Still Moving Forward- One Step At A Time

imagesIt has been over a year since I have posted anything about Rochelle. I stopped interviewing her on a weekly basis so there was less to report, and her life has calmed down somewhat. Her car has continued to work, but more importantly she has remained employed at the grocery store chain; she is moving forward and upwards in the company. Just a week ago she graduated from their management training school. It was a 12 week program made for upwardly mobile hourly employees. The company has a more advanced management training program for those employees who are ready to go into salaried executive positions. This program is usually reserved for those with college degrees, but Rochelle tells me that one can also be accepted if one is already working for the company and shows great promise. She hopes for that in the future.

Upon graduation Rochelle was promoted from supervisor of cashiers to manager of cashiers; she received two raises and was moved to a new store. Her new store is small with fewer employees than she is used to, but this makes her a big fish in a small pond; she may be able to effect positive change more swiftly in a store like this. According to Rochelle, the store does need some changes and many of the managers are new, including the store manager. Just in the short time she has been there she has seen areas that need some tweaking and is working towards implementing needed changes.

I had a congratulatory lunch with Rochelle a couple of days ago; now she is a person working in a career with goals for the future. She has come a very long way since I first started interviewing her. She seems excited about her future.

Rochelle still doesn’t make much money, though she has had many raises. Three children are expensive for everyone. Nevertheless, her paycheck is paying for more of her expenses. She no longer receives food stamps, and for reasons other than her income, she no longer receives disability for her eldest daughter. Her daughter was born with seizures at birth but has been seizure free for two years. Rochelle purchased health insurance for herself through her company in January and is contributing to their retirement program as well. She does, however, still receive section #8 housing vouchers, and her children’s health insurance is still covered by Medicaid. Though Rochelle is earning more, losing the food stamps and the disability payments makes it so she really is not living on more money. Rochelle’s on going goal has been to break the poverty cycle her family has been caught up in for generations. She is successfully moving in that direction. I am very proud of her and she is proud of herself.

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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.

The Last Interview; Has Anything Changed?

teen-births-in-washington-county-prevention-may-2009I interviewed Rochelle for the last time yesterday. She has been coming into my living room on a weekly basis for almost two years for an hour-long interview, and we have become good friends. “You know more about me than anyone,” she told me. “I usually keep all this stuff to myself.”

In Meet Rochelle, the introduction to this blog, we explain why this project got started. Now it is over. The original and most immediate purpose of the interviews was to provide Rochelle with a dignified way of making a little extra money when she was working at a part-time job for minimum wage. We also hoped that her story might be a useful tool in informing more privileged people about what life is like in the culture of poverty. Now that Rochelle has reached something of a plateau,  it is hard not to evaluate where she is today as opposed to where she was in her life two years ago. We started by discussing teenage pregnancy, and we spent part of our last interview with that discussion again.

My first question to Rochelle almost two years ago was to ask why she had continued not to use birth control even though she had delivered her first child while still in high school without support from the father. Two years ago Rochelle was not really sure of the answer. Now, she is really not sure how she is going to prevent the same thing from happening to her daughters. Though she is supervising her children much more closely than her mother supervised her and her siblings, she doesn’t seem to understand that it will take much more than that to prevent her daughters from becoming pregnant too early and to prevent her son from impregnating someone at a young age. Part of this is probably due to the fact that early pregnancy, without male support, is the rule rather than the exception in the world Rochelle and her children inhabit. Some of it is probably due to Rochelle’s lack of understanding of the complex of factors that resulted in her early pregnancy, and that will probably cause the same thing for her daughters. It is also due to the starvation Rochelle felt as a teenager, and her children feel now, for affection, approval, and acceptance, a hunger for which a teenage boy seems like a perfect solution. Finally, if Rochelle’s daughters have no future to protect, as Rochelle did not at 16, they will see no reason not to get pregnant, especially if all around them their friends are doing just that.We have discussed the need for goals in life, and Rochelle now has some for herself, but I am not at all sure she is confident about being able to develop goals for her children’s lives.

So, two years later, Rochelle has a much better job. She has gone from $7.25/hr and working part-time in a dead end position to $11.25/hr and working full-time on the promotion path in a new company. She has been there over a year and qualifies for benefits. She has graduated from the company’s beginning management classes and is preparing to enter their official management school next year. This is a truly positive difference in Rochelle’s life from where she was when I started interviewing her.

