By DAVID K. SHIPLER
Published: January 18, 2004
The New York Times/
Caroline Payne embraces the ethics of America. She works hard and has no patience with those who don't. She has owned a house, pursued an education and deferred to the needs of her child. Yet she can barely pay her bills. Her earnings have hovered in a twilight between poverty and minimal comfort, usually between $8,000 and $12,000 a year.
She is the invisible American, unnoticed because she blends in. Like millions at the bottom of the labor force who contribute to the country's prosperity, Caroline's diligence is a camouflage. At the convenience store where she works, customers do not see that she struggles against destitution.
Others of the unseen sew clothes, clean offices and harvest fruit. They serve Big Macs and stack merchandise at Wal-Mart. In a California factory, they package lights for kids' bikes. In a New Hampshire plant, they assemble books of wallpaper samples.
They cannot afford the wallpaper themselves, just as the man who washes cars does not own one. The assistant teacher cannot pay the fees to put her own children in the day-care center where she works. The clerk in the back room of a bank, filing canceled checks, may have $2.02 in her own account, as Caroline had when she briefly did that job. The clientele never saw her. She was out of sight, part of the hidden America.
Always in search of something better somewhere else, Caroline has moved from job to job, from place to place, from New England to Florida and back -- and now to Indiana -- without anchoring herself solidly in a community that can offer support.
Just over a year after arriving in Muncie, where she lives in a small apartment in a public housing project, she remains unconnected. ''I don't know many people here still,'' she told me recently. ''I just get out to go to work and do errands.'' Her hours at the store provide only a trickle of cash. ''I just can't get ahead,'' she declared. ''There's no good jobs, and I'm just not happy here.'' She has spent her life in perpetual motion while standing still.
Futility has nagged at Caroline for a long time. Four years ago, at the dawn of the new millennium, she sat at her kitchen table in Claremont, N.H., and added up her life. It was the height of the economic boom. The nation wallowed in luxury, burst with microchips, consumed with abandon, swaggered globally. Everything grew larger: homes, vehicles, stock portfolios, life expectancy. Never before in the sweep of human history had so many people been so utterly comfortable.
Caroline was not one of them. She had achieved two of her three goals. She had earned a college diploma (a two-year associate's degree), and she had gone from a homeless shelter into her own house (owned mostly by a bank). The third objective, ''a good paying job,'' as she put it, still eluded her. Back in the mid-70's, she earned $6 an hour in a Vermont factory that made plastic cigarette lighters and cases for Gillette razors. A quarter century later, she earned $6.80 an hour stocking shelves and working cash registers at a vast Wal-Mart superstore.
''And that's sad,'' she declared. ''I'm only making 80 cents more than I did more than 20 years ago.'' Or less, taking into account the rise in the cost of living.
She was not the victim of racial discrimination; she was white. She was not lazy; she was caustic about colleagues who were. She was punctual, rarely out sick, willing to do night shifts and assiduous in her work habits. The Wal-Mart manager, Mark Brown, called her ''a nice lady'' with lots of enthusiasm. ''She's self-driven,'' he observed. ''She's always willing to learn and better herself. She's got potential. She can definitely move up.''
But she did not move up. She had never moved up. And that ceased to amaze her; it had been going on for so long, in job after job after job. She was astonished only by Mark Brown's praise. ''I'm surprised,'' she remarked when I told her what he said. She was stacking blank videotapes on a shelf. ''I didn't think they liked me here. People don't usually say nice things about me.''
Somewhere along this track that leads nowhere, a good many Americans give up on the dream. They sink back onto welfare, or they stop imagining themselves as foremen or managers. Caroline was then 50, with so many years of disappointment that her bouts of depression, for which she was occasionally treated, seemed unsurprising.
Still, she kept striving. She called herself ''luckylady'' in her e-mail address. She said, ''Have a wonderful day,'' on her answering machine. She did not have big thoughts about corporate profits or dark judgments about society's unfairness. She just tried for basic financial security. Her persistence played like a dissonant melody against the monotone of job stagnation.
