Poverty And Frustration

UnknownRochelle has, and has had, a very difficult life; she had no adult supervision as a child and no adult to learn from. Because of this, and her observations of how adults around her deal with problems, she has no idea how to deal with frustrations and problems of her own. I saw this when I worked with her in the department store several years ago. Instead of discussing the problem with her superiors, Rochelle would always say she was just going to quit. She lasted in that job, however, for seven years and left only after the store closed. In that job promotions were not a possibility; she is now in a beginning management position at the grocery store she works for, and the problem of how to deal with frustrations is again causing difficulties for her. “I hate my boss and I need to transfer stores or change positions,” she recently told me on the phone. “She won’t always be your boss,” I had said. “There will often be times you have to work with people you don’t like and sometimes they will be your boss,” I continued. “Asking the store to move you to a different store or a different position won’t get rid of the problem but will affect your chances of promotion,” I told her. Rochelle had liked her boss in the beginning, but that seems no longer to be the case. I suggested she come over for a visit that week so we could talk about the problem. I was concerned she was going to quit. We made a date but it wouldn’t be until a week later.

A week later Rochelle was at my house and talking much more positively.   She still doesn’t seem able to discuss the problem with her boss; instead says she will just not let it bother her any more. She had actually been rolling her eyes at her boss when asked to do something she didn’t want to do. The boss will not forget that behavior and the problem between them will not disappear.   Management skills do not come easily to many people.   Mistakes are often made when a person doing a good job is promoted into management but not trained for the job. Rochelle has taken the cursory course in management that was offered by her grocery store, but she has yet to apply for their course of management classes that the elite performers are chosen for every year. She wanted to become better acquainted with the store operations before she applied.  That was a good decision, but she is in a tough position now. I did not grow up in poverty but was also put into management jobs without training when I was much younger. It was only later, after a graduate degree in business and a six-week course of management training by my employer that I learned to do a better job. Rochelle is poor, really living hand to mouth, and just trying to survive. The people around her life are all frustrated and poor. I again have my fingers crossed for her; growing up without any good role models does not make forward progress easy for her. I think I will also try to see her more frequently than once a month just so she can talk out her problems with me. She really has no one to talk to at home who will understand and ease her frustrations.

Paying for Poverty on the Installment Plan: Stunting the Mind and Imagination

imagesThis is Jessie, again.  Ever since my sister told me about Rochelle’s daughter and her school project I’ve been preoccupied by the differences between the experience of my daughter, Rachel, at eleven and that of Rochelle’s eleven year old daughter, Kalinda.  For Rachel, eleven was the age at which she made two major decisions that have guided her life ever since.  She decided that after she finished college she would go into the Peace Corps, and she decided that after she finished her Peace Corps service she would go to medical school.  She did both.

 Rachel was a smart child and did very well in school, but all her friends were also smart children who did well in school.  So were her cousins.  So had her parents been, and her aunts and uncles.  Rachel never had physical fights with other girls at school, like Kalinda.  But then, Rachel was an only child, born to two professors with PhDs, both in their late thirties, without great wealth, but with plenty of money for all of life’s necessities and many of life’s pleasures.  Rachel lived in the same house for her entire childhood, the same one she visits now as an adult.  When her second grade teacher said she was having trouble with arithmetic, we practiced every day until she was confident about it.  In middle school she started learning both French and Spanish and then went on a school trip to Europe during spring break, where she was able to use these languages in real life—albeit on an extremely limited basis!  Before she left, her travel group had explored the countries they would visit, and we had taken down the globe from its shelf in the dining room several times, to examine the route she and her fellow students would take.  Both of Rachel’s parents and her aunt and uncle had served as VISTA Volunteers in the 1960s and 1970s, and several cousins had been Peace Corps Volunteers.  Both her parents and her aunts and uncle had advanced degrees.  She grew up with the tradition of both service and advanced education.  By the time she was eleven, it was clear to her that this is what life involved.

What has poverty meant for Rochelle’s eleven-year-old daughter, Kalinda, and in fact, for all her children?  They have moved from apartment to apartment and school to school all their lives, as Rochelle has attempted to find rents she could afford and housing that was safe.  There are few books in their home, and despite a valiant recognition of the obligation to go to school, no tradition of learning or excitement or exploration of what is presented at school.  When Kalinda began having trouble with arithmetic, Rochelle, preoccupied with work, economic difficulties, and extended family problems, has had no spare energy for intensive tutoring.  She had always been good at arithmetic, and her attempts to deal with her daughter’s mathematical shortcomings frustrate her.  I don’t know what Kalinda’s plans for her future are, or if she has any.  I doubt she has ever heard of the Peace Corps.  Her academic experience has not been enjoyable, and I’m sure she has no thought of attending college.  She is in the “slow group” at school, and she often gets low grades.

