First Person

What It Tastes Like to Eat What You Want for the First Time

All my childhood grocery shopping memories center on being poor: Walking 10 minutes from our two-bedroom home in the Malden Housing Authority’s projects to the local Stop & Shop and filling the cart with juice, eggs, and bologna. There was the joy of adding the small amount of treats we could afford — at the time, that meant fresh bakery chocolate muffins, apple turnovers, and Gushers fruit snacks — and the embarrassment of putting some of the food back at the register when it rang up over our limit.

When your grocery budget is entirely reliant on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), your mom’s Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), and other assistance programs designed for low-income disabled single parents and their disabled children, you have to be very specific about what you buy. It’s easy to spend your entire food budget before the month is over and find that toward the end of the month, you’re hungrily eating cheap cereal and off-brand white bread for every meal.

Recently, Democratic Senators Kamala Harris and Kirsten Gillibrand introduced a bill with Senator Bernie Sanders that would expand the SNAP benefit. The bill would increase the baseline for SNAP benefits by roughly 30 percent and expand benefits to those living in U.S. territories. Currently, the Families First Act is temporarily increasing SNAP benefits for households that haven’t been receiving the maximum benefit, and many states are allowing customers to purchase SNAP-eligible items online, a move that makes grocery shopping during a pandemic safer for low-income elderly, disabled, and high-risk individuals. A permanent increase to SNAP benefits and expanded delivery options would make a significant difference in the lives of many SNAP recipients, giving them the ability to purchase more food each month and making it easier for people to shop even if they can’t physically go to a grocery store.

The maximum SNAP benefit for a household of two in Massachusetts, where I live, is currently $355 per month. A 30 percent increase to that would be $106.50, bringing the total to $461.50 per month. That would mean SNAP recipients could almost afford the average cost of groceries ($489.16 per month in Boston, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, though the average monthly spend on food overall is $805.58 once you include takeout and restaurants). Although many families don’t receive the maximum SNAP benefit — in Massachusetts the average monthly household benefit is only $210, or $1.36 per person per meal — the proposed increase in SNAP benefits would at least bring low-income and poor Bostonians closer to being able to afford a full months’ worth of food.

I know how it feels to be able to expand your food budget, even by a little. I remember the first time my dad, who took over raising me after my mom died, had a particularly good month driving the cab. This was before the 2008 recession, and his specialty was driving kids with busy working parents to and from school. We had an unexpected, albeit small, increase to our food budget. I no longer had to survive on $1 Celeste frozen pizzas. I could get a few higher-cost pizzas, like DiGiorno. I was allowed to get inexpensive sushi at the Stop & Shop seafood counter twice a month, and we bought lobsters when they were on sale for $4.99 a pound. We kept the house stocked with sodas and Little Debbie snacks for when my friends came over.

A 30 percent SNAP expansion could change your life.

I could actually tell my new high school friends we’d feed them instead of asking them to come over “after dinner,” and we spent one New Year’s Eve trekking through a blizzard to get takeout Chinese food from the best restaurant in the city. I felt rich enough to try crab rangoon, which I’d always assumed I wouldn’t like — when you’re poor, you don’t take risks spending your limited money on food you’re unsure about and may have to throw away. The crab and cream cheese tasted like the freedom of choice and exploration, and I’ve loved them ever since. Then the recession and the rise of Uber and Lyft made it harder for taxi drivers to make money. We went back to eating cereal when we ran out of food money. I got part-time jobs and saved my birthday and holiday money to help my dad pay for groceries.

When I went to college, my food budget slowly started to increase again. It wasn’t much, but I went from being truly poor to just being broke. I’ve always defined the difference by how often the threats of eviction, running out of food, or having the electricity or heat turned off crossed my mind at any given moment. If I had enough money that those things were just background noise, I was broke. If I had so little money that I couldn’t help my dad pay down the electric bill so the power company wouldn’t turn off the lights. I was poor.

