$2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America (2016)
A Room of One’s Own
LONG BEFORE HER STINT at Chicago City Custodial Services, Jennifer Hernandez and her children, Kaitlin and Cole, stayed for a time with family on Chicago’s Southwest Side, in a neighborhood of well-kept, story-and-a-half Prairie-style bungalows and yellow-brick ranches. Many of the community’s modest, rectangular homes hail from the 1950s era of modern design and often sport original mid-century touches, such as a porch awning artfully set at an angle. Enjoying low crime rates, reasonable prices (for Chicago), and quiet living, this community of teachers, police officers, and other civil servants is happy to be mostly hidden from view.
And in that way, the neighborhood was just the right fit for Jennifer. Always understated, she speaks quietly, with little intonation. Her own appearance may be somewhat ragged, but without fail she makes sure her kids are always neatly dressed, fussing over their clothes much as the homeowners in this neighborhood obsess over their deep-green lawns.
Jennifer and her kids were given a one-bedroom unit carved out of the back half of the first story of a two-flat home owned by Jennifer’s aunt Isabelle. She lived on the second floor, and her daughter Andrea and Andrea’s live-in boyfriend, Carlos, lived in an apartment that spanned the basement and front half of the first floor. Jennifer’s family had a modicum of privacy (though Andrea felt she could barge in at all hours without warning), and as far as Jennifer was concerned, the one-bedroom unit was just fine. She remembers that it “had big rooms and there was enough space for us.” The kids slept in the bedroom, Jennifer on the couch in the living room. She never could have afforded a place like this on her own. In fact, from 2008 to 2013 there was never a time when she and the kids lived on their own without help. They were always either doubled up with family or in a homeless shelter.
Housing costs have reached a crisis point for low-income families, eating up far more of their incomes than they can possibly afford. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) deems a family that is spending more than 30 percent of its income on housing to be “cost burdened,” at risk of having too little money for food, clothing, and other essential expenses.
Today there is no state in the Union in which a family that is supported by a full-time, minimum-wage worker can afford a two-bedroom apartment at fair market rent without being cost burdened, according to HUD. When Jennifer moved in with Isabelle, even the fair market rent on a studio apartment in the Chicago area would have consumed more than half of her paycheck. But since Isabelle couldn’t legally rent out the unit Jennifer’s family was staying in because it lacked a private entrance—not to mention the fact that Isabelle didn’t want to live with a stranger in such close quarters—she was willing to cut Jennifer a good deal on the place.
Given the options available to Jennifer, she was grateful to be living with her kids under the roof of a relative in a safe, pleasant neighborhood. And she was certainly thankful for the chance to send her kids to a decent neighborhood school and for the job Andrea had helped her land at a swanky downtown spa.
At night, though, things could veer off the tracks. Andrea’s boyfriend, Carlos, was a “working drunk.” Jennifer recalls that “he would go to work, come home, and basically drink all night, [then] … sober up enough to go to work and come back home and start the cycle over again.” Andrea had a drinking problem herself, and the couple often started screaming insults at each other just as Jennifer was putting the kids to bed. Sometimes these fights lasted deep into the night. Sometimes “they would chase each other through the house, out into the street, you know.”
When these fights spilled out onto the front lawn, the police would get involved. “They’ve both been arrested. They’ve had the cops called [by the neighbors]. They’ve called the cops on each other.” Red lights would flash outside the kids’ bedroom window while the officers tried to sort out the situation. Kaitlin, who was already suffering from bouts of anxiety, couldn’t get to sleep until long after things had quieted down, and Cole began to have nightmares.
At first, work offered Jennifer a daytime respite. Catalina Spa & Salon was one of the city’s posh places to get a facial, a massage, the latest hairstyle, a mani-pedi, or an extensive spa treatment. Jennifer was originally hired for thirty to thirty-five hours per week at $9.25 an hour. In the beginning, Jennifer and Andrea both worked behind the scenes, washing and drying the white towels and bathrobes, folding them just so, refilling the spa products, and mopping the floors. On the whole, Jennifer enjoyed the work at Catalina. “It was a pretty fun working environment, you know, wasn’t dull or drab. I enjoyed going to work. I liked the people I worked with. It was a good experience.”
Then Andrea was involved in a massive car crash in which both vehicles were totaled. She suffered multiple broken ribs, putting her completely out of commission. As far as Jennifer was concerned, that wasn’t all bad news—at least she wouldn’t be throwing things at Carlos with quite so much ferocity at night. But it did mean big changes for Jennifer at work. By law, the spa had to hold Andrea’s job open while she recovered. Wanting to be a team player, Jennifer agreed to work both shifts for a week or two until the manager could find someone else to fill in. She figured she could use the extra cash anyway. Catalina wasn’t paying her overtime as they should have been, but that was okay. It was only temporary.
Two weeks turned into three, three into four, and four into six. All that time, Jennifer was doing the work of two. Tack on the three hours for her daily commute, and she was spending just shy of ninety hours away from home each week, leaving her elementary school-age children in the care of Andrea before and after school. Not only was she exhausted beyond belief, but her absence was also taking a toll on Kaitlin and Cole. “Kaitlin started giving me, like, attitude, you know, she started getting angry. Cole started getting in trouble at school. He was, like, acting up in class. I finally had to sit them down and talk to them, you know, ‘What’s going on?’” The kids replied, “‘You’re never here, you’re not at home anymore,’ you know, ‘You’re always gone.’”
That got Jennifer’s attention: her kids were getting the short end of the stick during the night and now during the day, too. And, increasingly, it seemed as if Catalina was perfectly happy with the situation. They saw no reason to hire another person to take on Andrea’s shift, when Jennifer was doing such a good job covering both. Finally, Jennifer’s manager admitted as much, claiming they couldn’t afford to bring on someone else. Jennifer, usually quiet and self-contained, couldn’t hide the indignation in her voice. “Really? The prices you guys charge and you can’t afford to hire someone else to come help me at least a few hours a day?” Jennifer knew that even when Andrea returned, it would be a while until she was back up to speed physically. Jennifer would be carrying a lot of the burden for a long time. But there was no room to negotiate. Jennifer was issued an ultimatum: she could continue to do the work of two, putting in seventy hours a week—ninety including commuting time—until Andrea came back, or she could look for another job.
“I’m proud. I like to do my job. I do my work, but all I wanted was a little help, you know? I was overwhelmed … It’s hard work, heavy lifting, heavy, heavy duties. There’s a lot to do.” Jennifer knew that if she quit, it would take her a while to find another job. In the meantime, she’d be unable to make even her modest rent. And even if she could continue living with her aunt, the arrangement was threatening to cost her and the kids their sanity.
What Jennifer and the kids needed was a place of their own, but there was no way she could afford that. Nor could she afford to pay someone to wake up her children in the morning, get them dressed and ready for school, and stay with them until she returned home at night. She needed the child care her cousin and aunt provided just as much as she needed the roof over their heads.
Families facing dilemmas like Jennifer’s often learn that they have only one option: find another couch to sleep on, another spare bedroom, another relative or family member willing to take them in without exacting too high a price. Jennifer was an only child. She had never known her father, so there was no one on that side of the family she could stay with. Her mother had died some years before, but in addition to Isabelle, she had some aunts and uncles living in central Texas, in Abilene, where she’d grown up. A phone call revealed that one of these aunts, whose children were grown and living on their own, had a couple of spare bedrooms to offer. Thanks to all her double shifts, Jennifer had enough money squirreled away to pay for three bus tickets from Chicago to Abilene. With her aunt’s offer in hand, she gave notice at Catalina, explaining to her boss, “I can’t continue to work like this anymore.”
Jennifer, Kaitlin, and Cole took off for Abilene in March. Few who have taken a two-day, round-the-clock, cross-country bus trip would relish the opportunity to relive the experience. You can’t shut out the constant drone of the bus, can’t get comfortable in the cramped seats, and can’t avoid the smells emanating from the restroom that runs out of paper towels on day one. Nobody on the bus wants to be there.
Throughout the trip, Kaitlin, age nine at the time, never stopped moving. She flipped the seat-back tray table up and down, up and down, up and down. Luckily, she has always had a way of charming adults, so she could get away with that sort of behavior without completely infuriating her fellow passengers. Coke-bottle glasses and bobbing hair, perpetual energy and infectious smile, all come together to produce something irresistible in Kaitlin. As Jennifer puts it, “Kaitlin is a very sweet, very lovable little girl … People just gravitate toward her.” Kaitlin’s magic has gotten them out of more than one jam over the years. The owner of an after-school program was so taken with her that when Jennifer ran out of money, she let both kids stay in the program for free. Then she gave Kaitlin a brand-new scooter.
Cole, who was six at the time, is a striking child, too, with smooth brown skin and penetrating eyes. He’s far more reserved than his sister. The two kids usually get along, but every now and again he lashes out, resenting all the attention that Kaitlin attracts. One day, jealousy got the best of him as Kaitlin rode her new scooter down the street, and he shoved her so hard that she fell and suffered a hairline fracture in her wrist. On the bus headed for Texas, however, he was easier to amuse than his sister. He could get lost for hours in the games Jennifer had loaded on her cell phone (no minutes, but lots of games).
When they finally got to Abilene and to her aunt’s home, Jennifer remembers that “things were going pretty well there for a while … It’s a beautiful town, you know, it’s nice. I mean, there’s not a lot of violence.” The house had ample room to accommodate them. Another uncle and his wife lived just down the street, a partial re-creation of the close-knit community she remembered from childhood.
Jennifer was happy to leave her Chicago aunt’s home with all its drama behind, but she quickly discovered that living with her Texas relatives presented its own set of challenges. Some of her cousins were in jail or on probation, while others had succumbed to drug addiction. (Jennifer sometimes jokes that she feels “like [the] black sheep [of the family] because I’ve never been arrested!”) Few were in stable relationships or held steady jobs. Even so, they were a tight-knit family. “We grew up together, and I love my family … My aunts and uncles, they were always there for me, anything I needed, any problems, I could always go talk to them, and I was always staying at someone’s house, you know, my cousin’s house, her house, his house, you know … I don’t have any brothers or sisters, I’m an only child. So my cousins were my brothers and sisters.”
Try as she might, however, Jennifer “just couldn’t seem to make a go of it out there. I couldn’t get any stable work. I mean, I would work, but it was here and there, maybe a month here, maybe a month there … It was hard, especially down where we’re from … If you don’t have a vehicle, you’re pretty much SOL.” She was troubled by recurring bouts of depression, something she has suffered from for years. “I wasn’t seeing anyone for my mental health issues … I wasn’t stabilized myself.” Jennifer has always found that the best medicine for her depression is a job. “When I have been working, like I said, it, it seems to help me. Gives me a sense of purpose, you know.” Without work, she often finds herself in a dark place.
As the months dragged on and Jennifer struggled to find work and help her kids adjust to their new environment, tensions began to mount in the household. Her aunt blamed her for not trying hard enough to find a steady job and for not contributing her fair share to the household expenses. When Jennifer’s uncle, José, offered to shelter them in his home down the street, she was tempted. She knew he drank too much, but she respected him nonetheless. He was the head groundskeeper at a local country club. He knew how to hold down a steady job, a good-paying job, one with responsibilities. Maybe he was even someone Cole could look up to as a role model, minus the drinking.
