College Ahead

Unknown“Danyell’s going to college,” Rochelle told me several months ago. Danyell is her eldest sister’s first child, who was born when her mother was 14. Rochelle’s sister dropped out of high school, had another child with the father of the first, then married a man and had three more children. She is recently divorced from the father of the three youngest children. Danyell is going to first go to the local community college and then her plans are to transfer to a state college thirty miles away. Yesterday was graduation day and Rochelle and her family went. Rochelle is the only one to have graduated from high school in her immediate family; now the eldest cousin of Rochelle’s children has graduated from high school and is going to college. Danyell’s mother has had a stable job as a receptionist at a pediatric center for many years and her ex-husband also has had a stable job. He had been living with the family since the two older children were young. It seems to have made a huge difference in the lives of the children. Though now divorced, he is still a factor in this family’s life.

This week I will ask Rochelle about the graduation and what her children thought about it. When I first was learning about the family dynamics I thought Mary-Jane, the eldest sister, would have been the one to have had the most difficult life. She wasn’t because she had a stable job and was not a single mother. Five children isn’t easy for anyone, especially when the first was born when the mother was only 14, but she has made it work so far. Currently she is not on any public assistance and hasn’t been since she married the father of her youngest three children. Having a help-mate in the family has made all the difference in the world.

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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.

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.

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.

Rochelle and the Movie The Butler

a7bb21a8e4abc30bf1684ed072af5605“I don’t see why people are upset that Paula Deen used the “N” word,” Rochelle remarked when she arrived for a recent interview.  “Black people use it all the time.”  I knew that, but it seemed to me that maybe Rochelle was too young and too uninformed to understand how that word had been used against her race years ago; how it is still used in that way by some.  There is a 38 year difference in our ages; we are of different races; we grew up in very different parts of the country in very different circumstances.  I was not sure my explanation would succeed in getting Rochelle to understand why some people were turning against Paula Deen.  I didn’t think Rochelle watched cooking shows, but she does occasionally watch the news.  Her television is always on in the living room, and Paula Deen’s troubles were all over the news programs and talk shows.

The movie The Butler was also all over the talk shows.  I asked Rochelle if she had heard about it and suggested we go see it the following week.  She would, of course, need to make sure her children were cared for.  As a single mother who has child care problems, going to the movies requires some serious planning.  She had not been to a movie theater in over 6 years, and it had been about that long for me, as well.  It was also not the kind of movie Rochelle usually watches when she rents DVDs. The Butler had received both good and bad reviews, but it does shows race relations in the United States through the somewhat fictionalized story of a Black man who had served as head butler in the White House during six presidential administrations.  It ends with Barack Obama being elected President of the United States.  Rochelle registered as a voter in 2008, and she has now voted twice for Barack Obama.  During both of his elections she was watching the news and asking questions. She hasn’t yet voted for anything except the office of President, but it is a start.  Not only might the movie explain something that I was finding difficult to explain, but it would be fun and time away from responsibilities

Scheduling the movie was tricky.  It was the beginning of the month, and Rochelle had responsibilities to her grandfather.  He has no car and needs to be driven to pay bills and buy groceries.  Her mother lives in another town but does come in for medical treatment and sometimes stays with the children after school; permanent after school care had not been settled yet.  Rochelle, of course, works at the grocery store.  She found a neighbor to care for the children for an hour, and then her mother could take over while we went to the movies one day the next week.  It was a Tuesday afternoon, and there were about 10 people in the theater.  The main female character, the wife of the butler, is played by Oprah Winfrey.  Rochelle was quite familiar with her.

I couldn’t tell if Rochelle was enjoying the movie while we watched it, but when the lights came up I noticed she had been crying.  I had, too, but was trying to hide it for some reason.  “I loved it,” she exclaimed.  “I want to buy this movie and not just bootleg it.”  Throughout the movie she would lean over and ask me “who’s the president now?”  The movie did put a cut-line in every time there was a change in administration, but it was easy to miss.  Rochelle’s next question was always “was he a Democrat?”

Rochelle had never heard of the Freedom Riders; she didn’t know white people had also fought for the rights of African Americans; she didn’t know about the sit-ins; she didn’t know about the Black Power movement; and she didn’t know that a President of the United States from her state of Texas had engineered the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  I am the age of her grandmother and started college in 1964.  Her grandmother and her mother were enmeshed in the continuing cycle of the culture of poverty and were mostly just trying to survive in 1964.  They didn’t vote then, and they still don’t today.  They lived on the Black side of a segregated town regardless of what city they lived in. They still do.  Life probably changed very little for them in 1964.  I came to this formerly Confederate state in 1969, and Black customers were still coming in the “colored” door of a BBQ joint I went to while the white customers were using the “white” door.  Not much had changed but the law.