Being broke meant I could sometimes save enough money to take my girlfriend (now my wife) on a sushi date, if we kept the meal inexpensive or it was a special occasion. It meant splitting pizza delivery with my friends on Saturday nights, after we’d all had a few cheap vodka cocktails and were sitting around the dorm room laughing at weird memes. Broke was being able to get something else out of the freezer if I’d overcooked my chicken nuggets to a burnt crisp, instead of laying on my bed devastated because I’d ruined my chance to eat.

A few years ago, after my wife and I both got full-time jobs and were no longer relying on the modest budgets of grad students, we first noticed the difference at the grocery store. We were no longer poor or broke; we could get fresh salmon for dinner instead of frozen. We never had to put things back if we were over-budget, we could just have an honest conversation in the car afterward about whether we wanted to cut back the next time. I didn’t even cry when our zucchini went bad the day before we were planning to cook it, even though the child in me — the one who still remembers eating a free pizza lunch at the park with my mom on the August day that she died — was determined not to let it happen again.

That’s how a 30 percent SNAP expansion could change your life. It gets you from poor to broke. From hungry to offering to split your Caesar salad and brownie with another broke friend in the school cafeteria. It’s the bare minimum a person needs to be able to spend their days without low-level anxiety about how they’re going to survive. In the richest country in the world, the bare minimum shouldn’t be too much to ask for. We all deserve to get freshly baked muffins from the grocery store bakery every once in a while, and take the small risk of trying crab rangoon for the first time.

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Feature

Coronavirus Aid Prioritizes Big Banks. That’s a Problem for Rural America.

Located between California’s Central Valley and the Sierra Nevada foothills, the town of Placerville is a standout amongst rural California communities. With a population of 11,000, it is one of the few rural towns to see economic performance outpace the national average since the Great Recession. Like other rural California communities, however, COVID-19 has sent shockwaves through the town and the federal response to businesses struggling under the state’s stay-at-home order has been inadequate to address the distinct needs of this community and others like it.

Placerville resident and Rural County Representatives of California (RCRC) CFO and COO Lisa McCargar understands this problem all too well. Her organization advocates for broadband access, water rights, and other infrastructure resources on behalf of thirty-seven rural California counties. Now, facing the COVID-19 pandemic, the importance of RCRC’s work has never been more apparent to McCargar. With nearly all of the businesses on Placerville’s Main Street closed, she worries rural communities may not have equal access to federal government aid programs that have been touted as crucial to propping up small businesses.

Although Congress allocated more than $650 billion to lend to small businesses through the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) that is being administered by the Small Business Administration (SBA), accessing an approved lending institution in communities like Placerville is easier said than done. Only 31 percent of the community banks chartered since 1986 remain in the rural financial sector. This has led to a significant challenge in accessing financial services, especially now. “Everyone was flocking to Citi and Bank of America to the point that they couldn’t handle it. It ended up that you needed to be a customer with an outstanding loan or at least an account,” McCargar noted.

Steve Frisch, CEO of the Sierra Business Council, is dealing with the same problem. His group, which advocates for the business community in the mountain region of California, has helped more than 500 small businesses apply for the loan program. Despite their assistance, he estimates that only 10 percent received funding. “If you already had a strong relationship with a bank and your bank was approved to lend, then you got funded. If not, you were out of luck,” Frisch said. This is partly the result of inadequate funding to smaller community banks, who despite providing capital to nearly 1.5 million small businesses in 2018, received 16 percent of second-round PPP funding.

In addition, the quick roll out of the program was a major learning curve for smaller lending institutions. Banks “got the guidelines at 3:00 p.m. and the program opened at 10:00 a.m. the next morning,” Frisch noted. This isn’t to say community banks weren’t able to process any applications. However, community banks reported that the system locked up because of the mass uploads by larger lending institutions. As a result, they had to manually enter applicant information, a process which is reported to take up to an hour.

