Most parents look forward to school starting as the summer winds down. Most children look forward to it, as well. Summer was long; the working parents had to find some way to care for the children; children who had been eligible for free meals at school now had to be fed at home; and most kids started missing their school friends. But, though everyone seems to look forward to the start of school year, there are major expenses that come with it, as well. Not only may new clothes be needed, but now parents seem required to supply quite a lot of the school supplies out of their own pockets. My sister Jessie and I remember that our parents were required to buy almost no school supplies. Sure, we needed binders then, not backpacks, but that’s all we remember our parents needed to purchase. Maybe our town or our time was different; I don’t know, but now, in the city I live in, back-to-school supplies are a significant expense. Rochelle is stressed out because of it. The cost of supplies for three children is significant.
“I don’t get paid until Thursday,” she told me on the phone. “I was wondering if I could have an advance on my interview money?” My anthropologist sister, Jessie, pays her for the interviews she does with me, and Rochelle was to receive more money in a week. “I need to buy school supplies, but I just had to buy two tires,” she explained when we discussed the problem. School was starting in less than a week. Rochelle was looking for organizations that provided free school supplies for her children, but this year she also had to buy school uniforms for Kalinda, who was beginning middle school. Any expense beyond the basic ones puts Rochelle into financial trouble. The car tires had put her over the edge. Two weeks earlier she had mentioned to me that she was “out of money.” The apartment had wanted payment on a late water bill and also charged her late fees, another unexpected expense she hadn’t been prepared for. I agreed to advance her the interview money this time. It would only be for a few days.
“You know, I’ve been thinking about how we have talked about planning for the future,” Rochelle told me in our interview later that day. “Next summer I need to get the kids into some sort of camp or something. They can’t just be watching T.V. at their grandmother’s and eating all summer long,” she said. “And I still need to write a resume.” This was the first time I had ever heard her talk about future needs and plans. I agreed. Free summer camps are available, but research and advance planning will be required if that is to happen by next summer. Rochelle is enjoying her new job, but she wants to advance. She has always wanted to work for the state of Texas and has noticed that all state jobs want applicants to e-mail a resume. A resume on hand would enable Rochelle to apply for an available position if she finds one. She may want to stay with the grocery store if she can advance, but she now wants some options. “I’m getting older,” she told me, “I have to think about the future.” I also suggested a savings account of sorts. “If you started taking a water bottle to work instead of buying water, you could put that money into a savings account and it would add up over a year’s time,” I said. “Yeah, that would be easy,” Rochelle agreed. It was a modest suggestion, but she liked it.
School starts in two days, but Rochelle and I hadn’t even discussed upcoming child care solutions during this interview. She thinks the two younger children will be able to stay at their school until 6:00, if she gets in line early enough when the sign up happens next week. But, though we have been talking about the problem for a few months, she is not sure how care will be provided for Kalinda, who will be going to middle school. “I’ll figure something out,” she said. I handed her a list of programs I thought were available at that school. We had talked about it before, but Kalinda was not eligible for some of the programs. Childcare, work schedules, school supplies, these are all stressors most parents face, but with the additional stress of poverty they can become overwhelming. Rochelle will get through this situation, but I still cross my fingers. So does she.