Archive | February, 2013

Meet the 99ers: “We Played By the Rules, and Now We’ve Lost Everything”

28 Feb

99ers-hdrI wrote this series on the 99ers – folks who have maxed out their 99 weeks of unemployment but hadn’t found a job – back in 2010 for Change.org. The pieces may be a few years old, but I was surprised how incredibly relevant they still were as I read through them. According to the February jobs report, 38 percent of the unemployed in the U.S. are considered “long-term unemployed,” meaning they’ve been out of work for 27 weeks or more. Why 27 weeks? Because these days, the extra emergency benefits that Congress approved during the recession have lapsed, and people only get 26 weeks of unemployment compensation from their state.

I need to follow up with these folks and see how they are doing now. I’ll put that on my never-ending to-do list.

Anyway, meet Ricky, a father and an electrician. His story about selling his tools to pay for his son’s medication broke my heart. Take a look, and check back for the other four posts later this week:

 

If it weren’t for his son, says Ricky Macoy, he doesn’t know if he would have survived these last two years of unemployment.

“I suffer from depression,” he says. “There are times when my situation makes me feel so hopeless I can barely get out of bed. There have been times, like about a month ago, where I was almost suicidal. If it hadn’t been for my son, I don’t know … ”

Ricky, who’s 52, has worked as an electrician for 30 years, but was laid off from his job working on ocean-going vessels in Louisiana in November of 2008 and hasn’t worked since. He and his 11-year-old son, John, have been barely scraping by during that time. He’s spent all the money he had saved in John’s college fund, and still, they may be evicted from their Texas home next week.

“I’m worried to death that if I get to be homeless that my son’s going to be take away from me and put in foster care,” Ricky says.

He says his son has been putting on a brave face, but Ricky knows it’s been hard on him too.

“He worries. He just kind of keeps things bottled up inside,” he says. “I haven’t said anything to him about the foster care. He’s very brave. He knows right now things are hard.”

Not being able to provide for his son has been the worst part of his unemployment, Ricky says. He says so many men like him have provided for their families for years, a role they’ve cherished.

“It makes you feel good when you bring home the check and you know everything is going to be alright,” he says. “When there’s nothing coming in, you feel like a failure. When I look my kid in the eye to tell him I don’t have money for a field trip for school — $12 for a field trip for school. I didn’t have it.”

But the worst day was when he had to scrounge up $5 for John’s asthma medicine. He went to the clinic and asked for samples, but no one had any. He had to sell some of his tools he used to use for work — a tool worth more than $150 sold for $10 — to get money for medicine.

Ricky says it’s maddening to know you’ve done nothing to deserve this suffering, and yet, there’s nothing you can do to escape it. He says millions like him are suffering, and no one seems to notice.

“I worked hard, played by the rules and I done lost everything I worked my whole life for,” he says. “We’re the people who helped build this economy. We’re the ones who got up every day, put our boots on and went to work. We played by the rules, and now we’ve lost everything.”

Ricky got about 60 weeks of unemployment, but his last check came February 7th. Texas didn’t qualify for Tier IV benefits because its state unemployment rate wasn’t high enough. Ricky starts his day every morning looking for jobs anywhere he can find one.

He had just gotten back from a job interview when I spoke to him yesterday morning.  Ricky was hopeful about it, but the employer still had 18 more men to interview for the position.

He says in times like these, he and his son have had to rely on prayer when they haven’t had anything else to get them through.

A few months back, when they didn’t have the money to pay the rent and were going to be evicted, he and his son got on their knees and prayed for a solution. The next day, Ricky’s brother came up with the money to pay their rent.

“My son said to me, ‘Dad, prayer really works, doesn’t it?'” Ricky says. “I said, ‘Yes, it does, son.'”

Hope seems dim for Ricky right now. He asked me if I would say a prayer for him.

I said I would.

Update 4/30/2010: Ricky called me this morning to thank me for my prayers. He got the job. He says it’s like 1,000 pounds being lifted from his shoulders. We’re so happy for him and wish him and his son the very best.

