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.

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Stormy Seas Again

images-1I thought it was only a matter of time before the relative calm in Rochelle’s life would end; I had been fairly certain it would be either her mother’s health or the breakdown of her car that would cause the stormy seas to break out again; it was the car.

“My safety sticker has expired and I can’t get a new one because my engine light is on,” Rochelle told me. Her engine light had been on for many months and her car had not been working well during this time. She had tried to have her sister’s ex-husband fix the problem; parts had been replaced but the problem had remained. Deshawn, the ex-brother-in-law, had run a computer check when the light had first come on. He manages a quick- oil- change location and has always offered to help. He has also, on occasion, put safety stickers on Rochelle’s cars even though the cars had safety problems. This time, however, Deshawn could not do this for her; people had recently been fired at his shop for doing exactly that; He didn’t want to lose his job.

“I have to get my sticker because Mama drives the car. If the police stop her because of no sticker, she’ll go to jail; she has outstanding warrants,” Rochelle reminded me. Her mother was on parole for welfare fraud and had stopped going to her parole officer long ago. She had also not paid back the money she had gained by this fraud as required by the court. It is somewhat common for people to procrastinate when getting new safety stickers, but Rochelle couldn’t take the risk.

Money, of course, is the real problem. Legitimate repair shops want $100 to run the computer check plus the repair cost, which had been estimated at between $200-$400. Last week Rochelle thought she had circumvented the problem and had paid a man $75 for what turned out to be a fake sticker. She knew it was illegal but thought it would be a real sticker. It wasn’t. Now she is trying to sell this sticker to her uncle.

Rochelle’s life is precarious at best. Currently she has a job and has been promoted twice, but keeping the job requires her children to be cared for and her car to be working. When something goes wrong with her mother or her car, Rochelle is in choppy waters again. A higher income could buy her childcare and car repairs. She is now earning more than she ever has, but it is still not enough. Children are very expensive Rochelle has discovered. She wasn’t able to learn that growing up in generational poverty.

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.

The Nightmare of Poverty

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

 Jonathan Kozol, St. Louis Dispatch, 1991

 

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

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

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

Unequal Opportunities 101

Unknown“Why is it that all the healthy food costs lots of money?”  Rochelle asked me one day.  Now that she works in a grocery store she has noticed that organic vegetables and everything advertised as healthy is expensive; more money than she can afford.  “I would buy healthier food if I could afford it,” she said.  And of course, that is indeed the case.  Not only does Rochelle buy food that is high in calories and low in nutritional value, because that is the food that she grew up with, but she buys it because it is all she can afford; she has also never learned how to cook some of the healthier foods.  Fried chicken and pork combined with lots of carbohydrates is basically what her family eats.  They also consume a lot of soft drinks and a lot of junk food.

The grocery store where Rochelle works is interesting because it was built last summer in a location that serves customers of both low and high-income neighborhoods.  The store was built right at the dividing line of these two areas.   The higher income neighborhood was newly built a few years ago; the other is the neighborhood Rochelle lives in which has poor schools, deteriorating apartment buildings, and high crime.  Watching the different products brought to the register has been an educational experience for Rochelle.  The new, affluent neighborhood, however, does have some “affordable housing”.  This took some time to work out with various agencies, but it is something the community wanted to happen.  “Affordable housing” does not mean that it provides for subsidized housing so it is still unaffordable for the very poor.  It may be affordable for a family of four making $50,000 but not for a family of four making $20,000.  This newly built community is, however, a step in the right direction.  It is on the side of town where the poor live.  They lived on that side of town when I moved here in 1969, and a story in this Sunday’s newspaper showed that this is still where most of the poor live almost 50 years later.  The newly built neighborhood has tried to make inroads into this situation.

The town Rochelle and I live in is divided by a major north/south highway; it was once called “The Interregional” because it reaches from Mexico to Chicago.  The richer, and mostly white, people live on the west side of this highway; the east side is where the poorer, and mostly minority, people make their homes.  It has been this way for a long time.  In general it has been an area of no banks, few grocery stores and poor schools.  Somewhat south of where Rochelle lives has started to gentrify over the last 10 years.  The rents are cheap and artists and young hipsters and professionals have started to move in.  Rents are going up, and poor people are moving out.  Things will look very different in 50 more years.