If Kalinda’s economic circumstances were different, would she be the bright little girl Rachel was?  That all of Rachel’s friends were?  If Rachel’s circumstances had been like Kalinda’s, would she have been the reluctant student, aggressive and uncooperative in school, like Kalinda?  I can’t know that.  I have met Kalinda only once, when she and her mother and siblings all went out to lunch with my sister and me more than a year ago.  Kalinda sat across from me in the restaurant, and we talked throughout the meal.  I was struck by both her good manners and her appropriate conversation.   She was friendly, lively, and outgoing.  She certainly didn’t seem “slow.”   Rochelle is the third generation of single mothers in her family, and it seems very likely that Kalinda will be the fourth.  Rochelle is the first person in her extended family to have graduated from high school, though it has done her precious little good.  At this point it is hard to imagine that Kalinda will graduate.

Now the federal funding for SNAP, aka food stamps, and for the after-school program that Rochelle’s children attend has been cut.  And of course, there are the many states, like Texas, that have decided that increased Medicaid eligibility (which would cost these states very little) is out of the question—mostly to make a political point.

So, though impoverished children are covered, impoverished adults are not, and their extremely low incomes make them ineligible for Obamacare.  Less money for food.  No money for afterschool care.  No money for adult health care.  Rochelle’s children are perfectly normal in stature.  We rarely see starving children, short and emaciated, in our country.  We do, of course, see many who, like Rochelle’s children, eat far too much of the wrong foods: too high in fats and carbohydrates, too low in protein, vitamins, and minerals.  But those foods are tasty, filling, and comforting, and cheap enough for their mothers to afford.

The stunting we see in 21st century America is different from the stunting of bodies that existed in the past in this country, and that still exists in too many other countries.  Today’s American stunting is the stunting of the mind and the imagination that comes from our addiction to paying for poverty on the installment plan.  Apparently we Americans are willing to save a little money today by cutting back on social benefits for Rochelle and Kalinda and the millions like them, and pay for their stunted lives in high interest installments in the future: poor health, handled through high cost emergency rooms; an eternal parade of school dropouts with no job skills whose lives must be subsidized by grudging and inadequate state and federal benefits; babies born to unmarried mothers who can’t support them and whose entire youthful lives must be maintained by a different range of grudging and inadequate public programs; and worst of all, the high and tragic cost of lives destroyed by drugs and other criminal activities, and mediated through the criminal justice system    These national installment payments promise to be the eternal price paid by a country that refuses to guarantee decent lives for all its citizens.  And the price doesn’t begin to cover (because costs like these are always in the fine print) the pain and stunting of each individual life, like Kalinda’s or Rochelle’s.

The Emergency Room

images Most of Rochelle’s family use the hospital emergency room as their family doctor.  Many don’t have health insurance and wait until there is an emergency to go to the doctor.  Rochelle’s children are covered by Medicaid; Rochelle is covered by a very basic city indigent care program. Texas only offers Medicaid to children, pregnant women, and the old or disabled; her mother has Medicaid due to disability.  When Rochelle became full-time at her employment with the grocery store she was eligible for insurance coverage through them but chose to stay with the basic care provided to her free by the city.  It is by no means similar to the insurance coverage she would have received had she opted in to her company’s insurance plan.  She is now making more money, but she is still in financial trouble because she has three children to support; she did not think she could afford the insurance and never researched whether or not The Affordable Health Care law would help with the payments. At 29 she also feels somewhat invincible and is content that her children are covered by Medicaid.  Rochelle’s income is low enough so she won’t have to pay a penalty tax due to lack of insurance coverage, however.  Her experience has simply been that one goes to the emergency room when one is sick and then, when one can’t afford to pay the bill, one just doesn’t.  She never went to the doctor when she was pregnant with her first child.  “I was in denial,” she told me.  She first went to the doctor when she went into labor.

