I’ve often wondered why my friend Stephanie, a single mother of two living in subsidized housing, quits her jobs almost as soon as she starts them. It has always seemed irrational to me, but I think I now understand her logic better.
For when Stephanie musters up her willpower, does her hair and makeup like she learned in cosmetology school, puts on her nicest pants and most professional blouse, passes an hour-long math and reasoning test, and gets herself hired as a server at one of the nicer restaurants in town, here is what she faces in the first week.
A snow and ice storm means that Stephanie’s 14-year-old friend-of-a-friend babysitter—who does online school and has agreed to babysit for $50 a week—says she can’t make it because of the weather. But there is no snow day for Stephanie. She frantically calls all her friends and neighbors to no avail. Her babysitter texts to say that maybe she can make it after all. Stephanie goes to work, two hours late. Her car needs new tires and the brake light has been on for several weeks, so she drives slowly, skidding on the ice several times and praying to God as Rosary beads swing from her mirror.
Tuesday – Thursday:
Stephanie has training from 9 a.m. until the mid-afternoon, and then she has a couple (unpaid) hours to kill before she has to be back at work for an evening shift. She doesn’t want to waste the gas to drive back home and doesn’t want to have to say goodbye to her kids twice in one day, so she wanders in a nearby Barnes and Noble until her shift. All in all, though, Stephanie feels good about the job.
Stephanie calls me, angry and near tears, to report that her babysitter canceled on her at the last minute. “Can you watch the kids tonight?” she asks. The 14-year-old babysitter is proving unreliable, but Stephanie can’t yet afford to hire someone for real. And Stephanie’s mom has made it clear that she doesn’t want to be babysitter. “I don’t know how I’m going to keep this job,” Stephanie says. “Whenever I get a job, something always happens.” She sighs, feeling that especially with an irregular schedule and evening shifts, and her having to scramble for childcare, the situation just doesn’t seem sustainable.
A couple hours later, Stephanie shows up to my house with her six-year-old, but she keeps her two-year-old, Aubrey, in the car. “She has a fever and a bad cough. I called off work. I’m taking her to Urgent Care,” she explains. Her daughter has had eight ear infections within six months and Stephanie fears that is the case again.
The doctor confirms that it is another double ear infection and prescribes another round of antibiotics, warning that they might need to put tubes in her ears. Stephanie cringes at the thought but hopes that would help with her daughter’s speech delay. Her daughter, who will be three in July, doesn’t talk yet. Of course, it will also mean more appointments, probably more time off work. Not to mention her son’s upcoming surgery for a cyst on his neck. Stephanie sighs again.
Stephanie spends the day caring for her daughter and studying for her test the next day. After a week of training, she must now pass a menu test in order to keep the job.
Stephanie’s babysitter texts to say that she is quitting. Stephanie scrambles to find a place to drop off her kids.
At work, she fails the menu test. She is expected to have each menu item and its ingredients memorized, and which sauces to recommend with which dish—totaling a couple hundred items, many with foreign names. She is quizzed verbally and also must pass a written exam. The manager is kind enough to let her come back tomorrow to try again.
Stephanie makes dinner for her kids, her homemade flashcards on the kitchen counter while she cooks. When I come over at 9 p.m. to help her study, the kids are in their rooms, bathed and in their pajamas, movies on to lull them to sleep. But Colton, the six-year-old, is persistent with his interruptions: “Mom, I need some Kool-Aid!” (“No, only water at night!” Stephanie shouts up the stairs.) “Mom, I need another movie!” (“You know how to get one and turn it on yourself!”) “Mom, what are you doing anyway? I can’t sleep until you are in your bed!” (“I’m studying so I can keep this job! I’ll be up soon!”) By midnight when I left, Colton was still awake and Stephanie was only half-confident and feeling overwhelmed by the size of the menu, as was I.
“I need to smoke,” Stephanie says, pulling out half a cigarette from her sweatshirt pocket. As she steps out onto the frosty porch she says, “I thought it was strange that hardly any of the servers have kids. Everywhere else I’ve worked most of the girls have kids. But now I know why. Having kids makes it hard to pass this test.”
Stephanie failed the test again Monday morning. “You didn’t sound confident enough in your answers,” the manager told her. Stephanie says that she then made up her mind to just do it. She asked the manager for another chance. And this time she answered confidently.
So Stephanie now has the job. And yet, a job for her is a fragile thing. She’s had four of them in the last year. None has lasted for more than a couple months. Either she doesn’t get along with her manager, or she decides the pay isn’t worth it for the gas and the childcare, or she just can’t find reliable childcare, period. The stress gets to her and her ulcerative colitis acts up; her son misbehaves more in school and says he misses his mom; her daughter gets another ear infection; and anyways the pay isn’t enough to get her out of subsidized housing and off food stamps or Medicaid, so she quits.
The instability incentivizes fast relationships and quick cohabitation—another income, another set of hands to help with the kids, an adult to talk to and make love with in an otherwise lonely world. Stephanie, who is an attractive blonde, has no end of Facebook solicitations from young men who pose in front of bathroom mirrors for bare-chested selfies. She says she is “tired of dating losers” and is determined to wait for Mr. Right this time around. But in the past she’s overlooked pot habits and porn habits and indolence from boyfriends because having another adult around is a hard thing to give up.
The varied challenges Stephanie has to overcome to get out of poverty must be met with a diverse set of solutions. As David Brooks wrote, “If poverty is a complex system of negative feedback loops, then you have to create an equally complex and diverse set of positive feedback loops. You have to flood the zone with as many good programs as you can find and fund and hope that somehow they will interact and reinforce each other community by community, neighborhood by neighborhood.”
We need conversations—and action—not just about one pet cause, but about many. We must talk about work and wages; about education and daycare; about marriage and sexual mores; about supporting the single mother and about reducing nonmarital childbearing; about government policies and about civil society efforts. For Stephanie’s help will not come in one sweeping motion, but by “flooding the zone” an array of groups “pursuing diverse missions in diverse ways while intertwining and adapting to each other.”