It is worth noting that businesses owned by historically underrepresented ethnicities have been particularly impacted by these barriers. “COVID-19 exacerbated all pre-existing inequalities” Tara Lynn Gray, the CEO of the Fresno Black Chamber of Commerce said. Her group, which provides technical support to business owners of color, has helped 40 businesses through one-on-one sessions and nearly 330 businesses through webinars. “Not one business got funded in the first round, while seven got funded in the second round” she said.

Research from the Center for Responsible Lending backs this up. Their recently released report notes that banks tend to lend to larger businesses with greater payrolls. Even though businesses owned by people of color employ 7.2 million individuals, the report estimates that 95 percent of Black-owned businesses, 91 percent of Latino-owned businesses, 91 percent of Hawaiian- or Pacific Islander-owned businesses, and 75 percent of Asian American-owned businesses may stand little chance of receiving a loan because of these access issues.

There needs to be a conscious attempt to address rural-centric financial issues.

Aside from the difficulty of getting a loan, no one knows how long funding will be available. To date, $669 billion has been allocated to SBA loans. That’s 19.11 percent of last year’s federal tax revenue. And with an estimated 70 percent of all small businesses applying for the program, there aren’t nearly enough funds to go around. Data from COVID Loan Tracker suggests that denial rates are as high as 90 percent, but the denial rate is likely higher in rural communities where there are fewer eligible banking institutions. McCargar and Frisch both noted that there was a lack of capital in these communities, even before the crisis. Many business owners have little more than their homes — or if they are lucky, personal savings — to rely on.

This sort of liquidity crisis has significant implications. During the last downturn and subsequent recovery, regions that had greater access to capital were able to reduce the number of layoffs and in turn, preserve the skill of their labor force. Areas that lacked access to financial resources experienced severe wage atrophy and decreased output.

Not surprisingly, it tended to be rural areas that were hardest hit by this  capital disparity. The results are still obvious today. California’s three most rural counties, Alpine, Mariposa, and Trinity, have seen far slower income growth since the Great Recession began, compared to the state’s three most urban counties of Alameda, Orange, and San Francisco. Nationwide, there are 0.2 percent fewer jobs in non-metropolitan areas since 2007, and labor force participation is over 7 points lower than in metropolitan areas.

The last decade’s decline is largely the result of decades worth of underinvestment in any concerted rural economic development strategy. Now, COVID-19 is stress testing the deteriorating financial and economic infrastructure of these communities. Already, they have lost 14 percent of bank branches in the past ten years, 43 percent more than their urban counterparts. Last year, 1 in 4 rural small businesses cited capital access as one of the biggest barriers to successfully running their business. With so many communities yet to recover from the Great Recession, the shock of COVID-19 only hurts that much more.

While the government’s efforts to prop up small business are a step forward from the last recovery efforts, there still needs to be a conscious attempt to address rural-centric financial issues. Not only did communities like Placerville have less capital going into the COVID-19 pandemic, they now face additional barriers to accessing the government programs intended to help them. No plan to help America can work without supporting financial services to our rural neighbors.

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Interview

“If You Had a Need, You Got Help”: A Community College President’s Approach Towards Coronavirus

Russell Lowery-Hart is the president of the community college in Amarillo, a struggling city on the vast prairie of the Texas Panhandle, halfway between Oklahoma City and Albuquerque. Among Amarillo College’s students are health aides, motel maids, and meatpacking workers — in plants now beset by COVID-19 — looking to education as their road out of poverty.

In the last few years, Lowery-Hart has risen to prominence on the basis of his rousing call to remake higher education to serve today’s typical college student: not an 18-year-old in a dorm but a mother with two part-time jobs and a pile of bills.

When the coronavirus pandemic shut down this college of roughly 10,000 students, Lowery-Hart moved his family photos and a stack of books to a circular welcome desk in the student commons. There, he greets students who don’t have a computer or reliable internet at home. He takes their temperature, asks about possible exposure to the coronavirus, and then, if they pass the screening, allows them to use a computer lab, with social distancing and constant cleaning.

