Can Poverty Be Solved?? One Reader’s Thoughts

Unknown-1I have now been interviewing Rochelle every week for  a year and a half; my last interview will be done the week of June 28th of this year. I’ve known Rochelle for 12 years, and she will remain my friend; she isn’t really looking forward to the weekly interviews ending because the time has provided her with the ability to discuss her problems.  A reader’s comment from a year ago has stayed with me and now, as this project comes to an end,  I think the comment needs to be given its own page.  Rochelle has a better job now, a possibility of job advancement, a better sense of how to work towards solutions to problems, but the strangle hold of generational poverty is so huge that I too often can’t even think about where to begin with helping her.  Magic wands don’t exist. How can she possibly move forward when everything is against her?

 

Submitted on 2013/05/13 at 11:51 am
This one has grabbed me and won’t let go. I read the whole site and have to tell you that I can’t read it any more. My reasons are not complicated, just difficult to put into words. I’ll try. I know Rochelle, or at least I know dozens of rochelles. The details of their lives are etched on my brain, and those details never change. The same lifetime gets replayed. I can’t help any of them, except in minuscule ways, but revisiting the particulars leaves me feeling deflated, crushed even, and I just can’t do it. Years ago Jim and I decided that our charitable donations would no longer go to organizations providing direct help to people, because we actually believe these “escape valve” non-profits just allow the country to ignore the depth and breadth of its cycle-of-poverty problem. So we only give to public policy organizations that seek institutional change. That’s what I mean by minuscule ways. Even if Rochelle were all of a sudden my daughter, I would have no idea where to begin to make her life right. She needs counseling, mentoring, quality childcare, a good job, reliable transportation, debt relief…and a new set of habits so that she doesn’t have to keep asking why bad things happen to her when at least some of them are the direct result of her doing things without thinking them through first. Money alone wouldn’t solve the problem — if it would, that would be the easy way out. And if Rochelle has come this far with absolutely no positive influence in her young life, can we at least hope that her own kids will fare better for having an intelligent, thoughtful mother? Maybe, but there’s no guarantee. So I can’t read this any more for the same reason I wouldn’t go out in the desert sun without a hat — I know when something can harm me, and I have to protect myself.

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Dropping Grades

Unknown Rochelle’s work schedule has changed, now that she is training to be a supervisor over the grocery store cashiers, and her children are suffering for it. She often doesn’t get home until after midnight, while her mother is left to look after the three children. Tasha, the children’s grandmother, dropped out of high school herself. Not only is she not capable of helping her grandchildren with their homework, she has no inclination even to try. What Tasha does is watch television and eat; when Rochelle is working in the evening this is what the children are doing as well. Not surprisingly the children’s grades are dropping; they are also gaining weight.

“I have to go back to just being a cashier so I can get a better schedule at work,” Rochelle told me in tears over the phone. She had called me while waiting in her car for her eldest daughter to get out of school. “All the kids’ grades are dropping, and I feel so guilty. I don’t want them to grow up like I did with no support, but now they aren’t doing well in school because no one is home to help them.” Rochelle is caught in a difficult situation. She is trying to learn how to be a successful supervisor in order to move up in the company, yet this has caused the children to fall behind in school. The pressure on Rochelle is tremendous. She has to work to provide for her children, but since the after-school-care program was cut by the Texas legislature last year, the only place her children have to go when school is over is back to the apartment. The apartment is not conducive to homework and studying. There is no one to care for the children except Tasha, the grandmother, when Rochelle is at work.

The three children are in kindergarten, 2nd grade, and Kalinda, the eldest, is now in 6th grade and attending junior high. Not surprisingly, school performance decreases as the age of the children increases. Tasha has always been taking care of the children when Rochelle is at work; it is just now becoming very obvious to Rochelle that the children need much more than just an adult in the apartment when they are out of school. Kalinda is reading at a 1st grade level, and she is in the 6th grade; that did not just develop since Rochelle has been working her new schedule. Rochelle wants so badly to break the cycle of poverty that her family has experienced for generations, yet just about everything is stacked against her. AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children), the program that paid indefinite benefits to single mothers with young children, was eliminated in 1996, and replaced with Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF), which has a very short eligibility span. The idea was to get “welfare mothers” out of their homes and into jobs. It sounded to many people like a great idea. But with no provision for the care of the children of single working mothers, the result is a nightmare for all concerned. And as these children grow up with insufficient education and job skills, their nightmare will be shared by the entire society, which will have to support these children as adults with various safety net programs. We continue to be willing to pay for poverty on the installment plan, though like all installment plans, it makes the product cost more.

