Fort Worth Weekly: The Bare Minimum

Texas lives off low-wage workers but does little to help them escape poverty.

Marion Patton makes $9 an hour working at Braum's in Fort Worth. She's waiting (and hoping) to get full-time work at the ice cream and burger joint. Photo by Jordan Ricaurte.

Marion Patton makes $9 an hour working at Braum’s in Fort Worth. She’s waiting (and hoping) to get full-time work at the ice cream and burger joint. Photo by Jordan Ricaurte.

Her eyes are aquamarine, piercing but kind. Like the color of the sea before it washes up onto the beach. Those eyes have seen homelessness, heartache, and the daily needs of three little people who call her Mommy.

She wishes her toes were squishing the cool white sand like they did so many times before she left Pensacola, Fla.

Michelle Schmelzle relocated to Texas with her children and boyfriend last March, not knowing a soul in the state. When her boyfriend left her shortly after the move, she knew she had to “do it alone.”

Schmelzle spent six months at Presbyterian Night Shelter near downtown with her kids before she was able to get a job waiting tables at Denny’s.

Today, we’re sitting at a booth inside the restaurant after her shift (8 a.m. to 3 p.m. five days a week). She got off early, and the restaurant is almost empty. I ask for a glass of tea and immediately feel guilty. She’s worked hard enough already.

Schmelzle, 32, makes about $950 a month. That’s with tips and the $2.13 hourly wage for tipped employees. The tipped employee wage, according to federal law, must equal at least $7.25 an hour when tips and $2.13 are combined.

But that income isn’t nearly enough to pay for her unsubsidized apartment or for licensed childcare for her 4-year-old son. Luckily, her other two children, ages 13 and 8, are already in school.

She couldn’t qualify for the county’s childcare assistance program, Child Care Management Services, until she got a job. But she couldn’t work until she had someone to watch her kids. And even with her Denny’s position, she will never make enough to be self-sufficient. It’s the kind of vicious cycle that keeps minimum-wage workers perpetually on the financial edge.

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Low-wage workers across the country — particularly women — face these problems every day. But in Texas, there’s no end in sight.

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The Power of True Love.

When I went to Natasha Elkins’ funeral in November, I couldn’t stop crying. It wasn’t my first funeral. But it was the first funeral I’d attended of such a young, vibrant woman who had known she was going to die for the better part of a decade. The doctors gave her five years to live after her diagnosis at 23. She lived twice as long. And I think love, true love, the kind you read about in fairy tales and imagine when you’re a starry-eyed teenager, gave her the power to survive longer than anyone expected.

Natasha’s life inspired me to embrace mine. And never give up on the one thing that can save us and make us truly happy.

Read the story 360 West February: In Sickness and in Health.

From the Land of the Lost

Screen shot 2013-10-29 at 10.41.06 PMNo, real forensic science isn’t like CSI, but it’s still pretty damn cool. And in Fort Worth, scientists are hard at work matching DNA to skeletal remains in order to put names to the thousands of missing person cases in the United States.

Here’s my story from the Fort Worth Weekly:
The sisters were hungry. They had been doing housework and were ready for a break. So they got in the car and drove to Godfather’s Pizza — one of their favorite restaurants in their hometown of Kansas City, Mo. They sat down at a booth, ordered The Supreme, and talked about the Bon Jovi concert they were planning to see. Paula Davis, 21, was planning to buy tickets the next day. Stephanie Clack, 14, was excited to be hanging out with her cool older sister.

Stephanie remembers the Bon Jovi song Paula played on the jukebox and the aroma of fresh-baked pizza. It was August 1987, and Paula’s olive skin had tanned from the warm summer sun. Curly brown hair framed her heart-shaped face.

After dinner, Paula dropped her sister off at their parents’ house. It was the last time Stephanie would see her sister alive.

The family knew almost immediately that something was wrong. “We got a call from Paula’s roommate saying that something had happened because Paula never came home that night,” Stephanie said.

One day later, a couple of teenagers driving down an Ohio road thought they saw a dead body lying in the dirt. They called the cops. Englewood police officers found a young woman’s body, nude from the waist up, dumped near an entrance ramp to I-70, 587 miles and a nine-hour drive from Kansas City.