I spoke to Lowery-Hart last week to explore what students in poverty are facing during the pandemic, and how colleges are trying to help.

Marcella Bombardieri: The Texas Panhandle has become a hotspot for the coronavirus. How is that affecting the college?

Russell Lowery-Hart: We’ve had a huge explosion of COVID in our community, through the meatpacking plants that now can’t close [according to an order from President Trump]. So there’s all kinds of politics that I don’t want to be involved in, I just care about the people that we’re trying to serve and the neighbors that we live with.

How many Amarillo College students work in the meatpacking plants?

We don’t have firm numbers. What I have are emails from students saying, “I tested positive, and I need help, because I can’t study for my tests and I can’t work.” We’re trying to provide emergency aid and academic support while we’re worrying about their health.

Why did you keep one campus building open for students to use computers and get other types of help in person?

We had to protect our employees and our students, but we knew students that needed a computer [or lacked internet service]. It was really important to me that they had access to a computer, and that COVID not take their future away from them and force them to drop classes.

What are you hearing from the students who come in?

I’ve had a lot of people, they’ve lost their job, and they’re needing to apply for college. A lot of those students [have] heartbreaking stories. They were at Amarillo College, and they got a good job. So they stopped out, and took out loans that they didn’t repay that have gone into collection. And now the job they left all that for is gone. And they know that we’re the solution to their future, but they’re in this trap.

So we’re trying to create payment plans or find resources that can absolve the government money they owe, so they can access money to pay for school and living. It’s just a game of whack-a-mole in so many ways. Solving one need identifies seven other things that they’re needing.

We have students coming in because their internet went down. Or they’re really struggling with their class and they want to drop it, and I’m trying to talk them out of doing that — or talk them into doing that — depending on what’s best for them. All while taking their temperature with our thermal camera and having them bathe in sanitizer.

I talked to one student who had four or five kids at home, all between fourth grade and tenth grade. They’re all on one computer. The student is trying to do her job and her learning on the computer. And her husband’s trying to do his job on the computer. She burst into tears out of guilt that she was trying to escape her house.

Many of your students were poor before the pandemic. Do you have a sense of how much more hunger and housing insecurity your students are experiencing now?

I don’t have numbers on it, Marcella, because we made a decision that we’re not going to check for IDs and track. If you had a need, you got help. We’ve had community members come in and get bags of food. We’ve had a lot of students come in and get bags of food. We’ve gone through a lot of diapers and wipes and formula, and food items, and hygiene items. We’re not limiting the number of bags.

One of our students came in one day, sobbing. Her mother lost her job the week before, she’s got a [teenage relative] living in her house, and they’re all trying to survive now on [one] disability check. I tried to give her two bags of food. And she’s like, “I need to give one of these back. I know there are people that have greater needs than I do.”

It’s one of the things that I worry about with our students. It’s not a pride issue, it’s that they always think someone else needs it more than they do, when we have enough to help everyone.

Have you seen basic needs insecurity among Amarillo College staff, or adjunct instructors, in the past or since this crisis hit?

[Lowery-Hart got choked up as he answered.] I think it existed before, but I don’t know that I had to see it like I see it now. [One of our staff] has taken two bags of food home with her. If we hadn’t lifted the restrictions, I don’t think she would have ever asked for it. It’s one of the reasons why, with our CARES Act funds, we’re creating an emergency aid system not just for our students, but also for our employees.

You’re looking at $250 per student, and that’s not going manage a crisis

You have criticized the CARES Act for prioritizing full-time students over part-time students in the formula that determines the funds available to each college. How can we better support community colleges and today’s students?

If you want to make stimulus money have the biggest impact with the lowest level of investment, it’s community colleges. The CARES Act is helpful. I don’t want to complain about the help that we’re going to be able to give students. But that money is also going to support for-profit colleges and universities that have huge endowments.

If you look at what we could give in emergency aid to our students [from CARES], you’re looking at $250 per student. And that’s not going manage a crisis for our students.

You have been through painful state budget cuts before. What’s going to happen when the state budget crashes?

