Crazy work schedules, children in need of tutoring, and dinner in need of cooking, all plague the overworked and underemployed parent of today.
In searching to find balance among their work schedules, financial obligations and family, many underemployed parents must juggle these responsibilities and find time for their children.
Children, however, often come last in the balancing act of a busy day.
It’s an act Shanea Streeter knows all too well.
“I wish I had more time to spend with him and do more things with him that I probably should be doing with him, but I have to work in order for us to survive,” she said of her son.
And survive she does. In addition to being a single mother, Streeter is a student at Everest College in Decatur, Ga., and is interning in her hometown of Anniston at the office of Dr. Angela Martin. She also works part-time at a local Sonic restaurant.
Streeter is one of the 25.6 percent of residents who are underemployed in Calhoun, Etowah, Clay, Talladega, Cherokee, Cleburne, Coosa, Tallapoosa and Randolph counties.
Underemployed workers, like Streeter, are considered underemployed if: 1) They are overqualified for the position they currently have, 2) They are working part-time, when they are able and willing to work full-time, 3) They must accept lower pay for the same amount of work they have been doing efficiently.
At Sonic, Streeter makes at least $40 a day – about $70 on a good day, tips included.
“My check a week isn’t even $100; I could have 40 hours, my check is going to be $100, which is nothing,” she said.
Her day is comprised of a busy schedule that consists of her interning Monday through Friday 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., and then going to work at Sonic from 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. or sometimes 11. She also works some weekends.
During her off days, she tries to spend as much time with her son as possible.
“It takes a lot of time away from my child,” she said, “because when I wake up in the morning, he’s asleep; when I’m home at night, he’s asleep.”
The men and women of Calhoun County’s underemployed workforce are more than just employees — most of them are parents.
They are mothers and fathers to children who are deeply affected by their long work hours and low wages in a number of ways. Their schoolwork, health, nutrition, and mental state seem to be the most affected.
Linda Tilly, executive director for VOICES for Alabama’s Children, believes underemployment’s impact on children can vary depending on the family.
“You have families of varying economic levels within Calhoun County; there could be a little of all of it,” she said.
For some families with higher incomes, it may mean the children will have to do without certain educational opportunities, like summer camps and educational vacations.
But for families with less income, it could be as severe as poor nutrition for the children, with parents “making big, with less.”
Within this broad spectrum also lies the effect of stress, caused by financial issues, on children.
“What concerns me most is what the child feels from stress and anxiety,” Tilly said.
She noted that a child might internalize the anxiety and stress their parents feel. This stress may ultimately result in yelling, fighting and domestic violence. Research shows that for children 5 and younger, it effects brain structure physically in terms of how neurons are connected.
“As a parent, when you’re not able to provide for your children, you’re going to be stressed out, and then a lot of times that stress trickles down to the children,” said Joyce Palmore-Haynes, a parent specialist with Anniston’s Constantine Elementary School.
Bridging the gap
As a parent specialist for the past four years and a classroom teacher for 12 years, Haynes has been responsible for bridging the communication gap between teachers and the students’ parents. Oftentimes they must meet parents after the parent is finished working late, or ask the parent to come and meet with the child’s teacher and figure out how to help the child’s grades improve.
“If you have one of those jobs where you’re overly qualified for that job, you may be working a lot of overtime trying to make up for that salary that you’re accustomed to or feel you should be making, and you don’t have that time to spend with the children,” said Haynes. “Some of our parents have had to go out and find two or three jobs so they can keep that household going, so you don’t have that time to sit and help with homework, or if you are having to sit and help with homework, then you’re possibly lacking in your area of sleep and everything is coming down at one time.”
Parent Specialist Denise Parker has been working at Anniston Middle School for five years, and has been hands-on in ensuring that underemployed parents are as involved as humanly possible with their children’s education.
“We have to make out a schedule that revolves around the parent. Everything I do is at 6 or 7 o’ clock at night because a lot of parents work in the morning,” she said.
Many of the parents Parker sees don’t have jobs. That can lead to a lack of nutrition in low-income households, which plays a huge role in the necessity of Anniston Middle School’s child nutrition program.
Parker said she often sees children who rely on the cafeteria as their only meal of the day. And they are the lucky ones. If a child is new to the school or hasn’t yet made it into the system, he or she is not allowed to eat.
Poor nutrition is a leading cause in the growing number of obese children and children with diabetes, a fact borne out in Alabama being among the sickest states in the nation, according to Businessweek.com. In addition to ranking 48 out of 50 in the sickest states’ health ranking, one of Alabama’s weaknesses was a high level of impoverished children.
“But now parents are going to have to take their stand and go on and say ‘you’re going to have to have the broccoli. You know every time you sit at the table you have to have something green on your plate,’” said Dr. Angela Martin, an Anniston pediatrician.
“Just go on and take your stand because a child is just that, a child,” Martin said. “If you give a child a choice between broccoli and ice cream, he’s going to choose the ice cream.”
A financial tightrope
Although health and nutrition are among the main concerns of underemployment’s effect on children, the burden on parents is just as great. The underemployed parent of today is walking on a financial tightrope.
With underemployment, “It’s almost like you’re working hard and standing still,” said Maudine Holloway, executive director of Community Enabler Developer in Anniston. “And, with [unemployment], you’re not working. You know you’re standing still.
“The expectation is what kills you – when you’re doing all you can do and you’re not making it versus somebody who is not doing anything.”
In addition to serving 40 years at Community Enabler Developer since it first began, Holloway also helps run the Sable Learning Center in Hobson City, which serves about 54 children between the ages of 4 and 16.
About 15 percent of these children come from homes that have at least one working parent, and they’re starving for the attention they are not getting.
“The kids are very affected,” Holloway said. “The parents are working all the time and don’t have any time for them; they’re in just as bad of shape as where there is no parent. Almost. Except that little pat that mother can give them.
“I want them to have a fighting chance at life, and right now many of them are not getting it.”
Aziza Jackson is a recent graduate of the University of Alabama/Anniston Star Masters in Community Journalism program. She is currently a reporter at The Daily Home in Talladega.