In my last post, I wrote about a book, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, by J.D, Vance, a young man in his 30s, who vividly describes the challenges growing up a poor, “white trash” hillbilly in Rust Belt Ohio, with a drug addicted mother. Vance’s story pulls back the curtain on not just the impact of drug addiction on a family, but also a myriad of other social and cultural problems in his poor, white working-class community. Certainly, economic factors play a large role in the escalating social decay in many poor communities, but that doesn’t even hit upon the larger negative social and cultural factors, that are propelling so many people into leading lives in endless crisis.
I’m changing the order a bit on posts, so this one will be about the things I’ve learned about America’s social and cultural problems among America’s poorer people, from my personal experiences. This isn’t some sociological study, it’s just my observations.
Being a person who likes volunteer work, I’ve done a lot of that in my life, but most of all I like listening to people tell me about their lives and I like to help people in whatever small ways I can. Nothing I have done is remotely as important as the major contributions many other people make toward helping people. There are people like doctors saving lives, police and emergency personnel saving lives, people dedicating their lives to good causes, etc. My volunteer work has been very small in the scheme of things and I know I should do much more, but that said, here goes with the World According to Me…
The Army attracts a lot of people from poor and working class America, poor black people, poor white people, and poor people from other ethnic groups. Just like I mentioned in my previous post, it’s a way out of dysfunctional families and bad neighborhoods, for many people like Vance or my husband. The Army does not attract many people from America’s economically-advantaged class. Even among the officer corps, I suspect most come from middle class backgrounds, not wealthy families.
After my husband retired from the Army, I went to work at Wal-Mart in 1999, left in 2000, then went back to Wal-Mart in 2003 and left in 2015. This is a town with a large Army installation, so many of the customers I dealt with were military, but there were also many locals, most from poor, working-class families of various ethnic backgrounds. This is a poor county in GA, so there were also many poor people, who do not work and probably come from backgrounds of generational poverty. Some were middle class, but I suspect few of the customers were wealthy.
As an Army wife, I did a lot of family support group volunteer work, Red Cross casework (handling Red Cross emergency messages and financial assistance) and other activities, but most of what I learned came from informal interactions like Vance describes in his book, when he was in the Marines. He was about to buy a car, when a NCO guided him to the credit union to get a loan, with a lower interest rate. My husband was a NCO in the Army and that’s what non-commissioned officers do – they take care of their troops and try to guide them.
As an infantry soldier, my husband spent large chunks of the year away from home training, which meant a lot of informal phone calls, where he would ask me to call one of his soldiers’ wives and check on her, or take her to the commissary or help with various problems. I met a lot of wonderful people in the Army this way. I learned a lot about personal and social problems too.
Personal financial problems loom large in creating chaotic homes. “Experts” like to look for macro causes, like discrimination, lack of opportunity, predatory lenders, etc. to explain and absolve people living in perpetual financial chaos from personal responsibility for their plight and sure these macro causes do exist to some degree, but in no way explain that none of the political or social program fixes alleviate the problem. In fact, many of the fixes exacerbate the problem.
The single most important lesson to teach people is that they are personally responsible for their decisions, their actions and their own lives.
I’ve made financial mistakes, in fact, I think everyone has, but dealing with people who live in perpetual financial chaos, the recurring excuse is some version of blaming “The Man”, as if they are a victim of forces beyond their control OR “bad luck” (both are magical thinking).
I have someone in my family who uses the “bad luck” excuse constantly. More than a decade ago I sent her an article from a magazine about how many of life’s little crises could be avoided, if you keep at least $500 in savings. Like many Americans, she spends beyond her means, has a terrible credit score, uses larger windfalls (like tax returns) to go out and spend bigger, rather than putting any aside for a rainy day. I gave her Suze Orman’s book, Women & Money, because women spend emotionally way more often than men. She always writes out budgets and plans to get on track. It never happens, because her budgets don’t allow for the little crises that constantly occur. Her little crises are usually things like car problems or something with the kids, but almost all of them would not be a crisis at all, if she kept $500 in savings. She calls all these crises – bad luck. If you have a dilapidated car, things are likely to break, kids get sick and you know what your co-pay is and that prescription medicine can be expensive, very few things are totally unforeseen.
Another young family member is the exact opposite – she has insurance for just about every conceivable “bad luck ” scenario, including, she took out renter’s insurance on her first apartment, something I didn’t even know about when I was young. I have encountered many people who use various federal assistance programs and have told me detailed ways about how you have to word stuff on applications, how to game the system, and all the ins and outs on qualifying, yet these very same people often make impulse purchases they can’t afford, get into terrible financial binds with predatory lenders, and refuse to learn anything about better money management skills. These people can explain complex ways to navigate the government bureaucracy, yet most have never learned to balance a checkbook and live a bad credit or no credit/cash only lifestyle.
In Wal-Mart I noticed that many young co-workers blew almost their entire paycheck on payday, buying frivolous stuff. Many of them had families, meaning they weren’t paying bills or buying groceries and that they would be borrowing or bumming money before the next payday. The anger many working Americans feel about people on government assistance comes from watching people in line at check-out counters across America.
