This is the third post in TheNation.com’s #TalkPoverty series—an effort to push a deeper conversation about poverty into the mainstream political debate. The series profiles people working on poverty-related issues, and lays out the questions they want President Obama and Governor Romney to answer. You can read the first posts here and here.
In 1967, five years before Jessica Bartholow was born, her father returned home from the Vietnam War a broken man. Although Richard Bartholow had survived a battle lasting several days right next to a network of underground tunnels, the experience severely traumatized him. An Army psychiatrist prescribed lithium shortly before he was discharged.
When he arrived back in the United States, military personnel simply dropped Richard off at the Oakland Commissary.
“There was no consideration for what that would mean for him or his family,” Bartholow told me. “There was no screening, or assistance in transitioning soldiers back to civilian life. There was no understanding that post-traumatic stress disorder can be passed on for generations—that it travels with the family and community.”
Richard lived on the streets for a couple of weeks before phoning his wife, Jacquelyn. She convinced him to tell her where he was and let her bring him home.
Civilian life proved difficult for Richard. Since he had never finished high school, he worked in construction. He also self-medicated by drinking. Rainy season was particularly bad—not only was there little work available, it was also the same time of year that he had originally shipped out to Vietnam.
“My dad would go into a real state that would end with the family in crisis almost annually,” said Bartholow.
As a result, her family moved almost every year between the time Jessica was 5 and 12.
“Unlike today, there weren’t credit scores that resulted in an inability to get housing, so we’d just move on to the next house when we couldn’t pay rent,” she said.
Jacquelyn always worked—as a bookkeeper, salesperson, clerk and donut maker—and then from home when Richard’s condition deteriorated severely.
“He couldn’t leave the house for years, and she had to be there to prevent suicide,” said Bartholow. “She took up laundering and ironing clothes. She did it throughout my high school years to pay the rent and keep things going. But it’s not an easy job, it doesn’t pay well and there were always all kinds of chemicals.”
Like most people in poverty today, Bartholow’s family moved in and out of poverty—sometimes below, and sometimes a little above the threshold.
“We were never middle class,” she said. “We vacillated between poverty and working class—there used to be a distinction in the ’70s and ’80s. I’m not sure there is much of one today with the proliferation of low-wage jobs people are trying to get by on.”
Bartholow and her older sister, Linda, had no books, one pair of shoes each for the year and clothes from the thrift store that her grandmother bought for them on Christmas or birthdays.
“But you don’t really notice those things when you are a kid,” said Bartholow. “The only thing that is truly an experience—that you don’t forget—is hunger. Food is something you notice that other people have, and you don’t.”
Dinners were often peanut butter and bread; lunch at school was frequently a biscuit and an apple from a neighbor’s tree. And then there were the summer and winter breaks.
“It was weeks of Bisquick for breakfast, lunch and dinner,” she said. “As a kid, when you’re living off Bisquick, you know things are bad.”
Bartholow recalls an incident from the fourth grade the day after her grandparents brought over turkey for their Christmas meal. In the refrigerator was a bit of leftover turkey, a couple sticks of butter, and Bisquick. One of her neighborhood friends came over to play, and when she looked in the fridge she wanted the turkey. Jessica said no and the other child couldn’t understand why.
“We ended up fighting over that turkey,” said Bartholow. “Punches, hair pulling, kicking, scratching.”
At 13, Bartholow began working weekends with her family “selling junk we salvaged at the flea market.” A good day meant “fancy deli sandwiches with meat and cheese” for lunch; a slow day meant “donuts or a candy bar.” Shortly thereafter, her sister dropped out of school to work as a nurse’s aid to help support the family. She had asked a guidance counselor if she could finish high school through home study, but the counselor said if her “parents couldn’t keep her clothed and fed then maybe child protective services should be called.”
“My sister never went back,” Bartholow said.
It wasn’t until Jessica was a sophomore in high school—when she refused to purchase a $10 workbook for a class—that a vice principal told her she might be eligible for a school lunch program.
“It was too late for my sister, but it was an incredible relief for me not to have to worry about whether I would have enough money to get lunch throughout the week,” she said.
Despite two working adults, the family experienced not only housing insecurity and hunger, but also a lack of access to affordable healthcare. From ages 6 through 19, Bartholow didn’t visit a doctor unless it was an emergency.
“It had to be stitches or a broken bone,” she said. “Then there was this long, drawn out conversation to make sure it really was a broken bone, it really was an emergency. And you could bet there would be a fight. Because it meant we had to pay money, and that was the money for rent or food. Without healthcare, the option was you go bankrupt, you lose your house—and we did. The tensions ran high because the stakes were real.”