We know the cycle, right? When there’s a crisis, our budgets get cut. And then, 12 to 18 months after the crisis, our enrollment increases as we’re getting funding cuts.

You’ve told me before that it’s not enough to train students for Amarillo’s job market, when many jobs aren’t high-quality. So you want to create better jobs in Amarillo, for example in technology fields like film visual effects. Now the economy is in shambles, so what does that look like?

That’s the question that I’ve lost sleep over. We were preparing for what was going to happen when [driverless trucking means] truckers no longer drive through your community and need your hotels and your restaurants. Well, that was a seven-year-away reality that happened overnight.

We are having conversations about, maybe you can’t graduate from Amarillo College without coding skills or baseline technology skills. That’s going to be a heavy lift for us.

What else do you lose sleep over?

I’m worried about the financial health of my community that was perilous to begin with. There was a huge economic disparity, and now I’m starting to see the Lexuses needing food pantries. The reality of living paycheck to paycheck — even if you had a healthy paycheck — if you’ve lost the paycheck, it doesn’t matter what car you drive. You’re in need.

This interview was condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

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Coronavirus Could Cost Parents Custody of Kids in Foster Care

“[My one-year-old] sees me, he hears my voice, he looks at me for a second, but that’s all,” said Juanita Moss, a mother in San Francisco, California. Her three children are in foster care, and for the past six weeks, video chats have replaced in-person visits. “My son, [who is] four years old, has a hard time expressing feelings. He’s very verbal about it, it’s painful to watch. He will kick and scream about how much he wants me…he’s constantly saying he wants to ‘come home, mommy.’”

San Francisco enacted a citywide shelter-in-place order on March 17. Prior to the lockdown, Moss was seeing her three children twice a week in supervised settings like the public library or a designated visitation center. Now, she can only see her children through a screen.

In response to the pandemic, child welfare agencies around the nation have been limiting or completely cutting off in-person visitation between children and their parents, leaving many families wondering when they will be in the same room again. It’s not just the immediate emotional consequences at stake: the extended time apart is bound to weaken some parents’ reunification cases. Experts are concerned it will lead to permanent dissolution of families unlucky enough to have open cases during the pandemic.

Although people unfamiliar with child protective services might believe the term refers to a unified national agency, “CPS” is actually an informal moniker that references a network of individual agencies run at state and jurisdictional levels under a variety of names, which are held together by a loose set of federal guidelines and a complex web of federal and state funding sources.

In some states, like New York and California, there have been no official statewide orders cutting off all in-person visitation; instead agencies have been directed to make decisions on a case-by-case basis. But those on the ground say this is still leaving many parents without a voice in the decision-making process.

Despite state-level guidance that visits take place whenever possible in New York, for example, “in individual cases we are seeing visits being curtailed…you might have a foster mother who has a vulnerability to COVID so she doesn’t want the children in her care going home for the weekends with their parents and coming back,” said Emma Ketteringham, managing attorney for the family defense practice with the Bronx Defenders.

In other states, like Idaho and Illinois, all in-person supervised visitations have been suspended. A few states, like Louisiana, continue to legally allow in-person supervised visitations, but are closing their buildings to the public and directing employees to work from home, which means supervised visitations, which often take place in these buildings and require staff to be physically present, cannot practically take place. While agencies appear to be allowing remote visitation when possible, for some — like parents with newborns and toddlers or children with developmental delays — remote visits just don’t work. In other cases, the parents, foster families, or agencies themselves might not be equipped with the technology necessary to facilitate remote visits.

Even in cases where these factors don’t apply, video communication is a meager replacement for face-to-face contact between a parent and a child, interrupting crucial bonding and raising the possibility of increased anxiety and depression in both parties, according to Richard Pittman, deputy public defender at the Louisiana Public Defender Board. Pittman expressed particular concern that parents might become so dejected by the loss of substantive contact with their children, as well as the loss of therapeutic services and mandatory classes that has gone hand-in-hand with the curtailed visits in many locations, that they might disengage altogether from the case. “Any progress they’ve made healing from the trauma of the initial removal is going to be reversed through all of this,” said Pittman.