So, let me give just a few examples of people who come from a background, like my husband, Vance, or even worse family chaos.
When we lived at Fort Leonard Wood, my husband was a First Sergeant and because of that he was assigned an extra duty on our street, in our housing area on post. He needed to check that people were mowing their grass, not piling junk all over and that sort of thing.
This meant that soldiers or their wives on our street would knock on our door to complain about other soldiers or their wives frequently. I even had a neighbor come to the door and berate me that my oldest daughter, around 12, had beat up her pudgy son, who was the same age as my daughter, but outweighed her by at least 25-30 pounds.. She had her son in tow, and angrily pointed out the red marks on him. I told her I had already talked to my daughter, but she kept yelling at me and telling me how I should discipline my daughter. Finally, I told her she should stop embarrassing her son by making such a commotion over a girl beating his butt. Mothers should not emasculate their sons, is my conviction.
One neighbor, a young black lady from Arkansas, had 4 young sons and her husband was an E-4. She had problems and she didn’t have the skills to cope with a family, but she was trying to learn. I talked to her many times and tried to help her in whatever ways I could. I watched her kids sometimes, I gave her clothes for the kids, I listened to her.
She had an angry pride and was distrustful of me, which happens a lot when a white person tries to help a black person or when do-gooders try to offer charity to poor white people too. I felt that angry pride myself a few times when someone made me feel like I was poor white trash.
She had no idea how to keep house, she did not know how to cook, but she desperately wanted better for her children. She got a job at a fast food restaurant, she was taking her kids to church, and church friends were helping her too – teaching her how to cook, etc. Once she began to talk to me, she told me her mother was a drug addict and she never learned about how to be a mother. One time she was telling me her husband wasn’t happy in the Army and I told her she needed to kick him in the butt and tell him to work hard, because the Army was the best thing to happen to him. I believe that completely. He had medical care for his kids and opportunities to advance and get an education in the Army, that he would not have back home in Arkansas.
This lady was facing a mountain of obstacles, but she still was trying to beat the odds. She had taken an interest in needlework and a church friend had taught her a little bit, so I gave her more needlework supplies and some pointers. She had gotten a few decorative items and we talked about decorating. She longed for a better life, but because of her background, she had no foundation and all the time there was the constant responsibility and stress of 4 rambunctious little boys to care for.
Some of the situations with her and her sons had other neighbors commenting. Like those boys had busted out the screens in the downstairs windows and one day, they and their dog were jumping in and out the one window. Another time, they had the dog chained to the railing on the front porch. One of my kids came and told me that I needed to do something because the dog was hanging off the front porch with only its back paws able to touch the ground. He had wrapped himself around the porch railing, then slipped off the porch,
When they returned from a trip home to Arkansas, I didn’t see the dog for several days, so I asked the one boy what happened to the dog and he told me that his Dad dumped the dog off on the highway driving to Arkansas and one of my kids said the dog probably had a better chance of survival away from them.
I believed her husband was a lazy loser and that she’d be on her own with those boys in the near future, although I don’t know what happened to them.
I know a very nice young white mother with two children, who works very hard at Wal-Mart. She has been off again, on again with the children’s father. Several years ago, she was relying on her mother to baby-sit her kids, because she could not afford a daycare. Her concern about that arrangement was her mother and step-father smoked weed all the time and she didn’t like her children around that. This is the kind of dilemma many poor people face. She did work out other arrangements and she has worked hard to advance at Wal-Mart and is a salaried manager now. She takes her kids to church, she’s trying to make sure her kids have a better life than she had.
Her mother worked in Wal-Mart for several years too and her mother was a very good worker, but she had a lot of substance abuse issues and died a year or so ago. Despite all the issues, this young woman loved her mother. And her mother was smart and talented. One time I was sick with a really bad sinus infection and the doctor had told me to use saline nasal spray several times a day, an antihistamine nasal spray and a steroid nasal spray, plus I was on antibiotics. I told this lady about the 3 nasal sprays and she told me that she can’t put anything up her nose and then she told me a story about when she and her husband used to cook meth. People tell me all sorts of amazing stories… The family, except for this young woman and her two daughters, moved to Colorado, when they legalized marijuana there.
Her daughter is going to be one of the success stories though. She’s determined to provide a better life for her daughters.
Often young people struggling to overcome chaotic family backgrounds contend with other family members constantly mooching off of them, making it even harder for these young people to get ahead. I saw this in the Army often, where soldiers were sending money home to other family members and I saw it at Wal-Mart too. The family ties to a family in chaos make it hard to break completely free of that lifestyle.
Young men seem to hang around the electronics department at Wal-Mart. It’s ridiculous to see the lines for new electronic games or gaming systems, that start often a day before the release. Years ago, there was one morning I came into my fabrics and crafts department and was furious that one of these lines had run through my department the night before and these idiots had left trash all over the place, but also folding chairs they had procured from the sporting goods department. Another time I saw a young man with his toddler daughter in line when I got to work. Nine hours later, when I was heading home, he was still in line with that kid – all day in line with a small child – to buy a stupid game.
Total irresponsibility among young men in America shirking responsibility to care for their children is a societal crisis and a national disgrace. Men should be ashamed that they allow other men to behave like this, but even worse many men make excuses for this failure to man-up to taking personal responsibility for children they created.
Americans and their stuff… STUFF is the real religion in America, even more of a false god than money.
A few years back I was stuck on the patio in lawn and garden Thanksgiving night for a Black Friday sale. My job was to manage the queue lines for large items for that sale. It was cold that night and I noticed an older man holding a small child, who did not have a coat on and that child was shivering. So, I took off my coat and covered the kid and the man told me his wife and daughter were on the way with the kid’s coat. A few minutes later, a lady with three small children in the shopping cart got in line and none of her children had coats on. Mixed emotions hit me, as I was torn between anger at this stupid mother for bringing her kids out in the cold without coats, regret that I didn’t have anything to keep the kids warm and relief that I had already given my coat to some other kid, because I worried those grubby kids might have head lice.
Why would anyone take a small child, who isn’t properly dressed, out in the cold to wait in line to buy frivolous stuff?
Lying, cheating, stealing – these are the everyday realities of working at Wal-Mart. Stealing time in a myriad of ways was the most common form of stealing. As an hourly supervisor, one time I sat in with a salaried manager as he terminated this young female employee for stealing time. She had clocked in the day before and then gone to McDonalds at the front of the store, she left there with a guy and went outside. A few hours later she came back in the store and finally went to her department. I doubt she told anyone she got fired for stealing time. Usually the common refrain is “Wal-Mart is a terrible place to work” or “they didn’t pay me enough.”
I typed up the coaching myself to terminate a young man, who had not done what I told him to do several times. I had told him to go to the seasonal area and start zoning. He ignored me, then left for his lunch hour and didn’t come back for a few hours. When he returned I asked him why he had been gone way longer than an hour and he told me he had a flat tire on his car and had to fix that. He still didn’t go to the seasonal area, when I told him again to go zone. He had other coachings and was on his way out the door before this day. I felt no remorse typing his coaching. I am sure he thinks I am a bitch, Wal-Mart is a terrible place to work and they weren’t paying him enough.
The stealing of merchandise happened daily and in so many ways, that every time, I would think that I had seen it all, some new way of stealing merchandise would occur. The thing I learned quickly was that there is no stereotypical shoplifter. They come in all colors, ages, sexes. We had many co-workers caught stealing, even an assistant store manager who was writing post dated personal checks and taking out cash loans from the cash office, to a co-manager who was caught stealing baby clothes, even though she could easily have afforded to pay for it.
An elderly lawn and garden people greeter was caught loading up his car with camping equipment he stole and my young cashier in lawn and garden told me she felt bad that he got fired, because he really believed that Mayan calendar apocalypse was going to happen and he was trying to prepare. I believed he was a thief, because asset protection had been watching him for a while. They were sure his daughter-in-law was frequently filling up her shopping cart and exiting through lawn and garden without paying for the merchandise.
Shortly after he left, another elderly people greeter started a rumor that he had died of a heart attack. She stopped me and told me how terrible it was for Wal-Mart to have fired him. She was sure Wal-Mart was responsible for his death. I am sure she told many customers this story, even though our personnel manager called to check on him and he was very much alive. I told this people greeter he had not died and was not mistreated by Wal-Mart, but she had it in her mind that Wal-Mart was the problem.
There are bad managers, there are bad things about Wal-Mart, but this revolving door work force in retail and fast food stems a great deal from the culture. The most common thing I heard from fellow employees, of white, black and other ethnic backgrounds, often on their very first day of work, was “Wal-Mart isn’t paying me enough to do this job!” A sense of entitlement pervades, especially with young people.
I’ve read posts at Malcolm Pollack’s blog dealing with controversial human biodiversity scientific research on intelligence, as it pertains to some of these cultural problems. I don’t have a science background, where I can judge this research or weigh how it affects culture. The thing about people is, being intellectually-gifted does not equate to moral behavior. Also having money affords people more opportunities, but money alone does not resolve deeper cultural problems, as is often evident when poor people win the lottery or poor black men become sports stars. In far too many cases, the money allows for more bad behavior, reckless behavior, and chaos.
Vance wrote, “A younger teacher, listening intently, sighed: “They want us to be shepherds to these kids, but so many of them are raised by wolves.” I have known people who have children with Down’s syndrome and other severe mental disabilities, who insist that these children learn table manners, learn to follow rules, learn to do chores, etc. In fact, creating a stable daily routine helps all people, young and old. Even dogs can be housebroken and taught how to behave, so assuredly that applies to almost all children.
Living in chaos foments more chaos. And it doesn’t take any fancy studies or experts to figure this out. In the common sense words from my late mother, “Just because you are poor, that’s no excuse for having a dirty house”, “just because you are poor, that’s no excuse for bad manners”, “just because you are poor, that’s no excuse for being ignorant”, “just because you are poor, that’s no excuse for not working hard.”
My mother didn’t believe in excuses, she believed that in America, all things are possible… and I believe she was right.