Again and again, she applied to manage one sales department or another at Wal-Mart, and again and again she was passed over in favor of men -- or, she observed wryly, women who were younger and slimmer.
''I work my butt off, excuse my language,'' she said sharply. ''I'm there most of the time, but that don't matter to them.'' She was paid a dollar an hour more during nighttime shifts, nothing close to what her flexibility was worth to a store that stayed open around the clock. Trying to get ahead, she always made herself available to change hours and fill in, even during evenings when she had to leave her 14-year-old daughter, Amber, home alone. Without a car, Caroline had a 20-minute walk each way, trekking back and forth at odd times of night in all kinds of weather. One cold February day, walking gingerly along icy streets, worried about her temperamental back, she trudged from her house to her job at her normal time of 10 a.m., only to be told to come for a shift beginning at 1 p.m. instead. So she made her way home and then returned to the store: three trips consuming one hour before earning her first dime of the day.
The people who received promotions tended to have something that Caroline did not. They had teeth. Caroline's teeth had succumbed to poverty, to the years when she could not afford a dentist. Most of them decayed and abscessed, and when she lived on welfare in Florida, she had them all pulled in a grueling two-hour session that left her looking bruised and beaten. Under the state's Medicaid rules as she understood them, a set of dentures would have been covered only if she had been without any teeth at all; while some of them could have been saved, she couldn't afford to do less than everything. In the end, the dentures paid for by Medicaid didn't fit and made her gag, so she couldn't wear them. An adjustment would have cost about $250, money she didn't have.
Probably no employer would ever admit to passing her over because she was missing that radiant, tooth-filled smile that Americans have been taught to prize as highly as their right to vote. Caroline had learned to smile with her whole face, a sweet look that didn't show her gums, yet it came across as wistful, something less than the thousand-watt beam of friendly delight that the culture requires. Where showing teeth was an unwritten part of the job description, she did not excel. She was turned down for a teller's position with the Claremont Savings Bank, which then hired her for back-room filing and eventually fired her from that. Wal-Mart considered her for customer-service manager and then promoted someone else, someone with teeth.
Caroline's is the face of the working poor, marked by a poverty-generated handicap more obvious than most deficiencies but no different, really, from the less visible deficits that reflect and reinforce destitution. If she were not poor, she would not have lost her teeth, and if she had not lost her teeth, perhaps she would not have remained poor. Poverty is a peculiar, insidious thing, not just one problem but a constellation of problems: not just inadequate wages but also inadequate education, not just dead-end jobs but also limited abilities, not just insufficient savings but also unwise spending, not just the lack of health insurance but also the lack of healthy households. The villains are not just exploitative employers but also incapable employees, not just overworked teachers but also defeated and unruly pupils, not just bureaucrats who cheat the poor but also the poor who cheat themselves.
Caroline has been caught in a web of childhood, marital and educational restraints that intertwined with the ruthless efficiencies of the free market. Her father, a school janitor, and her mother, an occasional factory worker, moved repeatedly around New England to find work. She was yanked from school to school like ''nothing but a piece of furniture being shoved around in all directions,'' she once wrote in an essay. She didn't remember her mother ever reading to her.
When her father walked out, a seed of distrust was planted. ''We didn't have a lot of love and security that kids need,'' she said. Nor was there material plenty, and long after that early void, neediness remained. ''I always wanted things,'' she admitted. ''I can get spending and overdo things sometimes.''
Her mother remarried when Caroline was 12 or 13. ''My stepdad drank a lot,'' she recalled. ''He tried to touch me and French-kissed me, and I didn't like it,'' she said. ''I was scared and never told my mom, you know? And I got to the point where I hit him.''
Two months after graduating from high school -- the only one of three siblings to do so -- Caroline married. ''Now there's times I wished I hadn't,'' she declared. ''I think it was so easy for me to latch onto people because I haven't had lots of love and security and communication and things. It was almost like if a guy gave me affection, I'd latch onto almost like the first one that come along. And that's not good. I've learnt over the years, it's not good.''
