Still Moving Forward- One Step At A Time

imagesIt has been over a year since I have posted anything about Rochelle. I stopped interviewing her on a weekly basis so there was less to report, and her life has calmed down somewhat. Her car has continued to work, but more importantly she has remained employed at the grocery store chain; she is moving forward and upwards in the company. Just a week ago she graduated from their management training school. It was a 12 week program made for upwardly mobile hourly employees. The company has a more advanced management training program for those employees who are ready to go into salaried executive positions. This program is usually reserved for those with college degrees, but Rochelle tells me that one can also be accepted if one is already working for the company and shows great promise. She hopes for that in the future.

Upon graduation Rochelle was promoted from supervisor of cashiers to manager of cashiers; she received two raises and was moved to a new store. Her new store is small with fewer employees than she is used to, but this makes her a big fish in a small pond; she may be able to effect positive change more swiftly in a store like this. According to Rochelle, the store does need some changes and many of the managers are new, including the store manager. Just in the short time she has been there she has seen areas that need some tweaking and is working towards implementing needed changes.

I had a congratulatory lunch with Rochelle a couple of days ago; now she is a person working in a career with goals for the future. She has come a very long way since I first started interviewing her. She seems excited about her future.

Rochelle still doesn’t make much money, though she has had many raises. Three children are expensive for everyone. Nevertheless, her paycheck is paying for more of her expenses. She no longer receives food stamps, and for reasons other than her income, she no longer receives disability for her eldest daughter. Her daughter was born with seizures at birth but has been seizure free for two years. Rochelle purchased health insurance for herself through her company in January and is contributing to their retirement program as well. She does, however, still receive section #8 housing vouchers, and her children’s health insurance is still covered by Medicaid. Though Rochelle is earning more, losing the food stamps and the disability payments makes it so she really is not living on more money. Rochelle’s on going goal has been to break the poverty cycle her family has been caught up in for generations. She is successfully moving in that direction. I am very proud of her and she is proud of herself.

Rochelle Moves Ahead

imagesTwo weeks ago Rochelle told me she had been chosen to start classes to be a trainer for the grocery store she works for. I had been very concerned when I had talked to her about a month or so before because she was sounding very negative about the store and her job as a cashier supervisor. She has held that job for almost a year. I had seen Rochelle lose interest in jobs before and instead of talking about promotions and a desire to move ahead, she had now been talking about wanting to change stores to get away from her boss. “I think she likes Hispanics better,” Rochelle had told me. Somehow something changed, however, and the boss she disliked talked to her and suggested the new position. “You’ll be able to be out of the store, you’ll get to meet new people; I think you have a future with our company,” her boss had told her.

Rochelle interviewed for the position and got it. She’ll only be a trainer part-time and will still do her cashier supervisory position part-time as well. She is excited about it and starts her training for the position in two days. We went out to lunch recently; she was again positive about her work and was no longer talking about changing stores.

I don’t see Rochelle as often as I used to when I interviewed her weekly, but we usually see each other for lunch about every 6 weeks or so. She recently received another raise and seemed pleased about that.   Though her pay is still low, she says it is more money than she has ever earned. Her children are doing well in their new Charter schools, her car is working, and she has a new job position to look forward to. She still can’t make ends meet, but her life is better this year than it was last year and the year before. This week the children are on Spring Break from school and Rochelle suggested she bring them over to my house for a visit. I think I’ll suggest we all go out to lunch.

I have been asked to update how Rochelle is doing since I haven’t done so in about 6 months. Life is still tough, but it is better.

Poverty And Frustration

UnknownRochelle has, and has had, a very difficult life; she had no adult supervision as a child and no adult to learn from. Because of this, and her observations of how adults around her deal with problems, she has no idea how to deal with frustrations and problems of her own. I saw this when I worked with her in the department store several years ago. Instead of discussing the problem with her superiors, Rochelle would always say she was just going to quit. She lasted in that job, however, for seven years and left only after the store closed. In that job promotions were not a possibility; she is now in a beginning management position at the grocery store she works for, and the problem of how to deal with frustrations is again causing difficulties for her. “I hate my boss and I need to transfer stores or change positions,” she recently told me on the phone. “She won’t always be your boss,” I had said. “There will often be times you have to work with people you don’t like and sometimes they will be your boss,” I continued. “Asking the store to move you to a different store or a different position won’t get rid of the problem but will affect your chances of promotion,” I told her. Rochelle had liked her boss in the beginning, but that seems no longer to be the case. I suggested she come over for a visit that week so we could talk about the problem. I was concerned she was going to quit. We made a date but it wouldn’t be until a week later.