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.

Why Has Marriage Declined?

images-1This is Jessie again, with the sequel to the last post about marriage, money, and wellbeing.  As marriage declines, we inevitably consider why this should have happened.  As far as we know, marriage has been around as long as humans have been.  There are no societies on the planet that do not have marriage, although marriage takes a bunch of different forms.  There are, for example, more societies that permit marriage between one man and multiple women than there are societies that don’t.  Some societies permit marriages between one woman and several men, several men and several women, two women, two men, and between humans and nonhumans, mostly supernatural beings or institutions.  So I don’t expect that American marriage to wither away and disappear forever.  Instead, I think it will increasingly become like cloth napkins: a luxury item increasingly reserved for the well off, the well educated, and the white–a perk of privilege.

What has caused the decline in American marriage?  I’d say it comes from a decline in what some anthropologists have called “complementarity.”  If you look at marriage across time and space, one thing you notice is that marriage has primarily been a practical institution.  In order to get through life and take care of children, men do men’s chores, and women do women’s chores, and together people survive.  That’s complementarity.   Ideally, husbands and wives come to like and even love each other, but romantic love has certainly not been the basis or goal of most marriages on the planet now or ever.  That’s why parents and other family members have choose spouses for their children, and they base their decisions on practical concerns.  Some of these arranged marriages work out well, and some don’t—just as is true for contemporary American marriages, which are successful about 50% of the time.

But nowadays in the US, complementarity has broken down.  Men no longer need women for survival, and women no longer need men.  A hundred or a thousand or five thousand years ago men needed women to cook for them and make and maintain their clothing, both of which activities required specialized skills and a lot of time and energy.  And women needed men to provide a large part of the food the family ate, and later on, money.  But laundromats, fast food, and ready made clothing have replaced the need for a wife.   These same advances in technology have produced numerous forms of employment that don’t require male strength and tasks that women can perform just as well as men.  These largely service jobs have replaced the need for a husband.  Then there is the fact that so few people are now engaged in agriculture (around 3% today, compared to roughly 50% in the middle of the 19th century).  Thus, worries about having legitimate heirs to pass property on to are now way less important to all but the most affluent.  And arching over all of these technological and demographic issues (but related to them) is the reality that despite the emotional and political power of Christianity on the United States, the actual power of religion to shape personal behavior has dramatically declined.  Christian teachings on the immorality of extranuptial sex, for example, have not officially changed in the last century.  But the power of these teachings to control human behavior has definitely diminished.  So more babies are born to unmarried women than ever before, but the opprobrium attached to these mothers and their children has declined as definitely as their incidence has increased.

And there’s one more thing to consider.  As has been reported now for at least the last five years (and longer, if one reads the specialized literature), job opportunities for the least educated workers with the least education and the fewest contemporary job skills have shrunk dramatically.  Americans in this category disproportionately include African Americans and Hispanics, but also include a significant number of whites.  Barely able to support themselves with the little work they can find in today’s economy, these men cannot possibly enter into a traditional family structure in which they contribute significantly to the support of a household.  Many turn to illegal means of earning money.  Thus an increasing proportion of impoverished men abandon economic responsibility for their children and their children’s mothers.  As more and more young men do this, it becomes an increasingly expected and accepted pattern of behavior, fueled not only by economic constraints, but also by freedom from psychological obligation and from sexual restriction.  The mothers—women like Rochelle—have fewer choices than the fathers.  Unless they are severely impaired by psychological damage or drug use, they cannot ignore their responsibility to their children.  So–again like Rochelle– they cobble together a precarious existence for their extranuptial households from low paid employment, social services, and assistance from family members.

This is not a “lifestyle choice.”  It is a serious national problem, and a human tragedy for the adults and children involved.

Next time:  suggestions for solutions.

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.

The Back to School Stresses of Poverty

UnknownMost 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.

I