Once again, Jennifer and the kids packed up their stuff and headed to their third home in less than a year. Luckily, this time it was just down the street. Kaitlin and Cole wouldn’t have to change schools, and they’d still be safe, surrounded by family members who, for all their faults, Jennifer believed had her kids’ best interests at heart. Although, even as they made the move, Jennifer was starting to panic, wondering when a real job was going to appear. She was running out of moves. Her family had stood by her so far, but how long could she expect them to keep propping her up?
What happened next made her long for the twelve-hour days at Catalina, with Andrea and Carlos screaming at each other through the night. “I never expected that, you know. I mean, [José] was a grown man, he’s in his fifties. He’s an adult and takes care of himself, he’s had a steady job, he’s worked at the country club for over twenty years.” When she talks about it, her voice gets even softer than usual, and the pace of her words slows, as though she can barely bring herself to say it.
“He molested Kaitlin.” Walking in on the pair in a back bedroom one day, Jennifer “caught him in the act. Caught him standing over her with his pants down. He was standing over her … He was obviously drunk.” Jennifer had been out running errands, but José should have known that she might walk in on them at any moment.
“I think I just … grabbed her.” She remembers yanking Kaitlin away as José reeled backward. Jennifer raced around the house to find Cole and grabbed him by the back of his collar, then she “ran with them and [we] locked ourselves in [our] room.”
Huddled in the bedroom for hours—panicked, dazed, and clinging to her kids for dear life—Jennifer wrestled with what to do next. Finally, she shoved what clothing she could into a single bag, and the three of them ran through the front door and out onto the street, leaving most of their things behind. They landed, shell-shocked, on the doorstep of the local Salvation Army.
Jennifer remembers the staff told her that “normally [they] only deal with recovering addicts. Basically they’re taking single individuals, you know, women and men. [But] they said they would make the exception because Kaitlin was so small, because she was a child.” The facility offered only open dorms, however, which given the circumstances just wasn’t going to work. At a minimum, the three of them needed a private place to sleep, a door that locked at night. So the staff “converted one of their offices into a bedroom for us … I’m really thankful for them. They really helped us out a lot at that time, ’cuz I was, I was pretty much lost.”
Jennifer half expected that one of her aunts would come to the rescue, especially when she decided to go public with what had happened and press charges. Instead, only Isabelle back in Chicago was supportive, though she had by then rented the first-floor unit to someone else. Jennifer’s Texas kin accused her of destroying the family. Even now, she says, “half of the family hates me, the other half supports me.” Still, she feels she did the right thing. “I did what I needed to do for my daughter, you know … At some point in the future, she would have blamed me, and I couldn’t bear it to live with that. I needed her to know that I did what was within my power to do, to make sure she was okay.”
Housing instability is a hallmark of life among the $2-a-day poor. Children experiencing $2-a-day poverty are far more likely to move over the course of a year than other kids—even than children living in less extreme poverty.Much of this instability is fueled by perilous double-ups, which mark—and often speed—the descent of those who are already suffering from the fallout from nonsustaining work into the ranks of the desperately poor. Every family whose story is told in this book has doubled up with kin or friends at some point, because their earnings haven’t been sufficient to maintain a place of their own. While living with relatives sometimes offers strength and uplift, it can also prove toxic for the most vulnerable in our society, ending in sexual, physical, or verbal abuse. The trauma from this abuse is sometimes a precipitating factor in a family’s fall into $2-a-day poverty, or the calamity that keeps them in such a state for far too long.
The Great Recession will long be remembered for the foreclosure crisis that accompanied it. This crisis has left millions of homes sitting empty across the country, often for years, falling into greater and greater disrepair. As housing prices plummeted and mortgages became harder to come by, fewer and fewer people were ready or able to buy a new home, while others who had lost their homes to foreclosure needed new lodging. Consequently, people who in another era might have owned their own homes flooded the rental market. As the number of people competing for rental units grew, the poor were increasingly squeezed by rising rents or pushed out of the rental market altogether, forced to double up or couch surf.
Yet it would be wrong to pin the inability of so many of today’s poor to find a stable home wholly on the housing collapse of the Great Recession. Doing so might lead to the conclusion that this is a temporary problem that will be alleviated in time. In fact, serious problems with the availability of affordable housing have been apparent for well over a decade. Already in 2001, 63 percent of very low income households were putting more than half their income toward housing, leaving too little for other necessities. As of 2011, that figure stood at nearly 70 percent.
What has caused this ongoing rise in housing costs? Taking the long view, one of the factors driving this trend is the across-the-board improvement in the quality of housing in America. Sixty years ago, lower-end housing was likely to lack such basic amenities as indoor plumbing. Since that time, these features have become standard, even in the cheapest units. This has been a great advancement for our society, but it also means that low-cost housing has become less affordable as a result.
Further, families like Jennifer’s are subject to different rules today than they once were. In Chicago, as well as in virtually every other jurisdiction in the country, child welfare officials deem it inappropriate for a brother and sister to sleep in the same bedroom once they reach a certain age. At some point, if the authorities were to find out that Kaitlin and Cole were sharing a room, Jennifer would be at risk of losing custody due to “neglect.” By today’s standards of child well-being, Jennifer can’t move into a studio apartment to help balance her family’s budget.
The most obvious manifestation of the affordable housing crisis is in rising rents. Between 1990 and 2013, rents rose faster than inflation in virtually every region of the country and in cities, suburbs, and rural areas alike. But there is another important factor at work here that is an even bigger part of the story than the hikes in rent: a fall in the earnings of renters. Between 2000 and 2012 alone, rents rose by 6 percent. During that same period, the real income of the middling renter in the United States fell 13 percent. What was once a fissure has become a wide chasm that often can’t be bridged.