“Do you see why the “N” word caused Paula Deen problems?” I asked Rochelle.  “Nigger was used by bigoted people.  People who were not happy to see integration happen.  White people who were not pleased to see Blacks get their rights and their vote.  Did you see the hate on the faces of the white people in the movie during the sit-ins?”  I asked.  “Yes,” she said.  I then told her something I had heard Oprah Winfrey say when asked why she didn’t like even Black people using the word among themselves or in rap songs.  “It was the last word many African-Americans heard when the rope was being tied around their necks,” Oprah had answered.

We drove back to Rochelle’s apartment.  “I’m going to buy it when it comes out,” she said again.  “I’m going to show it to my kids.”  I suggested they were too young now but might enjoy seeing it when they got a bit older.  “Wow, I never knew all that, but now I get it,” she said as she got out of the car.  For me, it was not a great movie.  Quite confusing at times, with too much history jammed into two hours.  Rochelle, however, loved it and now understood a lot more.  It was a very enjoyable afternoon for both of us.

Race, Nationality, and Geography

images-1Rochelle and I were talking about race, geography and nationality.  It began when she referred to some co-workers at the home for the disabled, where she had recently worked, as “those Africans.”  I asked where they were from and she said they were from Jamaica.  “Why don’t you call them Jamaicans?” I asked.   “I just call all of them Africans,” was her answer.  It was time for the interview to be over, but I brought the subject back up a week later at the next interview.  It seemed a good topic to cover on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.  Rochelle is 29, but she had been watching the news, and she did remember some of her history from school.  She vaguely knew what had happened 50 years ago, and why it was important.

“So, why do you call Jamaicans Africans?” I again asked.  “And what do you call your own race?” I added.  “Well, they have an accent, so I, we, just call them Africans.  I call myself Black,” said Rochelle.  I had a map of the world and we discussed where the countries were and a bit about the slave trade and colonialism.  “Why don’t you call yourself African-American?” I asked. I did explain that I was sometimes confused as to what to call what long ago was referred to as “the Negro race.”  Rochelle didn’t have an answer but did tell me how her 5-year-old son had recently discovered that some people called him black.  “I’m not black; I’m brown,” he had told his mother.  “He was thinking of the color of crayons,” she told me.  “He had just learned his colors in pre-school and now he was trying to figure out how he could possibly be black,” she laughed.  “Now he is confused.”  The map was on the table, so I asked what she called Asians.  “I call them all Chinese,” said Rochelle with a laugh.  There are a lot of Vietnamese where we live, and I asked if she even called Vietnamese people Chinese.  “I call them all Chinese because they have slanted eyes.  And I call all people who speak Spanish, Spanish, even if they can’t speak Spanish, like Bobbie.”  Bobbie had been a co-worker.  She has no accent and could be a mix of several nationalities or ethnic groups.  “She gets mad when I call her Spanish,” Rochelle told me, “but she’s Spanish.”  I asked Rochelle if maybe she didn’t like to be called “African-American” because she is an American and she doesn’t even know anybody in her family who has ever left Texas, let alone visited Africa.  “Yes,” she said, “I’m not African.  I’m American.  But I am Black.”

Rochelle has never been out of the state she was born in.  Geography is not something she knows a lot about.  When we were looking at the map of the world and talking about where different people who now live in the United States had come from, she seemed very interested.  “So if you don’t like being called African-American, the Jamaicans probably don’t like being called Africans, either, and the Vietnamese don’t like being called Chinese,” I suggested.  “Well, it is easier,” Rochelle said.  “I would like to travel somewhere else, though,” she told me.  “Maybe Louisiana.”  I remember after hurricane Katrina, Rochelle had only bad things to say about the refugees from Louisiana who came to our town.  People from Louisiana had a different accent from the ones that prevail in Texas; they did their hair differently; and they dressed differently.  The Black refugees were also often darker skinned.  “Yes, they are just different,” Rochelle had told me when we were working together back then.  I had told her she was prejudiced.  “People are often prejudiced when they don’t really know much about different cultures,” I had said.  Rochelle and I had talked about this now and again over the last eight years or so.  It was not a new topic for us, but in this interview we talked more in depth.

Our discussions on race will continue, but one thing we both were sure of when we finished the day’s interview: Rochelle’s 5 year old son was certainly correct.  He was not black.  He was brown.  The United States thinks of itself as a melting pot, and Binney and Smith, makers of Crayolas, had to discontinue the crayon color “flesh” from its mix a long time ago.  It was quite popular in the 1950’s and a real reflection of the times.  With luck, Rochelle will be following the Crayola company’s lead, and modernizing her terminology, as well.  It’s not that language creates racism, but it can certainly reinforce it and perpetuate interethnic insensitivity, even on the part of people who have suffered from both, themselves.

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Academic Success in the Culture of Poverty

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

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

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

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

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