Two Jobs

images-1“I am just so tired,” Rochelle told me recently.  We’ve had a very hard time getting together for our weekly interviews since she started working two jobs about a month ago.  The grocery store location she will be working for has pushed back its opening for a second time, so she is still working at one of the company’s other locations.  She officially quit her job at the home for the disabled but is picking up two or three days a week there for extra money.  The home has many open positions and desperately need her to fill in.  This works out well for Rochelle, too, right now.  She juggles the two jobs and the driving back and forth between where her mother stays and her own apartment.  This is a sixty-mile round trip.  One week the children stay at her mother’s, and one week her mother and the children stay with her.  It is no wonder Rochelle is tired.

“The grocery store is so busy,” Rochelle said. It is the busiest location the company has, and they say if she is successful there, she’ll be successful at the new location, too.  It has been quite a while since Rochelle has worked in such a busy situation.  The department store she had worked for two and a half years ago was very busy until the demographics changed, and they started to wind down to closing the store.  She was only working one job then and had a set schedule.  Her schedule now isn’t set and changes weekly, and her children aren’t in school.  Juggling two jobs and three kids is tiring for anyone.

Rochelle and I were finally going to meet for an interview a couple of mornings ago.  My sister, Jessie, the anthropologist, was in town, and we were going to have lunch together after the interview.  Jessie and Rochelle had never met.  Rochelle really wanted Jessie to meet her children, but they were at their grandmother’s, thirty miles away.  Since she didn’t have to work that day Rochelle drove the sixty mile round trip to pick up her children the evening before the lunch.  It was important to Rochelle that she show Jessie (who funds the interviews) her proudest accomplishment.  She wanted to demonstrate that she was a better mother to her children than her mother had been to her.  Rochelle spent several hours “combing the country” out of her daughters’ hair so that they would look “proper” when meeting Jessie.  Rochelle spent some time on her own hair, as well.  They all looked great when they arrived at the restaurant.

Since Rochelle had the children with her that morning we skipped the interview again, and called the lunch an interview.  Everyone had a good time, and Rochelle’s five year old son, Kyle, exclaimed “this is great food,” as he dipped his French fries into ranch dressing and munched on chicken. Rochelle said they hadn’t really had breakfast that day. We even had desert since it was a special lunch: peach cobbler and ice cream all around.  The children were relaxed, talkative, and well behaved.  They thanked me for lunch, but I told them to thank Jessie since she was paying.  “Are you going to split it?” asked Kyle, aware, even at five, of the economic realities of life.  “No, my sister is paying for all of it,” I said.  So they thanked Jessie and hugged us both when they left.  Rochelle had every right to be proud of her accomplishment that day.  Her children did her proud.

Maybe next week Rochelle and I can get together for a real interview.  Other women juggle two jobs, three kids, and no husband, but it certainly can’t be easy.  I know I would be tired too.

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The New Job

UnknownRochelle started her new job last week. “It ain’t easy,” she told me. “I am the worst cashier ever.” As with all new jobs, it takes practice to learn how to do things, and training time is never enough. She bagged groceries the first day and was put on the cash register for only an hour. “It’s hard. I forgot to smile and greet the customer; then the potatoes got weighed and priced twice; plus I forgot to circle how much they saved and I forgot one lady’s coupon. But the day went by real fast.” Mostly she is concerned she is not going to get enough hours even when the new store, the one she was hired for, actually opens. That store’s opening was pushed back a couple of weeks so she is now working as extra staff in one of their nearby stores. She was told she will work more hours when the new store opens in about a month. For now Rochelle is picking up a few hours a week at her old job. They have quite a few openings and need the help.

School is out for the summer, and Rochelle’s children are being cared for by her mother. Sometimes it is at their apartment and sometimes it is at their grandmother’s boyfriend’s house, which is thirty miles away. Rochelle’s mother has lived with her boyfriend for about twelve years. The younger children love it there since they can go outside and help in the garden. It is a more rural area. The eleven year old daughter finds it boring. They have done this for several summers and Rochelle says it has worked out in the past. The grandmother and her boyfriend are both somewhat disabled and are at home all day. They don’t have a car.

