Rochelle, JFK, LBJ, and Martin Luther King

images-1I came across a quote of Martin Luther King’s:  “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it understands that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”  After spending two years as a VISTA volunteer in the War on Poverty in 1966, and again in 1969, I came to understand how true this was.  It has hit home even more deeply after spending more than a year interviewing Rochelle.  Just recently I was having lunch with a new friend who does subscribe to this blog.  “I feel so badly for her.  What can I do? Can I give her some money?”  she asked.  “It will take a lot more than money to solve her problems,” I replied.  My friend really wanted to help but felt helpless.  I know my sister and I often feel helpless as well.

I was thinking about all that a couple of days ago when Rochelle came over for her weekly interview.  In a few days it would be the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy.  I had been 16 and a senior in high school the day it happened. I was listening to my teacher’s lecture on current events in my 3rd period history class; the school’s public address system interrupted the class with the announcement of the president’s death in Dallas.  Rochelle’s mother had just been born that year so this is very ancient history to Rochelle.  We recently had seen the movie The Butler, however, so I knew she was somewhat aware of the history.  This, combined with the fact that this 50th anniversary was getting tremendous coverage on television, made me bring up the subject during my interview.  Rochelle knows that the reason my sister, brother and I are so interested in the problems of poverty is because we were all VISTA volunteers; what she doesn’t know anything about is what The War on Poverty was.  VISTA changed me and changed my siblings far more than it benefitted the disadvantaged people we worked with in those years.  John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson knew “an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring,” but President Kennedy’s Peace Corps did not wipe out poverty outside the United States and VISTA didn’t put much of a dent in domestic poverty. The programs have accomplished some positive changes in the lives of the poor, but what most volunteers will say is that it changed them the most.

“I wouldn’t be sitting here interviewing you in 2013 if it hadn’t been for President Kennedy and President Johnson,” I told Rochelle.  I had joined VISTA less than 3 years after Kennedy’s death.  “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country,” he had said in his famous inaugural speech.  I took that to heart and interrupted college to join VISTA after my sophomore year.  My eldest sister followed a few months later; much later, when my brother had finished college, he signed up as well.  I’m not sure any of us had known any poor people before our VISTA experiences; the town we grew up in was almost entirely white and middle class.  I know I met a black person for the first time in Oklahoma City during my volunteer year there.  Rochelle knows that story, though she was amazed when I told it to her.

Martin Luther King wrote in his last book, Where Do We Go from Here:  “One day the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be beaten and robbed as they make their journey through life.”  This is what I meant when I told my friend at lunch that it was going to take a whole lot more than money to solve the problems produced by poverty.  Money does help, however.  The grocery store Rochelle works for just handed out thank you cards to their hourly employees for a job well done over the last fiscal year.  Inside the card was an unexpected $100 bill.  Rochelle just couldn’t believe it.  $100 was going to come in very handy with her food stamps down and her rent up.  Perhaps, now that she is working full-time, she will qualify for Obamacare; not a perfect health care plan by any means, but a godsend for those who previously had no health care and turned to the emergency rooms when they needed doctors. This is a needed restructuring of an edifice such as Martin Luther King was referring to. It is, however, only a small step in the transformation of the Jericho road King wrote about in his book.

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Rochelle Gets Promoted

imagesRochelle called me last week with great news!  “I got promoted to full-time with benefits,” she told me excitedly.  “And I got another fricking raise.  I am just so excited.  I told them I would be happy to work Christmas and Thanksgiving, but I don’t have to.  I like my job and I like the people I work with.  I am getting an 11% raise this time, and I’ve only been working for the company for 6 months.  I’ve received two raises and a promotion.  I’ll be making the same pay as I made at the department store when they closed, but it took me 7 years to get there.”  Rochelle could hardly believe that her hard work had paid off so quickly.  I wasn’t surprised, but I was thrilled for her.  I had always heard that this privately held grocery store chain was a great place to work.  I had graduated from The McCombs Graduate School of Business at The University of Texas in 1981; the woman who was president of my class at the time also decided to work for this same Texas grocery store.  When I asked her why, she had explained that it had a reputation for great management and excellent training.  I haven’t kept up with this woman, but it seems that she was correct.

Rochelle came over for another interview three days later.  There were new problems with her eldest daughter; she had removed her from her middle school and enrolled her in a charter school the same day she had received her promotion.  Normally this would have been a major crisis in Rochelle’s life, but the praise and another raise and a promotion to full-time hours with benefits made her able to take all that in stride.  “I just might be on my way,” she told me.  “They really like me there and they tell me I have a future with them.”  She worked hard at the department store too, but it made no difference in her economic status.   No one had taken her aside and mentored her.  Her raises were small and there had been no chance for promotion.  Not only was I happy for Rochelle, I was also gratified to see a company treat its employees so well.  Good companies realize that it is actually their employees who must come first and not the customer.  Customers are treated well when the employees are treated well.

The news of her promotion is the best news Rochelle has had in the year or so that I have been interviewing her.  It doesn’t solve all her problems; her pay is still low, but it is a huge step in the right direction.  She is very proud of herself and she deserves to feel that way. She wants to be self-sufficient.  She wants off food stamps.  She wants off her housing subsidy, and she wants to be able to afford health insurance.   She isn’t there yet, but she has made a huge step forward by starting to work at what appears to be an employee focused company.

A Test for American Progress

The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”

Franklin D. Roosevelt.

images I found this quote at the beginning of the book One Nation Underprivileged:  Why American Poverty Affects Us All, by Mark R. Rank, a professor of social welfare at Washington University in St. Louis.  The book looks good and I’ve ordered it, but the quote has stuck in my mind.  Despite its enormous wealth, the United States seems unable to come together to find solutions to poverty in The United States.  Frankly I don’t know what to say to Rochelle when she wonders how to keep working when childcare has been taken from her by government budget cuts.  I don’t know where to tell her to turn.  Here is a young woman trying to do everything right after some  past mistakes and yet she seems never to be able to get ahead for long.  What a waste for our country.  Not only is a hard working person finding it almost impossible to get ahead; the effects on the next generation will be a continuation of this culture of poverty.  How stupid can we, as a people, be?