Yesterday morning before leaving for church, I e-mailed Sam M. this detail-rich Washington Post story about Tabi Rouzzo, a white working-class girl from a Rust Belt town in western Pennsylvania. It hits on so many themes that we’ve been talking about recently on this blog. Here are some excerpts:
Tabi shared the rental house with her mother and sometimes her mother’s boyfriend. Her four older siblings were grown. None of them had graduated from high school. They wore headsets and hairnets to jobs that were so futureless that getting pregnant at 20 seemed an enriching diversion. Born too late to witness the blue-collar stability that had once been possible, they occupied the bottom of the U.S. economy.
“I’m running from everything they are,” she said.
The question was whether Tabi could outrun the odds against her.
Tabi heard stories about the olden days. She came from welders and ceramic production workers. But, to Tabi, the sprawling Shenango China factory where her grandfather and great-grandfather worked was just a boarded-up place on the way to Wal-Mart.
Her New Castle was the one that existed now: white, working class, with poverty that had deepened into the second and third generations. Nearly three-fourths of the students in Tabi’s school qualified for free or reduced-price lunches, and one-third of New Castle families with children younger than 18 had incomes beneath the poverty level.
During the 2012 election, the campaigns of President Obama and Mitt Romney visited Pennsylvania a combined 38 times. With Ohio next door, the candidates and their wives barnstormed the region like few other places, focused almost entirely on the economy and strengthening the middle class. After the election, New Castle was still a hard town to be young and poor in.
They had $50 prepaid phones and $5 Day-Glo earbuds with the Chinese innards spilling out. They went to Township Tan for the 15-minute prom special. But the backwash of America’s affluence was a dim substitute for the promise of the middle class, which had moved farther from their reach. The decline in economic mobility has made the bottom more difficult to climb up from.
Unlike her counterparts in higher ranges, prepped for ascension, Tabi Rouzzo had only herself.
At 13, she started working in a deer slaughterhouse. Her friend Gloria told her about it, and Gloria’s mom drove them out there. They were greeted by a cold room with kerosene heaters. For $10 an hour, Tabi was to stand at a table cutting butterfly filets.
With a bloody knife in her hand and a circular saw whining behind her, labor laws being violated by the minute, Tabi decided on the spot that work offered freedom. She went back the next two winters, through 10th grade. Off-season, she cleaned rental properties, clerked in a mini-mart and baled hay at a farm.
In 11th grade, Tabi needed a job she could walk to and found Splitstone Entertainment, a storefront that sold used electronics, along with a selection of stun guns, nunchucks, ninja throwing stars and factory-boxed Star Wars collectibles. People brought in their Xboxes and PlayStations to unload, and Tabi cleaned them for resale.
“The controllers are real greasy,” she said one Saturday afternoon, pulling back her hair for the task. She was not complaining. Even describing the slaughterhouse, she sounded like a butcher and not a squee girl. “I’m a grown man,” she joked. It was somehow true. She had not a line on her porcelain face but a weariness was already in her.
Inside the church, God’s abundance overflowed. Pastor Shawn had ordered enough pizzas and nachos to feed the Rust Belt. Shawn Galla, the 26-year-old youth pastor, had convinced church elders that a night of metal music and free prizes was more likely to bring in New Castle’s teenagers than praise music and juice boxes.
Having grown up in working-class Pittsburgh with a single mother, Pastor Shawn thought he knew his audience when he took the job in New Castle in 2008, until he launched a fundraising drive for his kids and found their parents selling the Auntie Anne’s pretzels for cash for themselves.
Tabi had inched her way to the front of the crowd when the lights went down and the screaming started. Pastor Shawn was on stage ready to start flinging CDs and McDonald’s gift cards into the crowd.
“We’re giving away free stuff!” he yelled. “EVEN JESUS!”
The band Icon For Hire was pierced and mohawked. “WHAT’S UP, NEW CASTLE!” the lead singer shouted, and the head banging commenced. The evening’s motivational speaker, Seth Franco, a former Harlem Globetrotter, told his story of injury and comeback and invited anyone to raise their hands and come forward if they wanted to accept Jesus Christ.
“There’s more to life than nothing,” Seth said, as the electric keyboard softly lulled and the lights dimmed. “There’s more to life than this town.”
Words to Tabi’s ears. She was not exceptionally pious and she had made her share of transgressions, but she always felt better at this moment when she closed her eyes and let go. The kids from the bus had their heads bowed, too. Some were wiping away tears, a few were sobbing, their shoulders heaving in the darkness of the church.
Then the lights blasted back on and Pastor Shawn was onstage, holding something small in his hand.
“WHO WANTS AN IPOD?”
Oy. One more, this bit about a fight between Tabi and her mother:
The explosion happened on a Saturday night. Patricia was bigger, badder and louder than Tabi. But Tabi had resentment that went back years.
She said Deric hadn’t brainwashed her against her family; the feelings were entirely her own. There was a difference between bad luck and bad choices, Tabi said, and she had grown up captive of her mother’s choices.
“You think you’re better then me, don’t you?” Patricia yelled. “I had five kids!”
“Mom,” Tabi yelled back, “you quit school. Does it dawn on you after your first [child] not to have a second one?”
It was a lethal blow, as only a teenage girl could deliver. Patricia got pregnant in the eighth grade, the same age Tabi was when she started at the slaughterhouse.
By now, you know whether or not you want to read the whole thing. I hope you will. I hardly know where to start with commentary.