Last week there were no crises. Bills got paid, and Rochelle was even going to get something out of the pawn shop today. A church in a neighboring town had paid her past due electric bill and given her 3 boxes of food. They had also given her 3 fans. Rochelle has air conditioning, but her electric bills run too high, and she is trying to conserve. Electric rates are higher in the summer, and the cost of electricity has gone up as well. To make matters worse, the apartment house Rochelle lives in was constructed with the assumption the tenants would rely on air conditioning in the Texas heat. It is poorly insulated and has no provision for cross ventilation. Rochelle doesn’t want to be caught by surprise.

Rochelle isn’t comfortable in her new job yet and says she actually misses the people she cared for in her old job. Transitions are difficult for most people. Still, fingers are crossed and she hopes things will be better than they have been for the past year. Hopefully she will not get too frustrated while she adjusts to her new employment. She knows that, stressful as these early days are, the new job offers a much better future than the old one, with better pay, the promise of raises, and benefits that were never part of the old job. The elements of Rochelle’s life are still precariously balanced: her mother’s health could fail; her car could break down; her hours at either one of her jobs could be fewer than she expects. Still, it has been a while since Rochelle has had a nice, crisis free week such as the past one.

Life With No Safety Net

Unknown-1“When you ain’t got nothin’, you got nothin’ to lose,” goes the Bob Dylan song. Rochelle certainly has nothing, but, because she has three children, she has everything to lose. In a perfect month she can balance her budget. She earns only $7.65/hour and works just thirty hours a week, but her monthly income meets her monthly expenditures. At least it does on paper in an ideal month. If she did not receive federal assistance she and her children would be on the streets and starving. Her net income is $1818/month. Her fixed expenditures are $1656/month. These figures show nothing spent for clothing and nothing extra. Her estimated expenditure for food is only $40/month more than her food stamps, but surely this can’t be right, even though her children qualify for free school breakfast and lunch.

Rochelle receives $248 in food stamps, now called SNAP; her rent is only $220 due to qualifying for Section 8 housing subsidy; plus she receives Social Security (SSI) for her disabled daughter. In a month, with no financial surprises, Rochelle makes ends meet. Most months do have financial surprises. It might be a car repair or an unexpectedly high electric bill due to an extremely hot Texas summer. In the real world, Rochelle’s income almost never matches her required cash outflow. Today she is driving 30 miles in her unreliable car to a church in a nearby town that has agreed to pay her $400 overdue electric bill.

Rochelle has no safety net. Her relatives and friends are also poor. They are in the same desperate position she is, and she can’t turn to them in an emergency. She has no savings because she has always worked low paying jobs. She has awful credit, partly because she was never taught how one gets and keeps good credit. She grew up seeing her friends and family surrounded by the “fringe banking” world of payday loans and pawnshops. All it takes is one extra expense a month for Rochelle to have a financial crisis. When this happens the only place she can go is to high interest finance companies, higher interest payday loans, or pawnshops. Currently she spends $433 each month to make payments to five different finance companies. When a new crisis arises she re-finances one or more of these loans and then owes even more in interest payments. The five finance companies are like balls she is constantly juggling. “This is just what we do,” she told me. As the title of David Caplowitz’s 1967 book puts it, “The Poor Pay More”, They pay a lot more.

Rochelle’s financial hole is dug deeper every year because life never progresses ideally. Minimum wage and low wage jobs are not living wage jobs. If there were another wage earner, even a minimum wage earner in Rochelle’s household, life would be tolerable. But Rochelle’s situation is much like that of the other 25% of American households headed by single women, where the median income is $23,000, just slightly higher than Rochelle’s. That’s less than half the overall US median income for 2013, estimated at roughly $51,000 . Working hard at low wage jobs has not allowed Rochelle to move forward. I’ve worked with Rochelle, and she is smart and very hard working, but she needs to see some light at the end of the tunnel for her hard work. So far, after losing her job when the department store closed, she has actually moved backwards.

