Monday, June 05, 2006

In My Own Case...

Making ends meet on low wages, the subject of my first major post here on Thought Provocateur (see below) is near and dear to my heart. I raised three children alone, on low paying jobs. I dropped out of high school at the end of my sophomore year, and by the time I was 27 I was twice divorced with three children, the oldest only 10. This was in 1982, and I found a job working in the office of a small manufacturing plant, the only place willing to give a bright and eager worker with no experience a chance.

During the year I worked there, things went fairly well. I was eligible for subsidized day care, and was just barely able to make ends meet, but because we were healthy and lucky, there were no disasters. After six months on the job, I was offered a .25 raise, which I declined, because I would have lost my childcare subsidy.

After a year on the job, thanks to a kind-hearted, more experienced co-worker who patiently taught me a thing or two of office work, I landed a better job with better pay ($6.00 an hour). This wage increase eliminated all possibility of any assistance of any kind. In addition, I had to find parking downtown and dress more professionally. My older two children, 10 and 11, stopped going to daycare. I began measuring everything by how long it was until my youngest would be in school, eliminating the majority of my daycare costs.

Soon, I found it necessary to work a second job. My youngest child went to visit his father on the weekend, so I worked Friday and Saturday nights at a bar, which provided walking around change. This is the only way we managed not to go hungry between paydays. The father of the older two was missing in action, never to be found.

My 10- and 11- year olds watched themselves, and my luck continued to hold out; there were never any serious injuries or accidents. But I wanted more for myself and my family. I wanted an education and a more rewarding line of work.

When my two older children were babies, I had worked as a telephone operator, Directory Assistance. The pay was pretty good, thanks to the union. The office was open twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year, and low seniority workers had to work a variety of shifts, most ending after 11:00 p.m. Because of the decent pay, turnover was low, and it was a slow and torturous process working your way to the day shift. I never got there, and was forced to leave when my oldest went to school. Now, with two school-age children and one pre-schooler, I decided to give it another go. I needed the higher pay (about twice what I made in an office), and the company offered tuition assistance.

Once again, I was trapped at the bottom of the seniority list, and changes in technology resulted in a hiring freeze that kept me there for several years. The best hours I could manage were split shifts, which allowed me to pick my kids up from school, fix dinner, and leave again.

Taking one class at a time, I began creeping my way toward a degree. I didn’t graduate until I was 43. If I had known how long it would take, I don’t think I could have persevered. When I finally graduated, I faced age-based discrimination in the job market. I was able to find an entry-level position in my chosen field, but was well behind the curve in accruing the experience needed for a promotion. Therefore, I was always frustrated, and the sacrifice expended to earn my degree greatly outweighed the benefits.

After I graduated, I worked as an investigator for my state’s Equal Opportunity Commission, and later for a non-profit that investigated housing discrimination. My clients were mostly women struggling to survive much like I had done. Only by then, it was even worse, with housing costs skyrocketing.

I was frequently stung when clients would lash out at me, saying, "You have no idea what it's like in my shoes." I wanted to tell them that I did know, but professional ethics demanded that I not insert myself into the investigative process.

6 Comments:

Blogger Ray Walden said...

Contrast this with my experience at about the same time. I was making it financially, though with no savings, living on my own and getting through college on scholarships and Social Security survivor's benefits. No expensive habits to drain away money. Stayed in the dorm the whole time, so expenses were low and predictable. By the time I had kids, I had a professional degree and a decent salary.

Now I have one grown kid who tracked my path and is looking at good prospects now that she is out of college. And one just out of high school who made the opposite choices and is going to have more like your kind of struggle, except he won't have the single-mom factor working against him.

It's all about choices and their consequences. Still, as you show, some choices are made for you, but you have to live with the consequences.

3:20 PM  
Blogger Eric said...

Maybe part of your son's motivation in making the opposite choices is the related to rejecting his parent's (your) path through life, similar to his attitudes toward smoking, body modification, etc. You mention in your other comments about rejecting your parent's attitudes toward smoking, and there's a general idea on here about how thinking independently isn't really independent. (i.e. we try so hard to be original that we end up just taking the opposite positions, and therefore, our views are still defined by our parents' attitudes and behaviors).
Perhaps your attitudes toward responsibility and stability shaped his tendency toward the opposite?

7:23 AM  
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