Bartholow and her sister learned not to speak up when they were hurt. In one incident, a sewing needle broke off in Jessica’s foot and she didn’t tell anyone for two weeks. She ended up being treated not only to remove the needle but also for blood poisoning. Linda fell while roller-skating and injured her hip. She discovered as an adult that it had been broken. Now 42, she can’t stand for long periods of time or walk long distances. She also suffers from severe arthritis in an arm and hand due to a break that didn’t heal properly—it was treated initially, but the costs bankrupted the family so there was no follow up.
“Affordable healthcare would have made a real difference in our lives then and in my sister’s life today,” said Jessica.
But the assistance that did really help Jessica—and ultimately her entire family—was financial aid for a college education. She was able to obtain federal Pell grants, and a supplemental education opportunity grant as a first-generation college student. There were also reasonable rates for loans and a credit card that she used to buy books. She was able to pay down her debts within six years of graduating college.
“I’m just not sure that’s an option for too many people today,” she said.
Bartholow calls her college education “significant” for her family in that it helped her to recognize that something was very wrong with their situation—especially the lack of help her father received after serving in Vietnam.
As a graduate student at the University of New Mexico, she bicycled by a small Veterans Administration clinic every day. By that time, Richard’s condition had deteriorated to the point that he no longer would get up from a chair, talked about “giving up,” and always kept his gun nearby.
One day, she walked into the clinic and told a doctor, “My Dad is broken and you need to fix him. He’s going to kill himself one day and everyone else in the house, I think.”
Within an hour, the doctor had Richard on the phone. He offered him a place in a lockdown treatment facility in Menlo Park, not far from Oakland. Jessica had no idea how her father would respond, but he accepted the offer. The VA also helped him apply for veterans’ disability income assistance.
“In the end, this intervention finally stabilized my family’s situation,” said Bartholow.
Today, Jessica works as a legislative advocate for the Western Center on Law and Poverty. She describes her job as “working in different ways to improve access and reduce barriers to basic needs assistance for low-income Californians.” Sometimes it involves crafting legislation or lobbying; sometimes it involves helping with litigation to make sure people aren’t wrongfully denied benefits or services; and sometimes it involves working with the media.
Ten years ago, Jessica told Richard how proud she is of him—his service, his work to care for his family, and finally his effort to care for himself. He said he felt ashamed of what his kids had lost—that he had failed to protect them from a hurtful childhood and that he couldn’t fix that.
“And he’s right that there are things that can’t be fixed,” Jessica says. “You can’t erase what happens to a kid living on Bisquick; or a broken bone that debilitates a sister; or untreated mental health problems that lead to scars. You can only move forward and make things better for people—make sure that what happened to you doesn’t happen to other people, other kids, other parents.”
Here then are Bartholow’s questions for President Obama and Governor Romney:
1) Several prominent studies find that veterans are disproportionately represented among the homeless population, with male veterans 1.25 times more likely to be homeless than non-veteran males and female veterans over four times more likely to be homeless than non-veteran females. Too many other veterans struggle simply to stay housed and keep their families together and safe. As president, what will you do to make sure that our veterans are supported in their re-entry into civilian life—with vocational support that translates their skills into good jobs with good wages; and also support for veterans whose opportunities have been limited by physical or mental injuries?
2) Millions of homeowners and renters are adversely affected by the mortgage crisis: foreclosed homes swamp the housing market and rental prices are driven up as vacancies are at their lowest rates in over a decade. As president, what will you do to make sure that families who have lost homes as a result of the housing crisis are able to secure safe, affordable housing?
3) Recent studies show that the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) block grant program has been ineffective in preventing families from falling into extreme poverty—defined as a household income of less than $11,000 annually for a family of four—and helping them find employment during the recent recession. In fact, despite persistent high unemployment, poor parents have been subject to the same sixty-month lifetime limit on cash assistance and thirty-hour-per-week federal work requirements. (Some states have shorter lifetime limits and require more hours of work per week.) Both of you have supported greater state flexibility to ensure successful outcomes for TANF participants. Can you describe the type of flexibility that you think would be most effective in helping families? And is there a basic human right that shouldn’t be left to a state’s discretion?
4) As candidates, you have both highlighted your commitment to securing the American Dream for every child. Equal access to a high quality high school education regardless of family income is essential to this goal, as is access to post-secondary education for all high school graduates who qualify academically. What do you think is most important in securing economic mobility for all children, regardless of the incomes or educational attainment of their parents, and how will you achieve this?
5) There are many working families today that are like my own growing up—their full-time jobs, even when coupled with weekend and evening work, don’t pay the bills. It forces them to decide what they will have to go without: food, safe housing, utilities or healthcare. What is the appropriate role for the government in improving the likelihood that an honest day’s work earns a living wage?