Very recently, a shift in supply and demand has made the crisis even more acute. Since the advent of the Great Recession, the number of extremely low income renters has grown dramatically—up by 2.5 million—while the supply of affordable rentals has remained flat. Because one-third of these low-cost rentals were occupied by higher-income renters, in 2011 only thirty-six affordable units were available for every one hundred renters with extremely low incomes. And most affordable units are older—usually fifty years old or more—and at heightened risk for disinvestment due to the costly nature of upgrades and repairs. It follows that they are the most likely to be deemed “substandard.”
Are exploitative landlords to blame? It is easy to find examples of sleazy operators. Two years before Rae McCormick lost her job at Walmart because George used all her gas money and left her with no gas, Phillip Morris of the Cleveland Plain Dealer detailed the tactics of a pair of notorious landlords. This dynamic duo had perfected the art of what some call “soft evictions”—a poor euphemism for outrageously abusive methods of punishing tenants who are late on the rent. They were accused of removing exterior doors, cutting off power to units by removing the electric meter, and even allegedly smearing a rental’s breaker panel with feces. According to the Plain Dealer, one of their tenants returned home to find that the pair had changed the door locks. When she finally managed to get into her unit, the tenant claimed that someone had stolen random shoes (both hers and her kids’), family photos, and precious poems and drawings the children had brought home from school.
Though in truth, it is very hard for even a principled landlord to supply an affordable unit to a family living on the income that a low-wage job provides. In interviews with 123 landlords renting units to low-income tenants in 2013 and 2014, many claimed that in order to make any profit at all, they had to buy units only when the purchase price was very low (e.g., a unit in disrepair or one located in a low-income neighborhood), purchase it using cash or a mortgage with very favorable terms, and keep their maintenance costs very low.
One such landlord said that he capitalizes on this formula by purchasing single-family homes in Cleveland’s poorer east side neighborhoods with cash and at very low cost (generally $8,000 to $10,000). He then invests minimally in repairs (one way he saves is to paint the hardwood floors brown and the walls, trim, and ceiling a uniform white). When the maintenance or repair costs on the property become too high, he abandons it and purchases another home with cash. By employing these tactics, he’s able to keep his rents affordable. To date, this property owner has purchased more than fifty units on Cleveland’s struggling east side and has abandoned more than a dozen. If these practices are widespread, they may be eating the supply of affordable Cleveland housing stock alive.
A husband-and-wife team with about a dozen lower-rent units on the city’s west side claim they can barely break even with their rentals. Because their tenants so frequently lose hours at work, lose their jobs altogether, or break up, leaving the household with only one earner when making the rent takes two, these landlords manage to collect the full rent on their units only about half the time. When asked what she would do to change things, the wife responded, “Raise the minimum wage!”
HUD seeks to alleviate some of the burden of the high housing costs faced by low-income families through maintaining public housing developments and through the housing choice voucher program, colloquially known as Section 8. While these programs are far from perfect, there’s solid evidence from the gold standard of social science research—a randomized control trial—that they reduce housing instability considerably. Access to a Section 8 voucher, in particular, reduces the chances that a family will be homeless—either doubled up or out on the streets. It lessens by half the share of families living in overcrowded units, and it greatly diminishes the average number of moves a family makes over a five-year period.
But while the cost of housing has grown and wages have stagnated, the size of government housing programs has not kept pace, a trend of reduced investment that began in the 1980s during the Reagan administration. What’s more, the new government housing initiatives of the past few decades have focused on demolishing distressed high-rise public housing and replacing it with smaller, higher-quality mixed-income developments. While this may well improve the living conditions of residents, such a strategy has reduced, rather than increased, the number of affordable units available. Today there are far more people in need of help with their housing expenses than receive it. Only about a quarter of income-eligible families get any kind of rental subsidy. In 2011, a smaller fraction of Americans received any sort of rental assistance from the government than was the case two decades earlier. And twenty years ago, the need was not nearly as great.
In many places, the waiting list for a housing subsidy—or even for an address in the projects—is astonishingly long. During the summer of 2012, when Modonna and Brianna Harris were bouncing around from shelter to shelter in Chicago, the city’s waiting list for a Section 8 voucher or public housing included 85,000 families. To make matters worse, the list was closed. Modonna couldn’t have taken number 85,001 even if she had wanted to. That’s why Jennifer Hernandez never managed to get a housing subsidy before qualifying for La Casa’s program, despite three spells of $2-a-day poverty. And Chicago’s backlog is short compared to New York City’s, where about 268,000 families were in the queue for a voucher or public housing as of March 2013. In the United States, housing assistance is not an entitlement—families are not legally guaranteed help just because their incomes are low. In most places and for most people, rental assistance isn’t something you can easily find in the event of an emergency. Rather, it’s something you should expect to wait years to get. For those who receive help, the benefit is huge. Not surprisingly, those lucky enough to secure a subsidy are often loath to relinquish it.
There are, to be sure, differences in housing markets across the country. Rents in Chicago are relatively high, while those in Cleveland are a bargain in comparison. Rents in the more rural parts of eastern Tennessee and the Mississippi Delta are lower still, but much of the affordable stock consists of decrepit trailer homes. What seems to be universal, though, is that the dwellings in which America’s $2-a-day poor reside are in such terrible condition that few other Americans would be willing to step foot in them, let alone call them home. Susan, Devin, and Lauren Brown’s living room floor was covered with dirty, decades-old, moldy carpeting—the type of carpeting research has confirmed is linked to asthma, nausea, vomiting, and headaches. Over in Cleveland, a two-bedroom house was home to twenty-two extended family members for nearly six months in 2013—and during two of those months, the water was shut off. Children were doubled up in bunk beds in virtually every room, including the basement and tiny, sweltering attic. And in Johnson City, Tennessee, a family of four was evicted in 2013 from a public housing unit when they failed to pay the minimum $25 in monthly rent demanded by the housing authority, even from those with no income. After a few weeks of couch surfing, they landed in a fleabag motel room that was overrun by bedbugs and had no kitchen, waiting for space to open up at the only family shelter in town.
