A Corner Turned?

images“I have no stress and the holidays were good,” Rochelle told me on January 2nd.  “This year I’m going to focus on my health and on my career with the grocery store.”

I had never heard her use the word “career” when talking about any job.  The store knows she wants to advance, and she has already been trained in various areas of its operation.  When this training was first offered to her she didn’t want to do it.  Initially they wanted her to learn how to demonstrate food; she felt this was a lower position than she currently held.  It was, however, higher pay.  I told her the more she learned about the company, the more valuable she would be to them.  Later they wanted to teach her how to run their gas station operation.  Now she does both in addition to acting as cashier, and she enjoys it.  She also attended, on her own time, a class on the various methods for advancement within the company.   She has now worked at the store for 8 months.  “I want to learn all I can about the company before I try for advancement,” she told me.  They only take 10 people a year into their management school and Rochelle knows she isn’t ready.  The company does, however, offer classes to learn about its organization and operations, and that is how Rochelle wants to proceed.  Rochelle is thinking ahead and thinking things through for the first time since I have been interviewing her.  Of course, this is the first time she has ever had a job with any kind of future.

Rochelle is not even close to being out of poverty, but she is on a better course.  Her car will still be causing problems, but things are definitely better than they were a year ago.  I asked her what she thought.  “I think I’m on the right track finally,” she told me.

I have not posted for the last month or so, though I did interview Rochelle weekly.  I guess I was taking a needed break as well.  I will continue to interview Rochelle for the next 6 months and then we shall see where this blog goes.  I’m going to leave this post short because there is no need to elaborate.  All is not going to be smooth sailing, but Rochelle just may have turned a corner.  Again my fingers are crossed.

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The Back to School Stresses of Poverty

UnknownMost parents look forward to school starting as the summer winds down.  Most children look forward to it, as well.  Summer was long; the working parents had to find some way to care for the children; children who had been eligible for free meals at school now had to be fed at home; and most kids started missing their school friends.  But, though everyone seems to look forward to the start of school year, there are major expenses that come with it, as well.  Not only may new clothes be needed, but now parents seem required to supply quite a lot of the school supplies out of their own pockets.  My sister Jessie and I remember that our parents were required to buy almost no school supplies.  Sure, we needed binders then, not backpacks, but that’s all we remember our parents needed to purchase.  Maybe our town or our time was different; I don’t know, but now, in the city I live in, back-to-school supplies are a significant expense.  Rochelle is stressed out because of it.  The cost of supplies for three children is significant.

“I don’t get paid until Thursday,” she told me on the phone. “I was wondering if I could have an advance on my interview money?”  My anthropologist sister, Jessie, pays her for the interviews she does with me, and Rochelle was to receive more money in a week.  “I need to buy school supplies, but I just had to buy two tires,” she explained when we discussed the problem.  School was starting in less than a week.  Rochelle was looking for organizations that provided free school supplies for her children, but this year she also had to buy school uniforms for Kalinda, who was beginning middle school.   Any expense beyond the basic ones puts Rochelle into financial trouble.  The car tires had put her over the edge.   Two weeks earlier she had mentioned to me that she was “out of money.”  The apartment had wanted payment on a late water bill and also charged her late fees, another unexpected expense she hadn’t been prepared for.  I agreed to advance her the interview money this time.  It would only be for a few days.

“You know, I’ve been thinking about how we have talked about planning for the future,” Rochelle told me in our interview later that day.  “Next summer I need to get the kids into some sort of camp or something.  They can’t just be watching T.V. at their grandmother’s and eating all summer long,” she said.  “And I still need to write a resume.”  This was the first time I had ever heard her talk about future needs and plans.  I agreed.  Free summer camps are available, but research and advance planning will be required if that is to happen by next summer.  Rochelle is enjoying her new job, but she wants to advance.  She has always wanted to work for the state of Texas and has noticed that all state jobs want applicants to e-mail a resume.  A resume on hand would enable Rochelle to apply for an available position if she finds one.  She may want to stay with the grocery store if she can advance, but she now wants some options.  “I’m getting older,” she told me, “I have to think about the future.”  I also suggested a savings account of sorts.  “If you started taking a water bottle to work instead of buying water, you could put that money into a savings account and it would add up over a year’s time,” I said.  “Yeah, that would be easy,” Rochelle agreed.  It was a modest suggestion, but she liked it.

