Time to Care: The Constant Struggle to Make Ends Meet

Editor’s Note: This story was originally published on Shared Justice, and is part of the Time to Care series.

Carol’s passion for justice has shaped her education and career. She first encountered Shared Justice two years ago when a former classmate sent her an article on youth homelessness. Recently, she has been following along with the Time to Care series. After reading the first articles of the series, Carol realized she had her own insights and expertise to contribute. Carol works in child welfare for the State of New Jersey. Speaking from her personal and professional experiences, Carol discusses the importance of family time and work benefits for family flourishing.

CM: As a reader of the Time to Care series, you have connected personally with the stories and experiences being shared. Can you share why this topic is personal to you?

CK: I grew up in a small town in south Jersey. My mom was my main family, but I actually had a doubled-up household for a lot of my childhood. My mom and I were evicted from our first home when she couldn’t keep up with the rent, so we moved in with my grandparents when I was three. We lived with my grandparents, my uncle, and my cousin. I shared a room with my mom until I was in sixth grade. My mom and I lived at the house until my grandmom passed away and we lost that home. My grandmom only had an eighth grade education because she was a child of the Depression and had to take care of her family. So, she didn’t know the difference between secured and unsecured debt. That’s how we lost the family house. From there, my mom and I moved into a two bedroom apartment. Our landlord was kind of a slumlord, but we fixed it up and made it a home. My uncle who struggled with addiction stayed with us off and on until he got sober.

How did your mom support you when you were a child?

My mom worked at what is now Rite-Aid. She was a cashier. This is rare now, but her employer allowed her to work from 8:00 am to 4:00 pm Monday through Friday. That was tremendous. For the socioeconomic status we're in, that's hard to actually get.

In the morning, she would drop me off at my aunt’s house, and my aunt would babysit me for free with a group of other kids. My mom saved a lot of money that way on childcare. To save money, I actually didn’t go to preschool either. Luckily my aunt was a great teacher, so I didn’t struggle when I started school. In the evening my mom was always around for dinner. With her schedule, our biggest stress wasn’t time together as much as she wasn’t able to be very present emotionally for me because of the stress of constantly struggling to make ends meet.

Growing up, my mom always pushed education on me because she didn’t want me to work paycheck to paycheck like we did when I was young. That was the main goal. As a young professional I actually already make double what we grew up on, plus benefits, and I have my own apartment. That’s a cool feeling.

You mentioned that it’s hard to get a job during traditional work hours when you’re in a low socioeconomic status. From your professional standpoint, can you elaborate on that observation?

I can’t say this enough: my mom was lucky. People with jobs like the one she had get stuck in a cycle of inconsistent hours, only OK pay, and no benefits.

My professional background has all been working with families. Currently I am a child protection and permanency worker, so I help to assess whether a home is safe and help families get the resources they need to create a safe home. In one of my previous roles I worked with new moms undergoing job training. So, I’m speaking from my academic and professional background when I say this: solid, structured time is important for kids. Having consistency across the board is known to be important for health and development. To have a mom work 3 pm to 10 pm one night and then 7 am to 3 pm the next day is chaos for the family. As a parent, how do you keep a stable sleep schedule? Who's babysitting on what nights?

“I got to where I am because of people who didn’t have to care about my family, but chose to.

Low-skill jobs can have benefits, but many don’t. Employers don’t have to provide benefits to their part-time workers. Some people are really pushing for a higher minimum wage. Pay is important, but benefits are key. You can get a higher wage, but then what happens when the baby’s sick and you need to take a few days off? Or when you get sick? Every worker is going to need to take time off of work for some reason and not need to worry about making that month’s bills.

I worked through college in one of these jobs I’m describing. Everybody gets sick sometimes. But at my job, if a coworker called in and said they were throwing up, management would say, “Well, when was the last time you threw up? You sure you can’t come try to tough it out?” That’s not right. There shouldn’t be shame placed on someone who has to call out of work from time to time. We need employers that care about their employees. Plus, the happier your employees are, the better they’re going to work. People need to make sure that they can take the time off they need to from work when they’re sick or when life happens without shame and without worrying about how they are going to afford rent that month.

Why do you think young adults like us should care about public and workplace policies that support family flourishing?

When we build each other up, society becomes a better place for us all. We are all a part of some sort of family, and these policies will affect us. That much is obvious. But, and I want to be clear about this: that’s not the fundamental reason we should care about these issues. It is imperative that we are aware of and thoughtful about policies that don’t directly affect us, too. My mom and I had people around us who cared about us and the struggles we faced even though they weren’t directly affected by our struggles.

Reflecting on my personal experience, I am passionate about helping others who don’t have a flexible boss or a family who doesn’t have  the time they need to be together for a meal and homework everyday. My mom had consistent work hours while I was growing up. We were lucky that way. Lots of families today are struggling to navigate non-standard, unpredictable work hours while trying to keep their families healthy. To become a more just society, we need to build each other up according to our needs. Whether an employee, a neighbor, or a stranger, we need to support and care about each other’s families. I got to where I am in part because of other people making choices that enabled my family to thrive: from the extended family who provided my mom with free child care to the boss who kept my mom employed with consistent work hours. In other words, I got to where I am because of people who didn’t have to care about my family, but chose to. Policies that impact families and family time are important because all families are important. We should care about these policies because it’s one way by which we can make our society better.

Carol Kirkbride is a Resource Family Support Worker for the New Jersey Department of Children and Families. She holds a Master of Social Work from the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Policy and Practice and a Bachelor of Science in Social Work from Stockton University.

Chelsea Maxwell is the Program Associate of Families Valued, an initiative of the Center for Public Justice, and the contributing editor of Time to Care.

Chelsea Maxwell