When homeless families with children temporarily double up with relatives and friends, their support might turn out to be an important asset, as it was for Susan and Devin Brown on Chicago’s South Side. Yet many times the kin that poor families have to rely on are not much better off financially than they are, because poverty is too often passed from one generation to the next. If the stories of the families chronicled here are any guide, this appears to be especially true among America’s $2-a-day poor. For Jennifer Hernandez, falling into the arms of her family in Texas proved to be the biggest mistake she ever made, for herself and for her vulnerable children.
In the late 1990s, a team of medical researchers set out to document the prevalence of adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, among a group of mostly middle-aged people. ACEs include emotional, physical, and sexual abuse; emotional and physical neglect; and certain adverse household characteristics. When these researchers surveyed more than 17,000 people from San Diego—most of whom were middle-class and had gone to college—they found alarmingly high rates of ACE exposure. Sixty-four percent reported at least one adverse childhood experience; more than a third had experienced two or more such events. Fully 28 percent had experienced physical abuse, while one in five had a history of sexual abuse.
The ACE study and more recent follow-up studies offer evidence that the experience of abuse, neglect, and other adverse circumstances in childhood is disturbingly common in the American population as a whole. Yet as shocking as these ACE study findings are, poor children are at far greater risk of such experiences. And among the families in $2-a-day poverty, this heightened risk too often stems from their dependence on family and friends.
This isn’t surprising when you consider the circumstances under which abuse is most likely to occur. Take child sexual abuse, the kind that Kaitlin suffered. Such abuse is most often inflicted on a child by someone she or he knows. According to some estimates, roughly 60 percent of abusers are familiar to the child but are not family members, while 30 percent of abusers, like José, are related to the child. Strangers make up only 10 percent of perpetrators. Abusers are also likely to misuse alcohol or drugs. Children who have multiple caretakers are most at risk, as are children who are emotionally vulnerable (as Kaitlin and Cole were when they moved from Chicago to Texas).
Families in $2-a-day poverty who must double up with friends or relatives sometimes find themselves in a perfect storm of risk for sexual, emotional, or physical abuse. They are often powerless, having little means to protect themselves. In addition, they are often already dealing with a crisis—the crisis that drove them to double up in the first place. Parents might be anxious or depressed, not surprising given the high levels of stress related to their housing instability. And they are more likely to be situated in networks that include children and adults who have themselves experienced abuse at some point in their lives, may struggle with alcohol and drug addiction, or may have mental health challenges. Sometimes finding refuge in the mother-in-law suite or spare bedroom of a relative’s home is the best thing to ever happen to the $2-a-day poor. But it can also be the worst.
Ever since her father died, Rae McCormick’s life has been a search for family—family she can care for, family she can rely on. Despite her deep and abiding love for her father, Rae has only a few memories of him. Only by looking at the single photograph of him in her possession—showing a handsome, wiry man standing beside a bright red motorcycle—does Rae remember bits and pieces about him. “My dad raised me that you work for everything you have. That way, in the end of the day, you can feel good that you did that. That came from you. I believe that you should work for everything you have and people shouldn’t just give you things. I don’t like pity.”
When Rae’s father first got really sick, her brother, Jordan, ran away and her sister, Mary Lou, went south to live with extended family in Tennessee. Then Rae’s dad died and her mother abandoned her, leaving the eleven-year-old to fend for herself. From then on, “it was crazy … I had to put myself through fifth grade, which means that I had to get myself up for school and take myself to school … The landlord … was a really good friend with my dad, so he didn’t turn me in. He kind of helped me and let me live there rent-free.”
Meanwhile, Rae’s mother moved from boyfriend to boyfriend, bouncing back and forth between Appalachia and Cleveland. Each month, however, her mother would send her the $300 or so in Social Security survivor’s benefits to which she was entitled because of her father’s death. Money in hand, she would navigate the dangerous blocks between her Cleveland apartment and the local liquor store, the closest place to pay the gas and light bills. Given her tiny frame—even now, she’s only five foot two—she could barely see over the counter. It was the liquor bottles on the high shelves behind the bulletproof glass and not the cashier that caught her eye as she stood on tiptoes to complete her transactions. Wherever she went, she was careful, because there were “gangs, Crips and Bloods, everywhere.” She remembers a time when she called the police on an intruder who was crouching on the porch roof outside her bedroom window. They never came. Terrified to be so alone, she acquired a pit bull named Sweetie. (Because of safety concerns, pit bulls are common among the residents of Cleveland’s Stockyards neighborhood. Rottweilers are second in popularity, for the same reason.)
After about a year of living alone, Rae recalls, her aunt Wilma in Tennessee got wind of the fact that she was on her own. “Out of nowhere my aunt and my cousin showed up. I looked out the window and I’m like, ‘Who the hell is banging on the door?’ I hadn’t seen them in years. So I went down there and I opened the door … And when they walked in and seen that I was there by myself, nobody else was there, just the dog, they … went immediately right back down to Tennessee and told my sister, ‘You need to go up there. Something’s going to end up happening to your sister. She’s too young to be by herself.’”
So Mary Lou and her husband begrudgingly moved up north to care for Rae. These new guardians “snatched me out of that house pretty quick” (to evade the child welfare authorities) and moved into an apartment that had no heat or running water. It was all they could afford. That first winter, Rae got so sick she was hospitalized twice for pneumonia. Two of her brother-in-law’s friends also moved in, an ex-con who had served time for murder and a man Rae believed was a paranoid schizophrenic. Then Mary Lou “started acting like my mother” and ran off, leaving Rae alone in the apartment with the three men for about a year. Finally, Rae’s mother signed over custody of her daughter to a friend in Cleveland who was willing to take Rae in, as long as Rae’s Social Security checks were turned over to her. The woman evicted Rae the moment she turned eighteen and those checks stopped coming.