Rochelle lived, grew up and went to school with people somewhat similar to her; until recently she didn’t even realize there was a difference between healthy and unhealthy foods.  A lot of us, rich and poor, live surrounded by people similar to ourselves.  If you are poor, however, at least in this town and many towns like this, you won’t have good schools, or banks, or good grocery stores available to you because they just won’t be in your neighborhoods.  If you are poor you will have unequal opportunities from the rich.  Learning about opportunities available outside her neighborhoods is another mountain Rochelle is trying to climb.  Working at the grocery store has been an eye opening experience.  “But I can’t buy my meat here,” Rochelle said of her store.  “They don’t have what I want.”

Pete Seeger died last week; he often sang a Woody Guthrie song which expresses the unequal opportunity problem very well, especially in these two verses:

                                                This Land is Your Land

                              Was a big high wall there, that tried to stop me.

                              Was a great big sign that said Private Property.

                              But on the other side, it didn’t say nothin’.

                             That side was made for you and me.

 

                             One bright sunny morning, in the shadow of the steeple,

                             By the relief office, I saw my people.

                             As they stood there hungry, I stood there wondering, if

                            This land was made for you and me.

Interviewing for a Promotion

images“I think it went well, but seven other people are interviewing for the job, too,” Rochelle told me.  She had applied for a part-time hourly management position at her store.  They would keep her as a full-time employee, and she would work half-time as a manager over the cashiers and half-time at her normal cashier position.  At first I was concerned she would not keep her full-time job with benefits, but she asked and they said all would be well.  “We don’t do our people that way,” her manager told her.  Basically Rochelle would be monitoring the lunches and breaks of the other cashiers and handling problems at the check out stations.  “I won’t be real upset if I don’t get it,” she told me.  “I still have my full-time job, and I haven’t been here very long.”  She called me after her interview and said she thought it had gone well

At first I thought I would wait until the results of this job application had been decided before I made another post.  Rochelle will find out the results later this week.  But this is a major event in Rochelle’s life.  She has never been able to apply for advancement before.  She is saving a bit of money and has the possibility of moving up in her job.  I sure hope she gets the position, but if not, eventually she will move forward if she sticks with it.  I think we will get back to a discussion about teen pregnancy in our next interview.  I’ve got real concerns about her 12 year old daughter.  Rochelle has yet to talk to her about sex, and the girl seems to have friends who are already involved with boyfriends and either potentially or actually sexually active. Several of her Facebook “friends” say they are “in a relationship.”  At 12.  Rochelle and I have discussed this before, but nothing seems to be happening on the sex ed front, either at home or at school.  I think it is time to get back to the original subject of this blog, which is the problems of single black mothers.  Her 12 year old daughter may be one soon, and it would be a good thing if Rochelle can prevent it from happening.

The chances are far from good for Rochelle’s daughter.   In 2011, the last date for which I found conclusive figures, 72% of the African American mothers who gave birth in the United States were unmarried.  (So were 35% of the white mothers and 53% of the Hispanic mothers.)  Another way of looking at this is to note that in the same year (2011), only 51% of all Americans had ever been married (compared to 72% in 1960).  And if we look at the stats by race, we see that in 2011, only 30 of all African Americans had ever been married.   Fewer Americans are getting married now than ever before, and more babies are being born to unmarried mothers than ever before, and these two trends are most pronounced among African Americans. Just statistically it is possible to say that Rochelle’s daughter will probably be an unmarried mother, and that she will probably never marry.  If we add to this the facts that most of Rochelle’s female relatives are single mothers, that most of her daughter’s cousins and friends are or soon will be single mothers, the picture looks grim, indeed.  It is simply the norm for poor, African American females to become single mothers, and to do so when they are quite young and have no job skills.  Rochelle’s daughter does not do well in school, either academically or socially.  She is classified as a “slow learner,” and she has trouble controlling her temper.  School does not offer her a rewarding experience in any way.  She has no obvious future to protect.  It seems inevitable that she will be a mother sooner rather than later, especially if Rochelle does not have a serious talk with her about sex..