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'The Only Way to Make It All Work'

By Mary Jo Katras, Program Leader — Family Resiliency
Years ago, I was given the opportunity to conduct interviews with low-income mothers living in rural Minnesota communities. The interviews often took place in their living rooms or kitchens and often lasted up to three hours. These mothers voluntarily shared their life stories with us, often including very intimate details and experiences. Hearing the experiences of these mothers, who struggled daily to find jobs, childcare, transportation, and housing, and to put food on the table for their children really opened my eyes to the everyday challenges of living in poverty. One mother’s story really struck a chord with me, and I think of it even more now that I have children of my own.

When we first met this mother, she had recently found a job that required her to be at work by 6 a.m. every morning. However, she had a five-year old son that she needed to get to daycare, which did not open until 6:30 a.m. Lacking family support and needing to fill in the time gap, she turned to the local bus service that drove people to different places throughout the community — to doctor appointments or the grocery store. She knew the driver that drove in the morning and made a deal that her son could drive around on the bus from 6 to 6:30 a.m and then would be dropped off at his daycare. For this mother, who was struggling to keep a job while caring for her child, it was the only choice she had — the only way to make it all work.

A scene from the Rural Families Speak project.

This was just one of the many stories of these rural low-income mothers that really helped me to begin to understand the context in which families in poverty live and the barriers they face. Poverty in Minnesota is real — sometimes it is overt but oftentimes it is hidden. One out of 10 families in Minnesota live in poverty. Families and communities of color in Minnesota disproportionately experience poverty. For these families, poverty means not having enough — not having enough food, housing, transportation, employment, and income. Poverty means living in neighborhoods with limited access to resources and opportunity. Poverty means not having safety nets in place when an unexpected crisis occurs. For some, living in poverty can be temporary, for others, it is a lifetime struggle.

The 2016 Qualey-Skjervold Professional Development Conference will give us the opportunity to think and learn about poverty — in our own lives and in the work we do within families and communities across the state. We will be challenged to look at poverty from the systemic level and the individual level. The systemic level includes policies, both at the federal and state level as well policies and built environments that exist at the community level. The individual level includes informal and formal resources available to families and communities to help them make ends meet.

As Sharon Mulé wrote last week, the Jean W. Bauer fund helps support the 2016 Qualey-Skjervold conference. Dr. Bauer's work focused on poverty. Much of her research focused on understanding the disconnect between policy and the lived experience of rural low-income families in order to create change and give voice to a population that otherwise did not have one. The interviews I talked about above were done as part of Dr. Bauer’s research project, Rural Families Speak.

Through her research, Dr. Bauer talked about four critical challenges that families living in poverty face as they struggle to live and work in their communities. These challenges were:
  • Availability — Whether or not resources exist in a community.
  • Accessibility — Being able to get to or use a resource.
  • Acceptability — Value systems and norms.
  • Complexity of the lives of families living in poverty as they try to make it all work.
In preparation for the 2016 Qualey-Skjervold conference, I challenge you to think about poverty. What are the critical challenges in your own life, in the lives of Minnesota families, and within the communities we work and live?

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