This 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.