Rochelle, JFK, LBJ, and Martin Luther King

images-1I came across a quote of Martin Luther King’s:  “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it understands that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”  After spending two years as a VISTA volunteer in the War on Poverty in 1966, and again in 1969, I came to understand how true this was.  It has hit home even more deeply after spending more than a year interviewing Rochelle.  Just recently I was having lunch with a new friend who does subscribe to this blog.  “I feel so badly for her.  What can I do? Can I give her some money?”  she asked.  “It will take a lot more than money to solve her problems,” I replied.  My friend really wanted to help but felt helpless.  I know my sister and I often feel helpless as well.

I was thinking about all that a couple of days ago when Rochelle came over for her weekly interview.  In a few days it would be the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy.  I had been 16 and a senior in high school the day it happened. I was listening to my teacher’s lecture on current events in my 3rd period history class; the school’s public address system interrupted the class with the announcement of the president’s death in Dallas.  Rochelle’s mother had just been born that year so this is very ancient history to Rochelle.  We recently had seen the movie The Butler, however, so I knew she was somewhat aware of the history.  This, combined with the fact that this 50th anniversary was getting tremendous coverage on television, made me bring up the subject during my interview.  Rochelle knows that the reason my sister, brother and I are so interested in the problems of poverty is because we were all VISTA volunteers; what she doesn’t know anything about is what The War on Poverty was.  VISTA changed me and changed my siblings far more than it benefitted the disadvantaged people we worked with in those years.  John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson knew “an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring,” but President Kennedy’s Peace Corps did not wipe out poverty outside the United States and VISTA didn’t put much of a dent in domestic poverty. The programs have accomplished some positive changes in the lives of the poor, but what most volunteers will say is that it changed them the most.

“I wouldn’t be sitting here interviewing you in 2013 if it hadn’t been for President Kennedy and President Johnson,” I told Rochelle.  I had joined VISTA less than 3 years after Kennedy’s death.  “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country,” he had said in his famous inaugural speech.  I took that to heart and interrupted college to join VISTA after my sophomore year.  My eldest sister followed a few months later; much later, when my brother had finished college, he signed up as well.  I’m not sure any of us had known any poor people before our VISTA experiences; the town we grew up in was almost entirely white and middle class.  I know I met a black person for the first time in Oklahoma City during my volunteer year there.  Rochelle knows that story, though she was amazed when I told it to her.

Martin Luther King wrote in his last book, Where Do We Go from Here:  “One day the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be beaten and robbed as they make their journey through life.”  This is what I meant when I told my friend at lunch that it was going to take a whole lot more than money to solve the problems produced by poverty.  Money does help, however.  The grocery store Rochelle works for just handed out thank you cards to their hourly employees for a job well done over the last fiscal year.  Inside the card was an unexpected $100 bill.  Rochelle just couldn’t believe it.  $100 was going to come in very handy with her food stamps down and her rent up.  Perhaps, now that she is working full-time, she will qualify for Obamacare; not a perfect health care plan by any means, but a godsend for those who previously had no health care and turned to the emergency rooms when they needed doctors. This is a needed restructuring of an edifice such as Martin Luther King was referring to. It is, however, only a small step in the transformation of the Jericho road King wrote about in his book.

Rochelle Gets Promoted

imagesRochelle called me last week with great news!  “I got promoted to full-time with benefits,” she told me excitedly.  “And I got another fricking raise.  I am just so excited.  I told them I would be happy to work Christmas and Thanksgiving, but I don’t have to.  I like my job and I like the people I work with.  I am getting an 11% raise this time, and I’ve only been working for the company for 6 months.  I’ve received two raises and a promotion.  I’ll be making the same pay as I made at the department store when they closed, but it took me 7 years to get there.”  Rochelle could hardly believe that her hard work had paid off so quickly.  I wasn’t surprised, but I was thrilled for her.  I had always heard that this privately held grocery store chain was a great place to work.  I had graduated from The McCombs Graduate School of Business at The University of Texas in 1981; the woman who was president of my class at the time also decided to work for this same Texas grocery store.  When I asked her why, she had explained that it had a reputation for great management and excellent training.  I haven’t kept up with this woman, but it seems that she was correct.

Rochelle came over for another interview three days later.  There were new problems with her eldest daughter; she had removed her from her middle school and enrolled her in a charter school the same day she had received her promotion.  Normally this would have been a major crisis in Rochelle’s life, but the praise and another raise and a promotion to full-time hours with benefits made her able to take all that in stride.  “I just might be on my way,” she told me.  “They really like me there and they tell me I have a future with them.”  She worked hard at the department store too, but it made no difference in her economic status.   No one had taken her aside and mentored her.  Her raises were small and there had been no chance for promotion.  Not only was I happy for Rochelle, I was also gratified to see a company treat its employees so well.  Good companies realize that it is actually their employees who must come first and not the customer.  Customers are treated well when the employees are treated well.

