The Bad Credit Cycle

UnknownRochelle’s car is again the problem and there is no easy solution this time. The car can’t pass the state emission’s test; it seems to be because of a major problem with the engine. Her car has well over 100,000 miles on it, has had the emissions problem for most of the past year, and will be too expensive to fix. A repair shop said they could give her a current inspection sticker good for one year if she just gets her horn fixed. It doesn’t work either. This is a short-term solution, but it won’t fix the long-term problem.

Rochelle pays $535 per month for the car and insurance. She has an extremely poor credit score and is being charged a 20% interest rate on the car. To make matters worse, she still owes over $5,000 on it. Her first thought was to let it get re-possessed. Instead she has decided to keep making payments on the car and to go ahead with the repair shop’s suggestion. Bad credit has made Rochelle unable to buy a car from a regular dealer with a much lower interest rate. She is unable to borrow money at a reasonable rate from anywhere and currently also owes a total of $500/month to five different finance companies. When she needs more money she re-finances one of her loans with the current places she owes money to. She is locked into a vicious cycle. The poor do indeed pay a lot more for things.

Rochelle comes over for one of her last two interviews tomorrow morning. Her job is going well; she has been promoted into the position she has been training for the last few months. Her managers like her and she seems now to have a more sophisticated understanding of her job and how to do it. She is also taking classes given by the grocery store to prepare employees for further advancement in the company. That is the good news, but how to get ahead in the midst of all her problems is a huge challenge. Rochelle would have a lot more money if she had good credit. Fixing bad credit has no easy solution. It takes paying your bills on time over multiple years. She hasn’t done that in the past, and recently missed two car payments. Her friends tell her that she can just pay some money to a person who “fixes” credit. It isn’t true, of course, and so far she hasn’t been seduced by that scam. The US is full of people with bad credit, and a good number of them come from the middle class. But many more, like Rochelle, come from the underclass. For them, mistakes made early in life, when they had little understanding of the world, few positive role models, no or bad advice, and a complete absence of any family safety net, continue to dog them as they get older and form families of their own, no matter how hard they work to leave their past behind them.


Stormy Seas Again

images-1I thought it was only a matter of time before the relative calm in Rochelle’s life would end; I had been fairly certain it would be either her mother’s health or the breakdown of her car that would cause the stormy seas to break out again; it was the car.

“My safety sticker has expired and I can’t get a new one because my engine light is on,” Rochelle told me. Her engine light had been on for many months and her car had not been working well during this time. She had tried to have her sister’s ex-husband fix the problem; parts had been replaced but the problem had remained. Deshawn, the ex-brother-in-law, had run a computer check when the light had first come on. He manages a quick- oil- change location and has always offered to help. He has also, on occasion, put safety stickers on Rochelle’s cars even though the cars had safety problems. This time, however, Deshawn could not do this for her; people had recently been fired at his shop for doing exactly that; He didn’t want to lose his job.

“I have to get my sticker because Mama drives the car. If the police stop her because of no sticker, she’ll go to jail; she has outstanding warrants,” Rochelle reminded me. Her mother was on parole for welfare fraud and had stopped going to her parole officer long ago. She had also not paid back the money she had gained by this fraud as required by the court. It is somewhat common for people to procrastinate when getting new safety stickers, but Rochelle couldn’t take the risk.

Money, of course, is the real problem. Legitimate repair shops want $100 to run the computer check plus the repair cost, which had been estimated at between $200-$400. Last week Rochelle thought she had circumvented the problem and had paid a man $75 for what turned out to be a fake sticker. She knew it was illegal but thought it would be a real sticker. It wasn’t. Now she is trying to sell this sticker to her uncle.

Rochelle’s life is precarious at best. Currently she has a job and has been promoted twice, but keeping the job requires her children to be cared for and her car to be working. When something goes wrong with her mother or her car, Rochelle is in choppy waters again. A higher income could buy her childcare and car repairs. She is now earning more than she ever has, but it is still not enough. Children are very expensive Rochelle has discovered. She wasn’t able to learn that growing up in generational poverty.

School Crisis Avoided

imagesTwo weeks ago Rochelle had an awful day, and it got worse.  She called me and said her car wouldn’t start; could I please pick her up from work.  Usually that means a dead battery, but I knew she had recently bought a new one. She had gone to work in daylight so she couldn’t have left her lights on.  Rochelle works near where she lives, and it isn’t far from my house.  We first stopped by a convenience store so she could buy a money order for her rent.  It was the first of the month, and there are steep fines for paying late.  I dropped her at her apartment and told her I would see her the next day for our weekly interview.  I wished her good luck with her car.

