Category Archives: Social Studies

Living the daily grind of the working poor

Two years ago, over my husband’s objections, we became a one-vehicle household when I sold my car.

It was a financial decision, in part. I had recently downsized out of management and was earning significantly less. But it was also a lifestyle choice. After years of long-distance commuting, I re-established our household in a bus- and pedestrian-friendly neighborhood where I can walk to work.

Choice is the operative word in that scenario. When I observe that I’m among the few obviously professional workers — and Caucasians — on inner-city buses or trains, I don’t often acknowledge that for me this is a choice. Even the pay cut, though a blow to both my pocketbook and my ego, was made possible through income from rental properties that my family owns.

For the working poor, however, a reliance on sometimes unreliable mass transit — as well as food insecurity, substandard housing, or lack of affordable child care and health care — means the opposite of choice. “It is about economics,” says Gennae Falconer, director of community engagement at the Greater Minneapolis Council of Churches.Cropped_Gennae

“I have a full-time job,” she explains. “I have parents who could bail me out. Without harm to them, they could support me. These families have grandparents who can’t watch the kids because they are working. It’s inter-generational poverty.”

An exercise in living poor

I recently had the opportunity through Leadership Saint Paul to be part of a workshop that Falconer runs called “Face the Facts: Understanding Poverty.” Although the exercise has the feel of a board game, there is nothing enjoyable about it at all.

Your challenge is to make it through a month in the city on a very limited budget, the instructions read. You will need to find housing, daycare, transportation and health insurance. In addition, you will need to pay for household expenses, food, clothing and entertainment.

My team’s choices got more difficult as we inched closer and closer to spending down the $3,400 per month that “Ted” and “Alice,” our working-poor parents, brought home. We started with housing, which we deemed the highest need for this five-person family.

Affordable housing means you are spending less than 30% on housing costs. In 2015, over 37% of Hennepin County residents paid more than 30% of their income for housing.

Given choices that included an affordable “rundown quad-plex” on a busy street where “loud fights and crime are common” and “a spacious duplex” close to a park and bus lines that cost $280 a month more than we were supposed to spend on housing, we opted for the three-bedroom duplex. Our rationale: free entertainment in the park.

We chose not to give this family a car, which meant we had to find daycare for the 2- and the 4-year-old on a bus line or close to home. Our decisions were starting to involve compromise:

  • The most affordable, high-quality child-care option, with a curriculum that focuses on healthful eating and self-esteem, looked ideal — but was a 40-minute commute by bus.
  • The other affordable option had a “frazzled and forgetful” owner who also cares for her aging mother. Plus, a child was injured there recently in the home’s unfinished basement.
  • The pricier option had a “sparse” supply of toys and limited activities, and it cost $160 a month more (remember, we already had overspent on housing, and we hadn’t yet factored in clothing and food).

“As you go into the exercise, you start to physically feel some of the stress,” Falconer says. “Sometimes, the only financial choice is to have the neighbor who smokes all day watch the kids, even though she lets them watch too much TV. As a society, we vilify the parents who will do that. But this is the best choice available.”

In the end, our family had spent $750 more than its monthly budget. The choices we made — to buy health insurance for the children, to enroll the mother in her 401(k) plan at work, to buy a share in the neighborhood community garden — reflected the circumstances in which we all were raised.

“Early on, there’s often not a lot of discussion about these choices,” says Falconer. “Participants are working on what is culturally ingrained: ‘This is what you do. This is how people live.’”

How could we deny “Alice,” the mom, the chance to attend her father’s funeral in Chicago? (None of us on the team works in an hourly-wage job where such a choice would entail lost wages.) How could we keep Valerie, the eldest child, from playing a sport or taking a field trip at school? (None of us had been denied those opportunities.)

Days later, Falconer and I discussed how she has seen the exercise affect participants.

This exercise was billed to our group as a “poverty simulation.” I honestly didn’t know what to expect.

“We try not to call it a poverty simulation, because that’s not fair to those who experience real poverty. We call it by its full name — Face the Facts: Understanding Poverty — and we define it as a simulation exercise to experience what life is like for the working poor.

“The exercise is specific to that group of people. They don’t make enough to cover living expenses, but they earn too much to qualify for state and federal aid.”

Who is your audience?

“We’re largely working with people who come from a privileged background and may not understand the complexities. They may believe that poverty is a choice driven by the person experiencing it. We’re hoping to show people that poverty is driven by economics.

