Generational Poverty: Trying to Solve Philly’s Most Enduring Problem
Mattie McQueen was about five years old when her mother offered a surprise: “Let’s all go for ice cream.”
McQueen and three of her siblings scrambled out to Mom’s old blue station wagon. They talked, on the way, about what flavor of ice cream they’d get, till Mattie noticed they weren’t traveling the usual route to Dairy Queen.
“Don’t worry,” her mom replied. “We’re going for ice cream.”
Minutes later, she parked and led them into an office waiting room. “I’ll be right back,” she said.
She didn’t come back. That night, the children were placed in foster care.
Mattie McQueen is 52 years old now, but this story still brings on the tears. McQueen is a big woman, round all over, with straight black hair cropped just above her shoulders, and when she cries, all of her shakes. Throughout her life, she’s been on the move, from Bridgeton, New Jersey, to North, South and West Philly, and through a series of relationships that left her with five kids of her own. “I wanted to do right by them,” she says, “but early on, I was in and out of taking care of them.”
Today, McQueen is unemployed and cares for her three grandchildren the best she can. Her living room in West Philadelphia is almost barren. What looks like a 20-year-old TV, with its heavy backside, sits against one wall, facing a few metal folding chairs. A tricycle stands in one corner, parked there by her youngest grandchild, Khaalid Casey, known as Booda.
A cycle of poverty has repeated itself. The poor parents of Mattie McQueen, themselves raised in poverty, gave birth to poor progeny. More than 407,500 Philadelphians live in poverty, about 26 percent of the population — the highest poverty rate among the nation’s 10 biggest cities. The sheer enormity of need strains the city in innumerable ways, from massive social spending to stunted tax revenue to schools. City teachers educate kids suffering from traumas that teachers in suburban districts rarely encounter. The poverty rate among Philadelphia children is a terrifying 36 percent. Many of those children are heirs to a lineage of destitution that stretches back generations.
Mattie McQueen’s past can’t be undone. But researchers studying the cycle of poverty are now contending that she — and millions of men and women like her — must be seen in context, as the vital heart of a family, a woman whose painful history reaches back generations, and who has three grandkids depending upon her today.
IN 1868, Horatio Alger Jr. published Ragged Dick, the first of more than 100 books he authored with the same basic plot: Impoverished young man works hard and prospers. More than a century on, the image of America as a place where hard work begets success persists. But the data on the American Experiment tells a different story: Circumstances not of our own choosing — race, class and education — are far more predictive of individual achievement than is work ethic.
A 2014 paper published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics found that a child’s future financial success is predicated on household circumstances — like parental income and whether his is a single- or dual-parent household. In a separate study drawing on data from 5,783 children now in their 20s, researchers Richard V. Reeves and Isabel Sawhill showed that high-school dropouts from high-income families do as well, economically, as poor kids who graduate from college.
The notion that great opportunity for social advancement awaits immigrants in America — another cornerstone of the national identity — also appears to be based in myth. A 2014 paper published in the Journal of Political Economy follows what happened to two generations of European immigrants who arrived during the age of mass migration, between 1850 and 1913. The study is vast, comparing 21,000 immigrants from 16 separate European countries. What researchers found is that on average, those immigrants who had an economic advantage on their American counterparts when they got here maintained their lead. Those who arrived at a disadvantage stayed behind. And these gaps persisted through a second generation.
“People don’t like to think of America in this way,” says one of the paper’s authors, Leah Boustan. “That image of the hardworking immigrant who comes to America and makes it big, of each child doing better than his parents, is a big part of how we see ourselves. But the data suggests America is more like a caste system. We do about as well as our parents did.”
If a child’s success is in great part predicted by a parent’s income, what income should society expect the descendants of people brought here in slavery to earn today?
Cyndy brown, one of Mattie McQueen’s old neighbors, remembers her as quiet. While Helen and Daniel Chrisden’s other foster kids ran and played, Mattie stayed off to herself, reading. According to McQueen, the Chrisdens provided good food and safe housing. She also liked her home in Bridgeton, a rural area of Southern Jersey she calls “straight country.”
Helen was short, maybe four-foot-nine, with long hair, cat’s-eye glasses and excellent kitchen skills. Daniel was of average height and thickly built, with a thin mustache and steady work as a mechanic. Mattie lived with them for 10 years, in a tightly packed four-bedroom, 1,400-square-foot house that last sold, in 2010, for $81,000. Mattie and her two sisters shared a room; her two brothers bunked together till the eldest, Alfred, moved out.