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Fall in love with Pluck: our love letter series

27 Feb

This month on Pluck, my column with Chicago writer and my personal BFF Liz Joynt Sandberg, we’ve been writing a series of love letters to the things that make our mama-lives a little bit sweeter.

So far, we’ve featured a pretty good list of stuff: pizza, wine, TV, breast milk. Not kidding on that last one – my latest post was a love letter to breastfeeding! Liz also posted a beautiful essay that she wrote to the mothers at our local church, which she’ll be performing as part of Chicago’s 2013 Listen to Your Mother – the nationwide essay-reading event designed to “give mother’s day a microphone.”

Here’s a compendium of our love letters so far:

Hummingbird – a love letter to the mothers at Berry UMC

Dear delicious pizza: a love letter to Homemade Pizza Company

Dear wine, TV, and my kitchen timer: a cry-it-out love letter

Dear boobies: A love letter to breastfeeding

The Homemade pizza post actually got me an email from the CEO of the company! He wants to buy pizza for all of us over at Rebellious. Yum!

Why do we give things up for Lent?

25 Feb

I wrote this post for Huffington Post’s religion section a couple of weeks ago when Lent started.

Now that we’re a bit into the the season of simplicity, I should reflect on how I’m doing on my giving up. Have I stopped bad-mouthing myself? Well, not entirely. It’s a hard habit to break. But my vow of self-positivity has given me pause a few times when I went to blame myself for something going wrong. It’s a good reminder that words do mean something, both in my own mind and in how I think about others.

I’ve also noticed how often I apologize for something that is not my, nor anyone’s, fault. How often I apologize for needing to be with Teddy or needing to focus on my work or being sick, etc. It doesn’t strictly fall under saying negative things about one’s self – it just implies it.

Anyway, here’s the post. Enjoy!

 

I went to mass and catechism every week from the time I was five till I went to college at 17. But despite all that quality time with the Catholic church, I seemed to have missed some important information.

Near the top of the list: Why do we give up things for Lent?

I think I was told it had something to do with sacrifice. Most of the time, people gave up their favorite food. After all, Jesus gave up his life for us, so the least we could do is stop eating Mars bars. Or maybe it symbolized the 40 days he spent wandering in the desert before his ministry began? Jesus fought the devil’s lies, and we fight off our craving for pizza.

I gave up being Catholic a long time ago. I still go to church, but it’s a pretty modern urban United Methodist church that welcomes LGBT folks and doesn’t give me lectures on birth control.

Still, the ritual of Lent has stayed with me. I’m drawn to its pared-down simplicity — the starkness of an undecorated church, the tolling bells that rang as we left mass in place of joyful hymns, the symbols of ashes and incense. It’s meaningful to me. Like the grey skies and bare trees of the end of winter, I feel the call to turn inward and reflect about what in my life needs pruning.

At one point in my life, I gave up giving things up for Lent. It was stupid, I thought, and superficial. Yes, I too love and crave chocolate, but at the end of 40 days, I will just eat up my share anyways in the form of a large hollow bunny. What’s the point?

Then a couple of years ago, I had an idea. I gave up buying things for Lent. I still let myself by food and necessities — medicine, toilet paper, etc. But I stopped buying little things for myself — a new lipgloss, a caramel latte, a sweater on the clearance rack.

It was a small thing, but it was hard. Sale at my favorite store? Don’t even bother going in. Need the right pair of shoes to go with that dress? See if you can borrow some from a friend. Drink a nice cup of coffee that you make yourself at home and curl up with a good book — one you already own or borrowed from the library.

I found myself being creative. Stretching how long I could enjoy something I already had. Finding substitutes for the momentary zing that comes from purchasing something new. Appreciating my many blessings.

At the end of 40 days, I could buy things again. But I didn’t. It changed the way I thought about my money and my resources. It changed the way I thought about what brings me joy and happiness. It caused me to question why I felt I needed to buy things and what that said about the state of my soul.

