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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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.

 

 

 

 

Why Has Marriage Declined?

images-1This is Jessie again, with the sequel to the last post about marriage, money, and wellbeing.  As marriage declines, we inevitably consider why this should have happened.  As far as we know, marriage has been around as long as humans have been.  There are no societies on the planet that do not have marriage, although marriage takes a bunch of different forms.  There are, for example, more societies that permit marriage between one man and multiple women than there are societies that don’t.  Some societies permit marriages between one woman and several men, several men and several women, two women, two men, and between humans and nonhumans, mostly supernatural beings or institutions.  So I don’t expect that American marriage to wither away and disappear forever.  Instead, I think it will increasingly become like cloth napkins: a luxury item increasingly reserved for the well off, the well educated, and the white–a perk of privilege.

What has caused the decline in American marriage?  I’d say it comes from a decline in what some anthropologists have called “complementarity.”  If you look at marriage across time and space, one thing you notice is that marriage has primarily been a practical institution.  In order to get through life and take care of children, men do men’s chores, and women do women’s chores, and together people survive.  That’s complementarity.   Ideally, husbands and wives come to like and even love each other, but romantic love has certainly not been the basis or goal of most marriages on the planet now or ever.  That’s why parents and other family members have choose spouses for their children, and they base their decisions on practical concerns.  Some of these arranged marriages work out well, and some don’t—just as is true for contemporary American marriages, which are successful about 50% of the time.

But nowadays in the US, complementarity has broken down.  Men no longer need women for survival, and women no longer need men.  A hundred or a thousand or five thousand years ago men needed women to cook for them and make and maintain their clothing, both of which activities required specialized skills and a lot of time and energy.  And women needed men to provide a large part of the food the family ate, and later on, money.  But laundromats, fast food, and ready made clothing have replaced the need for a wife.   These same advances in technology have produced numerous forms of employment that don’t require male strength and tasks that women can perform just as well as men.  These largely service jobs have replaced the need for a husband.  Then there is the fact that so few people are now engaged in agriculture (around 3% today, compared to roughly 50% in the middle of the 19th century).  Thus, worries about having legitimate heirs to pass property on to are now way less important to all but the most affluent.  And arching over all of these technological and demographic issues (but related to them) is the reality that despite the emotional and political power of Christianity on the United States, the actual power of religion to shape personal behavior has dramatically declined.  Christian teachings on the immorality of extranuptial sex, for example, have not officially changed in the last century.  But the power of these teachings to control human behavior has definitely diminished.  So more babies are born to unmarried women than ever before, but the opprobrium attached to these mothers and their children has declined as definitely as their incidence has increased.

And there’s one more thing to consider.  As has been reported now for at least the last five years (and longer, if one reads the specialized literature), job opportunities for the least educated workers with the least education and the fewest contemporary job skills have shrunk dramatically.  Americans in this category disproportionately include African Americans and Hispanics, but also include a significant number of whites.  Barely able to support themselves with the little work they can find in today’s economy, these men cannot possibly enter into a traditional family structure in which they contribute significantly to the support of a household.  Many turn to illegal means of earning money.  Thus an increasing proportion of impoverished men abandon economic responsibility for their children and their children’s mothers.  As more and more young men do this, it becomes an increasingly expected and accepted pattern of behavior, fueled not only by economic constraints, but also by freedom from psychological obligation and from sexual restriction.  The mothers—women like Rochelle—have fewer choices than the fathers.  Unless they are severely impaired by psychological damage or drug use, they cannot ignore their responsibility to their children.  So–again like Rochelle– they cobble together a precarious existence for their extranuptial households from low paid employment, social services, and assistance from family members.

This is not a “lifestyle choice.”  It is a serious national problem, and a human tragedy for the adults and children involved.

Next time:  suggestions for solutions.

Definitions of the Word “Half-Sister”

Unknown-1“She’s my sister because we have the same mother,” Rochelle explained to me about six years ago.  For some reason we had been talking about her family when we were at work; she had just told me that her two sisters and she all had different fathers.  “Oh, so they are your half-sisters,” I had said.  “Why do white people say that?  We have the same mother,” Rochelle had exclaimed, with an exasperated tone in her voice.  That began my education into the description of half-siblings in Rochelle’s world.  I just thought Rochelle didn’t understand genetics; she thought I just didn’t get it at all.

Rochelle’s family relationships are complex; there are a lot of siblings fathered by a lot of different men throughout the generations. During that discussion six years ago, I grabbed a piece of paper to start diagramming the relationships; I wanted to better understand what she was telling me.  The paper quickly became a mess of lines, and I realized it wasn’t going to work; I just listened and tried to remember how everyone was related.  But soon after I started interviewing Rochelle weekly for this project, I did map out her family relationships over three generations.  At first I tried to find a generational chart on the internet.  There were a lot to choose from, but I could find none that gave the options I needed for the many siblings from the many different fathers that Rochelle’s family tree required.   I finally used these charts as a guide and drew my own.  It is still, however, somewhat of a mess and needs to be re-done.  But I can understand it and I now know whom everybody is when Rochelle and I talk about her family.

Rochelle has three children by two different men; her mother has three children by three different men; and her grandmother, her mother’s mother, has six children by five different men.  None of those siblings are considered half-siblings.  “They have the same mother,” Rochelle again explained:  “Half-sisters and brothers don’t have the same mother.  If they have the same father, but a different mother, then we call them “half.”  My sisters lived in the same house with me.  Our half-sisters and half-brothers didn’t.  We might not even know them.”  I already understood how she used the word and now I understood why.  I use pure genetics when I use the term “half.”  Rochelle, on the other hand, uses genetics as well, but modified in a fashion that works in her culture.  “There are a lot of different fathers in Black families,” Rochelle told me last week.  “I guess that’s why we talk about brothers and sisters differently from white people.”  There may be more to it than that, but it was obvious that Rochelle and I had both learned something about the other’s culture.  We no longer have to define what we mean when talking about sisters and brothers.