A coroner estimated that the young woman had been dead only about 14 hours. But it would take 22 years before the body was identified as that of Paula Davis. Even then, it only happened because of a sister’s persistence, a rose and a unicorn, and the help of a national database now maintained in Fort Worth by the University of North Texas Health Science Center.

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Stephanie graduated from high school, got married, had five children, and moved to Independence, Mo. But wherever she was, she kept up the search for her sister. She had little hope that Paula was alive.

Continue reading here.

SNAP Judgements: Living on Food Stamps

English: Logo of the .

English: Logo of the . (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The last two years have been a blur. Days have run into months and before I knew it, a year had passed. Three months after I had my daughter, my husband lost his job. And we lost the security of our middle-class life.

For six months, we qualified for food stamps. And we used every last penny that the government so kindly granted us. What I thought about being poor, about the federal food stamp program, and about social services like food stamps and WIC dramatically changed. Because I was no longer an outsider looking in. I was an insider, wishing to get out.

I debated even publishing this post or writing the story about my experience for the Texas Observer. But over time, pride fades. And perhaps, my story will make another woman in my place know that it’s all going to be okay.

Here’s my story published in the Texas Observer:

I’m a snotty 16-year-old with a crush on Reed, the dark-haired, fair-skinned dreamboat who bags groceries in my line (when I’m lucky). My feet hurt from standing at a Winn Dixie cash register all day.

Weigh the bananas. Type in produce code 4011. Take bananas off scale.

“Have a nice day,” I say, sincerely insincere.

A heavyset mother of about 25 trailing a rowdy brood of kids steps forward and hands me a sheet of paper with a government logo across the top.

WIC. I hate WIC.

WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) is a federal program, similar to food stamps, that provides assistance specifically to mothers, pregnant women and their young children, paying for essentials like baby food, formula, bread and milk. It also educates mothers on nutrition and the art of breastfeeding, which is much harder than it looks.

But for cashiers, filling out the forms and processing the paperwork takes forever, and I can’t seem to get it right. So my line gets longer. Customers get irritated. And my feet hurt.

Why can’t the government come up with a better way to help people without making my life miserable?

Two thousand dollars a month. That’s the income cap to qualify for food stamps in Texas. Two thousand dollars a month for a family of three.

My parents were teachers, no big paychecks or buyouts, but they were smart with their money and paid for everything with cash. I don’t think they started using credit cards until I was an adult. They instilled their zero-debt policy in me as well, and the Discover card my mother put in my name when I graduated from high school still gets paid off every month.

We’re standing in line at Target. My husband pays for our groceries while I coo and cuddle my baby girl, who’s gazing up at me from her expensive car seat in the front of the cart. My husband takes a white card out of his wallet, slides it through the machine, enters his 4-digit PIN, and looks down. The receipt prints. Niceties are exchanged. Plastic bags are gathered. I doubt the overworked cashier even notices we’re not paying with credit.

Last April we joined the 46 million Americans living on food stamps, more accurately known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Four million of those people are Texans. The federally funded program provides food assistance to people who earn less than $24,000 a year for a family of three.

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Losing Babies: Fort Worth Leads the State in Infant Mortality

As a new mother, I was immensely saddened and attracted to this subject simultaneously. Why does Fort Worth (my hometown) have such a high rate of infant mortality? I found some answers. And more questions. But if one baby is saved because of this story, it was worth every word.

Read the beginning of my story here, published in March by the Fort Worth Weekly:

My baby kicked and moved until the day he died,” said Jodie Kennedy.

She thought everything was fine. It was her second pregnancy. But her amniotic fluid was leaking, making her feel weak and dizzy all the time. She didn’t know that what was happening was out of the ordinary, and she didn’t have a doctor to tell her it was.

It was 2007, and Jodie had just relocated to Fort Worth from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. The young mother didn’t have money for a doctor and didn’t know how to apply for Medicaid. So when she was four months pregnant, her son died.

“Oh … it hurts,” she said. “I could have saved my son’s life.”

