“We’re okay. In fact, we’re very fortunate in some ways. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a struggle.”
Seated at an octagonal table in a local coffee shop, Susan Diane Mitchell reflects on the realities of the post-Great Recession economy in Birmingham. She is thoughtful, speaking softly but with stoic frankness of the difficulties she and her domestic partner, Majadi Baruti, have encountered in the ongoing search for full-time employment that is commensurate with their skills, abilities and needs. At Mitchell’s left, Baruti nods wryly as his partner talks about walking the tightrope between “self-employment” and “unemployment.”
The meaning of employment, 2014
“You do what you can do, and sometimes you do what you have to do,” the 48-year-old Mitchell says. A Washington, DC native, she grew up mostly in Oakland, California. She attended Spelman College in Atlanta for three years on scholarship, and then moved to Alabama to complete her bachelor’s degree at Jacksonville State University. She earned her master’s degree in English and American Literature at UAB over several years while also holding down a job, and has lived in Birmingham since.
Mitchell taught at the community college level, but has not been in a classroom since 2011, when she began experiencing physical problems (“One day, I just couldn’t even stand up,” she says of the onset of her health issues) that put her on the state’s disability rolls. Unable since to find a job that offers both the chance to use her specialized training and experience and the flexibility that her physical limitations demand, she has become an entrepreneur — freelance editing, creating and selling art and jewelry — out of necessity. This doesn’t make her unique, she quickly notes.
“My situation is common among people with a disability that keeps them from working in a traditional kind of way,” Mitchell says. “There are so few opportunities out there, in terms of work that is meaningful. By that, I mean work that doesn’t border on wage slavery, a job that does something more than make worse the inequalities that wage earners live with. Our culture doesn’t really have time for that.”
Baruti, 45, grew up in Chicago, and bears with pride a predominant trait of that city’s civic DNA, the penchant for social activism and community organizing. He attended “several colleges,” he relates, but never managed to sit still long enough to get a degree.
“I’d enroll,” Baruti explains. “I’d go to the classes for a while, and I learned a lot from some of them. But then I’d get active in some cause and get totally into that, so going to class would become less important. I saw the value of organizing, and so I became involved in activism as a way of life. I felt called to do that.”
Over the years, Baruti’s community-based activism landed him for extended periods in Washington, DC, New York City and Newark, New Jersey. Then it took him to Youngstown, Ohio, where he wound up being hired as on-air talent at a local R&B radio station. He augmented that exposure with public speaking engagements, and found new opportunities becoming available to him. Outside of New York, Charlotte was the largest banking center in America, and Baruti moved there to take a job with what then was Wachovia. Upward mobility seemed like a sustainable concept, he says now.
That changed with a pair of blows that came at the end of the new century’s first decade. When the financial sector began reacting to the onslaught of the recession in 2009, Baruti’s days in the banking industry were numbered. Working under that added stress for several months, his health suffered. By the time he lost his job in 2010, he had been diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, an autoimmune disease of the large intestine, for which the only known cure is surgery that is both invasive and expensive — the latter especially true if the patient, like Baruti, has either no or inadequate health insurance.
During roughly the same time period, Baruti and Mitchell met in Charlotte. He moved to Birmingham to live with Mitchell in a house she bought several years ago, when she had a steady income. He contributes to the household income by doing odd jobs around the neighborhood and helping Mitchell with her jewelry and art business. Meanwhile, his job search yields little in the way of results.
“I’ve put in hundreds of applications,” Baruti says. “I don’t get much in the way of replies. I get people who want me to go to trade school. Man, I’m 45 years old. I have a lot of useful skills and a lot of experience with life. But I’m in that middle ground, where it’s almost impossible at my age to find something that is going to maintain us, that is useful to the community, and where the fact that I don’t have a degree doesn’t disqualify me automatically.
“It makes you think about what the word employment even means anymore. It sure doesn’t mean what it used to.”
Working harder, getting poorer
The unenviable “middle ground” on which Mitchell and Baruti find themselves is indicative of the seismic changes afoot on the macroeconomic landscape. In recent years, we have entered into a world unlike anything ever seen by anyone born after the Great Depression and World War II — a place where the very notion of long-term employment is becoming a thing of the past and the expanding concept of who constitutes the “working poor” looms ever larger in our present and future.
“For the people we serve, employment is a way out of poverty,” says Dr. Marquita Davis. “But that’s only if that employment provides a livable wage, a means of sustaining families. Often, though, it’s not actually that. That is the unfortunate reality we’re dealing with.”
Davis is executive director of the Jefferson County Committee for Economic Opportunity. Established in 1965 as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society program, JCCEO and its staff of nearly 500 provide a range of social services to the county’s low-income residents. Davis sees firsthand the obstacles that confront people who want to work their way out of poverty, but can only find work that keeps them there.
“For so many people,” says Davis, “the only employment they find is low-wage and long hours. Usually, it’s also some distance from where they live. So now, transportation becomes a barrier, especially if you don’t have a car. The responsibilities of navigating all of that can be extremely difficult.
“We are dealing with thousands of people every year who are unemployed or underemployed,” Davis adds. “Sometimes I feel like we’re spinning our wheels.”
In Birmingham as in other high-poverty urban areas across the country, unemployment in general and underemployment in particular reflects the changing relationship between poverty, the availability of jobs and the quality of jobs available. According to the most recent edition of The State of Working America, a periodic publication of the nonpartisan Economic Policy Institute, income inequality has been the single largest factor contributing to higher rates of poverty over the past 40 years — an influence that is only growing as the gap between rich and poor continues to widen and the middle class continues to erode at an alarming rate.