Rochelle’s mother is a good example of what a lifetime of being without health care can do.  She is 51 years old but looks 20 years older.  She has been on dialysis for at least three years.  “High blood pressure wrecked her kidneys,” Rochelle told me.  Just recently she had to be taken to the emergency room due to heart palpitations and a pulse that was racing at 190 beats per minute.  The emergency room treated her and released her; Rochelle thought her mother had a follow up appointment but was somewhat unsure.  She wasn’t sure what had caused the problem.  When Rochelle comes over for this week’s interview we will discuss the situation in more depth.  She needs to see how she could be in her mother’s situation in twenty years if she doesn’t get involved in better health care.  At age 29 she has borderline high blood pressure, is considerably overweight, and eats a very unhealthy diet.  The emergency room does not provide basic health care, though the current governor of Texas is on record as saying that he considers it a reasonable health care solution for the poor.. And this is the norm for those living in the culture of poverty.  Rochelle has started earning a little bit more money, but it is hard for her to understand the value of some of the options available to those who live outside of poverty.  Perhaps if she recognizes she could be in her mother’s situation she will be more open to some of these options.  On the other hand, it is understandably hard for someone who is finally beginning to experience a little economic leeway to tie it up in medical insurance she can’t really believe she needs.

 

 

The Nightmare of Poverty

The ultimate terror for white people is to leave the highway by mistake and find themselves in East St. Louis.  People speak of getting lost in East St. Louis as a nightmare.  The nightmare to me is that they never leave that highway so they never know what life is like for all the children here.  They ought to get off that highway.  The nightmare isn’t in their heads.  It’s a real place.  There are children living here.”

 Jonathan Kozol, St. Louis Dispatch, 1991

 

1557604_10152220740161654_935384944_n “She told me the worst thing that had ever happened to her in her life was when her parents divorced three years ago,” Rochelle told me last week, punctuating the statement with a loud laugh. She was talking about a conversation she had had with a co-worker whose position is one step up from hers.  The woman is 19, married with no children, and attends the state university.  Her husband has a job with the same grocery store and also attends the state university.  Rochelle had a very hard time understanding how a parent’s divorce could be the worst thing a person could have gone through.  “I’ve never even had a father,” Rochelle said.  “I don’t even know who my father is! I’ve lived through my house burning down and a little baby dying in the fire when I was 11.  I’ve had no Christmases when I was growing up, or birthday parties, or food.  She at least has two parents.”  For Rochelle, the divorce of one’s parents didn’t seem to compare with many of the events of her own upbringing.  How could divorce have had such a strong impact on her co-worker?  Rochelle keeps her difficult life to herself, so she didn’t say anything to the woman.  She saved her amazement for me.

About 15 years ago I drove my friend, Dick, through an old and very poor neighborhood of Laredo, Texas.  Laredo is a border city on the shores of the Rio Grande, where a huge proportion of the population lives below the poverty line.  I thought it was something Dick most likely had never seen, and I thought he needed to see it.  I’ll never forget Dick’s comment:  “No wonder they all vote Democratic,” he had loudly exclaimed.  Dick is a Republican and even called Social Security “the dole” when he was eligible to receive it.  That was as close as Dick ever came to seeing the nightmare of poverty, but he still doesn’t understand it, and he sure doesn’t want to get closer to it.  This, of course, is a great part of the problem when searching for solutions to poverty in our country. We can’t fix what we refuse to see and understand.

If you are new to reading this blog, I suggest you go to some of the very first posts so you can better understand Rochelle’s life.   The earlier blogs set the stage for the future ones.  They depict a life that happened right here in my town.  Not all that far away from my house, on the other side of the tracks, or in this town’s situation, the other side of the interregional highway.  Life is different on that side of town, as Rochelle’s conversation with her co-worker points out so dramatically.   Poverty won’t find solutions until more people understand how this nightmare of poverty develops and continues.  And lest we comfort ourselves with the thought that poverty is simply a fact of life that can never be eliminated, let’s rethink that notion.  For one thing, poverty never existed until cities developed; it is not a natural human condition.   And for a second thing, poverty has been all but eradicated in some countries, notably in Scandinavia; if a society has the will to eliminate poverty, it can be done.

Can Anything Fix the Problem?

images-3It’s Jessie again, for the final installment of The Marriage Problem.  I don’t think marriage is going to make a triumphal return.  I believe it will become increasingly restricted to some conservative religious communities and to people of privilege.  In my experience, more women than men would like to marry, but many men, especially young men, and especially those of low income and social status, resolutely avoid it.  So how can we make the Marriage Problem less devastating fpr impoverished, extranuptial families like Rochelle’s?  It will take an attack on two fronts.  First, there needs to be a revolution in the American approach to social services and support for the poor, with specific attention to female headed households.  And second, the expectations and education of girls and women need to change radically.  I think the same is true of boys and men, but the truth is that they are a lot harder to reach psychologically on these issues.  And in fact, we know much less about them.  Unfortunately, few unmarried fathers are willing to talk to female researchers about the subject (I’ve had no success), and very few male researchers seem very interested in doing one-on-one interviews with unmarried fathers.