A week later Rochelle was at my house and talking much more positively.   She still doesn’t seem able to discuss the problem with her boss; instead says she will just not let it bother her any more. She had actually been rolling her eyes at her boss when asked to do something she didn’t want to do. The boss will not forget that behavior and the problem between them will not disappear.   Management skills do not come easily to many people.   Mistakes are often made when a person doing a good job is promoted into management but not trained for the job. Rochelle has taken the cursory course in management that was offered by her grocery store, but she has yet to apply for their course of management classes that the elite performers are chosen for every year. She wanted to become better acquainted with the store operations before she applied.  That was a good decision, but she is in a tough position now. I did not grow up in poverty but was also put into management jobs without training when I was much younger. It was only later, after a graduate degree in business and a six-week course of management training by my employer that I learned to do a better job. Rochelle is poor, really living hand to mouth, and just trying to survive. The people around her life are all frustrated and poor. I again have my fingers crossed for her; growing up without any good role models does not make forward progress easy for her. I think I will also try to see her more frequently than once a month just so she can talk out her problems with me. She really has no one to talk to at home who will understand and ease her frustrations.

Charter Schools

images I’ve had lunch with Rochelle twice since we stopped having our weekly interviews. Her children have started school for the fall season, and now all three are enrolled in charter schools. The 12-year-old daughter attends a separate charter school from her two younger siblings since she is now in middle school. Somehow I hadn’t heard about the change for the younger ones; when Rochelle mentioned it as we were having lunch on the first day of school, I was quite surprised.  The eldest, Kalinda, had been quickly pulled from her regular school a couple of weeks into the school year last fall. She had started the 6th grade in middle school and had received threats of violence via Facebook . Rochelle had expressed concern about this middle school well in advance of her daughter’s attending it.  6th grade at the new charter school had gone well for Kalinda last year, though she tested at a lower level than was average for 6th grade. She was put in a class that met her education level and she completed the year with no other problems. This year she is enrolled in volleyball as an after school activity.

Work is still going well for Rochelle. The grocery store was hosting a major visit by corporate bigwigs a few weeks ago, and Rochelle got very stressed when she was asked to participate in the “walk-through” of her area of responsibility. I told her this was her chance to shine and she would do fine. She had never been in any situation requiring managerial responsibility before, so this was very new for her. She had seen visits from high-level managers at the department store we both worked for several years ago, but those “walk-throughs” had not really been a concern for people in sales positions.  When we met for lunch I asked her how it had gone; she went into great detail, telling me what she had been asked and how she had answered the questions. She was quite proud of herself, and it sounded to me as if she had done a great job. The experience has built her confidence and allowed her to put another plank in the platform she can use for future advancement.

Rochelle now has another car. It was purchased from the same place she had bought her previous car, though that one had been a true lemon. With no credit, Rochelle had no choice. This time, however, she did ask them why so many customers were on record as having bought bad cars from them. She did not tell them about all the problems she had had with her previous purchase because she was trading it in toward her new car. The fact of the matter was that the car dealership had already received far more money from Rochelle than the car had been worth, at a 24.99% interest rate, and the dealership was more than happy to sell her another one at the same inflated price and interest rate. People in Rochelle’s situation are the people who make up this dealership’s customer base.

I’ve told Rochelle to call me for lunch and a visit every few weeks so she can let me know how she is doing. Rochelle, herself, had suggested that it was probably time for the interviews and the subsidy that went with them to come to an end. They had begun as a way of supplementing her minimum wage job at the group home, and then the subsidy was increased so that she could afford to take the job at the grocery store that had a better hourly wage and much more scope for advancement, but that was not initially full-time. Now that the job is full-time, and Rochelle has received several raises and promotions, she felt that she should stand on her own two economic feet. We did, however, decide to continue a portion of the subsidy, to be deposited monthly into Rochelle’s first savings account.  Rochelle has a job, a car, possibly even a career to move forward with. Things are somewhat more hopeful than they were when we started the interviews two years ago. But now, her daughter’s teenage years are quickly approaching. I think this is going to become a real challenge for Rochelle.