“That’s why we call these poverty and privilege trainings. In our experience of working with white, middle- to upper-middle-class people — and I am one of them — we see that people tend to feel either guilty or defensive. And that doesn’t get us anywhere. We can’t sit in that space.

“If people act out of guilt, they give money. That’s fine, but it’s not working toward justice. If you act out of defensiveness, you become fearful and want to hold on to what you have.”

I’m on a committee at work that is examining how to move from employee volunteerism to true engagement with the community. How do you move people from throwing money at the problem to changing the system that enables poverty?

“People gravitate toward service and acts of charity because it’s on their terms. You get to decide how you do it, and it’s easier to do. Yes, you did something good: You painted a house; you stocked a food shelf.

“But if you’re doing the work of justice, it is going to take some personal sacrifice. You may make less money, because if we’re going to pay everyone an equitable wage, then the person who is white or male won’t automatically make more money. The sacrifice will come from those who have the most.

“That’s hard, and it creates fear. People think, ‘I’m going to be without.’ We live with such a notion of scarcity: ‘If we pay people more, I will have less.’ But we have enough in this country. We just don’t allocate it right. We don’t share enough.

“There has to be give and take among all community members to bring everybody up. Paul Wellstone said: We all do better when we all do better. Goodness begets other goodness.”

Although my team wanted to do well by this family, we also concluded that with low-skilled jobs and no apparent education, the parents should never have had children — or at least had fewer children. There’s another judgment against the working poor.

“You see that as the exercise progresses. Ted smokes, and for $75 he can keep smoking that month, or for $175 he can get the cessation gum. People assume you can just quit. But less than 1 percent of people who quit smoking cold turkey are successful within the year.

“There’s a mental health factor for the working poor. Smoking or eating junk food gives you a release. They don’t have time to sit in a therapist’s office for an hour. Again, poverty is about dollars and economics. It’s not just choices people make.”

It seems that people have grown both more rich and more poor since I was a kid. My family had one television and one car until I was 10 years old. Our house had no air conditioning; my mom hung laundry outside to dry. And my father was an attorney. We considered ourselves middle class.

“And we saw the privileges of the middle class as our right! I grew up in St. Cloud. I knew people at my school who were poor. You heard rumors. You could tell by the way they dressed. But all of those people had houses, had food, had a way to get to school. That’s not the way things are anymore.

“When homeless shelters came about in the 1980s, they were supposed to be a temporary fix. Federal poverty guidelines determine whether a person or a family is eligible for benefits, but those benefits were meant to be an emergency stopgap. Because the disparity between the rich and the poor keeps growing, it takes an enormous amount of money to raise yourself into a higher class. You remain dependent on the system.”

What are the next steps, for those of us who participated in this exercise?

“Our Urban Immersion Service Retreats focus on education, advocacy and service. Those programs help all of us understand that people who want to help — to be part of equity and change — can’t just ‘jump to justice’ without the underlying background. We have to move people along that continuum.”

To learn more, or to lease the “Face the Facts: Understanding Poverty” kit, contact Gennae Falconer at the Greater Minneapolis Council of Churches: 612-276-1564 or

Saint Paul schools: more than a ‘single story’

As a St. Paul resident who kept her two sons out of urban public schools, I’ve been following the rising violence in my city’s beleaguered school district more closely than many empty-nest parents.

I’ve been recalling — no, justifying — why I commuted to the Twin Cities from Northfield for 20 years. I wanted my sons to have a well-funded, academically challenging education, and stories and statistics such as these frankly scared me:

  • Less than one-third of Saint Paul Public School graduates earn a two- or four-year college degree within six years after leaving high school.
  • Only 68 percent of high school students of color graduate on time — 13 points less than the 81 percent graduation rate for whites.
  • In December the Saint Paul Board of Education voted to expel a student who, six weeks earlier, had brought a loaded gun to Harding High on the city’s east side.
  • Since then teachers have been shoved and assaulted, and district officials learned they face a $15 million deficit.

If all I did was read the paper or watch the news, I would have but a single story about the Saint Paul Public Schools — a story of dysfunction and disrespect. But I know more than I hear or read in the media, thanks to my volunteer work last spring with four then–high school juniors at Harding High.

Here are their stories, the ones they shared and shaped with me during our work together on college-application essays.

An aunt at age 15

Faith was the most disciplined of my four mentees. She turned in her assignments on time. She asked me questions via e-mail, something I could not convince the other three to do. She had the most obvious writing talent.