A couple of things come to mind, though. One, it’s really tragic to see how family, far from being the stable and nurturing basis from which one can launch oneself, can instead serve as the incubator of dysfunction and ruin. I have known several people — all women, come to think of it — who have been in situations exactly like Tabi’s. Anything they did to better themselves educationally or otherwise caused their family to turn on them, and accuse them bitterly of selling out, of getting above themselves. It’s hard for people like me — raised by two parents, a mom and a dad who nurtured their children, encouraged them to achieve, and who, while not perfect and certainly far from rich, provided a home that was materially secure and morally orderly — to understand what someone like Tabi has to overcome. Not many people have it easy, making a good life for themselves in this world, but good lord, for people whose families actively try to tear them down? It is bitterly tragic that, in order to give herself a chance at a better future for herself by breaking out of her mother’s destructive orbit, she has to cultivate spite for her mother.
(On that point, I’m not going to reveal how Tabi got out of town, but I will say that I know a black woman from my town who was also from a dysfunctional, impoverished family, and took the same route. She has done extremely well for herself since then … and she told me that she can never consider returning home as I have done, because there is nothing for her here but more of the same poisonous dysfunction that she escaped.)
A second point: reading Tabi’s story made me appreciate all the more how important religion is to the poor, not only as a consolation amid despair, but also as a means for giving one the internal means to resist and endure the corruption and collapse around one. Wealthy people, and middle-class people, usually have the resources — material and social — to absorb deleterious consequences from bad behavior. Not infinite resources, of course, but it’s harder to fall through the cracks when you have monetary capital and social capital. The poor live without those margins. The kinds of morals that aristocrats (so to speak) live with can be deadly to the poor. Educated people don’t want to talk about that, because it sounds like a justification of different moral standards for the poor, versus everybody else. It seems to me that that’s just plain good sense; when you can’t count on a strong structure to hold you up from the outside, you have to make your internal structure even stronger.
When I think about this kind of thing, I always go back to these passages from Robert D. Kaplan’s 1994 “Coming Anarchy” story from The Atlantic:
“In the poor quarters of Arab North Africa,” [an African government official] continued, “there is much less crime, because Islam provides a social anchor: of education and indoctrination. Here in West Africa we have a lot of superficial Islam and superficial Christianity. Western religion is undermined by animist beliefs not suitable to a moral society, because they are based on irrational spirit power. Here spirits are used to wreak vengeance by one person against another, or one group against another.” Many of the atrocities in the Liberian civil war have been tied to belief in juju spirits, and the BBC has reported, in its magazine Focus on Africa, that in the civil fighting in adjacent Sierra Leone, rebels were said to have “a young woman with them who would go to the front naked, always walking backwards and looking in a mirror to see where she was going. This made her invisible, so that she could cross to the army’s positions and there bury charms . . . to improve the rebels’ chances of success.”
Finally my friend the Minister mentioned polygamy. Designed for a pastoral way of life, polygamy continues to thrive in sub-Saharan Africa even though it is increasingly uncommon in Arab North Africa. Most youths I met on the road in West Africa told me that they were from “extended” families, with a mother in one place and a father in another. Translated to an urban environment, loose family structures are largely responsible for the world’s highest birth rates and the explosion of the HIV virus on the continent. Like the communalism and animism, they provide a weak shield against the corrosive social effects of life in cities.
But in Turkey I learned that shantytowns are not all bad.
Slum quarters in Abidjan terrify and repel the outsider. In Turkey it is the opposite. The closer I got to Golden Mountain the better it looked, and the safer I felt. I had $1,500 worth of Turkish lira in one pocket and $1,000 in traveler’s checks in the other, yet I felt no fear. Golden Mountain was a real neighborhood. The inside of one house told the story: The architectural bedlam of cinder block and sheet metal and cardboard walls was deceiving. Inside was a home—order, that is, bespeaking dignity. I saw a working refrigerator, a television, a wall cabinet with a few books and lots of family pictures, a few plants by a window, and a stove. Though the streets become rivers of mud when it rains, the floors inside this house were spotless.
Other houses were like this too. Schoolchildren ran along with briefcases strapped to their backs, trucks delivered cooking gas, a few men sat inside a cafe sipping tea. One man sipped beer. Alcohol is easy to obtain in Turkey, a secular state where 99 percent of the population is Muslim. Yet there is little problem of alcoholism. Crime against persons is infinitesimal. Poverty and illiteracy are watered-down versions of what obtains in Algeria and Egypt (to say nothing of West Africa), making it that much harder for religious extremists to gain a foothold.
My point in bringing up a rather wholesome, crime-free slum is this: its existence demonstrates how formidable is the fabric of which Turkish Muslim culture is made. A culture this strong has the potential to dominate the Middle East once again. Slums are litmus tests for innate cultural strengths and weaknesses. Those peoples whose cultures can harbor extensive slum life without decomposing will be, relatively speaking, the future’s winners. Those whose cultures cannot will be the future’s victims. Slums—in the sociological sense—do not exist in Turkish cities. The mortar between people and family groups is stronger here than in Africa. Resurgent Islam and Turkic cultural identity have produced a civilization with natural muscle tone. Turks, history’s perennial nomads, take disruption in stride.
The point is that poverty does not have to mean social and moral chaos and decay. Strong religion — and I don’t mean religion that is merely emotional — has a lot to do with building the kind of structure within individuals and communities that makes it easier to endure the trials of poverty without succumbing.
Anyway, look, there are lots of things we can talk about in Anne Hull’s rich portrait of a working-class Rust Belt woman who has everything stacked against her, but who is determined to overcome. I think too about how the black middle class, or those African-Americans who lived by bourgeois values, got out of the ghettoes as soon as the fall of segregation made that possible. They didn’t want to raise their kids around all that either.