 We have already discussed the two-track organization of American marriage and childbirth: elite women get married and then have children; lower status women are much less likely to get married and much more likely to have children without husbands.  And yet it is elites who make the laws and establish the policies and regulations that to a great extent determine the well-being of impoverished households.  In general, elites are culturally conservative.  That is, they tend to maintain old traditions, mostly because they have prospered from them.  They are not always aware of this motivation.  Mostly, they just believe that the ways of the ancestors are good merely because they have been around for so long.  They are seldom aware of how differently other people may be living, and how much their lives and expectations may diverge from their own. Like most people, they also often resent the idea that they might have to provide economic support for cultural practices that they see as not “following the rules.”  This is particularly true in the United States, which is extremely culturally conservative. In Sweden, social policy provides a modest but adequate standard of living for extranuptial households, on the grounds that comfortable families will produce better educated, more successful, and less alienated members of the next generation.  American social policy has another goal.  US policies tend to be guided by the notion that extranuptial households are the result of activity that ranges somewhere between sin and folly, and that they should not be rewarded for their mistakes.  Although moral judgement is consciously and specifically directed at the unmarried mothers, it inevitably also affects the children in pretty terrible ways.  And the money that is saved by not providing comfortable lives for these female-headed households is more than made up for by the costs associated with the health, educational, unemployment, and often criminal justice problems associated with the children of poverty.  Americans tend to prefer to pay for poverty on the installment plan, without recognizing the high cost of credit.

Clearly, American federal and state governments need to increase support for poor families, most of which are headed by unmarried women like Rochelle.  And perhaps the single most important element of this increased support should be free and affordable childcare, the lack of which is the greatest barrier to improved education and employment for single mothers. These improvements will lead inevitably to generally better lives for all the members of extranuptial families.

Then there are the expectations of life that American culture and institutions build into the upbringing and education of children, especially of girls.  Despite vast evidence to the contrary, even in their own lives, many girls develop the assumption that they will be supported by men.  They do not understand that the majority of all American women, including mothers of small children, now work, and that increasingly they are the sole support, not only of themselves, but also of their children.  Sometimes, girls don’t even think about where their support, or that of their children, will come from.  I have asked many single mothers about this, and most of them have told me that they had never thought about it.  They just figured their lives would go on as they always had, working at low paying, mostly fast food jobs.  They didn’t think about who would take care of their children.

Finally, there is a widespread lack of understanding about birth control.  Few young men will use condoms, though they are easily available.  Girls and inexperienced women often don’t know where to go for oral contraceptives, or they are too embarrassed to investigate.  Rochelle’s prescription for oral contraceptives expired, and she couldn’t afford the required new exam. Some girls may even believe they can’t get pregnant the first time they have sex.  Or they just want to please their boyfriends and continue the relationship so much that they refuse to think about contraception.

It seems essential to me that the schools need to do two things immediately.  First, they need to introduce and maintain the idea that all people, males and females, will work outside the household, so they need to prepare for this work.  It is not an alternative to motherhood, or an optional pathway for women; it is a universal reality.  And second, the schools need to make sex education universal, concrete, and specific, and include practical information about birth control and how to obtain it.  The preaching of abstinence is merely a prescription for pregnancy.

So now my soliloquy on the Marriage Problemis over.  I’ll post again before too long.

The Luxury of Marriage

UnknownThis is Jessie, once again—the anthropologist sister.  Every so often I have an overpowering desire to contribute a post to Rochelle’s World, especially when an issue comes up that I feel strongly about.  One of these issues, which showed up in last week’s blog, is marriage—or maybe it would be better to say the lack of marriage.  I’m not talking about marriage as a moral issue.  I’m talking about marriage as an economic issue, and as a phenomenon that profoundly affects the wellbeing of a family.

I’ve spent the last dozen or so years researching marriage, both in the US and elsewhere in the world.  I’ve read a lot about the changing landscape of marriage, and I’ve collected a lot of data on my own, through interviews with never-married mothers (that is, they aren’t just divorced or widowed) in rural Washington state and Idaho, and on the Texas-Mexico border.  That’s how I became involved with Rochelle, who (as you know if you read this blog) is a friend and former coworker of my sister’s.