A self-motivated girl, studious and somewhat shy, she had a knack for writing and a mature ability to see the meaning in her personal struggles and sorrows.

Push, Leah! Push! is all I heard as I stood behind the curtain waiting impatiently. As I heard my 18-year-old sister screaming and my dad talking to her as if she was back on the softball field, I knew right there that my life was going to change. I had another responsibility, to be the best aunt I could be to this newborn baby boy.

She titled her essay “Family Matters.” Her dream was to be a wedding planner. Personally, I wished she would aim for a more intellectual pursuit, and then I remembered what I taught my own sons: All work is honorable.College Classroom

The five of us become acquainted by sharing our favorite food, sport, car and college dream school. Faith was the only one to choose a private liberal arts college. She comes from a white, working-class family for whom the tuition would have been a stretch, but I believed she could cut it academically.

I recommended her for a scholarship to attend a summer writing camp through the ThreeSixty Journalism program. She passed it up so she could go camping with her family.

Hopes and dreams

My own mentor in this project, a former Saint Paul Pioneer Press colleague named Lynda McDonnell, urged me to keep my fears and feelings in perspective while appreciating the chance to be exposed to other priorities and ways of being.

“Most of us are fairly segregated by income, education and age,” she wrote me after the project concluded, “which leads us to make assumptions about each other that often are narrow-hearted, fearful and flawed.”

I saw that in my assumptions about Yasuhar, a Latino boy who called himself Joshua and whose dream school was Dunwoody College of Technology. He loved soccer, as do my own sons, and so I made a real effort to connect. But he disappointed me, time and time again.

I couldn’t figure out why Joshua kept neglecting to e-mail me his assignments on the iPad his school provided, until he conceded, finally, that he had no Internet access at home.

Do you live near a library? I asked him. “No.” Near a coffee shop? He shook his head. “I live by a McDonald’s.”

Do they have Wi-Fi? I asked, grimacing at how privileged I sounded.

Joshua’s college essay was about his efforts to get a driver’s license. At first, I hardly saw it as an achievement. Weeks into the class he told me that his father — who’s “never really been around as I’ve grown up” — praised him by phone for the accomplishment.

His uncle taught him how to drive. Joshua learned to ask for help. “Getting my license,” he wrote, “has taught me to take advantage of time and the resources around me.” He also wants “to be someone in the future and [be] successful.”

And then the clincher: “Most people say they really don’t see it in me.”

‘A single story’

I heard the phrase “a single story” in a 2009 TED Talk that I happened to see only a few weeks ago. It’s a graceful and gracious argument by Nigerian-born novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie about why a stereotype — a single story — is so dangerous.

“Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person but to make it the definitive story of that person,” she said.

I learned from my too-brief experience as a public school volunteer that knowing the people who shape an institution is a sure way to dispel stereotypes and soften judgments.

Dennis, a Hmong-American boy who recently had made the B honor roll, wrote his essay about the discipline and domestic skills he learned from his beloved aunt, whom he hasn’t seen since he was 10. I learned to overlook the grammatical errors (our project leader called them “lower-order concerns”) so I could find the true heart of his experience:

During my childhood years, I lived with my aunt and uncle. The things that she taught me was useful for my family. She also teach me good manners with a positive attitudes. She is always there for me, and I always thought we would always be like this.

Aileen wrote about her Quinceañera, “the day I had been waiting for since I was younger!” The Latina transition into adulthood, traditionally a preparation for marriage, includes dancing, a church ceremony, a pretty dress and a father-daughter dance.

“It’s a tradition that is passed on to each girl in the family,” Aileen explained. Part of being an adult now, at age 15, was working to contribute income to her family.

My mentees did their best against difficult odds. I was inspired by their talent, exasperated by their apparent apathy and touched by their vision of a better life.

All four aimed to finish high school and get “a good job,” something that would allow them to raise children and buy a house. I had the opportunity to hear their truth — unedited, unvarnished — and to witness how my “single story” only limited them, and myself.


Mary, C.J., Alicia: Here’s to strong TV women

Surely it’s a sign of middle age that the youthful Saturday nights I recall fondly aren’t about dancing at Rupert’s Nightclub in Golden Valley or downing tequila sunrises to the bluesy sounds of Lamont Cranston at the Cabooze.MTM_hat

My memories go further back, to the early 1970s, when CBS had the best comedy lineup on TV. All in the Family at 7 p.m., followed an hour later by The Mary Tyler Moore Show — essential viewing for a shy but ambitious teenage girl — followed by Bob Newhart as a delightfully droll therapist and capped off by an hour with Carol Burnett.

