STUCK IN NEUTRAL
Charlotte Magazine|April 2020
For generations, economists, pundits, and holders of public office have told the poor that pulling themselves out of poverty was just a matter of acquiring the right skills, making the right choices, and having the right attitude. In a city where getting ahead is practically a religion, Cheryl Potts has done a lot right—and she hasn’t gotten far
Pam Kelley

On a Wednesday morning in 2016, in the “Getting Ahead in a Just-Gettin’-By World” class at Southside Homes, a dozen women made a list of daily challenges. As they chimed in about job stress and transportation difficulties, child-care costs and crime, Wanda Anderson, their facilitator, scribbled responses onto a poster labeled, “What’s It Like Now.”

The list grew bleaker with every term Wanda added—grief, loss, domestic violence, health issues, depression. One woman was in recovery for addiction. One had lost a lung but couldn’t quit smoking. Another, Cheryl Potts, described how she hid bouts of sadness from the three-year-old niece she was raising: “I go into the house and take a shower so the little one won’t hear me crying.”

Southside Homes was the oldest public housing left in Charlotte, with nearly 400 red brick apartments on 41 acres. It opened in 1952, when segregation was Charlotte’s official policy. A Charlotte Observer story from the time described the new South Tryon Street development, two miles southwest of downtown, as a “low-rent housing project for Negroes.”

More than 60 years later, its surroundings had changed. Luxury apartments stood in nearby South End. The Harris Teeter on South Boulevard offered a wine bar. Lenny Boy Brewing, with craft beer and organic kombucha, operated next door. But Southside Homes was much the same. Nearly all of its residents were black. Of those able to work, only 23 percent had jobs. Many came from families who’d lived in the city’s poor, black neighborhoods for generations.

The “Getting Ahead” class was part of Jobs Plus, a federally funded program run by the Charlotte Housing Authority, now named Inlivian. It aimed to move residents into jobs and out of public housing. As a journalist focused on the challenges that face poor people, I’d received permission to observe some of the class to try to understand generational poverty and why it’s so hard to escape. That question has shadowed Charlotte since Harvard economist Raj Chetty’s 2014 study ranked the city’s level of economic mobility last out of 50 large U.S. cities. A child born poor here was likely to stay poor, the study found. But why?

Some blame the poor themselves, for bad decisions or moral failings. But poverty researchers point to social structures: low wages, high rents, inadequate public transportation and, in black communities like Southside, systemic racism, beginning with slavery and continuing through centuries of government policies that thwarted the ability of black families to accumulate wealth.

Southside’s program took a middle road. It acknowledged structural inequality but focused its efforts on habits that individuals can change. The premise of the “Getting Ahead” class was that people who lack adequate resources—not just money but assets like good health and emotional strength—live in survival mode, “the tyranny of the moment,” as Wanda described it. They often act on immediate needs and feelings instead of planning for long-term goals. In survival mode, a supervisor’s criticism is countered with an angry outburst. An income tax refund gets spent, not saved. These kinds of behaviors make escaping poverty even harder. The goal of the class was to help participants understand and follow achievement-focused middle-class habits, what the “Getting Ahead” curriculum called “the hidden rules of economic class.”

Cheryl Potts had signed up, figuring she had nothing to lose. She was making $8.50 an hour as a home health aide, working too few hours and struggling to support herself and her niece Jameelah. Though she’d worked most of her life, something always set her back—an illness that kept her out of work, an unexpected car repair, a medical bill. Perhaps the biggest obstacle was her paycheck. Even when she had full-time work, her jobs seldom paid enough to live on. The Jobs Plus program would pay $20 for each class she attended and freeze her monthly rent at $75 through 2019. It also offered a range of services, like job fairs, GED classes, child-care subsidies, and transportation assistance, to help residents find and keep jobs.

The program took aim at appropriate behavior, too. One day, students discussed proper responses when someone made them angry. Robin Anthony described a recent experience in a department store. This was just a day after the violent protests that followed the fatal police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott in September 2016. The white store clerk had ignored her, she told the class, while she urged a white customer to stay safe.

“She kept going on, ‘Now you be careful!’” Robin recalled. She felt hurt that the clerk was unconcerned about her safety, she said, but refrained from cursing the clerk out.

“You handled it really appropriately,” Wanda told her. “You could have started an argument. You were using the middle-class hidden rule—the future is most important.”

Such restraint was especially important at work, Wanda said. If you’ve got a beef with your boss, take it up the chain. And if you can’t resolve it, look for a new job.

“If I get it,” Wanda asked, “do I slap her then?”

Women replied in unison: “No.”

The class ended in December 2016 with a fried chicken

lunch. Wanda snapped group photos. Had there been awards, Cheryl might have won Most Likely to Succeed. She’d landed a full-time, $10.85-an-hour food service job at the airport. She’d already made Employee of the Month. I could have written about Cheryl then. Readers like happy endings.

One of America’s enduring national myths holds that anyone can succeed if they play by the rules, make good choices, and work hard enough. In fact, research shows that you’ve got a better chance of escaping poverty if you live in Canada or Australia or most other developed countries, where citizens benefit from universal health care and more robust social safety nets. But this myth was Cheryl’s operating premise. When the class ended, she committed to working and saving in an effort to better herself.

Over the next three years, I followed her progress. As we both would learn, when you live in survival mode, a single mistake or plain bad luck can derail even the most dogged attempt to get out of poverty.

CHERYL WAS 49 WHEN WE MET. She wore her hair short and tidy. A gold decorative crown framed her right front tooth, and it gave her smile a sparkle.

She’d arrived in Southside in 2007 with her daughter, Shcrissony; a television; and little else. She’d been living with relatives, so having her own two-bedroom apartment was a step up, even though it was nearly empty. Members of her church donated a mattress and box spring, which she and Shcrissony shared until she could get a second set.

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