The marriage produced three children, lasted 14 years and finally sank into a swamp of suspicions that her husband was unfaithful. Because she could not afford a lawyer and just wanted out, she ended up with only $400 a month in child support and a modest amount for her share in their house. So she moved with her children into a small apartment and bounced between welfare and dead-end jobs, supplementing her income by scavenging for cans. ''We'd go and watch a ballgame at school, and I'd take bags and stuff them in my pocketbook,'' she recalled. ''After the ballgame I'd be going around poring through the garbage cans picking out 5-cent cans.'' Her first daughter would ride her bike as far ahead of her mother as possible to avoid any hint of association. ''I figured that a few cents buys some milk, buys some bread, things that you need, you know what I'm saying? It all helps. But it embarrassed her. She hated it as she got older.''
Alone with her children and scared, Caroline married again. This time, it was worse. Vernon Payne insulted her, hit her and flew into jealous rages. Her boys chose to live with their father, her girl with a family friend. The marriage lasted two years. ''At times I hated men,'' she said. ''Men were no good, they just lied, and you're not gonna tell me no different.'' Here she fell into a nationwide pattern. Half of all poor families in America are headed by single mothers, many of whom carry wounds inflicted by men -- and so crave but cannot create loving partnerships. Besides the emotional cost of failed relationships, the economic price is high -- for a single mother is also a single wage earner.
Determined to move up, Caroline applied for good office jobs and, when she failed to be hired, called to find out why. The answer was always the same: the winning candidate had a college degree. So she decided to get one, too. Gathering credits from community colleges in Vermont and Florida, she ended up with a two-year associate's degree in office technology and information processing. She also ran up a debt of $17,000 in student loans, a sum that rose to $20,000 as she deferred payments. It turned out to be a bad investment; she never landed a job in her field of training, never got one that required anything more than a high-school diploma. A full bachelor's degree would have been a door-opening credential, of course, but the associate's degree proved useless.
Perhaps if Caroline's personal life had been stable and content, she could have concentrated more intently on her work; perhaps she could have found the focus to stay in a job long enough to advance. But family turbulence can rarely be walled out of the workplace. An employer may tolerate a distracted employee who has crucial skills or a powerful position, but Caroline had no such capital to purchase a boss's patience.
As her life at home got tense, her life at work got perilous. That meant marginal performance, no promotions and a rolling career of short stays in jobs with no accumulation of seniority. ''You're all nerved up, you're stressed, you don't know what somebody's gonna pull on you next,'' she said. Even at the factory in the middle of the night, she would cry and cry, ''and people would know things were wrong.''
Her fourth child, Amber, was born into the troubled second marriage. Except for a clubfoot, she seemed normal -- petite and dark-haired, sweet and cheerful. Only gradually did telltale signs point to the profound disability that was confirmed when she was tested in first grade: an I.Q. of 59. Her score was in the low range of mild mental retardation, a handicap more prevalent in lower-income households. Although the cause was unclear, Caroline's pregnancy had been marked by two factors known to affect brain development: she had not eaten nutritiously, and she had smoked.
If mild retardation is also caused partly by emotional assaults, as some scientists believe, then Amber may have been susceptible. As a toddler, she seemed upset by visits to her father. Caroline once saw redness around her genitals. She took her daughter to the hospital, where doctors confirmed that the girl had been penetrated. Police were called, a restraining order was issued against the father and Caroline escaped with her daughter from Vermont to Florida, where relatives lived.
There she repeated her parents' rootless syndrome. She moved from place to place in New Port Richey, Fla. -- a tiny apartment, a trailer with a woman friend, a filthy trailer of her own, a place with a male friend, another trailer -- then to a cousin's in Winter Haven, back to New Port Richey and finally back north to New Hampshire, where she moved a few times from one school district to another. Amber was thus deprived of consistent, special education that might have helped. By ninth grade, Caroline estimated, her daughter had been in seven or eight schools, ''like this little rag doll that just got brought anywhere,'' said Brenda St. Laurence, a home visitor in a program to advise impoverished parents. Unless Caroline resisted her urge to keep moving, St. Laurence told her, teachers and counselors could never get to know Amber well enough to provide fruitful attention.
