While writing “The Swamps of Jersey,” my political novel, I included a scene when the protagonist, Frank Nagler and his then-third-grade girlfriend (and later his wife) Martha Shannon, are walking home from school:
“They stopped and spoke with everyone on the streets: Old Mrs. Drake, whose husband died in the war and whose children never call; Mr. Adams who was always washing his car; Bobbi Jackson who had two kids by the time she was twenty and worked nights cleaning offices, but waited at the corner of Main Street for the little one to get off the school bus and run into her arms, jacket flapping, papers slipping from his tiny hand so he had to stop and pick them up and dropped his lunchbox, and just before he was going to cry she scooped him into her arms and they laughed all the way home.”
After I wrote that I emailed a friend at the United Way of Northern New Jersey, which had just released its ALICE report, to say that I had inadvertently described ALICE in that scene: Bobbi Jackson.
ALICE is the acronym for Asset limited Income Constrained, Employed, a study done by the United Way that quantified the lives and needs of those working families who earn too much to qualify for many government assistance programs, but not enough that they can survive easily any number of financial calamities: Job loss, catastrophic illness, the break down of their car, if they have one, or a hike in their rent.
The latest version of ALICE pointed out that 25 percent of New Jersey households qualify as ALICE – 769,900 – and that with those households living at or below the poverty level, one-third of the state’s households are in financial distress.
Now the description of Bobbi Jackson is effective in that scene, but it is fiction.
Meet the real ALICE.
She was in the neighborhood grocery store with her baby girl, maybe 18 months old. She was at the check-out patiently waiting while the clerk processed her voucher.
I give the operators of the store a lot of credit: They moved into the space in this blue-collar town knowing they would be serving a sizable low-income population because the store is across the street from a large public housing development – yes, the projects – and within walking distance of several senior housing complexes.
The reality of this is seen in the selection of products on display – there’s a lot of store brands – and discreet paper tabs saying “WIC” for Women-Infants-Children, noting food qualified for government programs. But the store also supports local farms by purchasing produce and meat.
Again to the store’s credit, the clerks are trained to the process a food stamp transaction with the same demeanor they show when they take your American Express card.
She was tired.
But it was not just the fatigue of maybe a late shift and a full day of caring for a young child. It is weariness of being poor and trying not to be, of staring daily into a hillside that rises into clouds and seems impossible to climb.
I’ve seen that look before. It was on my mother’s face as a single parent raising five kids on a secretary’s salary, the dark eyes and sunken shoulders, the stance that reflected the weight of all that could be bad in the world crashing around her, such weight that made it impossible to stand as if she lifted a foot, it would crush her.
I’ve seen that look at soup kitchens, not on the faces of the homeless, who often project a more childlike gratitude that comes from having the chance to sit in warmth and have a hot cup of coffee, but in the faces of the low-income workers who know that a free meal a couple days a week gives them a chance to pay the rent.
She was thin, not exercise thin, but worried thin. Her thin blonde hair was in need of a cut, and her clothes were not fashionably faded, but hand-me-downs. Her daughter was in a pretty bright red dress with black polka-dots; maybe she was going to daycare.
In the cart were maybe 20 bananas, a package of strawberries, a couple items I could not see, one Rice Krispies bar and a 24-ounce bottle of Pepsi.
That would be her caffeine fix for the day; if she was richer, she would have bought coffee because you can make coffee, drink some and waste the rest without guilt, but a soda with a screw cap can be opened, placed in the refrigerator and drunk again later.
In Washington and Trenton politicians lecture us all about how this woman is ruining the country, how she and her kind are lazy and making life more difficult for those who have more.
I’m sorry she is an inconvenience for you.
If you saw her in the store, you would move to the next available cashier.
You would not see her look at the fruit she purchased, at her daughter, and at the amount that was displayed on the keypad that told her how much money remained in her food account.
You would not see her sigh and purse her lips knowing that whatever that amount was, it would not be enough.