One thing that has struck me with increasing force recently is not only the ways in which marriage has shifted, but also the fact that marriage now seems to be a two –track system.  The tracks parallel each other, but their realities are dramatically different.  One is affluent, educated, and influential, and knows very little about the other.  Those who travel this track generally marry, and they believe that everyone else should, too.  They make the laws and the policies for both tracks, but they have little understanding of those who travel the other track, or the shape their lives take.  The second track is poorer, less educated, and far less influential.  Though the numbers of people who travel this track are growing, they seem to live in the shadows.  People like me, anthropologists and sociologists who study culture and society, refer to the travelers on the second track as “extranuptial” or “nonconjugal” households.  That is, like Rochelle’s, they’re not based on marriage.

As a way of starting to get a handle on these families, let’s look at a few numbers.  First off, marriage in the US is declining.  Not only are people marrying later in their lives than they used to, but fewer people are marrying at all.  For example, in 2011, 51% of American women (over 15) were married, as opposed to 72% in 1960.  Another way to look at it is to note that in 2012 the marriage rate was 31 women (over 15) per 1,000. Compared to 92 per 1,000 in 1920.  And here are a few more numbers from the last couple of years:

Percentages of births to unmarried mothers:

African American 73%

Hispanic 53%

White ` 29%

Bachelor’s degree or more 7%

High school diploma or less 57%

 Family income for families of married and unmarried mothers:

Married Unmarried

Less than $30,000 19% 61%

$30,000-$45,000 10% 21%

$50,000 or more 62% 15%

It’s easy to see that Rochelle and her three children are part of a large group of similar households.  Clearly, the mothers in these families have relatively (or absolutely) little education, and thus they also have poorly paid jobs and low incomes.  They are also overwhelmingly (though not exclusively) people of color.  And the numbers of extranuptial households in all ethnic groups are going up. What’s going on?  Why are the numbers of extranuptial households steadily increasing?  What kinds of problems result from this household structure, and does it really constitute a problem, or just a choice of a way to live?  If it is a problem, what kinds of policies might help, and why haven’t we put them into effect already?  We’ll talk about this next time.

Definitions of the Word “Half-Sister”

Unknown-1“She’s my sister because we have the same mother,” Rochelle explained to me about six years ago.  For some reason we had been talking about her family when we were at work; she had just told me that her two sisters and she all had different fathers.  “Oh, so they are your half-sisters,” I had said.  “Why do white people say that?  We have the same mother,” Rochelle had exclaimed, with an exasperated tone in her voice.  That began my education into the description of half-siblings in Rochelle’s world.  I just thought Rochelle didn’t understand genetics; she thought I just didn’t get it at all.

Rochelle’s family relationships are complex; there are a lot of siblings fathered by a lot of different men throughout the generations. During that discussion six years ago, I grabbed a piece of paper to start diagramming the relationships; I wanted to better understand what she was telling me.  The paper quickly became a mess of lines, and I realized it wasn’t going to work; I just listened and tried to remember how everyone was related.  But soon after I started interviewing Rochelle weekly for this project, I did map out her family relationships over three generations.  At first I tried to find a generational chart on the internet.  There were a lot to choose from, but I could find none that gave the options I needed for the many siblings from the many different fathers that Rochelle’s family tree required.   I finally used these charts as a guide and drew my own.  It is still, however, somewhat of a mess and needs to be re-done.  But I can understand it and I now know whom everybody is when Rochelle and I talk about her family.

Rochelle has three children by two different men; her mother has three children by three different men; and her grandmother, her mother’s mother, has six children by five different men.  None of those siblings are considered half-siblings.  “They have the same mother,” Rochelle again explained:  “Half-sisters and brothers don’t have the same mother.  If they have the same father, but a different mother, then we call them “half.”  My sisters lived in the same house with me.  Our half-sisters and half-brothers didn’t.  We might not even know them.”  I already understood how she used the word and now I understood why.  I use pure genetics when I use the term “half.”  Rochelle, on the other hand, uses genetics as well, but modified in a fashion that works in her culture.  “There are a lot of different fathers in Black families,” Rochelle told me last week.  “I guess that’s why we talk about brothers and sisters differently from white people.”  There may be more to it than that, but it was obvious that Rochelle and I had both learned something about the other’s culture.  We no longer have to define what we mean when talking about sisters and brothers.