If Jodie, 29, had gotten medical care early in her pregnancy, a doctor would have seen that her cervix was too weak to carry the weight of the developing child and could have given her injections to prevent premature labor. She knows that now because she delivered a healthy baby girl last summer. This time, with help from a federally funded program operated by a local charity, she went to the doctor right away and got the care she needed to carry the baby to term.

“If I knew what I know now … my son would be here,” Jodie said. “Knowledge is power. It can save somebody’s life, especially when it comes to a baby.”

These days, health officials and charity providers in Tarrant County are trying to turn some sad knowledge into power to help save the lives of more babies in North Texas. According to the most recent statistics available, Fort Worth has the highest infant mortality rate in the state, meaning that a higher percentage of babies here die before their first birthday than in any other major city in Texas. But it’s not just Fort Worth — the North Texas region in general leads the state in infant mortality as well.

Kennedy, with baby Kamryn: “Knowledge is power. It can save somebody’s life.”

Kennedy, with baby Kamryn: “Knowledge is power. It can save somebody’s life.”

Fort Worth, Arlington, and Dallas had the highest infant mortality rates of Texas’ large cities: Fort Worth had 9 infant deaths per 1,000 live births compared to 8.2 in Arlington and 7.5 in Dallas.

The problem also seems to be getting worse. In January, the Tarrant County Public Health agency released its most comprehensive report to date on infant mortality. It showed that the number of infant deaths in both Fort Worth and Arlington increased in 2010, even though the total number of babies born decreased during that year.

The causes of infant mortality are complicated, and none of the health officials contacted by Fort Worth Weekly would hazard a guess as to why North Texas cities seem to be so dangerous to the health of fetuses and newborns.

“If I knew the answer to that I would fix it,” said Ann Salyer-Caldwell, associate director of community health promotion at Tarrant County Public Health. Many factors add to the picture of infant mortality, she said, “and we have to dig deep to find all the issues that are affecting it.”

Some of the conditions that lead to infant deaths here carry out the same theme as elsewhere in the state: A mother’s long-term lifestyle affects her chances of having a healthy baby — infant mortality rates are higher for obese women, for instance. Mortality rates also tend to vary by race.

But at least one key factor here seems clear: Tarrant County has the worst percentage in the state of pregnant mothers receiving prenatal care. Premature babies are more likely to die shortly after birth than full-term babies. Moms with sexually transmitted infections are more likely to lose their babies. Both those factors trace back to a lack of medical care during pregnancy.

And the medical care picture for women, particularly poor women, isn’t getting any better in Texas. The legislature has drastically cut state funding for family planning and women’s healthcare in recent years, leading to clinic shutdowns across Texas, including one in Arlington.

When the state’s ban on funding for Planned Parenthood clinics led the federal government to end its women’s health program in Texas, state officials organized what they said was a replacement program. But that program has been criticized in Tarrant County and elsewhere for providing a much lower level of accessible care than in the past. And local health officials said Texas rules make it difficult for poor pregnant women to qualify for Medicaid.

“The painful truth is, many women are going without preventive healthcare that could save lives,” said Danielle Wells, a spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas.

Continue…

Hey, Gloria Steinem.

English: American feminist Gloria Steinem at B...

English: American feminist Gloria Steinem at Brighton High School, Brighton, Colorado (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I got the chance to interview Gloria Steinem (a.k.a. feminist leader of the free world!). Here’s the story, posted by Fort Worth Weekly:

Fort Worth Weekly got the opportunity on Thursday to talk with longtime feminist leader Gloria Steinem about gender issues, equality, and women’s healthcare in Texas.

Steinem, in her late 70s, is the guest speaker this week at Planned Parenthood’s annual fundraising luncheon in Fort Worth. She’s a co-founder of Ms. Magazine and a globally recognized expert and activist on women’s issues. Steinem also co-founded Voters for Choice, a pro-choice political action committee. She’s been a longtime supporter of Planned Parenthood, which got kicked out of the new Texas Women’s Health Program (WHP) earlier this year because Texas lawmakers approved a measure banning any organization that provides abortions from taking part. Planned Parenthood clinics in the past have been the largest provider of medical care under that program, giving women in many parts of the state access they otherwise would not have had to cancer screenings, birth control.

