Thursday, May 8, 2008

Two Years of Being Poor By Proxy

It's not so much a dirty secret as it is a source of personal shame that my children did not initially excel academically. I will spare you the litany of things that I wish I'd done differently. It's long, it's embarrassing, and there's ultimately no excuse for it.

My oldest daughter recovered from her disastrous early high school years to do pretty well at the end of high school and, after taking some time off to travel and work, went on to junior college and art school, where she got a BFA. My youngest daughter didn't finish high school, got a GED, and is now off-and-on in cosmetology school.

My son graduated from high school the California Way (i.e. he was on the rolls, so they gave him a diploma) and eventually joined the Army. By the time he left the Army he was married to a woman who had a 5-year-old boy and a 2-year-old girl and now, two years later, they also have a 16-month-old daughter. (I feel it's only fair to inform all you other grandparents out there that my grandkids are cuter and smarter than all of yours. Just get over it.)

Needless to say, with a wife, 3 small children and no marketable skills (my son was an NBC specialist in the Army--as it turns out, there's not much of a market for them--mercifully), my son's financial position is, to say the least, dire. So he's attending junior college on the GI Bill, trying to get some marketable skills, and my wife and I are giving them enough money so they can keep their heads above water.

I have never been poor. Sure, I was living in somewhat straitened circumstances during and right after college, but I have never known that oh-shit desperation that comes of not quite knowing how you're going to feed yourself and your children. I've never had to worry that my sick child would have to do without medical care. I've never had creditors dunning me. I've never lived in squalor. In short, I've been incredibly lucky.

My son has had to worry about all of these things, even with our support. When we no longer support him, I'm sure that he'll worry about them even more, even if he's successful with his retraining. His wife is in a similar position.

They're poor. Without our support, they'd be destititute.

I hate the idea of the government supporting my son's family. And yet his kids get their medical care through Medicaid and they get some support through food stamps. Without the GI Bill, I'm not sure I could manage to support him and his family. I'm absolutely certain that he couldn't be a full-time student to get the training he needs to be successful in the future. I believe in these programs. But they're just money, and money is only about a third of the problem.

With a little luck, my son will emerge from junior college with a marketable skill that will allow him to make $25-30,000 per year. With a little luck after that, my daughter-in-law will also be able to go to college (she recently got her GED) and train for a similar job. In a few years, they could be a solidly middle class family making $50-60,000 a year.

I estimate that, by the time we have my son's family well-established, we will have invested more than $50,000 in getting them out of poverty, and the state and feds will have invested a similar amount. This is quite modest compared to sending a child to a 4-year college, but that really wasn't an option, nor is it an option for any but the most academically talented poor children. Mind you, the jury is still out on whether this investment will actually pay off. My son's poor academic skills are improving only slowly and he's chosen something fairly challenging to learn. We'll see.

But I've learned more than a few things about being poor through this experience. Here's what I know:
  • Ignorance can destroy you. You lack a huge number of basic life skills if you've had a bad upbringing and/or a poor education. You don't know what credit card debt can do to you. You don't know when and when not to take a sick kid to the emergency room. You don't know how to negotiate with a service provider to convince them to give you fair service. You don't know how to manage money. My son's and his wife's ignorance has cost their family hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars. My wife and I spend a significant amount of time each week answering simple questions and slowly getting them up to speed to live in modern, middle-class society.

    The other area where ignorance kills is in the fact that you don't know where to look for services beyond simple ADC and Medicaid. There are lots of programs out there to help alleviate poverty. Getting the right people into those programs is incredibly difficult. My son didn't know about the Earned Income Tax Credit until I did their taxes for them. Neither he nor my daughter-in-law knew how to apply to junior college, or how to get financial aid, until we showed them what was available. Anti-poverty programs only work when the people that need them know that they're there.

    If my son and his wife didn't have my wife and me to impart this information, they would be condemned to repeat the same mistakes over and over, with devastating consequences. Imparting this kind of survival knowledge to children is absolutely essential.

  • Two-earner families with lots of small children are simply impossible without support for day-care. At this point, my son has one kid in elementary school, one kid in private pre-school (which we pay for) and the baby is still at home with my daughter-in-law watching her. My daughter-in-law is currently unemployed, but given that the best she could do would be part-time, minimum-wage employment, it really makes more financial sense for her to stay home and take care of the kids than it does to put them in daycare so she can work. That will hopefully change once she's acquired some training for a skilled job.

    Low-cost daycare facilities appear to be mostly hell-holes. If we have any chance of dragging more families out of poverty, we've got to come up with a better model for child-care for the poor. I can't see how throwing money at the problem is going to help. The economies of scale that are required to handle large numbers of pre-school children in publicly-supported institutions are going to leave more generations of kids without the skills needed to succeed academically. Head Start sounds like a wonderful idea and its heart is completely in the right place. I'm just not sure that there are enough talented caregivers to make it successful.

  • Organizational skills are key. It's chaos at their house 24/7. This is understandable--it's pretty much chaos in any house with 3 small children. But the chaos can drag you down if you can't organize to reduce it a little bit. Things have slowly gotten better as they've learned little organizational tricks.

    The same is true for re-training. Knowing how to organize time is a challenge for most students, but it's doubly a challenge with screaming kids in the picture.

  • Medical services to the poor are scary. I don't even know where to start. The grandkids are on Medicaid. Private insurance simply didn't make sense, since they qualified for public help. My son has a high-deductible individual policy--he's healthy. My daughter-in-law is currently uninsurable. We're holding our breath and hoping that nothing bad happens.

    I'd estimate that a third of their doctor visits are still handled through the emergency room, even though they have well-established ties to a decent medical clinic. Ignorance is part of the problem, but lack of a personal physician is another part. Ignorance of what costs what, and what will impact your future insurability, is a major problem.

    Right now, I'd kill for a high-deductible (say $10K) catastrophic insurance policy that you could count on. I'd insure them all in a flash. My regular readers (all 0 of you) know that I strongly advocate the division of medical care into an insured catastrophic portion and a routine-care portion. My experience with my son's family informs this opinion more than anything else. If Medicaid were simply subsidizing routine care, it would be higher-quality and vastly more cost-effective. We could then concentrate on putting in place decent catastrophic insurance, adequately subsidized for the poor.

  • Education is everything. Unskilled jobs are simply not adequate for supporting families. If you can't get training, you're screwed. If you won't get training, you have no business having children.

    For those of you who might be in danger of having your children go off the rails educationally, all I can offer is my experience in how not to manage the situation. Don't give up, ever. No matter how hard your children fight you and pull every form of passive-aggressive nonsense that they can invent (and they are all very inventive), don't let them off the hook. They can recover from their mistakes but it's really hard. Once they have kids of their own, it's almost impossible.

I never really knew, viscerally, what the term "grinding poverty" meant until two years ago. I do know. Make no mistake, the grinding is occurring between a vastly complex society and a group of unfortunates that have no idea what is happening to them. Government support can lubricate that grinding in spots, but it contributes to it in others. The only real solution is to ensure that enough knowledge is injected for the poor to get out of the way of the juggernaut.

Education is everything.

Education is everything.

Education is everything. If we really want to reduce poverty, we'll need educational innovation more than anything else.

No comments: