Thursday, April 3, 2008

Hair-raising Tales of Parenting in Poverty

Yesterday I mentioned I had a slew of reading to do. But my other beginning of the term preparation is my quarterly, whether-I-need-it-or-not trip to the beauty shop. (And yeah, believe me, I needed it.) I spent a few hours there yesterday morning, getting highlights and a sleek new cut and a big dose of class consciousness.

My last hair stylist was also a college student, so she and I could talk about the university and be more or less on a familiar, comfortable, middle-class wavelength. My student stylist is about to graduate and was booked out anyway, so yesterday I tried a new stylist. She did a great job on my haircut and color (I went pretty red!). Along the way, she told me some fairly hair-raising stories about her life.

Apart from the student, every other stylist I've known in this town has lived in modest-to-wretched conditions outside of town. Lots of them are single mothers. They struggle to make ends meet. This gal, who I'll call Helen, was no exception.

The problems start with that most basic need, housing. Helen recently moved out of a small trailer whose main charm was its proximity to her aging mother's house. Over a period of years, her landlord had refused to fix the roof, where water pooled and leaked into the trailer. Over that same period, her younger son's asthma returned. Everyone got bronchitis repeatedly. Helen had multiple episodes of pneumonia. One day Helen went to the emergency room with severe chest pain. It turned out to be bleeding around the lung (hemothorax) caused by toxic black mold. And black mold can only thrive on moisture. For this privilege she paid $450 a month in rent, not to mention the medical bills.

She says she's been lucky that those doctors, and others, have put her on a payment plan. This is necessary because her health insurance situation is abysmal. Her employer doesn't provide any. I think she mentioned having some catastrophic coverage but she pays out of pocket whenever she sees a doctor. She's had melanoma and needs treatment that would cost about $500 per month. She has no idea how she'll finance it. She already has thousands of dollars in medical debt. Her kids were eligible for state-subsidized insurance, but their eligibility got revoked, then reinstated upon appeal, which didn't exactly enhance her sense of security.

Helen's kids go to a rural school that's lately been plagued by sexual harassment scandals. But it seems to have more mundane problems, too. Both of her sons have been harassed by bullies without the school taking action. They're athletic kids, but she's raising them to try to take the high road, so they don't usually fight back. I worry about the kid who's been harassing my Bear during recess by getting in his face, chasing him, and poking at him. She worries about the child who threatened her second-grader with slitting his throat. When she reported this to the school, the bully was told he'd been busted. He was ordered to stop the harassment and leave his knife at home. No other consequences. The next day, he threatened Helen's son again, this time calling him a snitch. Helen hopes to get her kids enrolled in my kids' district, but I think she probably missed the deadline for inter-district transfer applications.

After school, a lot of the kids hang around on the streets. The scene, as Helen described it, sounds like what you might expect in a decayed urban neighborhood but not in a declining coal town in the beautiful Appalachian foothills. And yet, these kids are dealing and doing drugs just like any gangbanger in the 'hood. Helen is pretty confident her own kids are dodging this - so far, anyway. But she knows Oxycontin, crystal meth, even heroin are prevalent. She knows people who've died as a result.

One reason Helen is pretty sure her eighth-grader isn't doing drugs is that he's amazingly frank. Not long ago, he voluntarily confessed to her that he and his girlfriend had had sex. She read him the riot act on condoms (luckily, the girl was on the Pill, but she wants him to protect them both) and after much drama the kids have agreed not to repeat the experience anytime soon. It happened after school when the boys' father was supposed to be on duty. It could've been worse; there've been three pregnancies so far in that eight-grade class.

Helen works full-time, and she does her job well. She goes to church on Sunday and keeps her kids busy with sports. She seems to be making the best life she can for her kids. Her only real screw-up, as she readily told me, was mating with a couple of loser men. But she lives in Glouster, Ohio, a town where as of 2000
The per capita income for the village was $11,837. About 24.2% of families and 28.2% of the population were below the poverty line, including 36.3% of those under age 18 and 21.4% of those age 65 or over. (Wikipedia)
And Glouster, as we all know, is located in the richest country in the world. I sure feel that irony when I spend a heap of money on what's really a luxury. (No one ever expired for lack of hair color, though I bet a really bad dye job could be at least psychologically lethal.) And yet, if I didn't go to this salon, which is fancy by local standards, I'd go somewhere that paid its employees a whole lot less. That wouldn't help Helen either.

I don't know how to fix the poverty problem. But a single-payer health system would be one good start. Moving away from local school financing would be another.

Photo of Barbie in pins by Flickr user Mz Kit Kat, used under a Creative Commons license.
Photo of the Glouster hotel by Flickr user shuggatang, used under a Creative Commons license.

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