The news of her promotion is the best news Rochelle has had in the year or so that I have been interviewing her.  It doesn’t solve all her problems; her pay is still low, but it is a huge step in the right direction.  She is very proud of herself and she deserves to feel that way. She wants to be self-sufficient.  She wants off food stamps.  She wants off her housing subsidy, and she wants to be able to afford health insurance.   She isn’t there yet, but she has made a huge step forward by starting to work at what appears to be an employee focused company.

A Test for American Progress

The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”

Franklin D. Roosevelt.

images I found this quote at the beginning of the book One Nation Underprivileged:  Why American Poverty Affects Us All, by Mark R. Rank, a professor of social welfare at Washington University in St. Louis.  The book looks good and I’ve ordered it, but the quote has stuck in my mind.  Despite its enormous wealth, the United States seems unable to come together to find solutions to poverty in The United States.  Frankly I don’t know what to say to Rochelle when she wonders how to keep working when childcare has been taken from her by government budget cuts.  I don’t know where to tell her to turn.  Here is a young woman trying to do everything right after some  past mistakes and yet she seems never to be able to get ahead for long.  What a waste for our country.  Not only is a hard working person finding it almost impossible to get ahead; the effects on the next generation will be a continuation of this culture of poverty.  How stupid can we, as a people, be?

One Step Forward, Then Two Steps Back

“My food stamps went down and my rent went up,” Rochelle told me with a sigh two days ago.  Due to government budget cuts everyone’s food stamps, now called SNAP, went down.  She called me this morning and said her kids came back from school with a note yesterday saying that, due to government budget cuts, the grant that provided for her children’s afterschool care had been cut; there would be no more care after December 15th.  She said she had cried all night.  “What am I going to do?”  I had no answer.

Blogging About Poverty

UnknownIt has now been slightly over a year since I started doing weekly interviews with Rochelle, and I’m feeling a little blogged out.   I don’t “get” blogging, actually.  People who go on and on about their routine lives seem pretty boring to me; reporting day to day activities just isn’t very interesting.  I had to opt out of a friend’s blog for that exact reason.  I have good friends; we discuss our lives when we get together, but we usually don’t discuss them on a weekly basis.  The question, then, becomes what to do now?  Rochelle is still only working part-time at the grocery store, and even should the job become full-time, poverty will remain what constantly causes Rochelle to live from crisis to crisis. I have interviewed her for about 60 hours.  We have covered a lot of subjects.  Those who have read all posts should understand how difficult day-to-day living is for Rochelle.  So as the second year of interviews begins, I will be working at discovering new themes and new strategies for exploring Rochelle’s world and its implications.

Last week we had only a short interview.  In thirty minutes I discovered her elder sister is now caring for a year and a half old child who is unwanted by a relative.  This sister has five of her own children and got pregnant at 13.  She has had a long and stable job, recently divorced her husband, but by no means has much money.  This, of course, is what the culture of poverty is all about.  Rochelle’s disabled mother moved back in with Rochelle full time to care for this baby while Shondelle, Rochelle’s sister, is at work.  Rochelle is surrounded by the problems poverty brings.  It is hard to be hopeful for Rochelle’s children; their role models are their aunts, their cousins, their grandmother, and their neighbors.   All of them are all in the same boat of hand-to-mouth poverty.

During last week’s interview I gave Rochelle a globe.  It was a gift from Jessie, my anthropologist sister, who is the reason for these interviews.  Kalinda, Rochelle’s eldest daughter, had done poorly on a social studies test.  The test required that she place continents on a map, among other things.  Jessie thought a globe would be useful and sent it.  Rochelle’s eyes just lit up when I gave it to her.  “I’ve never had a globe,” she said.  I showed her where some countries were and said it should help her kids learn about the world.  I grew up with a family globe and know I was always looking at it.  “You know I’ve never been out of the state,” Rochelle said.  “Do you think some time, when I’ve saved up some money, you could take me and the kids on a trip somewhere?”  It had already occurred to me to try to do that.  I’m not yet sure how or when, however.  “That would be a good idea,” I replied.  Then I felt very sad; she had sounded so wistful when she asked me the question.

So the blog will keep blogging, because the world of poverty keeps on grinding its inhabitants.  I am afraid that in this blog we are mostly preaching to the choir, something that is probably true of all blogs.  But with luck some readers are becoming more aware of what a huge trap poverty can be for those who have never lived in any other circumstances.  And perhaps gaining a better appreciation of the texture of lives stunted by poverty will inspire us all to do our part in the struggle against it.



School Crisis Avoided

imagesTwo weeks ago Rochelle had an awful day, and it got worse.  She called me and said her car wouldn’t start; could I please pick her up from work.  Usually that means a dead battery, but I knew she had recently bought a new one. She had gone to work in daylight so she couldn’t have left her lights on.  Rochelle works near where she lives, and it isn’t far from my house.  We first stopped by a convenience store so she could buy a money order for her rent.  It was the first of the month, and there are steep fines for paying late.  I dropped her at her apartment and told her I would see her the next day for our weekly interview.  I wished her good luck with her car.