The Last Interview; Has Anything Changed?

teen-births-in-washington-county-prevention-may-2009I interviewed Rochelle for the last time yesterday. She has been coming into my living room on a weekly basis for almost two years for an hour-long interview, and we have become good friends. “You know more about me than anyone,” she told me. “I usually keep all this stuff to myself.”

In Meet Rochelle, the introduction to this blog, we explain why this project got started. Now it is over. The original and most immediate purpose of the interviews was to provide Rochelle with a dignified way of making a little extra money when she was working at a part-time job for minimum wage. We also hoped that her story might be a useful tool in informing more privileged people about what life is like in the culture of poverty. Now that Rochelle has reached something of a plateau,  it is hard not to evaluate where she is today as opposed to where she was in her life two years ago. We started by discussing teenage pregnancy, and we spent part of our last interview with that discussion again.

My first question to Rochelle almost two years ago was to ask why she had continued not to use birth control even though she had delivered her first child while still in high school without support from the father. Two years ago Rochelle was not really sure of the answer. Now, she is really not sure how she is going to prevent the same thing from happening to her daughters. Though she is supervising her children much more closely than her mother supervised her and her siblings, she doesn’t seem to understand that it will take much more than that to prevent her daughters from becoming pregnant too early and to prevent her son from impregnating someone at a young age. Part of this is probably due to the fact that early pregnancy, without male support, is the rule rather than the exception in the world Rochelle and her children inhabit. Some of it is probably due to Rochelle’s lack of understanding of the complex of factors that resulted in her early pregnancy, and that will probably cause the same thing for her daughters. It is also due to the starvation Rochelle felt as a teenager, and her children feel now, for affection, approval, and acceptance, a hunger for which a teenage boy seems like a perfect solution. Finally, if Rochelle’s daughters have no future to protect, as Rochelle did not at 16, they will see no reason not to get pregnant, especially if all around them their friends are doing just that.We have discussed the need for goals in life, and Rochelle now has some for herself, but I am not at all sure she is confident about being able to develop goals for her children’s lives.

So, two years later, Rochelle has a much better job. She has gone from $7.25/hr and working part-time in a dead end position to $11.25/hr and working full-time on the promotion path in a new company. She has been there over a year and qualifies for benefits. She has graduated from the company’s beginning management classes and is preparing to enter their official management school next year. This is a truly positive difference in Rochelle’s life from where she was when I started interviewing her.

Rochelle is also developing a relationship with a credit union so that she might improve her credit score and be able to function within a normal banking system instead of the payday loans, finance companies, and sub-prime car dealerships she currently is forced to deal with. Unfortunately, after our last interview ended, she was going directly to the sub-prime car dealership she had bought her last car from in order to trade it in on another car. This time, however, she has in her hand all the customer complaints recently levied against the company, and she will go in with her eyes wide open and questions to ask. Her current car, as blog readers will already know, was a lemon. “I change the oil every 3,000 miles,” Rochelle had always said when new problems developed. “It is just a bad car,” I would tell her.

Rochelle is still poor; she still has car problems and credit problems; and her mother’s health will not be improving. But the most troubling thing is that despite our discussions of teenage pregnancy and how it has affected her life, she still has not discussed sex and early pregnancy with her 12-year-old daughter; the probability of breaking the cycle of poverty in this generation seems unlikely. Rochelle’s problems are just too complex for her to overcome by herself; addressing all the problems is overwhelming. Still, to have a job that is turning into a career is a big step forward for her.

I will still be seeing Rochelle for lunch every month. Perhaps the blog is really not ending yet. Perhaps I will log in for new posts after our monthly lunches.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Preventing Teenage Pregnancy: Breaking the Poverty Cycle

