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.

Advertisements

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.

One Step Forward, Then Two Steps Back

“My food stamps went down and my rent went up,” Rochelle told me with a sigh two days ago.  Due to government budget cuts everyone’s food stamps, now called SNAP, went down.  She called me this morning and said her kids came back from school with a note yesterday saying that, due to government budget cuts, the grant that provided for her children’s afterschool care had been cut; there would be no more care after December 15th.  She said she had cried all night.  “What am I going to do?”  I had no answer.

Blogging About Poverty

UnknownIt has now been slightly over a year since I started doing weekly interviews with Rochelle, and I’m feeling a little blogged out.   I don’t “get” blogging, actually.  People who go on and on about their routine lives seem pretty boring to me; reporting day to day activities just isn’t very interesting.  I had to opt out of a friend’s blog for that exact reason.  I have good friends; we discuss our lives when we get together, but we usually don’t discuss them on a weekly basis.  The question, then, becomes what to do now?  Rochelle is still only working part-time at the grocery store, and even should the job become full-time, poverty will remain what constantly causes Rochelle to live from crisis to crisis. I have interviewed her for about 60 hours.  We have covered a lot of subjects.  Those who have read all posts should understand how difficult day-to-day living is for Rochelle.  So as the second year of interviews begins, I will be working at discovering new themes and new strategies for exploring Rochelle’s world and its implications.

Last week we had only a short interview.  In thirty minutes I discovered her elder sister is now caring for a year and a half old child who is unwanted by a relative.  This sister has five of her own children and got pregnant at 13.  She has had a long and stable job, recently divorced her husband, but by no means has much money.  This, of course, is what the culture of poverty is all about.  Rochelle’s disabled mother moved back in with Rochelle full time to care for this baby while Shondelle, Rochelle’s sister, is at work.  Rochelle is surrounded by the problems poverty brings.  It is hard to be hopeful for Rochelle’s children; their role models are their aunts, their cousins, their grandmother, and their neighbors.   All of them are all in the same boat of hand-to-mouth poverty.

During last week’s interview I gave Rochelle a globe.  It was a gift from Jessie, my anthropologist sister, who is the reason for these interviews.  Kalinda, Rochelle’s eldest daughter, had done poorly on a social studies test.  The test required that she place continents on a map, among other things.  Jessie thought a globe would be useful and sent it.  Rochelle’s eyes just lit up when I gave it to her.  “I’ve never had a globe,” she said.  I showed her where some countries were and said it should help her kids learn about the world.  I grew up with a family globe and know I was always looking at it.  “You know I’ve never been out of the state,” Rochelle said.  “Do you think some time, when I’ve saved up some money, you could take me and the kids on a trip somewhere?”  It had already occurred to me to try to do that.  I’m not yet sure how or when, however.  “That would be a good idea,” I replied.  Then I felt very sad; she had sounded so wistful when she asked me the question.

So the blog will keep blogging, because the world of poverty keeps on grinding its inhabitants.  I am afraid that in this blog we are mostly preaching to the choir, something that is probably true of all blogs.  But with luck some readers are becoming more aware of what a huge trap poverty can be for those who have never lived in any other circumstances.  And perhaps gaining a better appreciation of the texture of lives stunted by poverty will inspire us all to do our part in the struggle against it.

 

 

School Crisis Avoided

imagesTwo weeks ago Rochelle had an awful day, and it got worse.  She called me and said her car wouldn’t start; could I please pick her up from work.  Usually that means a dead battery, but I knew she had recently bought a new one. She had gone to work in daylight so she couldn’t have left her lights on.  Rochelle works near where she lives, and it isn’t far from my house.  We first stopped by a convenience store so she could buy a money order for her rent.  It was the first of the month, and there are steep fines for paying late.  I dropped her at her apartment and told her I would see her the next day for our weekly interview.  I wished her good luck with her car.

“Yesterday was the worstest day,” she told me when she came in the door for her interview the next day.  I don’t correct Rochelle’s English because I would be correcting her all the time, and that would stress our relationship.  I think I will correct her the next time she uses “worstest,” however. She uses it a lot, and I think it is such a stigmatized term that it could alter people’s judgements of her.  Her daily life can be hard.   She had found someone to jumpstart her car so it was running, but now she had another problem.  Rochelle had been called by her elder daughter’s afterschool care teacher because her daughter, Kalinda, had been in a fight with another girl.   Kalinda was now suspended from the afterschool care program at least for the rest of the week.  Rochelle was concerned that she might be suspended for the rest of the year.  She had called the teacher and was now waiting to see what was going to happen.  During the week her work was scheduling her so she could be off in time to pick up her children from afterschool care.  She would have to cut her hours if she didn’t have Kalinda in afterschool care.

“I’m going to pull her out of that school.  It’s too rough,” Rochelle told me.  I told her it took two people to have a fight and suggested perhaps Kalinda should have gone to the teacher if the other girl had started the fight.  “What is she supposed to do, just stand there and get beat up?”  Rochelle responded. She now had a possible child care crisis and a car whose new battery had died, though she had no idea why.  Both problems could cost her money she didn’t have.

I didn’t see Rochelle last week because I had gone to visit my sister, Jessie, for five days.  When I got back home from my trip all Rochelle’s problems from her recent “worstest day” seemed to have been resolved, at least for now.  The car had not been fixed properly when she had been in a wreck last April; her trunk could pop open a bit and leave the trunk light on, which drains her battery.  Her daughter had received counseling from the teacher and from the school’s security person, as did the other girl in the fight, and they had to clean the cafeteria from 2:45 until 5:00 every day after school for two weeks.  The teacher said suspending her permanently would cause more problems than it would solve, so she didn’t believe in doing that.  I forgot to ask Rochelle if she was still going to move her daughter to a different school.  The schools in her neighborhood get rougher as the children get older, and Kalinda had started junior high this school year.  Rochelle had mentioned her concern about the junior high school before Kalinda started the school year.

The car will present more problems in the future, and school may not continue to go smoothly for Kalinda.  Next year she will have to attend a different school, any way, because her current one is going to be all boys.  Rochelle is really concerned about that because, she says, the new school, which will be all girls, will mix in some really tough girls from different neighborhoods.  But for now, the car is running, and all three children are in afterschool care.  Most problems are crises when one lives with so little money, and when there is no other adult to help shoulder the chronic difficulties of life.  But Rochelle was happy these problems are resolved for now.