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.

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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.

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.

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.

College Ahead

Unknown“Danyell’s going to college,” Rochelle told me several months ago. Danyell is her eldest sister’s first child, who was born when her mother was 14. Rochelle’s sister dropped out of high school, had another child with the father of the first, then married a man and had three more children. She is recently divorced from the father of the three youngest children. Danyell is going to first go to the local community college and then her plans are to transfer to a state college thirty miles away. Yesterday was graduation day and Rochelle and her family went. Rochelle is the only one to have graduated from high school in her immediate family; now the eldest cousin of Rochelle’s children has graduated from high school and is going to college. Danyell’s mother has had a stable job as a receptionist at a pediatric center for many years and her ex-husband also has had a stable job. He had been living with the family since the two older children were young. It seems to have made a huge difference in the lives of the children. Though now divorced, he is still a factor in this family’s life.

This week I will ask Rochelle about the graduation and what her children thought about it. When I first was learning about the family dynamics I thought Mary-Jane, the eldest sister, would have been the one to have had the most difficult life. She wasn’t because she had a stable job and was not a single mother. Five children isn’t easy for anyone, especially when the first was born when the mother was only 14, but she has made it work so far. Currently she is not on any public assistance and hasn’t been since she married the father of her youngest three children. Having a help-mate in the family has made all the difference in the world.

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.

The Nightmare of Poverty

The ultimate terror for white people is to leave the highway by mistake and find themselves in East St. Louis.  People speak of getting lost in East St. Louis as a nightmare.  The nightmare to me is that they never leave that highway so they never know what life is like for all the children here.  They ought to get off that highway.  The nightmare isn’t in their heads.  It’s a real place.  There are children living here.”

 Jonathan Kozol, St. Louis Dispatch, 1991

 

1557604_10152220740161654_935384944_n “She told me the worst thing that had ever happened to her in her life was when her parents divorced three years ago,” Rochelle told me last week, punctuating the statement with a loud laugh. She was talking about a conversation she had had with a co-worker whose position is one step up from hers.  The woman is 19, married with no children, and attends the state university.  Her husband has a job with the same grocery store and also attends the state university.  Rochelle had a very hard time understanding how a parent’s divorce could be the worst thing a person could have gone through.  “I’ve never even had a father,” Rochelle said.  “I don’t even know who my father is! I’ve lived through my house burning down and a little baby dying in the fire when I was 11.  I’ve had no Christmases when I was growing up, or birthday parties, or food.  She at least has two parents.”  For Rochelle, the divorce of one’s parents didn’t seem to compare with many of the events of her own upbringing.  How could divorce have had such a strong impact on her co-worker?  Rochelle keeps her difficult life to herself, so she didn’t say anything to the woman.  She saved her amazement for me.

About 15 years ago I drove my friend, Dick, through an old and very poor neighborhood of Laredo, Texas.  Laredo is a border city on the shores of the Rio Grande, where a huge proportion of the population lives below the poverty line.  I thought it was something Dick most likely had never seen, and I thought he needed to see it.  I’ll never forget Dick’s comment:  “No wonder they all vote Democratic,” he had loudly exclaimed.  Dick is a Republican and even called Social Security “the dole” when he was eligible to receive it.  That was as close as Dick ever came to seeing the nightmare of poverty, but he still doesn’t understand it, and he sure doesn’t want to get closer to it.  This, of course, is a great part of the problem when searching for solutions to poverty in our country. We can’t fix what we refuse to see and understand.

If you are new to reading this blog, I suggest you go to some of the very first posts so you can better understand Rochelle’s life.   The earlier blogs set the stage for the future ones.  They depict a life that happened right here in my town.  Not all that far away from my house, on the other side of the tracks, or in this town’s situation, the other side of the interregional highway.  Life is different on that side of town, as Rochelle’s conversation with her co-worker points out so dramatically.   Poverty won’t find solutions until more people understand how this nightmare of poverty develops and continues.  And lest we comfort ourselves with the thought that poverty is simply a fact of life that can never be eliminated, let’s rethink that notion.  For one thing, poverty never existed until cities developed; it is not a natural human condition.   And for a second thing, poverty has been all but eradicated in some countries, notably in Scandinavia; if a society has the will to eliminate poverty, it can be done.