After bouncing around from place to place, Rae, now twenty-one, met the man with whom she would conceive her only daughter, Azara. Donny has never worked regularly. He lives rent-free with his mother, sister, cousin, and cousin’s girlfriend in a three-bedroom house owned by his grandparents. He and his sister score cash by selling plasma twice a week, but Rae and Azara see none of that money. For years, he has talked vaguely about enlisting in the army, and he has turned the garage into a gym where he works out constantly—at least when he isn’t sleeping or playing video games on a big TV he mounted on the wall.
Rae laments, “It wasn’t even a month after we met that I ended up getting pregnant.” At first, Rae moved in with Donny in an effort to form a stable environment for their coming child, but things were rocky right from the start. “When I was pregnant, I found out he was screwing around with somebody else. I left, but after Azara was born, I came back like an idiot and got played two different times.”
Stung by his infidelities, Rae moved in with her friend Danielle, herself a mother of three, and a group of other childhood friends who were sharing a house on a street where virtually every other property was burned-out. When the water and power were shut off in that house and a woman was raped in the abandoned garage next door, she decided it wasn’t a safe place to raise a child.
Once again, she was back with Donny. Over the years, she’s tried to live with him several more times, but these stints have always ended in disaster. Even when she was pregnant, she was relegated to the house’s unventilated basement, down a long flight of stairs. Violence was an everyday occurrence. Once, Donny smashed her cell phone against the wall. On another occasion, he dislocated her jaw (“I had to like, literally, like force it to go back in”). Another time, she got into a fight with Donny’s mom, who demanded that she turn over her SNAP card as rent (even though no one in the home paid rent to the grandparents who owned the house). The last time she was living there, Rae says, Donny “grabbed me by my throat … then he choked me to the ground and tried to kill me.” But it wasn’t until Donny admitted to having slept with a fifteen-year-old girl that Rae decided she had to leave the house for good. “I don’t think I’ve decked anybody harder in my life … And I’m like, ‘If I get called in court, I’m telling them that your custody should be stripped.’”
After that, Rae found herself on the move again, and she is once again back living with George and Camilla. Now four years old, Azara is a bright and cheerful girl who loves the Nickelodeon cartoon Dora the Explorer and is always disassembling her toys to see how they work. Since the last time Rae and Azara lived with George and Camilla, they have taken in three boarders. Initially, the entire group rented a three-bedroom house on Cleveland’s east side, in what they refer to as “the hood.” When a gunman opened fire just down the block, injuring thirteen children, they decided it was time to move back to Rae’s childhood neighborhood, the Stockyards.
“I wouldn’t let my dog live in conditions like this,” one friend remarked after visiting Rae at their new place.
From the outside, the nature of this home is hidden: no slouching rooflines, unlike so many of the other houses in the neighborhood. Uniform gray metal siding—the indestructible type from the 1970s—gives it a look of solidity. It is a classic Victorian farmhouse—two stories, with the second-floor bedrooms carved out of the eaves. The house sports a large front porch with scarred, yet unbroken, floorboards. Out back is every parent’s dream: a fenced-in yard. This one is littered with broken glass and an old tire, but it is full of potential as a play space for Azara, with enough room for the backyard garden that Rae has always dreamed of.
The day after the move, the porch is filled with junk. An old leatherette couch that was damaged beyond repair during the move is jammed into the back corner of the U-Haul truck, its stuffing escaping everywhere. A few black plastic bags filled with clothes are propped up against it. Their labels read size XXL, so they must belong to George and Camilla’s boarder Big Art, who stands more than six foot five and weighs roughly 265 pounds. Art is only sixty years old, but he can’t get around without a walker. He lets the commotion swirl around him while he sits on the porch steps, curbing his two dogs on their rusted chains. One dog clearly has a skin disease—his nose and forehead, plus parts of his back, are hairless and covered with bloody scabs. These are not pets for petting, unless you are Art. To him they are the only family he’s got.
It’s Big Art’s smell and appearance that give the first clues to what lies within the relatively solid exterior of this home. As he scratches the heads of his dogs, who run up and down the stairs to the porch, passersby find it hard not to stare. There is a large, hairless knot on the top of Art’s head that is over an inch tall and an inch in diameter. He’s entirely bald, so there is no covering it up. Broken blood vessels form dense webs under his eyes, almost making it look as if he has two shiners. He usually doesn’t wear shoes because it’s hard to fit them over his swollen feet—an effect, he believes, of one of the forms of cancer that ail him—and his curled-over, yellow toenails are more than an inch long. He’s worn the same khaki work shirt and matching pants for days now, ever since the move, so anyone standing near him is overpowered by the stench of sweat and urine. But he’s not the only one who smells; everyone does, at least a little. There’s no washer or dryer in the house, and the Laundromat costs money.
Big Art was taken in by his old friends George and Camilla when his incontinence and difficulty walking (Rae says there is cancer in his legs) threatened to land him in a nursing home. Keith, already balding and stooped in his twenties, and his fiancée, Tiffany, blonde and with a penchant for plunging necklines, came to live with the couple when they were evicted and had no place else to go. On the one hand, George and Camilla are heroes—taking in needy friends, perhaps out of the goodness of their hearts. On the other hand, Big Art turns over the $1,300 he receives in government disability to George in exchange for food and shelter. Keith and Tiffany contribute Keith’s monthly disability check of $750 and Tiffany’s SNAP card. George is adamant that all the money come to him. Rae says that George “believes that he should have the money so he can deal with everything hisself, which I think is his way of scamming people and doing other stuff.”
