On the Line: Working Life in Arkansas

By Nancy Peckenham

Vol. 13, No. 2, 1991, pp. 12-15

For weeks in early 1990, Deborah Abdullah woke up every day to face the problems plaguing many workers in the state of Arkansas. One of the seven percent of workers on the state's official unemployment rolls, Deborah had to overcome two obstacles in her job search: her race and her sex. As a black woman and a single mother, she faced limited employment opportunities in a state ranked 49th in the union for its Worker Climate.

Across town in North Little Rock, another single parent, this one a white woman, is learning just how tough it can be to break into a male-dominated field. Jennifer Morris, a mother of five children, is trying to get off welfare in a state with the fourth lowest paying jobs in the country.

With an average manufacturing wage of $364 a week in Arkansas, an industrial worker could earn about $18,928 a year in 1988. Among that elite in Arkansas's industrial sector are workers like Dave Robb, who earns $520 in a normal 40-hour work week. Yet as a highly skilled mechanic, he could be earning a lot more in states like Ohio and Michigan, where the average manufacturing wage tops that of the best-paying jobs in Arkansas.

The Parkers, pillars in Little Rock's black community, have seen their fortunes rise and fall. Elizabeth and Charles, both in their 50s, secured well-paying jobs in the 1960s. Their children all went to college and they added a spacious addition to their comfortable brick home. Then, both were disabled and for the past year they have discovered what it is like to live on disability.

Each of these workers embodies the personal traits, strengths, and aspirations associated with living in a state among the nations lowest in protecting and rewarding its working families.

* * *

"Today's poor aren't lust the ones out on the street; it's the people working hard trying to make a decent living." Jennifer Morris speaks over the whir of fans moving the hot summer air through her dining room. "I wish there was something that could be done to make it just a little bit easier. It seems like sometimes it's not worth it to work."

Jennifer belongs to the fastest-growing segment of poor in the United States--single mothers. "When we were together," remembers Jennifer, "we were doing all right." Her husband walked out, leaving her with the children. "I applied for housing and, with the Lord's help, got this place where we've been for six years."

Since then, a patchwork of federal assistance has kept Jennifer barely above water. The government pays her $320 monthly rent and sends a $39 check for utilities every month. With food stamps and a monthly check of $286 from Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), The family has always had enough to eat.

This amalgam of public assistance is about to change. Last year, Arkansas introduced Project Success, a program designed to get people off welfare and into the job market. Jennifer signed up, was tested and decided to work toward a journeyman electrician's license.

"The educational requirements for working in Arkansas are getting higher and higher," says Jennifer. "I had a two-year degree as an instrument technician. It helped, but it was not as valuable as a college degree."

Most Southeastern states traditionally attracted new industries by offering an abundant supply of workers willing to work for relatively low wages. As a result, little emphasis has been placed on education. Arkansas has been among the worst, allotting only $2,402 for the education of each student in 1986-87.

More recently, companies nationwide have begun to demand a more highly-skilled workforce, a phenomenon that is occurring in Arkansas as well, where employers are raising standards. The state government appears to be responding to this demand. The impression of several workers interviewed in Little Rock is that of a renewed commitment to higher educational standards statewide.

"I learned this job because I wanted some kind of trade


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that pays enough to let me take care of my family, just like anybody else," Jennifer's voice rises defiantly. "Even though the pay's not so good right now, it will be better in the long run."

As an apprentice, Jennifer earns 35 percent of an electrician's pay. That amounts to $5.48 hour on a union-scale job. After five years as an apprentice she'll be eligible for a journeyman's license. Besides the relatively low pay, there's the problem of regular work. She goes from job site to job site, and since she started working in March, Jennifer's been laid off twice.

Federal assistance has filled the gaps.

"My last paycheck was for a partial week. It was $110--just enough to mean that I won't be able to get AFDC any more," she said.

If there is one change Jennifer would like to see, it would be a way to keep some assistance coming until she gets back on her feet. She's working now, but she's still not going anywhere.

"I spend about $50 a week on gas, with my old car going 40 miles each way to work in Pine Bluff every day. Then I pay $40 a week to have someone watch my two youngest kids during the day. That's $90 right there--and I only made $110!"

A further difficulty is being a woman in a traditionally male job. In Arkansas, women have made few inroads into male-dominated job fields. Electrical work is one of those and Jennifer feels rejection from men at the job site whom she believes don't want her around.

Despite the daily difficulties, Jennifer maintains her faith in God and in the future. "There's times I wished I was dead. The loneliness is so bad. On welfare, you're embarassed and ashamed; people act like you're less of a person. But we're making it."