imagesI have been interviewing Rochelle for well over a year, and I wondered how her thinking about teenage pregnancy had changed over that time. I wondered if there had been any change at all. Her eldest daughter just turned 12 this month and is in middle school. When we first discussed it, Rochelle had said she thought her daughter was too young for a conversation about sex, even though Rochelle’s own sister had a baby at 14 and Rochelle had a baby at 17. Her daughter was 10 at the time. Over the last year and a half I had brought the subject up a few times, but it never went very far. Rochelle said she knew she needed to have “the talk,” but either thought her daughter was too young, or she thought the school would handle it. Her answer to the same question was very different when I again raised it a couple of days ago. We have only two more interviews until our agreed upon interview period is over, and I wanted to see what she now said.  “I think everything will be fine,” she told me. “My children have adult supervision at all times. My sisters and I didn’t; and we had a mama who was bringing different men home all the time. I don’t do that; I’m raising my children better than that,” she emphasized. “Anyway, black people just do things differently from white people,” she told me. In Rochelle’s world, having a baby or several babies while still in your teen years is more common than not. She talks about wanting to break the cycle of poverty that her family has experienced for generations, but still doesn’t seem to understand how becoming a teenaged mother has contributed to this cycle. One hundred percent of her female relatives had become mothers while in their teens. One hundred percent of her relatives that I am aware of are living in the culture of poverty. Her eldest sister is not on government assistance, but her family of six, plus a relative’s baby, live in a cramped two bedroom apartment.

“Adult supervision is good and needed,” I told her. “But it is not enough. What will happen when your children start dating?” “They don’t date now,” Rochelle said. I told her I thought she was also uncomfortable about having “the talk” with her daughter. “Yes, I am uncomfortable,” Rochelle said, “The school will handle it.” “That didn’t stop your sisters or you from becoming pregnant,” I replied. “But I’m supervising my children, and I don’t bring men home like Mama did,” she repeated. “If you are going to break the cycle of poverty in your family, you’re going to have to stop teen pregnancy in your family,” I said. And then we moved on to other subjects such as how her job is going.

Her job is going well. Next week she will graduate from her work sponsored management-training program. She had given her “final exam” which was a five-minute presentation of what she had learned and how she was going to use the knowledge going forward. In that presentation she held up a magnet I had given her, which said: “What would you do if you knew you could not fail?”   Several of the managers who were watching her presentation came up to her later and said they loved the quote. “I think I did good,” Rochelle said. She is comfortable talking about her progress at work, but not about the subject of teen pregnancy. A year and a half ago she could just think it wouldn’t happen to her children, but now, with her daughter reaching puberty, she is still so uncomfortable with the idea of discussing sex with her daughter that she cannot bring herself to deal with the problem. Clearly, despite Rochelle’s hard work and impressive successes at work, the power of the culture she grew up in continues to exert its influences.

The Bad Credit Cycle

UnknownRochelle’s car is again the problem and there is no easy solution this time. The car can’t pass the state emission’s test; it seems to be because of a major problem with the engine. Her car has well over 100,000 miles on it, has had the emissions problem for most of the past year, and will be too expensive to fix. A repair shop said they could give her a current inspection sticker good for one year if she just gets her horn fixed. It doesn’t work either. This is a short-term solution, but it won’t fix the long-term problem.

Rochelle pays $535 per month for the car and insurance. She has an extremely poor credit score and is being charged a 20% interest rate on the car. To make matters worse, she still owes over $5,000 on it. Her first thought was to let it get re-possessed. Instead she has decided to keep making payments on the car and to go ahead with the repair shop’s suggestion. Bad credit has made Rochelle unable to buy a car from a regular dealer with a much lower interest rate. She is unable to borrow money at a reasonable rate from anywhere and currently also owes a total of $500/month to five different finance companies. When she needs more money she re-finances one of her loans with the current places she owes money to. She is locked into a vicious cycle. The poor do indeed pay a lot more for things.

Rochelle comes over for one of her last two interviews tomorrow morning. Her job is going well; she has been promoted into the position she has been training for the last few months. Her managers like her and she seems now to have a more sophisticated understanding of her job and how to do it. She is also taking classes given by the grocery store to prepare employees for further advancement in the company. That is the good news, but how to get ahead in the midst of all her problems is a huge challenge. Rochelle would have a lot more money if she had good credit. Fixing bad credit has no easy solution. It takes paying your bills on time over multiple years. She hasn’t done that in the past, and recently missed two car payments. Her friends tell her that she can just pay some money to a person who “fixes” credit. It isn’t true, of course, and so far she hasn’t been seduced by that scam. The US is full of people with bad credit, and a good number of them come from the middle class. But many more, like Rochelle, come from the underclass. For them, mistakes made early in life, when they had little understanding of the world, few positive role models, no or bad advice, and a complete absence of any family safety net, continue to dog them as they get older and form families of their own, no matter how hard they work to leave their past behind them.

