Unequal Opportunities 101

Unknown“Why is it that all the healthy food costs lots of money?”  Rochelle asked me one day.  Now that she works in a grocery store she has noticed that organic vegetables and everything advertised as healthy is expensive; more money than she can afford.  “I would buy healthier food if I could afford it,” she said.  And of course, that is indeed the case.  Not only does Rochelle buy food that is high in calories and low in nutritional value, because that is the food that she grew up with, but she buys it because it is all she can afford; she has also never learned how to cook some of the healthier foods.  Fried chicken and pork combined with lots of carbohydrates is basically what her family eats.  They also consume a lot of soft drinks and a lot of junk food.

The grocery store where Rochelle works is interesting because it was built last summer in a location that serves customers of both low and high-income neighborhoods.  The store was built right at the dividing line of these two areas.   The higher income neighborhood was newly built a few years ago; the other is the neighborhood Rochelle lives in which has poor schools, deteriorating apartment buildings, and high crime.  Watching the different products brought to the register has been an educational experience for Rochelle.  The new, affluent neighborhood, however, does have some “affordable housing”.  This took some time to work out with various agencies, but it is something the community wanted to happen.  “Affordable housing” does not mean that it provides for subsidized housing so it is still unaffordable for the very poor.  It may be affordable for a family of four making $50,000 but not for a family of four making $20,000.  This newly built community is, however, a step in the right direction.  It is on the side of town where the poor live.  They lived on that side of town when I moved here in 1969, and a story in this Sunday’s newspaper showed that this is still where most of the poor live almost 50 years later.  The newly built neighborhood has tried to make inroads into this situation.

The town Rochelle and I live in is divided by a major north/south highway; it was once called “The Interregional” because it reaches from Mexico to Chicago.  The richer, and mostly white, people live on the west side of this highway; the east side is where the poorer, and mostly minority, people make their homes.  It has been this way for a long time.  In general it has been an area of no banks, few grocery stores and poor schools.  Somewhat south of where Rochelle lives has started to gentrify over the last 10 years.  The rents are cheap and artists and young hipsters and professionals have started to move in.  Rents are going up, and poor people are moving out.  Things will look very different in 50 more years.

Rochelle lived, grew up and went to school with people somewhat similar to her; until recently she didn’t even realize there was a difference between healthy and unhealthy foods.  A lot of us, rich and poor, live surrounded by people similar to ourselves.  If you are poor, however, at least in this town and many towns like this, you won’t have good schools, or banks, or good grocery stores available to you because they just won’t be in your neighborhoods.  If you are poor you will have unequal opportunities from the rich.  Learning about opportunities available outside her neighborhoods is another mountain Rochelle is trying to climb.  Working at the grocery store has been an eye opening experience.  “But I can’t buy my meat here,” Rochelle said of her store.  “They don’t have what I want.”

Pete Seeger died last week; he often sang a Woody Guthrie song which expresses the unequal opportunity problem very well, especially in these two verses:

                                                This Land is Your Land

                              Was a big high wall there, that tried to stop me.

                              Was a great big sign that said Private Property.

                              But on the other side, it didn’t say nothin’.

                             That side was made for you and me.


                             One bright sunny morning, in the shadow of the steeple,

                             By the relief office, I saw my people.

                             As they stood there hungry, I stood there wondering, if

                            This land was made for you and me.

Academic Success in the Culture of Poverty

Damion HackettThis is the anthropologist sister, Jessie, again.  After last week’s post about the educational difficulties Rochelle’s children face, I’ve been preoccupied by the problem.  I think a lot about education, because that’s what I do for a living: I’m a faculty member in anthropology at a large, public university.  The university I teach at is not particularly distinguished, but it is oriented toward research, and its students are overwhelmingly middle class and white.  For most of them, going to college was not a hard won triumph; it was merely the expected next step after high school.  It is exciting for them not because they are looking forward to exploring new ideas, but because they are getting away from home and living on their own, without parental constraints.  The content of their courses is not particularly interesting to most of them, but they know that their incomes and life choices depend in large measure upon having graduated from college.  So they’re going to do it.

But getting into college, let alone graduating from college, depends on a lot more than the popular American myth of success through hard work and pulling oneself up by one’s own bootstraps.  It’s not just hard work.  It’s not just good teachers.  It’s not even just parents who care.  It’s a whole constellation of social, cultural, and economic factors that provide an atmosphere in which children are able to prosper academically.

Take a look at the apartment Rochelle and her children live in.  It’s in good repair and safe.  It has adequate furniture, a computer, and the environment is stable.  Rochelle has worked very hard to provide this home for her children, and it is in stark contrast to the environment in which she grew up.  Her children aren’t moved from household to household, left with relatives for indeterminate periods of time, and ignored or taunted by their caregivers, who fail to feed them regularly.  They aren’t left alone to fend for themselves, and they’ve never watched a house burn down with their cousins dying inside.  So to Rochelle, the fact that her apartment is strewn with clothing and toys, has no regular spot for the children to do their homework, and no adequate lighting is not even noticeable.  Her children’s situation is such an improvement over her own as a child that its shortcomings are invisible to her.