Tomorrow will be Rochelle’s first day at her new job. She’ll be working as a cashier for a very successful grocery store chain. This job provides higher pay but fewer hours than her current job. She plans on working at least some hours in her old job so that she can try to get ahead. Rochelle hopes she will get full time work with the grocery store if she shows them what a good employee she can be. She is keeping her fingers crossed and so am I. Living with no safety net is an exhausting life.

David at Age Twelve

maxbaby1c“How many cats would you have if you could afford it?” Rochelle had brought her twelve year old nephew to my house. He loved animals and asked me this question after playing with my two cats. Rochelle had called at 6:45 a.m. to say she wouldn’t be able to come for her weekly interview because her sister, David’s mother, was in the hospital. I called back later and suggested she just bring David with her and we would all just go out to breakfast.

David’s mother is a stripper and frequently brings men home. David’s father has been in prison the past nine years. David and his mother have moved frequently, and he was held back a year in school. He seemed polite, nice and intelligent. Rochelle tells me he is beaten at home when he can’t do his homework or when he gets bad grades. His focus seems to be on his pet rat. He loves that rat and told me all about it. I told him they are great pets and that I had two when I was a child and even had one when I was in my twenties. He would like a dog but they can’t afford it. I told him his rat was perfect.

I asked Rochelle if we should take David to school but Rochelle told me the school he went to was a secret. He had changed schools about six months earlier, and his mother told him not to tell anyone where he went. Rochelle has no idea why this happened, and her sister wouldn’t tell her.

At age twelve, with a difficult life, David still seems like a very nice and friendly boy. It is hard not to wonder how long this will last in his environment. It is very unlikely things will get better at home. Twelve is a rough age for a lot of children, but it is rougher for a boy whose father is in prison and whose mother strips for a living and beats him for bad schoolwork. At least he does have his pet rat to talk to and play with at home.

We went to breakfast and I asked David what subject he liked in school. “Hands on science,” he said. Then his mother called and said she was being released from the hospital. He looked relieved. As we went our separate ways I told him it was nice to have met him. “Nice to meet you too,” he said. “I really liked playing with your cats.”

Life Choices

ChoicesThis is not a post from the usual author of Rochelle’s World.  She is the middle sister, Rochelle’s friend and former co-worker.  It’s not from the youngest sister, the tech-savvy film professor, who set the blog up and keeps it running.  I’m the oldest sister, the anthropology professor, and I’ve been thinking about choices.

We hear a lot these days about people like Rochelle, who, as politicians like to say, “have made poor choices.”  The idea is that they could and should have made “better choices.”  And since they didn’t, now they are just going to have to suffer the consequences.  They are going to have to pay for their choices.

There are several things wrong with this simplistic approach.

First, how much “choice” do Rochelle and people like her really have?  Rochelle’s mother, her sister, her cousins, and her friends all live in acute poverty, have little education, few job skills, and have had children without husbands.  None of this makes for a happy, secure, or comfortable life, but it is no more the result of conscious, reasoned choice than the life trajectory of a middle class person like me.  When I was young I didn’t think through what I should do, either.  I just did well in school because that was what was expected of me.  I went to college for the same reason.  I had my only child once I was married because that was what middle class women did.  Pretending that people’s youthful activities, largely conditioned by the culture they grow up in, are “choices,” is self serving and unrealistic.

Second, consider the differential price we pay for our “bad choices,” depending on the worlds we inhabit.  Rochelle was not a great student; school was not important to her or to her friends and family.  She never went to college.  She developed no job skills.  She had three children with no one to support them but herself.  So she is desperately poor.  Though I was a great student in elementary and high school, I bombed in college, dividing my time between the movie theatre and Victorian novels (not an adaptive strategy for a philosophy major).  When I graduated, with lousy grades and no job skills, I could still get a job with benefits and reasonable pay, because I was a middle class white person with a BA.  And because of those accidental features of my life, I was able to get a second chance.  I went to graduate school, got a PhD, and now have a secure job with good benefits and a comfortable salary.  I paid way less for my lousy choices than Rochelle is paying for hers, and none of it has to do with greater virtue on my part.