Before the mid-1970s, reads the 12th edition of the book, published in 2012, economic growth in the United States was associated with falling poverty rates. If that relationship had held, poverty would have been eradicated in the 1980s. The decoupling of rising growth and falling poverty, however, means that Americans are working longer and harder but becoming poorer and less economically secure.
“This is where I am right now”
It is dinnertime at the Firehouse Shelter, but Louis and Brandon make time to spend a few minutes with a visitor. Both men — Louis is 46, Brandon, 26 — say they don’t know where they’d be without the shelter, which has operated for more than 30 years from a century-old fire station that is becoming increasingly inadequate to help meet the basic needs of Birmingham’s homeless population. But both are also what might be called incidental clients, who see the shelter as what Louis calls a “stepping stone.”
“They’re helping me get back on my feet,” Louis says. “If not for this shelter, I would have been out on the street, and who knows what could have happened?”
He’s from New Jersey and had never been in Birmingham in his life until a few weeks ago, when his car gave up the ghost here as he was passing through on his way home from Louisiana. Even so, he discusses his situation with an air of cheerful acceptance.
“I’m blessed,” Louis declares. “I mean, I’m alive, I found this shelter, I’ve got a job, I get my first paycheck tomorrow. That means I can get some clothes. I can start looking for an apartment, saving up to put down a deposit. Eventually, I’ll have enough money to find another car. Birmingham has been good to me.”
Brandon, the younger man, is in some ways Louis’ opposite. Where Louis is wiry, Brandon is husky. Where Louis speaks in the rapid tones of the urban Northeast, Brandon, while well-spoken, sounds like just what he is — a kid from Hueytown who’s a little overwhelmed by the chain of events that brought him to a homeless shelter.
“My wife took off about a month ago,” Brandon says. “She took the only car we had. I had a job with a landscaping company, but I couldn’t get to work without a car, so I got fired.” With no job — and no prospects that didn’t involve the need for reliable transportation — Brandon lost his apartment and soon after found himself at the Firehouse.
“This is a really decent place,” he says of the shelter. “It’s good to have a place to lay my head at night when I get off work, but it’s more than that. They encourage you to help yourself, and to understand that sometimes you just have to go through some things to be able to do that.”
Louis is working on a construction site less than a mile from the shelter, while Brandon caught on with a landscaper whose office is several blocks away. Both walk to work, though Brandon is transported from the office to wherever he is needed that day — and has to pay the driver who transports him out of his own earnings. Such challenges aside, each stresses that he had no problem finding work.
“For this kind of work, you just have to get out there and look,” Brandon says. Louis offers a slightly different take.
“At this point, I’m very thankful for the job I have,” says Louis. “But I have skills to do other things. I used to drive an 18-wheeler. I’ve had jobs where I’ve dealt with different people and situations. But this is where I am right now, and all I can do is be thankful.”
The employment gap
Anne Wright is the executive director of the Firehouse Shelter. The gap between skills and available work is one that extends into her organization’s work with the homeless — and, she says, into the public’s perception of poverty in general.
“Some people in poverty have been in poverty their entire lives,” Wright observes. “People in that situation, where the opportunities to develop skills have just not been present, can be very hard to place in jobs. So can people in their 40s and 50s who have health problems like diabetes and high blood pressure and no health insurance or access to the services they need to manage those diseases. If they can’t do manual labor, they are almost impossible to place.
“But some of the clients we see have skills,” Wright continues. “One of the misconceptions concerning the homeless is the idea that these are people who have never given anything to society, never held a job or accomplished anything. But many of the people who come to our shelter, especially among those in addiction, come in with an active résumé. I think that’s a real challenge to our community, finding a way to take full advantage of those skills. That would have a big impact on people’s lives and on our local economy.”
Meeting that challenge will require hard work, including some civic heavy lifting of a magnitude that Birmingham, as a community, has been only rarely willing to undertake. Confronting the disease of poverty head-on is a long-term commitment that would require time, effort and resources that historically have been diffused among less ambitious — if often flashier and more immediately gratifying — pursuits.
“It’s not sexy,” declares the JCCEO’s Davis. “Nor should it be. It is hard work. If we’re talking frankly, we’re talking about how this community is going to deal with the impacts of underemployment. I think we are more aware of this than we have been in the past, and I know that there are organizations that are trying to approach poverty in Birmingham from a unified perspective. But when do we move beyond conversation? When do we engage the people who are living in poverty each and every day? Where is the real plan of action?”
Working for change
Birmingham, along with the rest of America, is in the process of redefining — or having redefined for us — what it means to be employed. That means we’re also rethinking the meaning of terms like unemployed, underemployed and self-employed — as well as the definition of poverty itself. As that process unfolds, the perceptions Anne Wright alluded to — that people are poor because they choose to be, that some people simply don’t want to work — are making their presence felt. Marquita Davis dismisses those perceptions out of hand, but also acknowledges their troublesome persistence.
“People want to work,” Davis says. “Meaningful employment contributes so much to self-esteem and the sense of self-worth. It contributes to the stability of families and the strength of the community. If you want to effect change in the community, and promote the long-term growth and health of the community, you have got to invest in the community. You have to do the hard work.”
For Susan Diane Mitchell, the propensity to blame the poor for being poor is “some sort of pathology.” That problem will diminish, she believes, to the extent that the changing dynamics of employment make allowances for non-traditional means of working and encourage entrepreneurialism and community-based economic development. Meanwhile, she just wants people to understand that the link between poverty and employment does not have to be a chain that binds a worker — any worker — to a lifetime of limited opportunity and low expectations.
“Being in poverty does not mean that you have no dignity,” Mitchell says. “It does not mean that you are unworthy of having the opportunity to better yourself, to have a good life. We are doing as well as we can under the circumstances, but we know from experience that our circumstances can change, for better or worse. We’ll just keep working for that change.”