It wore off eventually. In fact, when I look at my bank statement, I could probably use to go back and do it again. But the lessons that I learned are still with me. It was a really meaningful 40 days.

I was thinking about that experience tonight as I pondered the beginning of Lent. What would I give up? The thought came to me instantly — saying negative things about myself.

I have a habit of putting myself down when anything happens. If I make a mistake, it’s because I’m an idiot. If I forgot something, I’m dumb. I spend a good percentage of my days apologizing for anything and everything and adding in how I’m deficient.

It’s just a little thing, but I do think it matters. Words affect us. When I put myself down, what am I saying to others about their mistakes? What am I internalizing about myself? And what about my son? He’s just learning to communicate himself, so what does it say to him when mama is always calling herself names?

I may not be Catholic anymore, but I am going to go back to my roots this year and give up something for Lent. It’s not really a sacrifice, but it will be hard.

At the end of it, I believe it will have changed me. But how? I’m not sure. I’ve got to give it up to find out.

As Hotel Chateau closes, couple fears becoming homeless

19 Feb

The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.”

The Bible’s entire 23rd Psalm is written in marker, framed on the yellowed stucco wall next to the red flyswatter hanging from a nail. Cans of food line the shelf in the tiny coat closet, a makeshift pantry.

The psalm is a reminder to keep going when times get tough, said Curtis Horton, 48. He and his partner, Henrietta Riley, 54, are residents of the Hotel Chateau, a single-room-occupancy hotel in Lakeview. And for them, times have been tough and quite possibly could get even tougher. They recently found out that the hotel has been sold and will be emptied and rehabbed.

“We read it for strength,” Horton said of the psalm on the wall. “It’s something to keep us going and keep us focused on making it in the world. It’s a message for us to keep the strength.”

“He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul.” –Psalm 23:2

Horton and Riley have lived at the Chateau for about a year. They’ve bounced around from place to place for the last few years, even moving in with Riley’s daughter in her Section 8 apartment for awhile. But when that building was unexpectedly sold, they ended up here, one of the few remaining SROs in Lakeview.

The day they came to the Chateau, there was one vacant room, but it wouldn’t be available until repairs were made. They spent the day in a nearby Starbucks and the night on the street. The next day, they moved in.

“This is my home,” said Riley. “It’s the only place I have to call home besides a shopping cart.”

“He leads me in the paths of righteousness for his names’ sake.” –Psalm 23:3

Horton and Riley don’t mind that the Chateau is run down. They wave off the building’s code violations, saying it’s an affordable place to stay in a good area. Riley says she loves the neighborhood’s culture and diversity, but mostly, they’re grateful for its safety.

“Try living on the West Side in Austin where you have to look over your shoulder any minute, waiting for someone to jump you or rob you. I’ve been hit over the head, stabbed,” said Riley.

“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: For you are with me.” –Psalm 23:4

But now that the Chateau has been sold and will be gutted and rehabbed, residents fear it will be reopened as higher-end studio apartments like other former SROs in the neighborhood. Horton and Riley are scared. They don’t know of anywhere to live that they can afford.

Riley worked as an insurance evaluator for 25 years, but then had a brain aneurysm. She’s been on disability ever since. Horton, a former cook, is now unemployed, but gets a $400 check each month from a trust his grandmother left him.

“It’s even hard to get in a shelter nowadays,” said Horton.

At the Chateau’s housing-court hearing on Jan. 29, inspectors complained that trash chutes were clogged up to the second and third floors, with garbage spilling into the hallways. The fire alarm system isn’t reliable, and the door to the elevator doesn’t open ll the way. But the couple’s apartment is neat and clean. They take pride in it.

“Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life; And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” –Psalm 23:6

The latest housing-court hearing really shook up Horton and Riley. They just keep repeating the same thing:

“I don’t know where we’re going to go.”

This post was originally published on Feb. 18, 2013 on Chicago Muckrakers.

