Charter Schools

images I’ve had lunch with Rochelle twice since we stopped having our weekly interviews. Her children have started school for the fall season, and now all three are enrolled in charter schools. The 12-year-old daughter attends a separate charter school from her two younger siblings since she is now in middle school. Somehow I hadn’t heard about the change for the younger ones; when Rochelle mentioned it as we were having lunch on the first day of school, I was quite surprised.  The eldest, Kalinda, had been quickly pulled from her regular school a couple of weeks into the school year last fall. She had started the 6th grade in middle school and had received threats of violence via Facebook . Rochelle had expressed concern about this middle school well in advance of her daughter’s attending it.  6th grade at the new charter school had gone well for Kalinda last year, though she tested at a lower level than was average for 6th grade. She was put in a class that met her education level and she completed the year with no other problems. This year she is enrolled in volleyball as an after school activity.

Work is still going well for Rochelle. The grocery store was hosting a major visit by corporate bigwigs a few weeks ago, and Rochelle got very stressed when she was asked to participate in the “walk-through” of her area of responsibility. I told her this was her chance to shine and she would do fine. She had never been in any situation requiring managerial responsibility before, so this was very new for her. She had seen visits from high-level managers at the department store we both worked for several years ago, but those “walk-throughs” had not really been a concern for people in sales positions.  When we met for lunch I asked her how it had gone; she went into great detail, telling me what she had been asked and how she had answered the questions. She was quite proud of herself, and it sounded to me as if she had done a great job. The experience has built her confidence and allowed her to put another plank in the platform she can use for future advancement.

Rochelle now has another car. It was purchased from the same place she had bought her previous car, though that one had been a true lemon. With no credit, Rochelle had no choice. This time, however, she did ask them why so many customers were on record as having bought bad cars from them. She did not tell them about all the problems she had had with her previous purchase because she was trading it in toward her new car. The fact of the matter was that the car dealership had already received far more money from Rochelle than the car had been worth, at a 24.99% interest rate, and the dealership was more than happy to sell her another one at the same inflated price and interest rate. People in Rochelle’s situation are the people who make up this dealership’s customer base.

I’ve told Rochelle to call me for lunch and a visit every few weeks so she can let me know how she is doing. Rochelle, herself, had suggested that it was probably time for the interviews and the subsidy that went with them to come to an end. They had begun as a way of supplementing her minimum wage job at the group home, and then the subsidy was increased so that she could afford to take the job at the grocery store that had a better hourly wage and much more scope for advancement, but that was not initially full-time. Now that the job is full-time, and Rochelle has received several raises and promotions, she felt that she should stand on her own two economic feet. We did, however, decide to continue a portion of the subsidy, to be deposited monthly into Rochelle’s first savings account.  Rochelle has a job, a car, possibly even a career to move forward with. Things are somewhat more hopeful than they were when we started the interviews two years ago. But now, her daughter’s teenage years are quickly approaching. I think this is going to become a real challenge for Rochelle.

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Fear of Failure

images“I don’t care if I don’t get the permanent job; I’m happy to stay a cashier,” Rochelle told me yesterday as we were eating breakfast during our interview.  It seemed her promotion to a supervisor over the cashiers required a 90 day trial period; two of the three people trying out would be officially promoted and given a raise at the end of this period.  She said she hadn’t known this going in and was now somewhat stressed and feared she would not be chosen.  She is about halfway through the 90 day period.  “The cashiers are mostly young and talk back.  They take long lunches and breaks and seem to have no desire to work,” she complained.  Rochelle had told me about another trainee who said she didn’t care if she didn’t get the job, but I had never heard Rochelle say it.  It seemed to me that she was preparing herself for failure.

“Management isn’t easy,” I said.  “ One often works with people who don’t do their jobs well, and one often works with bosses one doesn’t like.  All jobs are that way,” I explained.  I also explained that not getting the permanent position would not be failure, but just accepting being a cashier in the company would mean she would be limited in income and again stuck.  “I thought you were really looking forward to moving ahead,” I said.

Rochelle gets frustrated very easily.  When we worked together at the department store she often wanted to quit at the first bump in the road.  I reminded her of that.  It was only after I got home that I starting thinking that most likely she was just afraid of failure.  She never had support growing up and has rarely tried to achieve anything in her life except this job.  She doesn’t want to lose face with her peers if she does not get the permanent position, and she doesn’t want to lose face with herself.  Hopefully we can talk about this next week.   To escape from poverty is a giant task.

