Commercial Appeal (Memphis), March 30, 2008: 80 percent of poor Americans work

Posted on

By Wendi C. Thomas

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Poverty in Memphis looks a lot like Taurus Green.

In fact, 80 percent of the poor people here are single moms and their children.

Green, 30, is raising her three daughters in a drafty duplex in Parkway Village.

She dropped out of South Side High School in the 12th grade, but earned a GED from a program she later found out wasn’t certified. She can’t afford a car, so her world is limited to where she can get rides or where the bus goes.

Best-case scenario: She earns $800 a month cleaning houses. That’s $9,600 a year, which puts her at less than half of the federal poverty level for a family of four — $21,200.

But you can’t raise a family on $800 a month, so

Green receives government assistance. There’s about $400 a month in food stamps for her girls, 22-month-old Makayla, 7-year-old Jada and 13-year-old Candace. Section 8 pays for her apartment and part of her staggering utility bill.

Overweight, Green vows that this month is the month her diet and exercise program will begin in earnest. She takes a handful of pills daily for high blood pressure and diabetes.

And for many people, including most who have never been poor, that’s all they need to know about Green and her family.

The thinking goes like this: Green made poor choices and now, she’s paying for them. No, correction, taxpayers are paying for Green’s poor choices.

For those whose safety nets have safety nets, it can be difficult to muster any compassion for Green.

After all, no one made her get pregnant. No one made her drop out of high school. No one made her have three children, all by different fathers, only one of whom is involved in his daughter’s life.

But Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., were he alive today, might see Green’s fate a bit differently. He would have less judgment for how Green got where she is. He would want to know how America planned to help Green and the other 35 million Americans who live in poverty.

When King was assassinated, he was in the midst of planning a Poor People’s Campaign, an effort that was unpopular even among his civil-rights compatriots. The campaign, which culminated posthumously with a monthlong settlement camp of poor Americans on the National Mall in Washington, demanded that the government provide more jobs with a decent wage, better unemployment insurance and higher-quality public education to prepare children for the workforce.

“Instead of spending $35 billion every year to fight an unjust, ill-considered war in Vietnam and $20billion to put a man on the moon, we need to put God’s children on their own two feet,” King said on March 18, 1968, in speech to striking Memphis sanitation workers.

But to be fair, poverty 40 years ago didn’t look like poverty today. Then, poverty was starvation, homes with rodent and insect infestation but no heating or indoor plumbing.

And that’s not to say that there aren’t poor people in America living in such situations. But Green and her family do have food, shelter and clothing. There is just little room in her budget for extras and certainly no money for emergencies.

Even the $6 it cost for her daughter Jada’s field trip to Pink Palace is a strain.

A former resident of the Dixie Homes housing project, she moved into her duplex in July and has received job training through Memphis Hope. For her perfect attendance and stellar performance in a job-training class, she got a computer, which she used to make fliers for the residential-cleaning business she hopes to start.

The computer is now unusable, felled by a virus and Green isn’t sure how to fix it.

Besides, a computer isn’t a necessity. What she needed more than a computer was new shoes. Hers had holes in them, and she suspects walking to and from the bus stop with wet feet is probably what made her sick with the flu.

So when she got her tax refund, it was quickly spent — on shoes for her and clothes and shoes for her children. On buying the dryer she’d been renting. On a working TV. Life insurance policies for her children. Stocking up on canned goods. And paying all her bills, including an overdue $500 utility bill, through April.

Like 80 percent of poor Americans, Green works. She has a few regular clients, but if they go on vacation or just don’t need her that week, she doesn’t get paid.

In late March, she had $2.41 in her checking account and $14 in her savings account.

She used to get $142 each month in cash assistance, but last month, she turned that down. The check came with strings — including a requirement to spend 30 hours each week either at work, school or in volunteer service, but volunteering just a few blocks away at her daughter’s school didn’t count.

Green knows her time on welfare is running out. The 1996 Welfare Reform Act limits benefits to 60 months over a lifetime, with some exceptions for aid to children.

Green estimates she may have two years of that five years left.

“That’s one of the reasons I gave the check up. … I wanted to see if I could do it myself.”

* * *

That’s a myth about the poor — that they don’t want better for themselves. That they don’t want to work, that they’re lazy.

“Sure, that group is there,” says Doug Imig, professor at the University of Memphis and fellow at the Urban Child Institute. But that group gets magnified well beyond its size, and examples of fraud are held up as the norm rather than the exception.

More importantly, says Imig, “We need to pause and realize we hold completely contradictory attitudes” about poor people.

On one hand, Imig says, we believe poor people are a crafty bunch, adept at scamming the system so they can collect a check. But at the same time, we believe that they must be dumb, because otherwise, they’d figure out a way to escape poverty.

But moving from poverty to self-sufficiency is rarely a smooth transition free from setbacks.

Imig has his urban-policy students meet in the Walgreen’s lot at Poplar and Cleveland.