Moss’ youngest child turned one shortly before the lockdown but had been in Texas with his foster mom on his birthday. Moss has still not been able to celebrate with him in person, and she’s terrified that she is now also going to miss his first steps.

“[He] had a long hard time learning to sit up and crawl. Luckily before this [lockdown] happened I got to see him to crawl and sit up. Now he’s on the verge of standing up on his own and I should be there for that. [His foster mom] is experiencing all this stuff that I should experience…I think it’s just going to break me if I don’t see my son walking,” she said. Moss also noted that her son has struggled with a recurring bronchial cough, which is particularly stressful during the pandemic, but she is barred from even texting his caregivers to inquire about his health without the social worker’s permission.

The consequences go further than feelings

In child welfare cases, the consequences go further than feelings. Under the Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA), agencies are required to file for termination of parental rights when a child has been living in a non-relative out-of-home placement for 15 of the past 22 months. Some states have shortened that timeline to be as few as 12 months. Although parent attorneys should have a good case for requesting an extension — ASFA allows for consideration of mitigating circumstances and it’s hard to think of a better one than a pandemic — those extensions are neither guaranteed nor infinite. And once a termination petition is filed, bonding between parent and child is a crucial determining factor.

The factors that are used to determine whether or not it is in a child’s best interest to keep them permanently separated from their parent vary somewhat by state, but typically revolve around the ASFA timeline, the parent’s completion of court-ordered services like drug treatment and parenting classes, and the bond between parent and child, which is often measured by the frequency and quality of their visits.

“An agency can say ‘we understand the reason there weren’t visits is because of the coronavirus, but at this point it’s been x many months in foster care and they haven’t made progress and it would hurt the kids to go home now,’” said Amy Mulzer, a family defense appellate attorney in New York and an Elie Hirschfeld Family Defense Fellow at the NYU School of Law Family Defense Clinic.

Shayna, a Native American mother who lives in Wisconsin and asked that her real name not be printed in this story, has two children out-of-home in two different counties. Her youngest child has been on an adoption track, which means Shayna is fighting an uphill battle to have him returned home rather than having her parental rights terminated and her child forcibly adopted to his current caregivers. For her, the issue of bonding is not an abstract future hypothetical; it’s a very real factor she must now find a way to prove without being able to interact with her three-year-old in person.

Visits could literally make or break her reunification case

“It seems like they are using the coronavirus as a reason to keep my son from me because they know the court date is coming up, which is not good because they don’t have observations on me from now to then,” she said. Her son’s foster placement had been in pre-adoptive status, but she was recently able to get her case placed back on a dual track, which means adoption and reunification are both on the table for the next six months. For her, visits could literally make or break her reunification case — but she says the social worker is refusing to use an approved family member as a supervisor in order to continue visits, even though that is technically allowed. “They are not utilizing any other options, just using this coronavirus to stop and hold the visits. I think they should look at the bigger picture: this little boy needs to be back with his mom.”

Less restrictive alternatives exist. For example, Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Welfare reform, suggested moving visits to open spaces like parks when possible, and expediting the return of children who can safely be returned home. San Francisco recently issued an order requiring agencies to make efforts to supply families in need with the appropriate technology to engage in remote video visitation. It also directed agencies to analyze and identify cases in which children were nearing reunification, and to fast-track their return home when possible. Advocates in New York City say similar efforts are being made, though it is unclear (in both locations) exactly how many families are on track to actually receive these benefits. These directives also leave a host of other details unanswered, such as the minutiae of moving a child from one location to the next — suddenly far more complicated when having to also consider infection control.

The Children’s Bureau within the federal Department of Health and Human Services issued a letter in response to the pandemic that included suggestions to state agencies about how to handle a variety of topics, including parent-child visitation. The guidelines discourage courts from “issuing blanket court orders reducing or suspending family time,” and asks agencies and courts to “be mindful of the need for continued family time, especially in times of crisis and heightened anxiety.”