* * *

Sitting on the stoop of the small house she rents on the outskirts of Little Rock, Deborah Abdullah talks about her job-hunting efforts that took her to Atlanta, Georgia, and then back home to the familiarity of Arkansas. Recently divorced, she was re-entering the job market after years of occasional, part-time work.

In both locales, Deborah was looking for work as a nurses' aide, a service-sector job that on average pays


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much better in Georgia than in Arkansas. In Atlanta, she found that her lack of a college degree stung when she went to apply for work. With just one year to finish a degree in gerontology, she hoped to convince people in Atlanta to give her a chance as a nurse's aide. She was unsuccessful.

"They just said, 'We'll call you when something opens up in the laundry,'" says Deborah of her job hunt in Atlanta. "See, when they have a variety to choose from, they'll pick a person with a BA before they pick someone without one."

Unable to find a job in Atlanta, Deborah returned to Little Rock with her two young sons. If nothing else, Arkansas offers a slightly better quality of life than Georgia, certainly less crime than the streets of Atlanta. In June, Deborah started knocking on doors across Little Rock, looking for work. While the unemployment rate in the Arkansas capital this year fell to 5.5 percent, well below the statewide average, Deborah still had the handicaps of membership in the two groups of people with the fewest opportunities--blacks and women.

Finally, she reached Timber Ridge, a rehabilitation center in Benton. "They gave me a chance and I really appreciated it. I work with patients and am getting experience for the future."

At $4.50 an hour, with a 30-minute drive each way, Deborah doesn't expect to accumulate much savings. But the difficulty of being alone with her two young sons is easing. "Every time I get to worrying, the pay check comes and I can pay off the bills a little bit at a time." She gets by on that with $200 a month in child support from her ex-husband.

In spite of the hardships, Deborah is glad to be home. "Here in Arkansas, we believe in building our families. We have plenty of time to sit on the porch and have conversation. It's friendly and we spend a lot of time working on our hearts." For Deborah, that's some of the most important work a person can do.

* * *

Dave and Aleta Robb rent a three-bedroom house in Jacksonville, Arkansas, just north of Little Rock. A neatly trimmed lawn, with a Jeep and pick-up truck parked outside--all the makings of the American dream.

In fact, Dave has the kind of industrial job many folks long for. He's a mechanic at Lockheed, making $12.97 an hour. And even though he works a second part-time job and Aleta is employed as well, their lives are riddled by insecurity about what the future holds. living in debt is their number one concern.

Both Dave and Aleta migrated to Arkansas because of the air base in Jacksonville. He was in the Air Force. Aleta came from Kentucky with her first husband as a military wife. Dave has lived all up and down the East Coast. They're modem Americans: mobile and willing to move in pursuit of a better job and higher wages.

The Robbs started their life together two and a half years ago. Both had previous marriages. Although Dave had plenty of maintenance skills from his years in the Air Force, he enrolled in a nearby vocational-technical school. With some $500 a month from the G.I. bill and a part-time job for income, Dave started accumulating debt as he struggled to stay afloat, paying $200 a month in child support.

When Aleta's first marriage broke up, she went to work as a telemarketer, bringing in $375 every two weeks. Then she married Dave and returned to school to study drafting with a grant of$110 a month from the federal government. 'There were a few weeks in late 1988 when we did good to put food on the table," remembers Aleta. "We became Olympic champions in bill juggling. Things started to look up in 1989."

Dave got his job at Lockheed that year and made a total of $27,000, just below the average family income in the state of Arkansas, the lowest in the United States. With Aleta's son, Brian, the only child at home, they were able to get by.

In November 1989, just before Aleta received her certificate in drafting, she set out to find a job. Arkansas's unemployment rate is higher than the national average, yet it has improved since 1987 when it was 8.1 percent By 1989, the statewide rate had fallen to 7.2 percent.

Arkansas has had some job growth, increasing employment by 26,000 statewide between 1988 and 1989. National press attention has praised an aggressive industrial development program for attracting new industries to the state. Yet workers in the state are more skeptical, suggesting that while some new industries are locating in Arkansas, other older plants are closing up.

For Aleta Robb, it seems that the figures hid the real picture. She had a difficult time finding a job.

"I talked to every engineering firm in town and answered every ad in the newspaper for a drafter. I averaged one interview a week and it took me from November to April to get a job. I was about ready to give up.

She's been working now for three months, and although company policy won't allow her to reveal her hourly pay, she and Dave have been able to pay off about $6,000 of their debt in three months. Dave took a second job, working nights at a commissary on the air base for $6.50 an hour. He doesn't get much sleep, but he's living for the future.

