'It's kind of rough': Single parenthood, stalled wages contribute to poverty in Janesville
She rushed around the kitchen, scrubbing gunk off the stove and from inside the refrigerator, which contained little besides a package of hamburger and cases of soda and beer.
Clean clothes sat piled against the bare white walls and on the living room couch. Dirty clothes covered the floor of the laundry room like a carpet.
Mercifully, Kathy’s children were cooperating this morning, a rare reprieve for the single mother of four, she said. The children played cards and watched “SpongeBob SquarePants” before school, except for the youngest, Keegan, who slept wrapped like a burrito in a fuzzy green blanket on the floor.
Kathy, 36, was supposed to go to the Rock County Job Center to look for a job today, but she found out last night that her building manager was coming to visit that afternoon. She desperately tried to find a carpet cleaner who would come to the house that morning.
“I been gonna get them done, but something happened, then something else happened…” she told one company.
That could be the story of Kathy’s life. Something always happens. Nothing goes as planned.
She planned years ago to continue moving up at her factory job in Monroe. She planned to raise her children with their father.
Instead, she’s raising the children on her own, and she struggles to find part-time jobs that fit with her schedule attending school and taking care of the kids. She gets by with the help of federal assistance, child support and Social Security for her 8-year-old son, Cullen, who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
“It’s like I’m a full-time mom, full-time student, work two part-time jobs, as well as being a maid, a doctor….” she said. “Yeah, it’s kind of rough.”
Poverty on the rise
Kathy’s story is becoming more common, local experts say. Poverty is climbing alarmingly in Janesville, and much of the increase comes from single, working parents, they say.
In 2006, Janesville became eligible for the American Community Survey, a yearly study that updates U.S. Census information. The survey measures metropolitan areas of at least 65,000 people.
The survey estimated Janesville’s population in 2006 at 66,000, higher than the U.S. Census’s estimate of 63,000. The American Community Survey uses slightly different methods from the official census, but experts say information from the two is still comparable.
The results show a stunning trend in local economics: The percentage of people living below the federal poverty line in Janesville nearly doubled between 1999—the last year of data measured by the U.S. Census—and 2006, from 6.5 percent to 12.7 percent.
That number is even higher for children. In 2006, 17.1 percent of children—more than one in six—lived in poverty, the study reports.
Doug Venable, Janesville economic development director, urges caution in assessing those numbers. The American Community Survey only studies a random sample of residents, instead of the entire population, so its results aren’t as reliable as the 10-year census. For example, the poverty rate has a 3.3 percent margin of error, meaning it could be 3.3 percent higher or 3.3 percent lower.
Still, the results leave little doubt that poverty is on the rise in Janesville and that local wages aren’t keeping up with inflation or wages in the rest of the country.
It’s hard to point to one factor causing the increase in poverty, but stagnant wages and a lack of jobs for uneducated workers are big pieces of the puzzle, said Lisa Furseth, executive director of Community Action of Rock and Walworth Counties.
“We believe what largely drives the numbers are things like wage growth, wage changes,” she said. “The reality for many people in our community is they’re working hard in jobs that don’t pay family-supporting wages.”
Between 1999 and 2006, median household income actually dropped in Janesville, from $46,0000 to $43,000, though it rose slightly in Rock County overall.
Adjusted for inflation, that’s about a $12,000 drop in annual household income in Janesville.
Some local experts speculate that a decline in manufacturing might have something to do with the stalled wages. Manufacturers such as Parker Pen, Accudyne and General Motors have left the area or drastically reduced jobs.
Those jobs are often replaced with low-paying services jobs that offer few, if any, benefits, said Sherry Quirk, lead economic support supervisor at the Rock County Job Center.
“We basically have been a manufacturing county, and a lot of that has gone,” she said.
Kathy’s story mirrors that trend.
College wasn’t really an option for her—she can’t remember a time when her family wasn’t on food stamps, she said—but she got a job with Advanced Transformer Co. in Monroe after graduating from Albany High School in 1989.
“I was making decent money back then, $9-something an hour,” she said. “I worked my way up.”
But the company started laying off workers and shipping jobs to Mexico, she said. Kathy didn’t like what she saw, so she quit.