While these suggestions come from a credible source and can bolster arguments in favor of continued family visitations, without Congressional action or agency rulemaking, they are not actual orders. This leaves states and agencies the license to develop their own pandemic protocols.

“If a child can’t see their parents for months at a time, they start to believe maybe their parents don’t love them,” said Michelle Chan, a mother with prior child services involvement, and founder of California Rise, a Bay area child welfare activist group. “I really am worried about the deterioration of the parent-child bond. I feel it should be the most important thing.”

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What Happens When a Grocery Store Job Is the Only One You Can Get?

My great-aunt works at a grocery store in a populous suburb of Philadelphia. She’s worked there for about two years, following a stint of part-time jobs, including one at a temp agency working in factories. Normally she works behind the deli counter with a team and helps customers on the floor; now she mostly works alone behind the counter because there’s not enough space for multiple people to social distance back there. She pre-slices the most popular cold cuts to place out in front of the counter, so people don’t have to ask for them.

My great-aunt’s workplace hasn’t provided her with any protective gear, even though grocery workers are, as Vogue decreed, “the new first responders” under COVID-19. She had to purchase masks for herself off Groupon for $30, no small expense on her wages. She was excited about her recent COVID-19-induced raise from $11 an hour to $13 an hour, even though the store cut her hours so ultimately she’s making about the same amount.

“Before I guess I didn’t take this all serious,” my aunt says. “But I am anxious now, because people just keep coming in here. They’re not listening to the stay at home order. People come in there, and they’re not wearing masks.”

My great-aunt has a felony record, so she’s limited in the work she’s able to get. She can’t quit her job, because she went through so much to get this one: working at the temp agency and being driven across state lines to work in factories, getting rides to local hotels to beg for housekeeping work, struggling to make enough to get out of her recovery housing. “I just couldn’t get a job,” she recalls.

Nearly three-fourths of people released from prison remain unemployed a year after their release, and a criminal record can halve the chances of a job callback or offer; those chances are worse for Black applicants than white applicants. Gender complicates it further: Because women often work in fields that require background checks, like retail and caregiving, they may have an even harder time finding employment. In many states, including Pennsylvania, state law bars people with criminal records from caregiving jobs.

Many parole deals include an offer of employment as a requirement of release, increasing the urgency of the job search. It took my great-aunt, who is white, a year to get her part-time job at the grocery store; she’s worked there ever since.

People with a history of incarceration tend to be pushed into dangerous jobs.

Despite the risks, her position at the grocery store is a blessing. Other re-entry-friendly fields like retail have faced massive layoffs — more than 33 million Americans have filed for unemployment since late March, with Pennsylvania hit particularly hard — leaving more people with records looking for jobs. Grocery stores, on the other hand, are desperate for employees. Since they are considered essential, grocery stores are among the few establishments open, making them the main place for people to purchase household goods.

As a result, grocery stores may be where formerly incarcerated people turn first for work, despite the dangers. My great-aunt says her friend’s son was released from a Philly prison a few weeks ago with no warning — presumably due to COVID-19 concerns, but they’re not sure — and showed up on her friend’s doorstep. After a few days, they were able to get him into a halfway house a few towns away. He got a job at a local grocery store a week later.

People with a history of incarceration tend to be pushed into dangerous jobs, like construction, maintenance, and factory lines, with wages below the poverty line. These are often the jobs that others see as menial work; right now, these are the jobs that are on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic, because they don’t allow for social distancing and provide essential services to protect us all.

After all, you need to get your groceries somewhere. And when you get them, my great-aunt will be there, in the deli section, slicing your cold cuts, at great risk to her health. “I’m a little nervous about going, but I don’t have a choice,” she admits. “I need my paycheck. I’m grateful I still have a job, I look at how many people are unemployed and I’m just grateful I have a job.”

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