School starts in two days, but Rochelle and I hadn’t even discussed upcoming child care solutions during this interview.  She thinks the two younger children will be able to stay at their school until 6:00, if she gets in line early enough when the sign up happens next week.  But, though we have been talking about the problem for a few months, she is not sure how care will be provided for Kalinda, who will be going to middle school. “I’ll figure something out,” she said.  I handed her a list of programs I thought were available at that school.  We had talked about it before, but Kalinda was not eligible for some of the programs.  Childcare, work schedules, school supplies, these are all stressors most parents face, but with the additional stress of poverty they can become overwhelming.  Rochelle will get through this situation, but I still cross my fingers.  So does she.

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Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic: Learning in the Culture of Poverty

images-2It was 7:30 a.m., and I was knocking on Rochelle’s apartment door.  It was dark inside, but she had asked me to take her to work and then to babysit her children until her mother returned from her doctor’s appointment.  Her elder daughter, Kalinda, opened the door.  She and her sister were dressed, and her brother just needed his shoes put on.  Rochelle was not quite ready.  It was the first time I had been to the apartment.  “I want you to come over, but I want to have it clean first,” Rochelle had always said.  This morning she said,  “We picked up a little bit for your visit.”   She had called me two days earlier when she realized she had a babysitting problem.

The apartment was physically in very good shape, but there were clothes and toys and boxes of food all over every room except Rochelle’s bedroom.  Four people make for a lot of laundry and a lot of mess.  It is a four-bedroom apartment; however, two of the bedrooms are used for storage for bicycles and toys.  The two girls sleep in bunk beds, and the five-year old boy sleeps with his mother.  I wasn’t quite sure where the grandmother slept when she was there.

When Rochelle was ready I drove her to her work with the children in the back seat.  I took the kids to breakfast after we dropped their mother off.  It seemed easier that way, and I knew the children sometimes didn’t get breakfast.  After breakfast we went back to the apartment and I discovered the reason it had been so dark when I had arrived.  There are no overhead light fixtures in the apartment.  The living room had two end table lamps, but when I tried to read a book to the youngest children I didn’t have enough light to read by.  The lamps needed higher wattage bulbs.  “Why didn’t you open the curtain?” Rochelle asked when I told her about my predicament.  That would have solved my problem, but it only works in the daytime.   I began to wonder where and how the children ever did their homework.  I also wondered how the children could read books on their own.  Rochelle told me that she sometimes did read books to them, but that looked like a difficult thing to do.  I finally sat on the floor under an end table light and the two youngest sat on the couch and looked over my shoulder.

Kalinda, the 11-year old, has problems in school.  She had an after-school tutor towards the end of the past school year to help prepare her for the State of Texas tests that were coming up.  She did not understand multiplication at all.  “She just doesn’t get it, and I don’t know why,” Rochelle had told me in an interview a few months ago.  Rochelle had always done well in arithmetic and just couldn’t understand why her daughter had a problem.  “I just don’t have the patience to work with her; I get frustrated,” Rochelle explained.  At that time I suggested flash cards; we went to a store and got multiplication and division flash cards.

When I finished reading the book to the youngest children, I suggested to Kalinda that we do some flash cards.  She looked excited and stopped looking at Facebook on the computer.  She went to the bedroom closet and brought the flash cards to me.  They obviously had never been used, but she wanted to show me what she had learned with the tutor.  “I never used to understand multiplication at all,” she said.  Kalinda did get the right answer on some of the flash cards, but when we tried 9×12 she had a problem.  She had a problem with 8×9, as well.  She starts division when the fall semester begins in four weeks, and without multiplication she will have difficulty with division.  If there is not a breakthrough at the beginning of the school year, which seems unlikely, Kalinda’s ability to handle basic arithmetic will go downhill fast from there.  “You just have to memorize these things,” I told her.  “If you use the flash cards you will learn the answers.”  She asked if she could use some paper to figure out the answer.  I told her that would be fine, but I didn’t understand how that would help.  It didn’t.  Kalinda has memorized the smaller numbers but seems to runs into problems above 5.  The combinations she knows may be the result of familiarity.  I’m not sure anyone has ever explained the process and necessity of memorization to her, or sat with her while she mastered her flash cards.