“Yesterday was the worstest day,” she told me when she came in the door for her interview the next day.  I don’t correct Rochelle’s English because I would be correcting her all the time, and that would stress our relationship.  I think I will correct her the next time she uses “worstest,” however. She uses it a lot, and I think it is such a stigmatized term that it could alter people’s judgements of her.  Her daily life can be hard.   She had found someone to jumpstart her car so it was running, but now she had another problem.  Rochelle had been called by her elder daughter’s afterschool care teacher because her daughter, Kalinda, had been in a fight with another girl.   Kalinda was now suspended from the afterschool care program at least for the rest of the week.  Rochelle was concerned that she might be suspended for the rest of the year.  She had called the teacher and was now waiting to see what was going to happen.  During the week her work was scheduling her so she could be off in time to pick up her children from afterschool care.  She would have to cut her hours if she didn’t have Kalinda in afterschool care.

“I’m going to pull her out of that school.  It’s too rough,” Rochelle told me.  I told her it took two people to have a fight and suggested perhaps Kalinda should have gone to the teacher if the other girl had started the fight.  “What is she supposed to do, just stand there and get beat up?”  Rochelle responded. She now had a possible child care crisis and a car whose new battery had died, though she had no idea why.  Both problems could cost her money she didn’t have.

I didn’t see Rochelle last week because I had gone to visit my sister, Jessie, for five days.  When I got back home from my trip all Rochelle’s problems from her recent “worstest day” seemed to have been resolved, at least for now.  The car had not been fixed properly when she had been in a wreck last April; her trunk could pop open a bit and leave the trunk light on, which drains her battery.  Her daughter had received counseling from the teacher and from the school’s security person, as did the other girl in the fight, and they had to clean the cafeteria from 2:45 until 5:00 every day after school for two weeks.  The teacher said suspending her permanently would cause more problems than it would solve, so she didn’t believe in doing that.  I forgot to ask Rochelle if she was still going to move her daughter to a different school.  The schools in her neighborhood get rougher as the children get older, and Kalinda had started junior high this school year.  Rochelle had mentioned her concern about the junior high school before Kalinda started the school year.

The car will present more problems in the future, and school may not continue to go smoothly for Kalinda.  Next year she will have to attend a different school, any way, because her current one is going to be all boys.  Rochelle is really concerned about that because, she says, the new school, which will be all girls, will mix in some really tough girls from different neighborhoods.  But for now, the car is running, and all three children are in afterschool care.  Most problems are crises when one lives with so little money, and when there is no other adult to help shoulder the chronic difficulties of life.  But Rochelle was happy these problems are resolved for now.





Don’t Become Poor In Texas

images-2“I still can’t get health insurance,” Rochelle told me last week.   I was surprised she knew about her lack of coverage by the Affordable Care Act, but it was on the list of things I was going to discuss with her that morning.  I had already researched it and she was correct.   Texas is a state that has opted out of increasing the coverage for Medicaid to include healthy, non-pregnant, young and middle aged women.  Men aren’t covered at all until they become old or disabled in Texas, and they weren’t going to fare any better with the new act, either.  Texas wasn’t expanding Medicaid at all under the Affordable Care Act, mostly known now as Obamacare.  I remember being stunned a year ago when Rochelle had first told me she didn’t qualify for Medicaid.  I thought she was just misinformed.  No, I was misinformed.  Eventually I found something that allows her clinic care and a physical once a year.  It is far removed from health insurance but far better than nothing.

Rochelle’s problem is that she is too poor, too healthy, and too young to be covered by the new law.  Mostly she is too poor.  It makes no sense at all, except if one lives in Texas, and 15 to 22 other states (depending on their final decisions), that is exactly the situation.  If Rochelle were single and childless and making $10/hour she could sign up right away and be eligible for health care in January, 2014; but Rochelle is single, has three children, and makes $9.17/hour so she doesn’t qualify.  The Affordable Care Act just assumed that states would increase their Medicaid coverage to include the people well below the federal government poverty line, if they were not already covered by it. The law didn’t prepare for states to reject the idea of increased Medicaid coverage.  Texas has more uninsured people than any other state in the union, and it looks as if it will remain that way.

I explained to Rochelle why it was that she wasn’t going to be covered by the law.  She had voted twice for Barack Obama and was somewhat taken aback when she discovered the health care law wasn’t going to make any difference to her life. There will be quite a lot of people who are better off and able to get health care because of the new law; Rochelle won’t be one of them because Rick Perry, the governor of Texas, seems to have no understanding of poverty nor the cost to the state and the tax payers when those not covered by Medicaid use the emergency room as their family doctor.  I explained all this to Rochelle.  “Well, I heard he isn’t running again,” she said hopefully.  No, he isn’t, but it is doubtful his most likely replacement will think differently.   And so, again, Rochelle falls through the cracks, and there is no safety net for her.  I find it totally astonishing.  Rick Perry should be ashamed of himself.