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.

Breaking the Cycle of Teenage Pregnancy

images“You always tell me you want to break the cycle of teenage pregnancy and poverty that has been going on in your family for generations,” I mentioned to Rochelle at the beginning of our last meeting.  She had been successfully working to improve her financial situation since we had begun our interviews a year and a half ago; last April she got hired by a good company with opportunities for advancement, but it had been quite a while since we had discussed the teenage pregnancy situation that had helped cause her poverty.   Teenage pregnancy was the norm in her extended family; how did she plan on preventing the cycle from repeating in her children’s generation?  Her eldest daughter, Kalinda, is now 11.  I had thought she was 12 because she is tall and looks older, but she won’t turn 12 until the summer.  Rochelle has not talked to Kalinda about sex yet.  “ I think maybe 7th grade is a good time,” she had told me about a year ago.  Kalinda is now in 6th grade; she mixes with 7th and 8th graders in her junior high school; Rochelle’s eldest sister got pregnant in junior high at 13.  “She is around older girls and I’m sure they are discussing sex,” I said.  “If your sister can get pregnant at 13, it could happen to your daughter just as well.  What do you think prevents young girls from going down that path?  What will prevent your daughter from becoming pregnant?”  I asked.

“Well, I think the parent needs to be home or to have the kids supervised when you aren’t there,” Rochelle said.  “When I was growing up there was no adult around.  My sisters brought boys home and I saw all that.  My mother brought men home all the time as well.  We weren’t supervised at all.  When I got pregnant I just went into denial and told no one.  Never went to the doctor.  But then, of course, I had to go to the hospital when I went into labor. Being in denial didn’t keep the baby from coming.”  I told Rochelle that supervision was needed but it took more than that to prevent teen pregnancies.  “Did you ever think about how a child would change your life or about how much money and effort is involved in raising a child?”  I asked her.  “No,” she said, “I was totally unprepared.”

“If Kalinda has a child as a teenager it will also become your problem,” I suggested.  “It will be a huge change for Kalinda, but it will also be a huge change for you because that baby will be in your house.  It is your responsibility to share all this with your daughter; to tell her how hard your life became because of a pregnancy at 16.  She didn’t make it hard for you, but being 16 at the time did.  You need to talk to her about all this and to talk to her about sex and contraception as well.  Kids grow up fast.  You grew up fast.  You need to find the time to talk to her; the sooner you do it the better for both of you,” I said emphatically.  I knew she had a lot going on, but without her moving forward in the education of her daughter, the same cycle will repeat and repeat sooner than she may think.

“Did you have any future plans for your life when you were in high school?” I asked Rochelle.  At her job, during the recent interview for a promotion, she had been asked what her five-year plan was.  No one had ever asked her that before.  I told her it was a common job interview question.  Luckily she was successful in her interview and is now promoted to a first level supervisor over cashiers.  She starts training this week.  The company has asked her to elaborate in writing about various things, one being her goals for five years from now regardless of whether she is still with the company.  “If you had had long term goals in your life do you think you might have thought more seriously about preventing a pregnancy when you were 16?” I asked.  “Yes, I love my kids, but my life stopped when I got pregnant,” she told me.  “You need Kalinda to have goals and to see what can happen to them if she becomes a teenage, single parent,” I said.  “I do,” Rochelle said, “I sure do.”

 

 

Rochelle Begins Saving Money

images“Here’s another $8,” Rochelle said, holding out her hand.  We had talked about trying to save money now that she was working full-time.  She started by giving me $20 from her January interview money two weeks ago, then added $5 more the next week and now had added another $8.  Right now she puts it in a piggy bank at my house that must be broken to remove the money.  It is an old Mexican folk art bank in my Mexican folk art collection, and I have no desire to ruin the bank in order to remove the money.  She isn’t earning any interest, but there is really no interest earned in a bank savings account these days anyway.   In three weeks Rochelle has saved $33!  “And I’m not missing the money,” Rochelle said. I had hoped she would see it that way.

