recently interviewed with a better paying company.  She was called back for a second interview. It was looking hopeful except the job required some evenings. There was no one to care for her children during those hours.  “I’m not taking the job,” Rochelle told me at the next interview we had.  “My momma can’t care for the kids.” Childcare is what is holding her back.  Rochelle is ready, willing and able to work a better job.  She is hoping something can be worked out with the school system when her youngest child starts kindergarten this coming fall. The youngest isn’t eligible for after school care now.  Childcare is the key to a better job for Rochelle, as it is for many other American women like her.  When there is no childcare available, there are very few jobs to choose from.