Rochelle is also developing a relationship with a credit union so that she might improve her credit score and be able to function within a normal banking system instead of the payday loans, finance companies, and sub-prime car dealerships she currently is forced to deal with. Unfortunately, after our last interview ended, she was going directly to the sub-prime car dealership she had bought her last car from in order to trade it in on another car. This time, however, she has in her hand all the customer complaints recently levied against the company, and she will go in with her eyes wide open and questions to ask. Her current car, as blog readers will already know, was a lemon. “I change the oil every 3,000 miles,” Rochelle had always said when new problems developed. “It is just a bad car,” I would tell her.

Rochelle is still poor; she still has car problems and credit problems; and her mother’s health will not be improving. But the most troubling thing is that despite our discussions of teenage pregnancy and how it has affected her life, she still has not discussed sex and early pregnancy with her 12-year-old daughter; the probability of breaking the cycle of poverty in this generation seems unlikely. Rochelle’s problems are just too complex for her to overcome by herself; addressing all the problems is overwhelming. Still, to have a job that is turning into a career is a big step forward for her.

I will still be seeing Rochelle for lunch every month. Perhaps the blog is really not ending yet. Perhaps I will log in for new posts after our monthly lunches.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Preventing Teenage Pregnancy: Breaking the Poverty Cycle

imagesI have been interviewing Rochelle for well over a year, and I wondered how her thinking about teenage pregnancy had changed over that time. I wondered if there had been any change at all. Her eldest daughter just turned 12 this month and is in middle school. When we first discussed it, Rochelle had said she thought her daughter was too young for a conversation about sex, even though Rochelle’s own sister had a baby at 14 and Rochelle had a baby at 17. Her daughter was 10 at the time. Over the last year and a half I had brought the subject up a few times, but it never went very far. Rochelle said she knew she needed to have “the talk,” but either thought her daughter was too young, or she thought the school would handle it. Her answer to the same question was very different when I again raised it a couple of days ago. We have only two more interviews until our agreed upon interview period is over, and I wanted to see what she now said.  “I think everything will be fine,” she told me. “My children have adult supervision at all times. My sisters and I didn’t; and we had a mama who was bringing different men home all the time. I don’t do that; I’m raising my children better than that,” she emphasized. “Anyway, black people just do things differently from white people,” she told me. In Rochelle’s world, having a baby or several babies while still in your teen years is more common than not. She talks about wanting to break the cycle of poverty that her family has experienced for generations, but still doesn’t seem to understand how becoming a teenaged mother has contributed to this cycle. One hundred percent of her female relatives had become mothers while in their teens. One hundred percent of her relatives that I am aware of are living in the culture of poverty. Her eldest sister is not on government assistance, but her family of six, plus a relative’s baby, live in a cramped two bedroom apartment.

“Adult supervision is good and needed,” I told her. “But it is not enough. What will happen when your children start dating?” “They don’t date now,” Rochelle said. I told her I thought she was also uncomfortable about having “the talk” with her daughter. “Yes, I am uncomfortable,” Rochelle said, “The school will handle it.” “That didn’t stop your sisters or you from becoming pregnant,” I replied. “But I’m supervising my children, and I don’t bring men home like Mama did,” she repeated. “If you are going to break the cycle of poverty in your family, you’re going to have to stop teen pregnancy in your family,” I said. And then we moved on to other subjects such as how her job is going.

Her job is going well. Next week she will graduate from her work sponsored management-training program. She had given her “final exam” which was a five-minute presentation of what she had learned and how she was going to use the knowledge going forward. In that presentation she held up a magnet I had given her, which said: “What would you do if you knew you could not fail?”   Several of the managers who were watching her presentation came up to her later and said they loved the quote. “I think I did good,” Rochelle said. She is comfortable talking about her progress at work, but not about the subject of teen pregnancy. A year and a half ago she could just think it wouldn’t happen to her children, but now, with her daughter reaching puberty, she is still so uncomfortable with the idea of discussing sex with her daughter that she cannot bring herself to deal with the problem. Clearly, despite Rochelle’s hard work and impressive successes at work, the power of the culture she grew up in continues to exert its influences.

The Bad Credit Cycle

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

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

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

 

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.