“Does the grocery store have a profit sharing or 401K plan?” I asked.  I knew they did and thought it was supposed to be a fairly good one.  Rochelle didn’t know the answer, but we went to my computer and looked it up.  After she has worked full-time for one year she can join their 401K plan.  The company will contribute $1.63 for every $1 she saves for up to 2% of her wages.  The webpage then showed what a $10/hour employee would save over 25 years saving at a rate of 5%.  Rochelle will not reach her year anniversary until next November, but I wanted her to be aware of what savings can do.  401K plans need to be monitored to truly benefit the employee, but I can teach her that later.  Right now she is seeing a light at the end of a tunnel; I wanted her to see the possibility of even more light.

I remember Rochelle asking me what I spent money on when we both worked at the department store.  She rarely saw me spend money during store sales, though most of the other employees did.  The employees usually bought things on their department store charge card to get a discount, but then didn’t pay off the charge bill which carried a 24.99% interest rate.  If I did buy something, I always bought it with my store charge card but paid it off in the next transaction.  That way I got the discount but didn’t risk having to pay an interest rate.  I was not that smart when I was Rochelle’s age, however.  I too didn’t pay my charge cards in full then.  Rochelle is learning about money and debt.  “I wish I knew all this earlier,” she told me.  I wish I had learned it earlier too.  She seems excited to have money in the bank and to think about the future.  Having good things to mention about Rochelle’s life journey is refreshing .  Everything, however, is still very precarious. Nothing has changed with childcare, nor transportation, nor with her mother’s health.  A problem with any of these things will bring on another crisis. But for right now, Rochelle is able to think about the future.

Rochelle Gets Promoted

imagesRochelle called me last week with great news!  “I got promoted to full-time with benefits,” she told me excitedly.  “And I got another fricking raise.  I am just so excited.  I told them I would be happy to work Christmas and Thanksgiving, but I don’t have to.  I like my job and I like the people I work with.  I am getting an 11% raise this time, and I’ve only been working for the company for 6 months.  I’ve received two raises and a promotion.  I’ll be making the same pay as I made at the department store when they closed, but it took me 7 years to get there.”  Rochelle could hardly believe that her hard work had paid off so quickly.  I wasn’t surprised, but I was thrilled for her.  I had always heard that this privately held grocery store chain was a great place to work.  I had graduated from The McCombs Graduate School of Business at The University of Texas in 1981; the woman who was president of my class at the time also decided to work for this same Texas grocery store.  When I asked her why, she had explained that it had a reputation for great management and excellent training.  I haven’t kept up with this woman, but it seems that she was correct.

Rochelle came over for another interview three days later.  There were new problems with her eldest daughter; she had removed her from her middle school and enrolled her in a charter school the same day she had received her promotion.  Normally this would have been a major crisis in Rochelle’s life, but the praise and another raise and a promotion to full-time hours with benefits made her able to take all that in stride.  “I just might be on my way,” she told me.  “They really like me there and they tell me I have a future with them.”  She worked hard at the department store too, but it made no difference in her economic status.   No one had taken her aside and mentored her.  Her raises were small and there had been no chance for promotion.  Not only was I happy for Rochelle, I was also gratified to see a company treat its employees so well.  Good companies realize that it is actually their employees who must come first and not the customer.  Customers are treated well when the employees are treated well.

The news of her promotion is the best news Rochelle has had in the year or so that I have been interviewing her.  It doesn’t solve all her problems; her pay is still low, but it is a huge step in the right direction.  She is very proud of herself and she deserves to feel that way. She wants to be self-sufficient.  She wants off food stamps.  She wants off her housing subsidy, and she wants to be able to afford health insurance.   She isn’t there yet, but she has made a huge step forward by starting to work at what appears to be an employee focused company.

A Test for American Progress

The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”

Franklin D. Roosevelt.

images I found this quote at the beginning of the book One Nation Underprivileged:  Why American Poverty Affects Us All, by Mark R. Rank, a professor of social welfare at Washington University in St. Louis.  The book looks good and I’ve ordered it, but the quote has stuck in my mind.  Despite its enormous wealth, the United States seems unable to come together to find solutions to poverty in The United States.  Frankly I don’t know what to say to Rochelle when she wonders how to keep working when childcare has been taken from her by government budget cuts.  I don’t know where to tell her to turn.  Here is a young woman trying to do everything right after some  past mistakes and yet she seems never to be able to get ahead for long.  What a waste for our country.  Not only is a hard working person finding it almost impossible to get ahead; the effects on the next generation will be a continuation of this culture of poverty.  How stupid can we, as a people, be?