What are the impacts of our systems on our fellow human beings? Today, I interviewed a single mom, Michele, who provides insights into how she and her working-class family have fallen through the cracks for generations. Working-class poverty is the type of poverty where people have jobs, but they live paycheck to paycheck and continuously struggle to pay bills. People in this context are typically not educated beyond high school.
Children in working-class poverty, like children in generational poverty, tend to lose their childhoods. They have to become adults at very young ages to help the family survive. Michele started working at 15 and has worked one or often two jobs for as long as she can remember. Because she only had a high school education, the types of jobs she has worked did not pay a living wage. She doesn’t remember a time when having a place to live was not a struggle. As a result, her family was constantly evicted and moving. “Every single month, I nervously wonder if I am going to make enough to pay the rent.”
After working for 15 years and not getting ahead, Michele tried to find a path to a better life. “I realized just working the low-wage jobs was never going to get me anywhere, so I decided to make a better life for my kids. I decided to go back to school so I could get a degree and make more money. That was 7 years ago. I realized that I was working part time, going to school, always cycling...but never moving forward.”
In this video, Michele shares the real struggles of not have stability combined with not knowing how to navigate the higher education system. Michele has completed THREE associate’s degrees and is about to finish a one-year certification in Gerontology. “If I had someone to look at my college record, I would probably learn that I have way too many credits. And I have exhausted my financial aid." When she entered college for the first associate’s degree, she had a dream of helping people. She wanted to go to a University to get better pay and be able to care for her children, but has been intimidated and did not understand what she needed to do to get there.
This may surprise you, but Michele is an honor student. She did so well in 8th grade, they advanced her a year. She had been on both the President's and the Dean’s lists. Even with all the impacts of poverty, her GPA has never fallen below a 3.00. Being smart does not mean you know what questions to ask or how to navigate systems. If you are from poverty, it is foreign territory. What seems obvious to most, is first-time experiences and information to so many.
The current pandemic has added additional mental health and poverty stress on her and her daughters. Her income has been cut in half. She got the $1200 stimulus and a $500 credit for her 10-year-old, but her two older daughters did not qualify because she claimed them on her taxes. Note, they live with her. One is in college and the other has lost her job due to the pandemic. The stimulus money will not even pay one month’s rent. They have received food from food pantries and have done without.
Listen to Michele’s experiences with housing, employment, and education and reflect on how we can build better pathways to education success for students who live in the crisis of poverty. Her story illuminates once again why we cannot go back to "normal."
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