About two years after the children moved in with the Chrisdens, Mattie’s father visited. He’d never married her mother and had recently discovered that Mattie had been shunted into foster care. He brought presents — a little bike, a toy piano and some clothes. Then he was gone.
Other events occurred in Bridgeton. McQueen says that as a child she was “touched on,” a euphemism for sexual abuse. She says the perpetrator wasn’t her foster parents or a relative and declines to say anything more.
When her mom, Ida Tucker, came back, after more than 10 years, Mattie moved in with her in North Philly. She’d heard from her eldest brother Alfred, who was 15 when their mom left, that Tucker had suffered a nervous breakdown. The pressure of raising five kids, on her own and poor, was too much. Alfred says that the day his mother took the other kids out for ice cream, he came home from school to find them all gone. A police officer told him he’d be joining his siblings in foster care.
Mattie wanted to learn about her mother, and her birth family, for herself. “They’d do projects in school, like draw your family tree,” says McQueen, “and I didn’t have one.” Her mother didn’t have many answers. She told stories of growing up in Alabama, picking cotton, but never offered much else.
Today, records culled from Ancestry.com support that threadbare account. Ida Tucker was born in 1928, and by age 12, when she should have been in seventh grade, she’d only completed the fourth grade. Her father and mother, Martin and Becky Tucker, worked 60 hours per week, farming. They rented a house for $3 a month in Barbour County, Alabama, an area known for cotton. Census records don’t list them having any formal education, and there, documentary evidence runs out.
Her father’s side is easier to track. In fact, four generations back, a Wm. Baggan appears as her great-great-grandfather. Susan Wilson, a staff member at the Genealogical Society of Pennsylvania, says Baggan may have been either a slave owner or the son of one. In 1930, McQueen’s grandfather, Charlie McQueen, was a farmer in Rocky Springs, North Carolina. Charlie apparently did the best of all her ancestors. He had a seventh-grade education, and he owned his own farm, valued then at $800 — or $11,528 in today’s dollars.
Charlie’s siblings probably did far worse. Census records show Charlie caring for nine children at a time, many of whom may have been extended family — a common occurrence among the rural poor. And this crowded house included Mattie’s father, Roosevelt. To this day, she and her siblings aren’t sure what Roosevelt did for a living. McQueen says she once saw a picture of him in a big black leather coat with a badge and a holstered gun. He might have been a policeman, she says, in Georgia.
By the time Mattie left foster care and rejoined her family, her own path was set. Just 16 years old, she’d completed 10th grade. But she’d also become pregnant with the child of a boy she met in Bridgeton. After she moved into her mother’s North Philadelphia home, she dropped out of school. Her thinking was naive, muddled. “I was gonna do things different,” she says. “I was gonna take care of my kids.”
Sitting there feeding, dressing or holding her baby, she’d ask her mother: “Why did you leave us?”
But her mother would just shut her mouth, tightly, and leave the question unanswered, as though Mattie never asked at all.
OTIS BULLOCK JR. was in the second grade at Meade Elementary School in North Philadelphia when a teacher asked him to write an essay on what he would like to be when he grew up.
Otis wrote A fighter … but in class, his teacher offered another idea. “You’re smart,” she said. “You could be a lawyer.”
That thought had never crossed Otis’s mind. At this point in his young life, his mom was in and out of crack addiction. His father, with whom he lived most of the time, was a North Philadelphia drug dealer. Bullock Jr. heard his dad described around the neighborhood as a “great fighter” and knew from the way people said it — with admiration and respect — that being good with his fists could mean status in his community. He’d never been told he was “smart.” He’d never heard anyone describe getting good grades with the same reverence people used in noting his dad’s toughness. But that teacher, he says, “spun my head around.”
Today, Bullock holds a Temple law degree and has already established himself, at 38, as a low-key star in Philadelphia’s political and social firmament. He worked for City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell and later for Mayor Michael Nutter. His wife, Donna Bullock, just 37, is already a state representative for parts of North and West Philadelphia, including impoverished neighborhoods like Mantua and Strawberry Mansion.
Blackwell refers to the couple as “beloved.”
“They have the means to live elsewhere,” she says, “but they have chosen to stay in Strawberry Mansion, one of the city’s most challenged communities, because they believe in that neighborhood and its people.”
Currently, Otis Bullock Jr. serves as executive director of Diversified Community Services, a nonprofit dedicated to helping the city’s low-income families that he’s positioned at the cutting edge of the war on poverty.