The students are to pretend as if they have a baby in arms and just 20 minutes to find dinner before catching the next bus home.

Will they try to cross Poplar to go to Kroger — and if so, will they spend part of that 20 minutes sorting through the produce for the most healthful food available? Or will they pick up a quart of milk at Walgreen’s? Or will they stay on the same side of the street and grab some fast food from McDonald’s?

“It’s hard to be poor and this is a city that’s hard to be poor in,” unlike other cities that have efficient mass transportation, Imig says.

Many Americans earning a middle-class income are still just a paycheck or two away from poverty, and but for the safety nets they have — families with financial resources, property that can be pawned, even the smallest of nest eggs — they, too, might find themselves in need of welfare.

Welfare, Imig says, can be likened to a hospital room with two beds.

“In one bed, there’s someone who stays for just six months. And the other bed, a new patient comes every day,” says Imig, who has a “Poverty Sucks” sticker on his office printer.

“Yes, both beds are occupied all the time, but 98 percent of the use is short-term.”

The new patient would be Lashadran Nelson, who is well on her way to moving off government assistance.

Nelson, 21, had graduated from East High by the time she had Aniyah, who turned 2 in January. Aniyah’s father, his family and Nelson’s mother and grandmother were there with cameras when Aniyah, dressed like a little angel, won a fashion show at her Binghamton day care center.

The center is within walking distance of Nelson’s home, where she lives with her parents, younger brother and sister.

Welfare reform forced Nelson, and thousands of other Memphis mothers who receive government assistance, into a workforce-readiness program at BRIDGES.

Nelson came to the Downtown center last July with a bad attitude, a pierced eyebrow and yellow hair she later dyed hot red. Her clothes were better suited for a night club than an office.

But that was before she was taught what it’d take to succeed in a professional environment, lessons her mother, who is an IT coordinator for BRIDGES’ workforce-development arm, had tried to teach her but Nelson wouldn’t listen.

“My attitude has really improved,” says a poised Nelson over dinner, her brown hair braided neatly.

But, Nelson admits, “It took someone else to tell me.”

That someone else was Pam McCoy. Dr. McCoy, director of supportive services for BRIDGES’ Work Bridge program, who is proud to tell you she went from a GED to a Ph.D.

McCoy, 51, dropped out of high school and had her first child at 15. She married her daughter’s father, but was separated just a few years later and divorced in eight years.

Unmarried, she relied on the government for help, following in the single-motherhood path traveled by her mother and her grandmother.

But then she got a break, a break that makes the difference between failure and success: Patient teachers and a devoted financial-aid counselor at what was then Shelby State Community College.

Her first day at junior college in 1977, she showed up wearing a halter top and too-tight jeans, sporting red hair and a gold tooth right in front.

“With the attitude I had, the first week, I ended up cussing out the dean of students,” probably over her financial aid, she assumes.

“My mindset was, ‘You owe me something.'”

The kindness of her teachers softened her spirit. After she got her degree in counseling at Shelby State, she was hired as an academic adviser. And she had her gold tooth replaced with a natural-colored one.

In 1991, she got her bachelor’s degree in human relations from Western Illinois. She moved to Tulsa, Okla., and earned her master’s degree in counseling from Oral Roberts University in 1996. Her Ph.D. came from Jacksonville Theological Seminary in 2003.

When McCoy — affectionately called “Madear” by younger BRIDGES clients and staffers — talks to recalcitrant mothers uninterested in the training program, she does so with the special insight of having been where they are now.

“You’re setting yourself up for defeat,” she tells them, when they come in with pierced lips and unusual hair colors. Society will judge them on their appearances — that’s reality, so deal with it.

Yes, it’s hard to be a single mother navigating an often-unfriendly system, when you’re so easily knocked off course by a sick child or a late bus.

“Sometimes we beat ourselves down and we refuse to come up and come out of that,” McCoy says.

But, McCoy says, “Once we change our thinking, we can change our life.”

For Nelson, her thinking changed when Aniyah was born. “When you have a child, it’s not about you no more.”

After her classes at BRIDGES were over, she was hired there part-time, and in that job, she and another BRIDGES graduate transformed the transportation-payment system from a daily time-sucker to an orderly process that happens just once a week. Her initiative — seeing and solving a problem — impressed McCoy and others. And last month, BRIDGES hired Nelson full-time.

When the new BRIDGES workforce classes begin on Mondays, it’s Nelson who gives a pep talk to the women, most of whom are as reluctant to be there as she was.

“You can’t look and them and say, ‘They’re not going to do anything’ because I had that same expression on my face.”

Still, the transition hasn’t been easy. In her first few weeks as a full-time employee, in her first professional job, she sneaked into a bathroom stall to cry.

Nelson was overwhelmed by all the work, she explained when her mom saw her tear-stained face.

But she was also crying for joy.

“I am so proud of myself.”

« Back to News