I’ve been thinking of CBS Saturdays during this cold, icy Minnesota winter when finances, the frigid weather and the press of graduate school have conspired to keep me home most weekend nights. I find myself knitting again and curling up with my dogs to watch Downton Abbey, Madam Secretary, The Good Wife and, more recently, Mercy Street — a sometimes shockingly accurate Civil War–era drama set in a makeshift hospital on the border of North and South.

What these shows all have in common is what too many Hollywood films still lack: strong, vulnerable, believable female characters whose stories help me write and weave my own.

Long live C.J. Cregg

The best gift my older son, Sam, ever gave me was a boxed set of all seven seasons of The West Wing, the most inspiring drama ever made for television.

I loved the portrayal of Chief of Staff Leo McGarry as a recovering alcoholic, the poetic idealism of speechwriter Sam Seaborn, the soaring speeches of President Josiah Bartlet (a Notre Dame graduate and Nobel Prize–winning economist) and the identity struggles of his accomplished physician wife.

But I watched The West Wing for C.J. Cregg, the tall, sharply dressed, fast-talking press secretary who — like most women — found her voice and professional confidence as she grew older, more experienced, less naïve.C.J. Cregg

C.J. made me wish I’d majored in political science instead of English in college. She helped me see the value and trust inherent in office friendships. Lacking any life outside of work, she helped me appreciate the hard-won balance I sustained during my years of commuting and raising children.

A natural evolution of Mary Richards’ TV producer some 25 years on, C.J. showed viewers that women can be smart and soft, tough and tender, feminist and feminine. Name one mainstream American film besides the obvious — Thelma and Louise, Norma Rae, The Kids Are Alright — that dares to show the lined faces and toned bodies of middle-aged women in all their hope and heartbreak, their character and complexity.

Today’s television heroines

Premium cable channels and streaming services like Netflix and Amazon have created opportunities for women on surprisingly sophisticated shows. (House of Cards and The Newsroom, from West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin, are among my favorites.)

TV series about “women of a certain age” catch my attention, because I seldom see those stories in Hollywood films.

  • The Servants of Downton: From Daisy, the cook’s assistant who is getting an education to get out of a life of service, to Mrs. Hughes, the housekeeper and head of the maids, the women downstairs in Downton Abbey resonant more with my paycheck-to-paycheck existence than the fancy clothes and silly romantic troubles of the Crawley sisters upstairs. Anna’s rape at the hands of a visiting valet in season 4 — her shame and her fear of telling her husband — was harrowing, realistic, must-see TV.
  • Mercy Street: Women had no property rights and couldn’t vote during the time of the Civil War. The first women’s rights convention was held in 1848, and out of that social movement and the reality of men being away at war came women’s emergence into relief work and nursing. Reformer Dorothea Dix was an advocate of female nurses. Her courage is channeled on the new PBS series Mercy Street by Mary Phinney, a widow and woman of privilege who seeks a new purpose in life.
  • The Good Wife: Google “Alicia Florrick,” and it’s no wonder you’ll find stories about her hair, her clothes. The character is too perfectly put together for my taste, and the series never achieved the promise of its premise. (Why not explore what Alicia gets out of staying married to her philandering husband?) But I still watch, occasionally, for The Good Wife’s focus on the compelling female friend — for five seasons the sassy, savvy Kalinda and, this season, Lucca Quinn.
  • Madam Secretary: It’s no West Wing, and conservative commentators say the series’ purpose is to get Hillary Clinton elected. That’s one reason I like it. More important, though, Secretary of State Elizabeth McCord shows the real-world struggles of maintaining a family and an always-on career. If husband Henry McCord is too much of a women’s wet dream (an academic, a dad who cooks, a sexy guy who insists that he and his wife talk), that’s OK. I tell my husband that Henry is a role model he can aspire to.

We’ll be reminded this Sunday night about the #OscarsSoWhite movement. Check out the Best Director category; women are underrepresented, too.

So even though TV remains, for me, an “only if I have time” pastime, I am watching television more often than I am going to the movies. Enough of the action flicks, the December-May romances. For my own sense of self, especially as I age, I want to see women whose lives feel real.