Despite these suspicions, George and Camilla are the closest thing to family that Rae’s got, besides Azara. When Rae has a spell of bad dreams, she asks George if Azara can sleep with them, “because I don’t wanna wake up in the middle of the night and swing and then my daughter has a messed-up face because I had a dream that somebody attacked me.” And when George and Camilla fight, Rae often ends up playing mediator, “because I’m the only one that can get through to [George].” She tells him, “Look, you’re about to lose your woman that you’ve been with for how long because you wanna be stuck-up and keep your pride? Put that shit down in the corner for a minute and go save your relationship.”
George, who reads at a first-grade level (his mental limitations are what earn him his own SSI check of $620 a month), relies on Rae to help decipher the bills and get them paid. He cuts her considerable slack on the rent, since she’s unemployed, but she does have to turn over her SNAP card. In turn, she tries to make herself indispensable—cleaning, cooking, and looking after Big Art—all in an effort to make sure she can continue to claim the bedroom that she and Azara share, both of them sleeping on a single air mattress that just about fills the tiny room.
Camilla plans the meals. She uses the two SNAP cards she “keeps” for Tiffany and Rae to shop for groceries. These two cards are meant to buy food for four people and can’t be stretched to feed seven—not by a long shot. It’s George and Rae, the two thinnest and most altruistic members of the household, who go without eating so the others don’t go hungry. Rae always makes sure Azara has enough, but she herself may go days without food toward the end of the month. In Rae’s mind, this isn’t a big sacrifice, because she often doesn’t have an appetite anyway. “Like I didn’t eat for four days because I wasn’t hungry … To be honest, I’m so used to it that I don’t even feel it anymore. I don’t feel it at all anymore.” What she can’t do without, though, is her cigarettes. George provides cigarettes for all the adults in the household. Beyond the rent and the water and sewer bills, cigarettes constitute the household’s biggest single expense.
Inside, low ceilings trap the smoke of five smokers. With only two operational electrical outlets in the home, the floors are covered with an extension cord spaghetti that trips up Azara and her neighborhood friends as they chase each other from room to room. By certain measures, the adults who share this home enjoy some luxuries. Everyone has a cell phone. The house has cable—it was the first thing George had installed. But the first and second floors have no water supply. The kitchen has no functioning stove. Cooking is done on a charcoal grill outside.
To rent the house, George was required to provide evidence that he had turned on the water and electricity in his name—a poor man’s credit check for a landlord with only bad tenants to choose from. But between the time the last tenant vacated the house and George and his crew moved in, someone stripped the basement of all its copper piping, no doubt sold at lightning speed to one of the scrapyards lying side by side on 65th Street. The landlord says he has no plans to repair the damage. Should the new tenants try to force him to do something about it? Probably best not to, they decide, given how many people not on the lease are living here. It’s not exactly easy to hide Big Art.
Instead, Rae and Camilla, who along with Tiffany are the only adults not on disability, take turns descending the narrow cellar stairs with five-gallon buckets in each hand. They turn on the water long enough to fill them with the stream that spews from the broken pipe protruding from the wall. After filling the buckets, they haul them back upstairs. Endless trips are needed. Both of the toilets need a gallon of water to flush. Drinking water must be secured, for both humans and dogs. Dishes must be washed. Due to his incontinence, Big Art must be bathed at least once a day. (George takes care of this chore.) Azara must be bathed, too. Rainy days are a godsend, as she can simply be sent out to play, letting the rainwater wash her.
Rae and Camilla also take turns in the basement trying to restore water to the rest of the house. They borrowed a Sawzall from a friend and are using it to cut through some PVC piping they found lying around, which they hope can be jury-rigged to replace the missing copper piping and connect to the water line going upstairs. Big Art claims to have done some plumbing in his day, and he coaches them from where he sits atop the cellar stairs. Rae finds his advice less than convincing.
In the end, what makes this house seem most unlivable is its odor. Beyond Big Art’s incontinence, beyond the fact that all five adults smoke, beyond the smell of the dogs, beyond the moldy furniture—the house just smells old. It smells like a vacant property. Until recently, when the prior tenant finally forced the landlord to replace the roof, it leaked like a sieve. The waterlogged plaster walls swell up when there is any hint of moisture in the air. The ceilings sag. The little lean-to roof over the kitchen at the back of the house is so low that everyone but petite Rae must crouch down to move around in there. When walked on, the floorboards in the kitchen creak so loudly that they seem to threaten to cave in at any moment.
This house is just one of the dozens of addresses that twenty-five-year-old Rae has called home over the years. In some months and in some places, she has lived below the $2-a-day threshold. At other times, she has been above it, as she is now, courtesy of her housemates’ disability checks (which she herself never sees). But whether she has slipped into $2-a-day poverty or is just barely out of it, her circumstances don’t seem that different. She’s always a boarder, never making enough money to rent a home of her own, even in Cleveland. And always, it is only a matter of months before she determines that the living conditions in her new place are unsustainable. “Change of address” is the lot of the $2-a-day poor.
If Rae McCormick ever filled out an ACE questionnaire, she would blow a hole through the top of the scale. “I’ve been beat. I’ve been raped,” she reports matter-of-factly. The ACE survey asks whether your family made you “feel special, loved” and was “a source of strength, support and protection.” Rae’s father made her feel special and loved, it’s true, and she’s been holding on to that feeling for fourteen years. But since he died, no one in her life has ever made her feel that way. In fact, just the opposite is true.
One of the items on the ACE survey that she may never have seen in her childhood home is “mother treated violently.” But that’s probably only because Rae’s mother abandoned her at age eleven. However, Rae’s mother was known to take her daughter with her when she rendezvoused with a lover. “I’d be staying at some random guy’s house and I’d be sleeping in a chair and she’d be screwing him not even ten feet from me.” Where does that fit on the ACE scoring chart?