Kalinda the eldest child, is now 11, and has been diagnosed by the school system as a “slow learner.”  She does not strike the casual acquaintance as “slow” in normal conversation.  But she is certainly not academic.  She has been teased in school, partly because she is overweight and partly because she has been labeled a “slow learner.”  None of this makes school or what goes on there very enjoyable for her.  Although she has recently had the services of a school appointed tutor, as well as a “Big Sister,” who takes her on various outings, there has been little continuity or intensive support for her academic difficulties.  Rochelle works full time and is frustrated and annoyed that Kalinda has difficulties with arithmetic that she never had, herself.  So, despite some real attempts at intervention, there is no systematic approach to the problem.  By contrast, I remember my own daughter, now 29, having problems with arithmetic in second grade.  Her teacher let us know about the problem, and I swung into action.  My mother and one of my sisters had had serious problems with mathematics that lasted a lifetime, and I didn’t want my daughter to be handicapped by math fear.  I made flash cards, and we worked on them every day.  Once a week we went out to a fast food fish restaurant (my daughter’s favorite at the time), where we reviewed the week’s work and celebrated with fish and chips.  It worked, and Leah ended up in the advanced mathematics program.  But that kind of intervention depends on a parent with the time, the experience, and the conviction that educational obstacles can be overcome.  It was luck, not virtue or intelligence, that resulted in Leah’s mathematical turnaround.  She (and I) had been born into a fortunate slot in life.

Kalinda is having trouble learning arithmetic, but so did my mother and my sister, both of them members of Phi Beta Kappa.  In fact, my sister used to call me at the end of the semester for help in figuring out her students’ final grades–she didn’t really understand percentages, despite her PhD.  No one ever thought she was “slow.”  No one ever believed she was a lost educational cause.  Of course, my sister is white and middle class.  Kalinda is not remotely slow at learning aspects of her culture that make more sense to her.  She likes to wear sparkly, “sexy” clothes, and strikes “sexy” poses for photographs, though she is only eleven.  She recognizes the approval her sexy aunt, the exotic dancer, receives from the family, and clearly wants to emulate her.  No one in Rochelle’s family is academically or professionally successful.  There are no role models for Kalinda in that realm of life.  Certainly, teachers tell Kalinda and her fellow students that they need to do well in school so that they will ultimately do well in life, but how meaningful is that for Kalinda and students like her?  Rochelle knows the same thing: her children need to do well in school so that they will do well in life.  But whom does Rochelle know for whom that has been true?  Literally no one, I suspect.  Education may truly be the key to prosperity, the door to the path out of poverty.  But what is the key to the key?  What is the door to the door?  For most people living in the culture of poverty, discussions about the value of education seem mostly like empty words, aimed at someone else.  Of course, there are remarkable people who come from Rochelle’s world and through education succeed in escaping into the middle class.  But the numbers are far smaller than affluent elites like to believe.  Like all cultural systems, the culture of poverty reproduces itself generation after generation.  Serious commitment to social and economic intervention is the only way to interrupt this pattern.

Problems on the Horizon

images-1Rochelle’s world has been somewhat problem-free for over a month.  It has been the longest problem-free time since I have been interviewing her, and it did made me wonder what the next crisis would be.  I didn’t have to wait long to find out because she mentioned it last Tuesday during our interview.  The problem looming in the future surprised me since I didn’t even realize it was on the horizon.  She started the interview by mentioning that she was recently called by a city constable who wanted to serve her with notice from a debt collector.  She recognized the phone number as one she often had to call when relatives had jail problems.  “Well, I’ve used that number enough to recognize the beginning numbers,” she told me.  “At first I wasn’t going to call back, but they have my address and phone number, and now they’ll come looking for me.”  The constable wanted to serve her with notice on a long-ago defaulted debt.  A debt she had forgotten about and thought would never be a problem again.  Rochelle called and set up a payment plan; she had decided this would be cheaper than having to pay court costs later on.

The newly discovered debt did present a new financial difficulty, but then she mentioned something that could indeed become a serious problem down the line.  “I think I’ll probably have to move in January,” she told me.  “Why?” I asked.  “Your children are in school and a disruption and change of schools will be hard on them.”  The conversation about the constable had started her thinking about her uncle.  “Jerome is getting out of prison in January,” she said.  I asked where he was going to stay, and that brought up the problem.  “He probably thinks he’s going to stay with me,” she sighed.  Jerome had stayed with her before, though she isn’t supposed to have roommates when she is receiving Section 8 government assistance.  Jerome had helped with babysitting then, but he always goes back to drug dealing and is not a good influence on her children.  Rochelle thinks moving to a neighboring town will make it impossible for him to stay with her since he won’t have a car.  Her new job is less than a mile from where she now lives, and the children have been going to the same school for the last four years.  The town she mentioned moving to would require more for gas money and has heavy commuter traffic to her work.  The town is also not near any of the services she uses since it is in an entirely different county.  We talked about this for a bit.  I suggested she just tell him he couldn’t move in.  Jerome is her mother’s brother, however, and Rochelle knows many people put her up when she was a child and had nowhere to stay.  She has often let people stay with her for that reason, but Jerome isn’t a child.  He is 49 and does not seem to be changing his ways.

Things like this come up in Rochelle’s life all the time.  Jerome will probably end up in jail again, as he always has in the past, but moving to a different town to avoid a possible problem does not seem to be a sensible solution.  Rochelle admits she has just started to think about Jerome’s release from jail, so things may change.  “It doesn’t seem smart to pay more for gas and to live so far from work,” she said, as we finished the weekly interview.  I agreed with her and told her she had several months to think it through.  With luck she will see another way out of this dilemma.

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.

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.