The plant eventually reduced its staff before it was bought by Orchid International, a metal stamping manufacturer, in 2004.
Since Kathy quit, she’s worked a series of jobs, often seasonal, part-time or temporary. She worked for two years at Prent Corp. but lost the job after injuring her knee, she said.
Kathy admits that her personal demons have contributed to her poverty and the associated problems. She didn’t know how to manage money when she was younger, she said. She has trouble keeping appointments and concentrating on tasks.
Her relationship with her children’s father didn’t help matters. He did drugs and occasionally abused Kathy during their on-again, off-again relationship, she said.
“I fell in love with somebody that…” Kathy paused, struggling for the right words. “There was four good things that came out of that relationship.”
But now, Kathy is raising those “four good things”—10-year-old Carl, 8-year-old Cullen, 7-year-old Kiara and 5-year-old Keegan—on her own.
“He became the absent parent,” she said. “That’s why we split up, because he didn’t want to grow up. I just decided it was better off for me to be alone.”
Single parents struggle
Families led by single parents—most of them mothers—are at a much greater risk for poverty than two-parent households, research shows. Single parents struggle to balance work with their children’s developmental, educational and medical needs.
Many low-wage employees have little flexibility at work, further hampering single parents, Furseth said. For example, a mother might lose her job for staying home to care for a sick child, or she might have to choose between earning a day’s wages and attending a parent-teacher conference.
In Rock County, 16.5 percent of families with children lived in poverty in 2006, according to the Wisconsin Council on Children & Families. For families headed by women, that number jumped to 45 percent.
“Over the last couple decades, we’ve seen increased numbers of single parents,” Furseth said. “There’s also no question that single parenthood has an impact.”
Breaking the cycle
But Kathy is determined to break the cycle of poverty. After a low point five years ago that included depression, homelessness and losing her children to foster care, she started putting her life back together. She ended her relationship with the children’s father for good, took classes in money management and moved into stable housing.
Today, she and her children live in an old three-bedroom duplex in Janesville’s Fourth Ward. The home isn’t perfect—it’s not well insulated, leading to sky-high heating bills that Kathy can’t afford—but it provides a stable environment and is walking distance from Wilson Elementary School.
Kathy enrolled at UW-Rock County in 2006. She’s working toward an associate degree in social work.
“I decided, you know, what can I do?” she said. “I’m sick and tired of food stamps; I’m sick and tired of the medical card. It’s an embarrassing program to be in.”
Kathy still struggles with the daily grind of poverty. She lost her car in the fall after an acquaintance took it without her permission and crashed it, she said. In the spring, she had to give up her cell phone—the only phone line she has—for a few weeks because she couldn’t afford to pay the phone bill and utility bill.
She had two work-study jobs through UW-Rock County last year, but she couldn’t keep them over the summer because she wasn’t taking summer classes.
After looking for a summer job for a few weeks, Kathy decided it would be better to stay home and care for her children instead. For now, she relies on the $200 a month she gets in child support—when it comes through—and $600 a month she gets from Social Security for her son’s attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, she said. But she’s not too concerned because she knows she’ll get her work-study jobs back in September.
She gets rent, food and medical assistance through the government.
Still, Kathy dreams of the day she will escape poverty. She hopes to become a social worker after earning her degree so she can help people in situations like hers.
“I’ve been there, done that,” she said. “I’ve done lost my kids; I done been on welfare. Food stamps, medical assistance. I’ve used energy assistance.”
She also wants to help people outside of poverty understand what it’s like on the inside.
“So many people out here don’t know,” she said. “They look at people that don’t have the income and the means to do anything. And I say means because they don’t know of things to get them out of these situations. And they look at them like, ‘God, these people are lazy or these people do this…’
“Walk a mile in my shoes.”
Here is a sample monthly budget for Kathy Patrick:
Earnings from part-time jobs at UW-Rock County: $340 Sept.-May; $0 summer
Child support (when it arrives): $200
Social Security for Cullen: $680
FoodShare (formerly known as food stamps): $380
Rental assistance: $716
Total: $2,316 winter; $1,976 summer
Electric: $500 winter; $150 summer
Dog expenses: $75
Total: $2,265 winter; $1,915 summer
View the special section on poverty at gazettextra.com/poverty