 

Can Poverty Be Solved?? One Reader’s Thoughts

Unknown-1I have now been interviewing Rochelle every week for  a year and a half; my last interview will be done the week of June 28th of this year. I’ve known Rochelle for 12 years, and she will remain my friend; she isn’t really looking forward to the weekly interviews ending because the time has provided her with the ability to discuss her problems.  A reader’s comment from a year ago has stayed with me and now, as this project comes to an end,  I think the comment needs to be given its own page.  Rochelle has a better job now, a possibility of job advancement, a better sense of how to work towards solutions to problems, but the strangle hold of generational poverty is so huge that I too often can’t even think about where to begin with helping her.  Magic wands don’t exist. How can she possibly move forward when everything is against her?

 

Submitted on 2013/05/13 at 11:51 am
This one has grabbed me and won’t let go. I read the whole site and have to tell you that I can’t read it any more. My reasons are not complicated, just difficult to put into words. I’ll try. I know Rochelle, or at least I know dozens of rochelles. The details of their lives are etched on my brain, and those details never change. The same lifetime gets replayed. I can’t help any of them, except in minuscule ways, but revisiting the particulars leaves me feeling deflated, crushed even, and I just can’t do it. Years ago Jim and I decided that our charitable donations would no longer go to organizations providing direct help to people, because we actually believe these “escape valve” non-profits just allow the country to ignore the depth and breadth of its cycle-of-poverty problem. So we only give to public policy organizations that seek institutional change. That’s what I mean by minuscule ways. Even if Rochelle were all of a sudden my daughter, I would have no idea where to begin to make her life right. She needs counseling, mentoring, quality childcare, a good job, reliable transportation, debt relief…and a new set of habits so that she doesn’t have to keep asking why bad things happen to her when at least some of them are the direct result of her doing things without thinking them through first. Money alone wouldn’t solve the problem — if it would, that would be the easy way out. And if Rochelle has come this far with absolutely no positive influence in her young life, can we at least hope that her own kids will fare better for having an intelligent, thoughtful mother? Maybe, but there’s no guarantee. So I can’t read this any more for the same reason I wouldn’t go out in the desert sun without a hat — I know when something can harm me, and I have to protect myself.

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.

Stormy Seas Again

images-1I thought it was only a matter of time before the relative calm in Rochelle’s life would end; I had been fairly certain it would be either her mother’s health or the breakdown of her car that would cause the stormy seas to break out again; it was the car.

“My safety sticker has expired and I can’t get a new one because my engine light is on,” Rochelle told me. Her engine light had been on for many months and her car had not been working well during this time. She had tried to have her sister’s ex-husband fix the problem; parts had been replaced but the problem had remained. Deshawn, the ex-brother-in-law, had run a computer check when the light had first come on. He manages a quick- oil- change location and has always offered to help. He has also, on occasion, put safety stickers on Rochelle’s cars even though the cars had safety problems. This time, however, Deshawn could not do this for her; people had recently been fired at his shop for doing exactly that; He didn’t want to lose his job.

“I have to get my sticker because Mama drives the car. If the police stop her because of no sticker, she’ll go to jail; she has outstanding warrants,” Rochelle reminded me. Her mother was on parole for welfare fraud and had stopped going to her parole officer long ago. She had also not paid back the money she had gained by this fraud as required by the court. It is somewhat common for people to procrastinate when getting new safety stickers, but Rochelle couldn’t take the risk.

Money, of course, is the real problem. Legitimate repair shops want $100 to run the computer check plus the repair cost, which had been estimated at between $200-$400. Last week Rochelle thought she had circumvented the problem and had paid a man $75 for what turned out to be a fake sticker. She knew it was illegal but thought it would be a real sticker. It wasn’t. Now she is trying to sell this sticker to her uncle.

Rochelle’s life is precarious at best. Currently she has a job and has been promoted twice, but keeping the job requires her children to be cared for and her car to be working. When something goes wrong with her mother or her car, Rochelle is in choppy waters again. A higher income could buy her childcare and car repairs. She is now earning more than she ever has, but it is still not enough. Children are very expensive Rochelle has discovered. She wasn’t able to learn that growing up in generational poverty.