Rochelle’s apartment has four bedrooms, but no place is conducive to studying or learning.  There is very little light for reading, and flat surfaces are covered with clothing and other possessions.  The computer has its own corner, and the television, as in many homes, is the focal point of the living room.  When Rochelle came to my house for her weekly interview the next morning I asked her where the children did their homework.  “On the dining room table,” Rochelle said.  That wasn’t really available the day I was there because it was piled with clothing.  Four people plus a visiting grandmother can turn an apartment into a mess very quickly.  I mentioned the fact that Kalinda didn’t really understand that multiplication required, especially at the beginning, just memorization.  “She has trouble with her memory,” Rochelle told me.  This child has been diagnosed with learning problems, but I suggested if she had no problem memorizing 4×5 (and she doesn’t), she could memorize 8×9.  “Just use the flash cards,” I said, and offered to spend time working on flash cards with Kalinda.    Rochelle nodded, but Rochelle had no support at all when she was in school and doesn’t see how crucial that support could be to a child who is struggling in school.   “I just don’t have the patience,” she again told me. The coming academic year will not be easy for Kalinda.  She starts at a new school, and she can’t handle multiplication.  The youngest two children also seem eager to learn.  They have done well in school so far, but I fear for the future.

I wasn’t surprised by the difficult environment for learning I found in Rochelle’s apartment, except that Rochelle had not described it to me that way.  Rochelle has never experienced a supportive learning environment herself, so she doesn’t recognize the problems her apartment presents to her children.  After all, she has provided her children with a secure and relatively comfortable home, something that was entirely missing from her own childhood.  Education may be a key to finding the way out of poverty, but the obstacles blocking educational achievement are huge from the earliest years of childhood.  The lack of money in a poor household is one thing, but if one has lived in the culture of poverty for generations, as Rochelle has, the key is very difficult to find.

Problems on the Horizon

images-1Rochelle’s world has been somewhat problem-free for over a month.  It has been the longest problem-free time since I have been interviewing her, and it did made me wonder what the next crisis would be.  I didn’t have to wait long to find out because she mentioned it last Tuesday during our interview.  The problem looming in the future surprised me since I didn’t even realize it was on the horizon.  She started the interview by mentioning that she was recently called by a city constable who wanted to serve her with notice from a debt collector.  She recognized the phone number as one she often had to call when relatives had jail problems.  “Well, I’ve used that number enough to recognize the beginning numbers,” she told me.  “At first I wasn’t going to call back, but they have my address and phone number, and now they’ll come looking for me.”  The constable wanted to serve her with notice on a long-ago defaulted debt.  A debt she had forgotten about and thought would never be a problem again.  Rochelle called and set up a payment plan; she had decided this would be cheaper than having to pay court costs later on.

The newly discovered debt did present a new financial difficulty, but then she mentioned something that could indeed become a serious problem down the line.  “I think I’ll probably have to move in January,” she told me.  “Why?” I asked.  “Your children are in school and a disruption and change of schools will be hard on them.”  The conversation about the constable had started her thinking about her uncle.  “Jerome is getting out of prison in January,” she said.  I asked where he was going to stay, and that brought up the problem.  “He probably thinks he’s going to stay with me,” she sighed.  Jerome had stayed with her before, though she isn’t supposed to have roommates when she is receiving Section 8 government assistance.  Jerome had helped with babysitting then, but he always goes back to drug dealing and is not a good influence on her children.  Rochelle thinks moving to a neighboring town will make it impossible for him to stay with her since he won’t have a car.  Her new job is less than a mile from where she now lives, and the children have been going to the same school for the last four years.  The town she mentioned moving to would require more for gas money and has heavy commuter traffic to her work.  The town is also not near any of the services she uses since it is in an entirely different county.  We talked about this for a bit.  I suggested she just tell him he couldn’t move in.  Jerome is her mother’s brother, however, and Rochelle knows many people put her up when she was a child and had nowhere to stay.  She has often let people stay with her for that reason, but Jerome isn’t a child.  He is 49 and does not seem to be changing his ways.