FWW: How does access or lack of access to healthcare affect equality for women?

Steinem: “All basic freedoms revolve around productive freedoms for women.” She said that if you can’t decide when and whether to have children, your ability to make other choices in life is greatly limited. A woman “must be able to decide the size of the family. It’s very important that every child born be loved and wanted.”

Lack of healthcare for women also has a deep affect on families, since women in most cases are the primary caregivers, she said.

FWW: In what way does the new Women’s Health Program affect young girls?

Steinem: “In states that have been afflicted by ignorance on sexual education [like Texas], girls must feel empowered to take care of their own bodies … must be able to understand sexuality. In this country, we have had several administrations promoting ignorance; Texas has many of those voices, like [Gov.] Rick Perry.”

FWW: What is Planned Parenthood’s role in Texas’ healthcare program?

Steinem: “All over the country, Planned Parenthood is the source of primary healthcare for women. It’s the reason why Planned Parenthood is one of the most trusted organizations in the country. And one in five women have turned to Planned Parenthood. … I don’t know any [other] state where the governor has been at war with Planned Parenthood.” She said that quality healthcare is less available in the United States than in most developed countries, which makes low-cost access to quality care even more important.

According to Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas, its clinics charge women around $100 for a well woman exam, excluding lab fees. That same exam from a private doctor’s office costs around $300.

 

Financial/Health

A shop window advertising payday loans.

A shop window advertising payday loans. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What do payday lenders and poor health have in common? A lot according to faith-based groups in Texas. Read my latest story about it here.

She Died on a Sunday.

Details of the murder slipped from hushed lips and spread like the flu in January.

“There was a knife.”

“Her throat was cut.”

“Her baby was gone when the police arrived.”

She died on a Sunday, while I was lying on my couch, drinking wine, watching another episode of “Parenthood,” she was crying, screaming, fighting, and hoping that her baby wouldn’t see what was happening to his mommy.

People say her ex-boyfriend killed her in a fit of crazy rage. Aren’t knives the weapon of passion? But it wasn’t the first time; it rarely is.

Six months before she died, he attacked her, but she made it out alive—with just a few bruises and one black eye. She said his eyes looked crazy; a look she had never seen before. A look that wouldn’t accept love or logic. She took their son and left. Immediately. And that was that.

But he came back. Maybe to see the baby. Maybe to see her.

“I want to be a family again,” he told her.

“No,” she told him. “No.”

The television was on when the police arrived. It was playing a kid’s DVD. Toys were scattered in the apartment’s living room, but the baby wasn’t to be seen.

She was 32. Her son is 13 months old. Same age as my daughter and I.

Police found the baby with her father, at his apartment. They took the sweet cherub away, and placed him in the grieving arms of grandparents.

I knew her mother, too. Their resemblance was unmistakable.

What do you say to a mother who’s lost her baby?

“Sorry,” just doesn’t hold the same weight when your child gets murdered. It’s too simple. Too sterile.

The funeral is next week; I’ll wait to see if the words come to me.

Latest and Greatest: Harassment at Haltom?

After six months of interviews, multiple open-records requests, and talking to a lot of teachers, this investigative piece about a principal at a high school in North Texas, finally hit the press.

The community responded–loudly–with 3,700 Facebook likes and 93 online comments.

Take a read, and see what you think:

Fort Worth Weekly: Harassment at Haltom?Haltom High School

Are Twinkies Toast?

English: Hostess Twinkies. Yellow snack cake w...

English: Hostess Twinkies. Yellow snack cake with cream filling. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Hostess is going to HoHo hell, or maybe heaven, depending on how you feel about this famous, fat-laden pastry company. With its demise comes the end of Twinkies, the yellow pastry that’s filled with a mysterious white, creamy, sweet, something?

Hostess Brands is based in North Texas and its liquidation means 18,000 Texans are out of a job. And there’s nothing sweet about that.

Is the close of this iconic company a sign that Americans are moving away from highly processed foods? Maybe. But it seems more likely that Hostess just couldn’t reach a wage agreement with its striking bakery workers.

And the Twinkie will probably keep Twinkling under another mother company.

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