If Caroline had drawn up a résumé, it would have been impressive only in its length, documenting the passage from one treadmill to another. She worked in a clothing factory in New Hampshire, sewing for $6 an hour. She was laid off. She worked a few hours a week at the homeless shelter where she had lived, helping people apply for a fuel-assistance program. When winter ended, she was out of a job, so she worked at Tambrands, a factory that made Tampax, for $6.50.
Sitting for hours at a time, she began to get acute pain in her legs and finally went to the emergency room. Her back was the cause. ''And so the doctor says: 'I want you to take one night off and rest as much as you can. Stay off your feet. Stay off your legs.''' She called Tambrands, owned by Procter & Gamble, to tell them she wouldn't be in on Sunday because of her back. Monday morning the temp agency called: she had lost her job. So she returned to the sewing factory and was laid off two or three times. Working at the edge of poverty means working on the coldest side of corporate America.
Her fondest dream, to own a house, shimmered elusively across an arid landscape of meager wages. Nothing in the numbers added up. Yet just by being in the working world, she was assembling an essential structure of attributes to open a door to a mortgage. They included a record of diligence on the job and connections with people of influence. Furthermore, because of Amber's disability, she had a reliable monthly check from Social Security -- a rare asset among low-wage workers.
The main person of influence, Caroline's employer at a thrift shop, was a friend of the president of the Sugar River Savings Bank, who met Caroline and told her boss, ''She seems like the type of woman who would go hungry to pay the bill.'' Not quite. She had several outstanding bills and spent a year paying and burnishing her credit record while the house she wanted stayed unsold.
The snug, gray clapboard building, built in 1891, was nestled among others on a street in Claremont, N.H. In a different place at a different time, the house would have been considered quaint and charming enough to be worth plenty. But sitting in a sad, old neighborhood near the center of a New England town that had been left behind, it was worth just $37,000 when Caroline discovered it in 1997. With $1,000 from her income-tax refund to cover closing costs, she became the owner -- along with the Sugar River Savings Bank.
When the mortgage was approved, it didn't hurt that $514 a month was being deposited directly from Social Security into an account at Sugar River Savings, from which the mortgage payment would be automatically withdrawn, leaving a low balance but ensuring the bank its payment. Because Amber would eventually inherit the house, Caroline reasoned, it was a legitimate use of the funds. But it was also a terrible fact that a mortgage would not have been available without Amber's handicap.
Caroline had never felt such a satisfied sense of possession and autonomy. She proudly conducted a tour: the two beige couches in the living room, the flowery wallpaper, the yellow curtains, the old TV set and VCR, Fluffy the cat with a red collar and a bell, the pantry and storeroom behind the kitchen, her adult son's crossbow for deer hunting, the cellar with a washer and dryer and oil furnace, the upstairs where colorful afghans she had crocheted lay folded waiting to be given to Amber's teacher and school-bus driver and principal for Christmas.
It also needed improvements, for which she managed to get grants from a federal program that would install new siding, repaint the trim and remove lead paint inside. She needed a second mortgage for $19,000 as well to replace the windows, the doors and the roof. Somehow, she would have to move up the pay scale at Wal-Mart, where she was then working.
Anyone who walked all the way around the outside of the Wal-Mart superstore on Route 103 would walk a mile, Caroline said. The place was immense. But it didn't seem to have room for Caroline to progress. She bounced from one department to another, from one shift to another, while her pay stayed within a narrow range, beginning at $6.15 an hour, going to $6.80, sometimes up to $7.50 if she worked at night. So unpredictable were her hours that she couldn't work a second job to help her cash flow. She kept applying for higher positions and kept hearing that she needed a bit more experience. When asked to work odd shifts, ''I never said no to them,'' she insisted. ''But why couldn't they have the decency to pay me a little bit more?''
She won recognition. ''I did make Cashier of the Month for November,'' she reported happily, for collecting more than $1,500 for the World War II veterans memorial in Washington. She also persuaded customers who checked out at her register to buy a total of 72 tickets to a Boston Bruins game to raise money for the Claremont Fire Department, and that won her a weekend getaway from Pepsi. She could take herself and three other people to a paid stay in any Marriott she chose, anywhere.
