Sunday, February 14, 2016

Sunday Long Read: The Long Climb Out

Recently, Charlotte, North Carolina was named the most difficult large city in the US for people to break the cycle of poverty in. I grew up in North Carolina and left for a reason, and as the state has become increasingly controlled by Republicans, I'm increasingly glad I did. Especially when I read stories like this about people working three jobs and still being poor.

WHEN SHE COMES home from work tonight, Toreasera “Kisha” Dawkins knows two things will happen: Her three daughters will be waiting for her, and her husband will call from prison.

She knows this as she finishes her nine-hour shift behind the cash register at the Mighty Midget Mart gas station on Albermarle Road. She knows this as she walks outside, wearing jeans and a red Shell T-shirt, her long, dark hair streaked with blond and pulled into a side ponytail. She knows this as she pops the hood of her faded green 2003 Dodge Grand Caravan.

It’s rush hour on a hot day in early July, and her radiator’s shot. Kisha, 37, pours in cold water to keep the engine from overheating. She can’t afford her rent, much less a new car, so for now, this will have to do.

She drives east past strip malls, Walmart, Goodwill—landmarks of life at the bottom rung of Charlotte’s economic ladder. As she pulls into her driveway, her daughters crowd around the front steps. “Hi, Mommy!” they shout, all bright eyes and round cheeks. But she is already on the phone, talking to their father.

Travis Dawkins is serving four to six years in a Gaston County prison for breaking and entering, and this is month eight. For several years, until he was arrested, he stayed home to raise the girls while their mom was at work. Now he’s a disembodied voice on the other end of the line, calling to make sure they remember him.

His daughters push open the screen door into their run-down ranch house, where a blanket-turned-curtain covers the front window. They race around the playroom, jumping on bare mattresses on the floor. Kisha holds out the phone and puts it on speaker so they can talk to their father. “Hey, Daddy, I love you, Daddy,” sings Ja’Mya, the four-year-old.

Kisha asks the girls to clean up their toys. Ja’Mya obeys, but her two-year-old sister, Zyauna, doesn’t, so her father tries to discipline her by speakerphone. “ZaZa, Daddy need you to put your listening ears on,” he says.

“OK, Daddy!” ZaZa shouts back.

She and Ja’Mya and their one-year-old sister, Tyasia, scramble around, putting away dolls and games. “Daddy say he love you,” their mother announces. “Tell Daddy bye.”

All three shout back in unison: “We love you, Daddy. Bye!”

This is Kisha’s family. It’s not the one she planned, and it’s not the one many social scientists would choose for her—a black woman raising three young children below the poverty line while her husband is in prison. Her family embodies many of the reasons it’s so difficult to escape poverty in Charlotte: segregated housing, unstable families, the growing distance between her paycheck and the one-fifth of Mecklenburg County households that earn more than $115,000 annually. Kisha works an average of 45 to 50 hours a week and earns $12,000 to $15,000 a year. Some would blame her choices, others her lot in life. As she sees it, her only option is to move forward, to keep working and juggling bills and treating ear infections and praying, until by some miracle, by some mysterious force she cannot understand, she can give her daughters a life better than her own.

And NC Republicans will shake their heads and tell you, while defunding Planned Parenthood, wanting to get rid of Obamacare, cutting school funding, refusing to raise the state's minimum wage, and making abortion all but impossible to access, is that Kisha Dawkins should never have had children she couldn't afford, and that the state of North Carolina can't afford to help her either.

The $12,000 a year she makes is too much money for Medicaid.  Republicans saw to that. She has to depend on church help and non-profit organizations just to put food on the table. She is working hard for her family and is sacrificing everything she has just to stay above water.

And Republicans do not give a good god damn about her and her three kids and never, ever will.

Remember that.

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