A Garden Grows in Cabrini-Green

19 Feb

Community garden along Chicago avenue near Cabrini-GreenSometimes, building community is as simple as salad dressing.

Last week, Linda Bazarian harvested fresh lettuce from her plot in the Chicago Avenue Garden. She made her ownndressing, but it wasn’t any good. This week, she’s trying a new kind, a french dressing recipe that’s a favorite of Johnnie Jones, another gardener.

These kind of recipe swaps are common among neighbors and friends.

But it’s unlikely that Linda and Johnnie would have even met before. Linda lives in upscale Old Town, and Johnnie’s a long-time resident of the Cabrini rowhouses.

It’s the garden that’s brought them together. It’s what the garden is about.

Fourth Presbyterian Church bought the lot on Chicago Avenue between Hudson and Cleveland, the southern border of the Cabrini-Green housing project,several years ago. Eventually, they hope to put a community center here, but for now, the garden serves as a way to bring people together, feed the community, and provide a safe space for kids to play

Ms. Jones, who’s 73 years old and lived in Cabrini-Green since 1963, lives by mantra she’s passed on to all her
kids and any one she’s known: “Wherever you go, get involved in the community.
And so Ms. Jones walks down to the garden several times a week to tend to her tomatoes, eggplant, peppers and cabbages. She says when she returns home, bag of home-grown produce in hand, she gets stopped by everyone she knows.

“Ms. Jones, Ms. Jones, they say, what do you have?” she says, smiling.

She wishes more residents would get involved in the garden. Only five or six families from Cabrini come there regularly, she says.

It’s a challenge for the garden, says director Natasha Holbert. She says kids flock here in droves, but it’s tougher attracting adults, something the church is working on and committing time and resources to.

I’ve read about a lot of community initiatives like this one, and a lot of them seem to fall into the same pattern. If adults
come, it’s more likely to be the middle and high income ones, while public housing residents are a little less willing and may feel less welcome.

Church members point to the kids as the evidence that it’s working. At first, I was a little skeptical of this. Kids are great and all, but if the adults aren’t here, mixing and learning from each other, where’s the potential for lasting change?

I asked Robin Snyderman about this. She’s a housing expert at Metropolitan Planning Council, a nonprofit that has done a lot of work in building community in these new mixed-income sites. Are kids the easy target, I asked Robin, eschewing meaningful adult community?

Nope, she said. Kids are the gateway. People will go to things they would never go to because their kids want to or are already there. And places like this garden create a space for that to happen.

“This stuff can’t be phony,” Robin says. “You can’t create intimacies where intimacies don’t exist. But you can create common space, common goals, and a common vision.”

MPC is actually sponsoring a contest designed to get Chicagoans thinking about these common spaces. “What makes your place great?” is one of their new initiatives on placemaking – creating shared public spaces where people can enjoy and interact with each other, bringing a community together. Places – they think – have the power to make neighbors out of strangers.

I experienced it myself, spending time in the garden. I was there only a few minutes when a little girl decided I should help her pick out just the right colored pencil for her rainbow. Ten minutes later, when another child pushed her, she ran to me for comfort. There’s something about a tiny person who doesn’t know your name, but feels free to wrap their arms around your neck and cry hot tears, that breaks down your pretense, your cautiousness and your cool, reporter-like attitude.

It’s unrealistic, I think, just to expect to throw people of different income levels together and hope they get along. And maybe it’s also unrealistic to expect that the change we’re looking for – the weaving and binding together of different kinds of people – would happen right here and now. Perhaps the work we do now is for the next generation. And children, as the cliché goes, are the future.

”This next generation helps us grow out of our own segregated past and succeed in a diverse society,” Robin says.

Perhaps the seeds we plant will be theirs to harvest and theirs to plant again. Just like a gardener plants, waters, prays and hopes – we can only do our best to bring people together and hope it grows into something bigger than ourselves.

Maybe it will.

Ms. Jones thinks so. After 50 years at Cabrini, she’s ready to see it grow again.

“I was here when it was good. I was here when it was bad. It’s gonna be good again, and I’m still gonna be here.”

This post was originally published on Sept. 23, 2009 at One Story Up.

Don’t Fall in the Poverty Trap – You May Never Get Out

18 Feb

I wrote this post in Nov. 2009 and it’s one of my most viewed posts of all time. I think the concept is one that helps people think about poverty and programs that are supposed to help people get out of poverty in a new way. Take a look:

Until you earn about $40,000 a year, you’re pretty much stuck in poverty, an economist’s numbers show.

In fact, until you get past $40,000 a year, any raise or higher paying job you get might actually sink you deeper into poverty.

Take a look at this story from economist Jeff Liebman, who now works in the Obama Administration.

The poverty trap is still very much a reality in the U.S.

A woman called me out of the blue last week and told me her self-sufficiency counselor had suggested she get in touch with me. She had moved from a $25,000 a year job to a $35,000 a year job, and suddenly she couldn’t make ends meet any more. I told her I didn’t know what I could do for her, but agreed to meet with her. She showed me all her pay stubs, etc. She really did come out behind by several hundred dollars a month. She lost free health insurance and instead had to pay $230 a month for her employer-provided health insurance. Her rent associated with her section 8 voucher went up by 30% of the income gain (which is the rule). She lost the ($280 a month) subsidized child care voucher she had for after-school care for her child. She lost around $1600 a year of the EITC. She paid payroll tax on the additional income. Finally, the new job was in Boston, and she lived in a suburb. So now she has $300 a month of additional gas and parking charges. She asked me if she should go back to earning $25,000.

Take a look at this chart by economist Clifford Thies, via Greg Mankiw’s blog.

The Dead ZoneFrom the green dot, you can see that earned income rises… for a while. Then there’s this screwy wavy line. That’s the mother making a little more, but earning a little less.

$40,000 a year is about $19 an hour. Over 40 percent of Chicagoans don’t earn that much.

There aren’t that many jobs out there that make $19 an hour. Bank Teller? $13.33 an hour. Office clerk? $15.60. Retail salesperson? $11.80. Security guard? $16.14. (Statistics via Chicago Rehab network).

Our tax incentives work… initially. Then they only serve to hurt people. They say the poor don’t work hard enough, but that single mother sounds like a pretty hard working person to me. The story goes on to say that she got a weekend job, to try to make ends meet. Except after childcare and gas, it didn’t help at all.

So if working harder means people might actually earn less, how is it that we expect people to work harder?

Work/life balance in Quill magazine

14 Feb

I was recently interviewed for a piece in Quill magazine, published by the Society of Professional Journalists, about work/life balance issues for journalists. You can read the entire piece online, but here’s an excerpt:

Other journalists have found a way to take their families on their journey without roaming far from home. Megan Cottrell, a 30-year-old reporter and blogger for The Chicago Reporter, works mostly from home for about 25 hours a week. She and her husband, who works three 12-hour shifts a week as a nurse, trade off taking care of their 1-year-old son with minimal outside help.

“I think in college I always imagined working 40 hours a week, and as I settled into adulthood I realized that wasn’t what I really wanted,” Cottrell said about her professional and parenting choices. “This profession really beats the crap out of your personal life; I think it’s really important (to think) about what it can do to you and setting limits on that.”

Work/life balance is something I’m really passionate about. I don’t know if it’s because I’m a millennial or what, but I believe most of us work too hard, or at least too much. I admire European societies with their month-long vacations and siestas. I believe journalism is deeply creative work, and to be deeply creative, you have to be healthy and happy and whole.

I suppose some people might be healthy and happy, living in front of their computer or constantly connected to their smartphone, but I also have some doubts about that. I don’t think human beings have caught up biologically to our fast paced lifestyle, and if we’re going to do meaningful work, we have to get back to a balanced state where we can actually suss out what makes work meaningful and what our purpose is.

Okay, this is getting too Dr. Phil-like. It’s a good article. Read it!