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.

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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.