''But I have to get there,'' she said, and she had no money to travel. So Hawaii never entered her mind, not even New York; she considered only places in New Hampshire. ''I think there's one up here in Lebanon,'' she said. ''If I could get somebody to take me to Manchester, Amber likes to look at the malls. I've never been down there. Just to look at things.'' In the end, she and Amber rode with a friend north to a hotel in Bethlehem, N.H., where they visited a small shopping center in North Conway. For $31.99, Caroline bought a winter coat to replace a jacket that she had torn two years before.
Her anemic paycheck failed to improve. The Wal-Mart manager who liked her, Mark Brown, was transferred, and no promotion seemed in the offing. When a temp agency found her a $7.50-an-hour job assembling books of wallpaper samples, she took pleasure in telling Wal-Mart's assistant manager that she was leaving. ''I'm just hoping they'll be sorry someday,'' Caroline said.
Unwittingly, Caroline then stepped into the vortex that drags numbers of low-wage single mothers down into the great chasm between decent work and decent parenting, a place where a child's safety has to be balanced against survival in the labor market.
After a month at the wallpaper plant, the temp agency offered Caroline a job back at the Tampax factory for $10 an hour, the most she had ever earned. She took it, but there was a problem: Procter & Gamble had organized the factory on rotating shifts. One week she left the house at 5:30 a.m. and got home at 2:30 p.m., the next week she was gone from 1:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m., and the third from 9:30 p.m. to 6:30 a.m. Putting aside the question of sleep, stamina and the basic requirements of an orderly life, the swing shifts raised havoc with Caroline's arrangements for Amber. Unable to find care, she very reluctantly left the girl home alone during her evening and nighttime shifts.
While Caroline was running machines that put packages of tampons into boxes, she was worrying about Amber, and with good cause. At 14, Amber could barely read and write, could not easily tell time from clocks with hands, and was unable to understand that she had enough money if she gave a storekeeper $10 to buy something for $4. Yet she could play the flute if her mother wrote the letter for each note on the musical score. She took gymnastics lessons at a dance school, for which her mother paid by cleaning the school's studio once a week. She also had epilepsy, and the risk of a seizure prompted doctors to advise that she not be left alone for long. The logistical maze of arranging care for Amber around constantly shifting hours of work had Caroline tangled in anxiety.
Amber happened to tell her teacher how scary it was being home alone after dark. The teacher was alarmed and threatened to report Caroline for neglect. ''She can't take care of herself,'' said Donald R. Hart, the principal of Claremont Middle School. ''We have a legal obligation to report if neglect is going on.'' He raised the issue with his ''wrap-around team,'' comprising a school psychologist, a local counseling agency representative, a juvenile protection worker and a guidance counselor. ''I've asked them what is out there for services for Amber while Mom is working,'' he reported, ''and there is just nothing out there.''
Faced with the threat of being reported to the state's child protection agency, Caroline stopped going to work, started working the phones trying to find care for Amber and came up empty-handed.
''I'm trying to do the best I can and get caught up on little bills,'' she said. ''And now I don't have a job, and I'm gonna have to go apply for welfare. You pull yourself up, and then somebody has to knock you down. If I don't work, it's neglect: not feeding or clothing my child.''
Perhaps the most curious and troubling facet of this confounding puzzle was everybody's failure to pursue the most obvious solution: if the factory had just let Caroline work day shifts, her problem would have disappeared. She asked a supervisor and got brushed off, but nobody else -- not the school principal, not the doctor, not the myriad agencies she contacted -- nobody in the profession of helping thought to pick up the phone and appeal to the factory manager or the foreman or anybody else in authority at her workplace.
Indeed, this solemn regard for the employer as untouchable and beyond the realm of persuasion unless in violation of the law permeates the culture of American antipoverty efforts, with only a few exceptions. The most socially minded physicians and psychologists who treat malnourished children, for example, will advocate vigorously with government agencies to provide food stamps, health insurance, housing and the like. But when they are asked if they ever urge the parents' employers to raise wages enough to pay for nutritious food, the doctors express surprise at the notion. First, it has never occurred to them, and second, it seems hopeless. Wages and hours are set by the marketplace, and you cannot expect magnanimity from the marketplace. It is the final arbiter from which there is no appeal.
