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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

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..