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.

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.

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.

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.