Exposure to just one ACE event seems to negatively affect a child’s life chances, but what about the effect of multiple and repeated occurrences? The ACE researchers reported that “ACEs were not only unexpectedly common, but their effects were found to be cumulative.” So the more adverse experiences someone has in childhood, the worse their outcomes are likely to be as an adult. In Rae’s case, she has suffered from numerous adverse experiences, many with repeated and prolonged exposure. And those experiences didn’t stop when she became an adult. If anything, her circumstances deteriorated further, and that was because she lost the only thing keeping her in her legal guardian’s house—the little bit of income support she had.
Rae likely suffers from the effects of what researchers refer to as “toxic stress,” defined as “strong, frequent, or prolonged activation of the body’s stress response systems in the absence of the buffering protection of a supportive, adult relationship.” She is on near-constant high alert—never knowing when a new threat may emerge or an old one may reappear. And she is always dealing with crisis in one form or another. Exposure to toxic stress affects people mentally and even physically. It can impair “executive functions, such as decision-making, working memory, behavioral self-regulation, and mood and impulse control.” It “may result in anatomic changes and/or physiologic dysregulations that are the precursors of later impairments in learning and behavior as well as the roots of chronic, stress-related physical and mental illness.” Toxic stress can literally wear you down and, in the end, kill you.
Memory loss is very common in people who have been exposed to the conditions Rae has faced. And she certainly has impaired mood and impulse control. She takes medication for her high blood pressure and is going blind in her right eye. She has lost all her teeth. Recently, she reports, “I fucked up my knee. I’m having, like, pains that would, like, literally send most people to the hospital, but because I have a high pain tolerance because of how I used to be a cutter, … I can withstand it.” The local corner store, just a block down the street, displays photos of a number of neighborhood residents behind the bulletproof glass that separates the proprietor from his customers, including one of Rae at sixteen—a strikingly lovely young woman. Now, at twenty-five, she’s aged almost beyond recognition. With all these ailments, she seems like a prime candidate for Supplemental Security Income, or SSI, but she won’t apply, “because I don’t wanna just sit around.” She views herself as a worker. Going on disability would be a disappointment to her father up in heaven. That’s something she just couldn’t bear.
She deals with the pain by keeping busy. “My stomach is really hurting. You know what? ‘Let me get up and move around. Let me do this. Let me do that.’ And then the pain will, you know, slowly … die off.” But if constant activity is the best medication, a close second is smoking. The fact that she would rather go without food than cigarettes points to the extent to which smoking helps ease the chronic pain she’s in, whereas food just doesn’t. Hunger pangs are mild in comparison to everything else that ails her.
Rae wants to do her absolute best to protect Azara. But the circumstances she finds herself in put her little four-year-old at immense risk. Trauma and the reverberations of toxic stress ripple through generations, from parent to child, sometimes even grandparent to parent to child. Rae’s past has boxed in Azara’s life chances, which in turn may impinge on those of her own children.
In Jennifer Hernandez’s case, her mother, too, was sexually abused, and Jennifer herself wrestles with mental illness. Now Jennifer’s daughter, Kaitlin, her “very sweet, very lovable little girl,” will carry with her the experience of sexual abuse for the rest of her life. With luck, she will be better off as a result of her mother’s resolve to confront what happened in Texas, better off for Jennifer’s determination to make José pay for what he did and her efforts to get Kaitlin the help she needed. Maybe with these heroic acts—which cost Jennifer her family’s support—she can help Kaitlin break the cycle of trauma that has marked at least three generations of her family.
What Rae wants—more than anything in the world—is two things. First, she wants a job that she can throw herself into, fully and completely. Like Jennifer, she is happiest when she is working. Work is the only place where she can come even close to escaping her demons. So she needs a job with a livable wage, and a job that can act as a source of stability rather than instability. She needs a job like those that so many middle-class Americans go to every day.
Second, she wants a little place for herself and Azara—a place where they can be together, play together, be a family; a place where they can drown out the noise around them. There’s nothing that Rae dreams of more than a home of her own—what would be “our first place together as a family.” She smiles as she fantasizes about what being on their own would look like for her and Azara. “We can start it all over. We can have our own dinners together. I can play with her more. I don’t have to hear, ‘Oh, this happened,’ and there’s screaming in the background, and I can just relax and enjoy being with my daughter.” In Rae’s mind, getting her own place is the key to building a new life. “When I get my own place, I’ll save up money and I’ll start getting stuff slowly … Azara will come first. After that, then I’ll think about furniture and stuff.” She’ll keep her costs low so she can afford to buy the things they need. “I’ll buy some portable frying things you plug into a wall. Yeah, I’ll cook dinner like that until I can afford to get what I need.” She doesn’t know exactly what order other things will come in, but she knows what will be first: “I want to get [Azara] her own Dora [the Explorer] bed.” In their current room, Rae says, “I have this Dora [poster] hanging up. In her room at the new house, I’m hanging that up over her window. So she’s gonna have a decked-out Dora room.”
Research suggests that if Rae succeeded in getting such a place, her own life, and especially Azara’s life, would be much better for it. Would they make it in the end? Would Rae be able to mute her inner rage and hold down a job? Would she be able to keep their little place over time? Or would she flame out and end up back in the basement at Donny’s or living with George and Camilla? No one can know for sure.
But what is clear right now is that Rae, in her current circumstances (and in the circumstances faced by families all across the United States), basically has no shot at achieving this dream. She has virtually no shot at getting Azara that room decked out in Dora gear in their own little place. Housing is too expensive, the jobs she might get pay far too little, and there’s too little help.