“Yesterday was the worstest day,” she told me when she came in the door for her interview the next day.  I don’t correct Rochelle’s English because I would be correcting her all the time, and that would stress our relationship.  I think I will correct her the next time she uses “worstest,” however. She uses it a lot, and I think it is such a stigmatized term that it could alter people’s judgements of her.  Her daily life can be hard.   She had found someone to jumpstart her car so it was running, but now she had another problem.  Rochelle had been called by her elder daughter’s afterschool care teacher because her daughter, Kalinda, had been in a fight with another girl.   Kalinda was now suspended from the afterschool care program at least for the rest of the week.  Rochelle was concerned that she might be suspended for the rest of the year.  She had called the teacher and was now waiting to see what was going to happen.  During the week her work was scheduling her so she could be off in time to pick up her children from afterschool care.  She would have to cut her hours if she didn’t have Kalinda in afterschool care.

“I’m going to pull her out of that school.  It’s too rough,” Rochelle told me.  I told her it took two people to have a fight and suggested perhaps Kalinda should have gone to the teacher if the other girl had started the fight.  “What is she supposed to do, just stand there and get beat up?”  Rochelle responded. She now had a possible child care crisis and a car whose new battery had died, though she had no idea why.  Both problems could cost her money she didn’t have.

I didn’t see Rochelle last week because I had gone to visit my sister, Jessie, for five days.  When I got back home from my trip all Rochelle’s problems from her recent “worstest day” seemed to have been resolved, at least for now.  The car had not been fixed properly when she had been in a wreck last April; her trunk could pop open a bit and leave the trunk light on, which drains her battery.  Her daughter had received counseling from the teacher and from the school’s security person, as did the other girl in the fight, and they had to clean the cafeteria from 2:45 until 5:00 every day after school for two weeks.  The teacher said suspending her permanently would cause more problems than it would solve, so she didn’t believe in doing that.  I forgot to ask Rochelle if she was still going to move her daughter to a different school.  The schools in her neighborhood get rougher as the children get older, and Kalinda had started junior high this school year.  Rochelle had mentioned her concern about the junior high school before Kalinda started the school year.

The car will present more problems in the future, and school may not continue to go smoothly for Kalinda.  Next year she will have to attend a different school, any way, because her current one is going to be all boys.  Rochelle is really concerned about that because, she says, the new school, which will be all girls, will mix in some really tough girls from different neighborhoods.  But for now, the car is running, and all three children are in afterschool care.  Most problems are crises when one lives with so little money, and when there is no other adult to help shoulder the chronic difficulties of life.  But Rochelle was happy these problems are resolved for now.





Two Jobs

images-1“I am just so tired,” Rochelle told me recently.  We’ve had a very hard time getting together for our weekly interviews since she started working two jobs about a month ago.  The grocery store location she will be working for has pushed back its opening for a second time, so she is still working at one of the company’s other locations.  She officially quit her job at the home for the disabled but is picking up two or three days a week there for extra money.  The home has many open positions and desperately need her to fill in.  This works out well for Rochelle, too, right now.  She juggles the two jobs and the driving back and forth between where her mother stays and her own apartment.  This is a sixty-mile round trip.  One week the children stay at her mother’s, and one week her mother and the children stay with her.  It is no wonder Rochelle is tired.

“The grocery store is so busy,” Rochelle said. It is the busiest location the company has, and they say if she is successful there, she’ll be successful at the new location, too.  It has been quite a while since Rochelle has worked in such a busy situation.  The department store she had worked for two and a half years ago was very busy until the demographics changed, and they started to wind down to closing the store.  She was only working one job then and had a set schedule.  Her schedule now isn’t set and changes weekly, and her children aren’t in school.  Juggling two jobs and three kids is tiring for anyone.

Rochelle and I were finally going to meet for an interview a couple of mornings ago.  My sister, Jessie, the anthropologist, was in town, and we were going to have lunch together after the interview.  Jessie and Rochelle had never met.  Rochelle really wanted Jessie to meet her children, but they were at their grandmother’s, thirty miles away.  Since she didn’t have to work that day Rochelle drove the sixty mile round trip to pick up her children the evening before the lunch.  It was important to Rochelle that she show Jessie (who funds the interviews) her proudest accomplishment.  She wanted to demonstrate that she was a better mother to her children than her mother had been to her.  Rochelle spent several hours “combing the country” out of her daughters’ hair so that they would look “proper” when meeting Jessie.  Rochelle spent some time on her own hair, as well.  They all looked great when they arrived at the restaurant.

Since Rochelle had the children with her that morning we skipped the interview again, and called the lunch an interview.  Everyone had a good time, and Rochelle’s five year old son, Kyle, exclaimed “this is great food,” as he dipped his French fries into ranch dressing and munched on chicken. Rochelle said they hadn’t really had breakfast that day. We even had desert since it was a special lunch: peach cobbler and ice cream all around.  The children were relaxed, talkative, and well behaved.  They thanked me for lunch, but I told them to thank Jessie since she was paying.  “Are you going to split it?” asked Kyle, aware, even at five, of the economic realities of life.  “No, my sister is paying for all of it,” I said.  So they thanked Jessie and hugged us both when they left.  Rochelle had every right to be proud of her accomplishment that day.  Her children did her proud.

Maybe next week Rochelle and I can get together for a real interview.  Other women juggle two jobs, three kids, and no husband, but it certainly can’t be easy.  I know I would be tired too.

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.