Things like this come up in Rochelle’s life all the time.  Jerome will probably end up in jail again, as he always has in the past, but moving to a different town to avoid a possible problem does not seem to be a sensible solution.  Rochelle admits she has just started to think about Jerome’s release from jail, so things may change.  “It doesn’t seem smart to pay more for gas and to live so far from work,” she said, as we finished the weekly interview.  I agreed with her and told her she had several months to think it through.  With luck she will see another way out of this dilemma.

Planning Beyond Tomorrow

images-5“I need to put a resume together,” Rochelle told me quite a while ago.  I think this actually was a year ago when her unemployment ran out and she knew she needed a job.  She asked if I would help her put one together, and I agreed.  Two days later she got the job at the home for the disabled and said she no longer needed to have a resume.  She got her new job at the grocery store without a resume, too, but when I was interviewing her last week we talked about the future.  The future is something Rochelle rarely talks about, and I’ve come to understand that, like a lot of people in her position, Rochelle deals in the present and has a very hard time moving her thoughts to the future.  “I’m just so busy every day I don’t have time,” is how she explains it to me.  She had again brought up the fact that she needed a resume.  “I would like to have a state job,” she told me when I asked what she thought a perfect job would be.  “They have good benefits and good hours and I know plenty of people who work for the state who only have high school diplomas or G.E.D.s.  “I know I’ll need a resume, though,” she said.  “I know, I know, I’ve brought that up before and didn’t get it done,” she admitted.

There are lots of things that come up in Rochelle’s life that get postponed repeatedly.  Her eldest child goes to middle school in a few weeks, but she hasn’t yet registered her.  I suggested a “to do” list–a written “to do” list that she has to look at every day.  She says she puts thing into her smart phone to remind her when she needs to do something. “That’s not working,” I said.  We meet again this week, and I’ll bring it up again.  Our interview about thoughts on the future isn’t finished.

Yesterday, while researching “culture of poverty” on Google, I came across a column by Esther J. Cepeda of the Washington Post.  She had been a high school teacher and had been strongly influenced by Ruby K. Payne’s A Framework for Understanding Poverty.  She read the book in preparation for working in a low-income school district.  “Being proactive, setting goals and planning ahead are not a part of generational poverty,” wrote Ms. Cepeda.  She had learned this in her training.  She goes on to say,  “Also pervasive in the culture of poverty is the sense that time isn’t for measuring, that it occurs only in the present, and that the future exists only as a word.”  Though perhaps somewhat overstated, this certainly struck home with me having now interviewed Rochelle for what will soon be a year. I knew it described much of the thinking in Rochelle’s world.

Ms. Cepeda’s column is titled “Culture of Poverty Shapes Educational Achievement.”  She mentions that her trainer, Ruby Payne, also writes, “Most of what occurs is reactive and in the moment.  Future implications of present actions are seldom considered….devices for organization such as files, planners, etc. don’t exist.”   Well, this was not the first time that I had read about the problem;  however, the column I read was recent. And having read it just after interviewing Rochelle about her lack of planning , it was educational and struck home.  Of course, as Oscar Lewis pointed out more than fifty years ago when he introduced the notion of the culture of poverty, a lack of planning among those who live in this subculture, however maladaptive, is both comprehensible and in the short term, rational.   They know almost no one who has planned carefully and succeeded.  Maybe it works for middle class people, runs their thinking, but not for their friends and family.  And as for delaying gratification in favor of a greater future goal?  That goal will probably never be achieved so you might as well grab what you can right now.  Is it wise?  Of course, not.  But is it understandable?  You bet.   Planning beyond tomorrow will be difficult for Rochelle, but to move forward she will need to see herself in the future and to plan for it.  Luck could happen, but for most people, successful plans are what guide them forward.

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.

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.