America’s threadbare safety net

Leaving a train station in a suburb of Boston in a white-out one evening recently, I trudged my way through falling snow to the main street. I hailed a passing cab - but did a double take on opening the door.

In the back seat there was a three-year-old girl in a car seat watching TV. Her grandmother was in the driver's seat, a tiny woman whose head was at the same level as the steering wheel.

The pair of them saw me safely to my destination in a full-scale blizzard before setting off to look for other fares. It was 10pm.

Grandmother Julie, in debt after bringing up six children on a low wage, will be 72 before she can claim a state pension. For now, she is doing what she can to make ends meet.

For her granddaughter that means keeping Julie company on the late shift, well past bedtime.

It’s a telling encounter: life is becoming ever harder and crueller for American families, according to a new bookwhich is selling fast and sparking fierce debate in the US.

Michelle Kennedy wrote the account of her descent from middle-class comfort into homelessness, which resulted in similar juggling of work and childcare.

During her break as a waitress in a diner each evening, Kennedy would walk a few dozen paces to her home, her battered old Subaru, climb in and read bedtime stories to her three children.

After tucking Lydia, Matt and Alex, all less than six years old, under a duvet, she would go back into the restaurant, asking the busy cooks to keep an eye on her little ones.

After rushing through herwork, her heart beating with anxiety and sometimes battling panic attacks, Kennedy would go back out to the car park, climb in beside her children and go to sleep.

Now she has published a book about how she, a bright girl from a stable home who was once an intern in the US senate and a former student at the American University in Washington, found herself homeless.

Although it is mainly a personal story, in a deeply divided nation her bookWithout a Net, Middle Class and Homeless (with Kids) in America has become intensely politicised. Its release is causing furious comment from both sides of the wire and has led to personal attacks on Kennedy herself from the political right.

Some see it as a symbol of how alarmingly easy it has become to sink into destitution in the richest country in the world, while others blame Kennedy for putting herself in that position through irresponsible decisions.

After leaving her neglectful husband when her daughter was severely mauled by a dog while he was supposed to be watching her, Kennedy washed up in tiny Stone Harbor on the coast of Maine.

Although she got a job right away, on a salary of two dollars and two cents an hour before tax, she was unable to save the hundreds of dollars she needed to pay a deposit and two months’ rent. Landlords refused to let a family of four rent a one-room apartment.

Showering in truck stops, occasionally “splurging” on a campsite and struggling with the extra costs of homelessness, such as having no fridge to store food, Kennedy did try to get state help.

But she was refused food stamps and told that her family should be fine on what she was making.

She writes of fighting back tears as a social worker said all she could do was to put her in touch with someone who would help her to budget better.

Although after this Kennedy says she was shaking with rage, there is little editorialising in the book about the high-tax, lowwage, high-rent economy which underlay her plight. The story ends more happily for Kennedy, who married her boss at the diner, now lives in a farmhouse in
Vermont and has been nominated for a prize for her book. But she was a great deal luckier than most.

The story, which is at times painfully honest, does not skate over her own part in her downfall.

After her parents could no longer pay the extortionate tuition fees required by American colleges, Kennedy married her high-school sweetheart, partly to qualify for other sources of funding available to married students.

But soon she became pregnant, dropped out of college, and became a stay-at-home mum.

When her young husband tired of working to pay the bills, he took the family to a log cabin in northern Maine to have a shot at self-sufficiency, which was where they started to come unstuck.

Looking back, Kennedy says: “In reality it doesn’t take much more than a series of bad judgment calls and wrong decisions that at the time appeared to be perfectly reasonable.”

Not so reasonable for those who dispute her version of modern-day America. While Merle Rubin of the Los Angeles Times said her story is evidence of the “shameful and alarming” reality that homelessness is becoming something that can happen to more or less anybody, right-wing commentators have excoriated Kennedy for leaving her husband and their rented cabin for an uncertain future.

The San Diego Tribune was representative, saying that she could always have fallen back on the charity of her family (she was too proud to do so). “She did have a net – and three little children who counted on her to put their needs before hers, ” said the paper’s reviewer.

But the traps that lie in wait for families such as Kennedy’s are getting wider and deeper, according to Donna Andersen of the Institute for Children and Poverty in New York City. The latest figures show that the average homeless family in America is now headed by a woman of 27 with two children, a decade younger than 10 years ago. Her average income is just dollar-8000 a year – just over pounds-4000.

More and more families are becoming homeless, Andersen says, partly because of a lack of social housing. “In the 60s and 70s there were programmes to encourage developers to build affordable housing. They would get significant tax breaks but they have all been run down.”

Reductions in welfare pushed through by the Republican administration have also hit struggling families and even families with homes and jobs are increasingly vulnerable. “If you are just getting by and your child gets ill and you have no health insurance you can be in danger of accumulating so much debt that you can lose your home, ” Andersen says. Help is no longer available to working families with healthcare costs.

Just taking time off to care for an ill child can lead to a sacking.

There is no statutory entitlement to sick pay, sick leave or maternity pay. While many companies provide these benefits, many do not and almost half of US workers have no entitlement to paid sick leave. And banks and private sector landlords have little sympathy for defaulters.

In one notorious case, Tania Frazier, an office manager from California, left work to pick up her flu-ridden nine-year-old daughter Vanessa from school.

She took the next day off to care for her and was sacked. That case and others like it are being used by an organisation called Take Back Your Time which is campaigning for more rights for working parents across the US.

The Seattle-based organisation claims that the average American works harder than a medieval peasant. US citizens work nine weeks longer – 350 hours – than someone in western Europe.

American workers average two weeks’ holiday compared to five or six in western Europe.

Only 40-per cent of US working mothers are able to take advantage of a statutory right to 12 weeks’ unpaid maternity leave.

More than a quarter of female workers have no entitlement to paid holidays. Back in snowy Boston, one of the local papers carries a front page picture of a street lamp spilling out high-voltage live cabling – now finally mended after the paper carried the stories of two dogs electrocuted by it in separate incidents.

More tragic is a picture of a small boy, his hair neatly braided, in clean clothes and smiling broadly. Dontel Jeffers’ single father was deported after a fight and he was not allowed to go to his loving grandmother because her flat in a run-down urban tenement was sub-standard – there was asbestos in the insulation.

His heart-broken and angry grandmotherAgatha tried with all her might to have her apartment improved so she could have him back. But fostered into a rough area, he died before she could overcome the bureaucratic objections of the authorities, apparently beaten to death by a connection of the foster-mother’s.

As the priorities of a second Bush term begin to bite, the USA may remain a rich country. But to the visitor it can appear that the fabric of civic society is fraying at the edges.

The Herald
10th May 2005