Caroline faced a cruel choice. Amber was chafing against the limits of her schooling in Claremont, one of New Hampshire's poorest communities. She hungered to read, but the high school provided only one hour of tutoring a week. She craved more math than she could get. She yearned to be in the main part of the school, not in the vocational wing, where she felt students were stigmatized by teachers as stupid.
When a counselor at the community center appealed to school officials to give Amber intensive instruction, she said, ''they laughed at me.'' Perhaps they wouldn't have laughed if Caroline had been able to afford a psychologist or a lawyer to bring pressure, as the affluent must often do.
Since she could not buy services, she tried her old pattern, her parents' pattern, of geographical escape. She sent Amber to live temporarily with her daughter-in-law in Muncie, Ind., where the schools were reputedly better. By September, Amber was in higher-level special-ed classes in Muncie; on the phone, she sounded ecstatic, so Caroline decided to follow.
To leave, however, she had to sell her precious house, for she could not comfortably rent it out from a distance. Tenants might do damage, and she had no money to travel back and forth to oversee repairs. It took a few months to find a buyer who would invest $79,000 in this struggling town, the minimum Caroline needed to break even. In the end, she made nothing, not a penny, she said sadly. ''I gave it away.''
She had maintained and improved the house sensibly for the long term, but she spent more on it than it was worth in the end. She still owed $34,000 on the first mortgage, and the second mortgage of $19,000 carried a prepayment penalty, which forced her to pay just over $20,000 to get out of it. The federal grants of $17,000 required prorated reimbursement of $16,000 because she hadn't lived in the house long enough. After adding the agent's fee, taxes and other closing costs, she ended up short $300, which the agent kindly absorbed. Five and a half years of mortgage and interest payments had yielded nothing, and one of her dreams was gone.
As the New Hampshire winter arrived after Thanksgiving, Caroline left with pockets nearly empty. To escape from $10,000 to $12,000 in credit-card debt, she had declared bankruptcy earlier that year, much to her shame. She could not even afford to rent a truck without a $700 loan from her older daughter. A couple of friends donated their vacation time to drive the truck and Caroline to Indiana, by way of a slashing blizzard in upstate New York. She was on the move again, as she had been since childhood, but she was happy to see a little of the country.
Muncie has not been gentle, though. She found her first, shabby apartment in a neighborhood riddled with drug dealers and prostitutes, her first job in a convenience store at $5.45 an hour, a downward slide from the Vermont plastics factory in the 1970's. In April she moved into a two-bedroom apartment in a newer, safer public housing project, but she can't get more than part-time work at the store, for about $10,000 a year.
She has a new set of dentures, courtesy of $400 from Medicaid, plus a $322 loan from her older daughter. She is still trying to get used to wearing them. She misses her house and her friends in New Hampshire. ''I used to go out with some of the girls, you know,'' she recalled. In Muncie, ''I don't get out much,'' she said. ''I'm broke.''
Furthermore, the reason for the move now seems less certain. Amber's courses are more challenging, but her big, urban school is tough and full of fights. And testing in Muncie confirmed the diagnosis in Claremont: Amber will never learn to read.
Money may not always cure, but it can often insulate one problem from another. Parents of means could have addressed Amber's handicaps without uprooting themselves and discarding their assets. They could have purchased services; brought their own skills to bear and walled off their house, their jobs and their lifestyle from the intrusion of hardship. In the house of the poor, however, the walls are thin and fragile, and troubles seep into one another.
Into Caroline's spirit, hopes also filter. Her latest is that WorkOne, a job-training agency, will pay $403 for a course to make her a certified nursing assistant. She knows she would do well in a nursing home. ''I've got the personality,'' she said. ''It's helping people, and I feel sorry for them.''
"A Poor Cousin of the Middle Class" >>