One mother’s journey to transcend poverty
Micheal Austin wakes up at 4 a.m. and pads quietly through her three-bedroom mobile home to make coffee. The smell of Folgers fills the kitchen as Austin settles at the table. Sometimes in the morning lull before her children begin to stir, she clips coupons or steals a few minutes to finish homework.
Austin is an honors student at UW-Oshkosh and has worked as an employment counselor for the disabled. She cares how her eldest daughter is doing in welding class, leans the bikes against the back porch to keep the yard tidy and wears a football jersey on game days.
She feels “typical.” And she is.
As one of the 725,797 Wisconsinites living below the poverty line, Austin shatters many stereotypes about the poor. She has never been to jail, doesn’t do drugs and is actively searching for a job in the service sector. She is indeed a typical face of poverty—a complex problem with many causes. She’s just not the face most people picture.
Stretching the Dollar
Austin remembers growing up in poverty’s shadow, moving between Utah and Massachusetts where her father could find work as a carpenter or truck driver. In Brockton, Mass., her parents never owned a home.
“We were taught to stretch the dollar even when we were really little. We didn’t have big Christmases. We didn’t get birthday presents. Things like that didn’t matter. We appreciated what we got,” Austin says.
When the family moved to Wisconsin in 1990, Austin’s father fell sick. The family relied on his disability checks and the money her mother brought in working at Burger King and Subway. She never went to college.
Today, Austin lives with her five children in Oxford, Wis. Money is still tight. She dries clothes on a line, buys from Goodwill and budgets weekly. She shops out of season to afford new jackets. She saves and waits, forgoing vacations to pay rent.
Life is a balance for Austin and her family. She writes everything in a brown and beige binder: work appointments, schedules, budgets and notes of encouragement. One of her favorite quotes is, “All misfortune is but a stepping stone to fortune,” by Henry David Thoreau.
Austin must juggle economics daily. Rent is cheaper in rural Wisconsin, but as a tradeoff, she must drive the family everywhere, leaving her finances at the fickle mercy of rising gas prices.
Austin recently left her job as an employment counselor at Northwoods Inc. of Wisconsin. With recent budget cuts, she had received fewer and fewer hours. By the time she had driven back and forth to work, she was losing money.
“I spend a lot of money on gas a month. I cut corners just because gas is killing me,” Austin says. “When it goes up, I just get stomachaches from the stress of it because it has to come from somewhere.”
April, 15, Alexia, 10, and Alicia, 9, board the school bus between 6:40 and 6:50 a.m. each day. Kayden, 2, and Avah, 1, must be driven to daycare 30 minutes away in Adams. Work was another 45 minutes away. Then dinner. Then homework. On some days, she only gets two hours of sleep.
“It gets difficult sometimes because I just wake up, and I feel overwhelmed. And there’s no time for breaks. And there’s no time for sick days,” Austin says. “So I feel like I go in overdrive a lot from the minute I wake up until I go to bed.”
Single mothers must provide both care and financial support for their children. They are the bottom line.
“It’s a pretty big job to provide financially for a family. It’s a pretty big job to parent, charged with the emotional and physical needs of a kid,” says Dan Meyer, a UW-Madison social work professor. “Single parents have to do both of those things.”
Austin’s daughters share the responsibilities. April babysits. Alicia cooks spaghetti.
“Some days I know my kids just want to be kids. They want a mom who’s just going to bake cookies and watch TV and play games with them,” Austin says. “I want to be that mom too, but my days are so long.”
Austin often plans meals around the coupons in the Sunday paper. At $2.00, she can’t afford it every week, but her former boss could. She would retrieve the paper after he threw it away. No one really wanted the coupons.