"In one year, if everything works like it is now, we'll be debt-free and I can quit my second job," says Dave. "But


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until then, we're not slowing down."

Two dark clouds cover this promising future. At Lockheed, a major supplier went bankrupt and may result in the cancellation of the contract to produce C-130 transport planes.

"If the contract folds," says Aleta, "we may be moving to Ohio, Georgia, wherever there's work. We'll hop in the U-haul and start all over again."

And if they stay, they will have to confront the reality of living directly across the street from one of the deadliest toxic incinerators in the United States. Arkansas ranks 51st in environmental protection and for months, Aleta has been attending community meetings to learn about the deadly effects of the dioxin emitted from the nearby plant. For 15 years, it turned into Agent Orange, and former workers are suing the manufacturers. Local residents are scared, trying to protect their own lives.

If Governor Bill Clinton has his way, the dioxin dump will soon start burning 2,800 barrels of dioxin, turning it into ash and smoke. For the Robb family, a sudden shutdown at Lockheed may be the luckiest twist of fate they could have asked for.

* * *

Life can always play unexpected tricks on you, even when you're doing well, as Charles and Elizabeth Parker discovered a year ago. The Parkers, both in the early 50s, are natives of Little Rock--and they live in the house they bought when they married 31 years ago.

In the mid-1960s, after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, opportunities began to open up for them in Arkansas. In 1966, Elizabeth, with a degree as an LPN, was hired at the VA Hospital in Little Rock. She worked there for 21 years, a model employee who was the first black worker to receive the national Hearts and Hands Award for service.

Charles worked as a bricklayer. In the early 1970s he decided to go to college, where he earned a bachelor's degree in social service and started towards a master's. In 1978, he went to work for the state office of economic opportunity. For the next six years he helped low-income families find housing. Then, he returned to the lucrative construction industry. Charles and Elizabeth started saving $500 a month, planning for their life after retirement.

Inside the Parker family album, photos of a smiling family, healthy sons and daughters--even neighborhood children taken into the Parker fold--fill page after page. A picture of prosperity--fragile still.

On New Year's Eve, 1986, a mentally-deranged patient jumped Elizabeth and their plans changed abruptly. After the incident, the VA hospital denied worker compensation benefits that Elizabeth believes she is due. Far worse, she was terminated for her disability and is unable to afford therapy to repair severe spinal damage. She has been dealing with a complex bureaucracy a thousand miles away in Washington, and nearly four years after her accident she has yet to receive any benefits.

"You see, when you can't work, you're a liability to a company, so they put you out to pasture," remarks Charles.

Despite Elizabeth's injury and dispute with the VA hospital, she found great comfort in her family. Four of her children have college degrees and one is still in school. One daughter is a registered nurse. A son started out at minimum wage, sweeping floors at Coca-Cola, but worked his way up into the accounting department.

The Parker family believes that such opportunities are gone from little Rock. Businesses are closing their doors, Charles says. "If you get a job, they hire you on at minimum wage, and you stay there."

The youngest Parker son went to work last summer with Charles, who was earning $52,000 a year as a bricklayer foreman in Little Rock. He had gone to Kansas City to find work after construction slowed down in Little Rock, but the pay was good and the work steady.

Suddenly, in September, Charles contracted a rare virus that attacks the nervous system. He lost muscle control from the nerve damage--and hasn't been able to work since. Because he was an independent contractor, he is not eligible for state disability, which at $226 a week, is among the ten lowest in the country.

"We had goals and we were at the point when we could do something for ourselves," says Charles. "Now, we just don't know what the future holds."

The Parkers started getting assistance for the first time this spring. Charles gets $577 a month in disability payments from social security. They each get $11 a month from Supplemental Security Insurance (SSI). That totals $599, just one dollar short of the cut off for Medicaid, which covers their medication.

"I went to the food stamp office and people talk to you so harshly, it's degrading," says Charles. "I never went back."

The family has received donations of groceries and Charles looks forward to the day his viral infection and muscle strength improves and he can return to work. Yet they have learned that it is a very thin line between financial security and financial ruin.

"You miss four or five months of income, and it depletes what little savings you DO have," says Elizabeth. "We didn't have any income for seven months. But we're a strong knit family and our religious belief has kept us together."

This article by Nancy Peckenham, an Atlanta-based writer for CNN World Report, appears as a case study in The 1990 Climate for Workers in the United States. The Southern Labor Institute of the Southern Regional Council produces this report every two years to examine on a state-by-slate basis the conditions, laws, wages and other factors affecting working people in the U.S.