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.


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.

Academic Success in the Culture of Poverty

Damion HackettThis is the anthropologist sister, Jessie, again.  After last week’s post about the educational difficulties Rochelle’s children face, I’ve been preoccupied by the problem.  I think a lot about education, because that’s what I do for a living: I’m a faculty member in anthropology at a large, public university.  The university I teach at is not particularly distinguished, but it is oriented toward research, and its students are overwhelmingly middle class and white.  For most of them, going to college was not a hard won triumph; it was merely the expected next step after high school.  It is exciting for them not because they are looking forward to exploring new ideas, but because they are getting away from home and living on their own, without parental constraints.  The content of their courses is not particularly interesting to most of them, but they know that their incomes and life choices depend in large measure upon having graduated from college.  So they’re going to do it.

But getting into college, let alone graduating from college, depends on a lot more than the popular American myth of success through hard work and pulling oneself up by one’s own bootstraps.  It’s not just hard work.  It’s not just good teachers.  It’s not even just parents who care.  It’s a whole constellation of social, cultural, and economic factors that provide an atmosphere in which children are able to prosper academically.

Take a look at the apartment Rochelle and her children live in.  It’s in good repair and safe.  It has adequate furniture, a computer, and the environment is stable.  Rochelle has worked very hard to provide this home for her children, and it is in stark contrast to the environment in which she grew up.  Her children aren’t moved from household to household, left with relatives for indeterminate periods of time, and ignored or taunted by their caregivers, who fail to feed them regularly.  They aren’t left alone to fend for themselves, and they’ve never watched a house burn down with their cousins dying inside.  So to Rochelle, the fact that her apartment is strewn with clothing and toys, has no regular spot for the children to do their homework, and no adequate lighting is not even noticeable.  Her children’s situation is such an improvement over her own as a child that its shortcomings are invisible to her.

Kalinda the eldest child, is now 11, and has been diagnosed by the school system as a “slow learner.”  She does not strike the casual acquaintance as “slow” in normal conversation.  But she is certainly not academic.  She has been teased in school, partly because she is overweight and partly because she has been labeled a “slow learner.”  None of this makes school or what goes on there very enjoyable for her.  Although she has recently had the services of a school appointed tutor, as well as a “Big Sister,” who takes her on various outings, there has been little continuity or intensive support for her academic difficulties.  Rochelle works full time and is frustrated and annoyed that Kalinda has difficulties with arithmetic that she never had, herself.  So, despite some real attempts at intervention, there is no systematic approach to the problem.  By contrast, I remember my own daughter, now 29, having problems with arithmetic in second grade.  Her teacher let us know about the problem, and I swung into action.  My mother and one of my sisters had had serious problems with mathematics that lasted a lifetime, and I didn’t want my daughter to be handicapped by math fear.  I made flash cards, and we worked on them every day.  Once a week we went out to a fast food fish restaurant (my daughter’s favorite at the time), where we reviewed the week’s work and celebrated with fish and chips.  It worked, and Leah ended up in the advanced mathematics program.  But that kind of intervention depends on a parent with the time, the experience, and the conviction that educational obstacles can be overcome.  It was luck, not virtue or intelligence, that resulted in Leah’s mathematical turnaround.  She (and I) had been born into a fortunate slot in life.

Kalinda is having trouble learning arithmetic, but so did my mother and my sister, both of them members of Phi Beta Kappa.  In fact, my sister used to call me at the end of the semester for help in figuring out her students’ final grades–she didn’t really understand percentages, despite her PhD.  No one ever thought she was “slow.”  No one ever believed she was a lost educational cause.  Of course, my sister is white and middle class.  Kalinda is not remotely slow at learning aspects of her culture that make more sense to her.  She likes to wear sparkly, “sexy” clothes, and strikes “sexy” poses for photographs, though she is only eleven.  She recognizes the approval her sexy aunt, the exotic dancer, receives from the family, and clearly wants to emulate her.  No one in Rochelle’s family is academically or professionally successful.  There are no role models for Kalinda in that realm of life.  Certainly, teachers tell Kalinda and her fellow students that they need to do well in school so that they will ultimately do well in life, but how meaningful is that for Kalinda and students like her?  Rochelle knows the same thing: her children need to do well in school so that they will do well in life.  But whom does Rochelle know for whom that has been true?  Literally no one, I suspect.  Education may truly be the key to prosperity, the door to the path out of poverty.  But what is the key to the key?  What is the door to the door?  For most people living in the culture of poverty, discussions about the value of education seem mostly like empty words, aimed at someone else.  Of course, there are remarkable people who come from Rochelle’s world and through education succeed in escaping into the middle class.  But the numbers are far smaller than affluent elites like to believe.  Like all cultural systems, the culture of poverty reproduces itself generation after generation.  Serious commitment to social and economic intervention is the only way to interrupt this pattern.

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.