Third, when my husband was in graduate school and I was providing most of the household income, I got pregnant by mistake.  But, being a middle class person, I feared that a baby at that point would derail our lives, so I had an abortion.  Years later, when our incomes were more secure, I had my only child.  That child, now, ironically, the same age as Rochelle, will graduate from medical school in three weeks.  An accomplished violinist, she graduated from the same Ivy League college I did.  She has traveled all over the world and served two years in the Peace Corps.  Not only did I pay very little for my lousy choices, but my daughter has paid nothing for them.  Rochelle’s three children, on the other hand, are already paying for their mother’s lousy “choices,” and they will almost certainly continue to do so for the rest of their lives.

Rochelle works hard at an unrewarding and poorly paid job to support herself and her children.  She helps out her relatives when she can.  She doesn’t drink or smoke, and she doesn’t touch drugs.  She is concerned with her children’s education, and she goes to their parent-teacher conferences and to their school performances when she doesn’t have to work.  These are choices, too; good ones.  But the cost of her earlier “choices” is so great that it is terribly hard to overcome them.   It’s like the cost of borrowing money from the finance companies that prey on the poor (and that Rochelle knows well): you never get out from under the interest.

It is apparently comforting for the middle and upper classes to talk about “poor choices.”  Not only do they conveniently forget their own poor choices, which have had relatively few consequences, but the idea of “choice” allows the affluent to blame the poor for their poverty and its complications.  Can’t people transcend the limitations and conditions of their surroundings?  Of course, they can, or at least remarkable people can.  But in truth, most of us cannot and do not.  We are far from remarkable.  It would have been as hard for me not to go to college and to have three children without a husband as it would have been for Rochelle to have got a PhD and had only one child once she and her husband (what husband?) had achieved economic security.  As noted, I paid very little for my bad choices, and my daughter has paid nothing for them.  Rochelle is paying for her mother’s choices, as well as for her own, and her children are also paying for hers.  In the end, of course, Rochelle and her children are paying for choices our ancestors made centuries ago, and indeed, all of us are paying for them indirectly.

Baby Steps Forward

footstepsSome days are good days for Rochelle.  Some days the car starts; bills get paid; there is food in the refrigerator and gas in the car.  When those days come, Rochelle can think about what to do tomorrow and next week.  She can make future plans.  She can’t really waste that time sleeping or watching television because those times come too infrequently for her.  Moving forward means using any free time she has to do things with a positive effect on her future.  “Free time” is only “problem-free time” for her.

Since last September, when I began interviewing her, Rochelle has received free health and dental insurance through a city program.  She has used it for a medical check-up and has also had four dental clinic visits to repair what a lifetime of dental neglect had done to her teeth.  Her children are covered by Medicaid.  This week she starts training for her new, higher paying job.  The job pays only $9.00/hour to start, and is only part-time, but it is for a well- respected company. The company gives raises twice a year for the first two years, then once a year after that. The $9.00/hour, while still less than she was earning at the department store, is much more than her current $7.65/hour.  The job is quite close to her apartment, plus her current employer says she can also work part-time with them if she wishes.  Rochelle started part-time at the department store and turned it into full-time work.  The same is possible with this new job. The problem of childcare, however, still looms. If her mother backs out of her offer to increase the days she cares for the children, or if her mother gets sicker, what will Rochelle do?  Everything, really, hinges on childcare. When one is a mother everything pivots around childcare.

Today, actually, food is on the table because Rochelle pawned everything of value she had.  These were not family jewels. She has no family jewels.  She pawned the electronics, which had mostly been presents for the children.  It is not the first time she has done that.

Tomorrow there may be another crisis.  If there isn’t one tomorrow, then most likely there will be one within the next few weeks.  That is what happens when life is lived on the edge.  Baby steps, however, if successful, can turn into giant steps.  That can happen too.  Rochelle believes that.