This spring he hosted a forum on the “two-generation” model, which unites the services provided to parents and children. “It’s really simple,” says Bullock. “You stabilize the parent, or whoever is leading the household, to make the home less stressful so the child can focus on learning. At the same time, you teach those children.”
In practical terms, the strategy means providing educational support to kids while offering the full range of housing, social, mental-health and economic services to their parents. “In hindsight, this way of approaching generational poverty looks kind of obvious,” says Susan Landry, director and founder of the Children’s Learning Institute in Houston, Texas. “Everyone wants to help children. What the two-gen strategy recognizes is that children exist in families.”
Educating children without stabilizing the home, says Landry, puts kids in an impossible position — requiring them to lead their parents. Making a child’s home safer and less stressful yields huge benefits in the child’s ability to learn. And two-gen strategies are gaining support among conservatives and progressives alike. Republican governors like Bill Haslam of Tennessee and Gary Herbert of Utah champion the two-gen approach for imparting a sense of responsibility to parents and streamlining government — parking disparate social agencies under one roof. Paul Ryan, Republican Speaker of the House, recently told NPR that helping children requires helping their families — a truism of two-gen thinking. And at July’s Democratic convention here in Philadelphia, former president Bill Clinton extolled the virtues of HIPPY (Home Instruction for Parents of Preschool Youngsters) — a seminal two-gen program that Otis Bullock Jr. brought to Diversified.
In Philly, Bullock is the tip of the two-gen sword — the philosophy’s most ardent, well-positioned adherent. His recent forum on two-gen practices featured Anne Mosle, executive director of Ascend at the Aspen Institute, one of the leading think tanks in the world. But Bullock conveys no sense of having arrived. “We’re just getting started,” he says. “And we’ve got a lot of work to do. We’re talking about thousands of children who were born into circumstances that were not of their choosing. And that means a lot to me, because I know how hard it is. I was one of those kids.”
The lunchroom at Roberts Vaux Middle School was buzzing when a kid stepped up to the lunch table where Otis Bullock Jr. sat — studiously playing a game of chess, by himself — and made a big mistake.
It was 1991. Bullock was 13 years old, and smaller than most boys his age, with what his guidance counselor calls “the roundest head I ever saw, and the cutest face — all covered in freckles.” He had tested into the Philadelphia school district’s “gifted” program, which got him bused to another school a couple of days a week for advanced courses. This other kid, like many before him, took Otis’s intelligence for physical weakness and stole one of his chess pieces.
Bullock, at this point in time, led two lives. On one hand, his teachers told him he was smart, that he could accomplish big things, and he believed them. On the other hand, he was still his father’s son. Otis had grown up near the corner of 17th and Jefferson, the city’s infamous “Pill Hill,” where a mass of drug dealers congregated to serve the needs of a far larger 24/7 influx of customers. The same guys who moved product on the corner hung out on the front stoop of Bullock’s house, to socialize with his dad. Once, some men stormed into his home, demanded money from his father, and threatened to kidnap Otis Jr. He watched his father coolly tell the men they’d just walked into a street hustler’s house. “You’ll never make it off the block,” he said. So when this other kid stole Bullock’s chess piece, he just reacted.
“I couldn’t let myself look like I was getting punked,” he says, “because then everyone would think they could bully me.” Bullock crunched an empty soda can into a flat disk and flung it — cutting a gash over the other kid’s eyes.
In the principal’s office, they asked, “Why did you do it?”
“He stole my chess piece,” Bullock responded, as if that should explain everything.
Today, Bullock looks back and understands his luck. “I had a lot of people go way out of their way to help me,” he says. “I could’ve ended up in the system. But they kept giving me chances, saying, ‘Boy, you could be great.’”
At home and in his neighborhood, Otis Jr. learned to be tough, even brutal, to survive. At school, teachers and administrators clued him in to a different set of rules entirely — rules he’d need to abide by if he ever wanted to leave that neighborhood behind.
Years and hindsight show that his parents loved him. His mom, when she was around and free from her addiction, encouraged him in school. And his father — who quit dealing when Otis was 10 — came home every night and spent good money on healthy food for his ever-growing family: one child with Otis’s mom, and seven additional kids with two other women. Of course, his parents were once children, too — born into circumstances not of their own choosing. In fact, Bullock’s family tree looks much like McQueen’s.
In just four generations, the Bullocks also stretch back to slavery. Post-emancipation, they lived in the Carolinas and Florida, working in tailor shops and turpentine factories, on farms or washing clothes. They rented their family homes.
On his mother’s side, in more modern times, the ladies raised children without a father’s help, cleaning houses for money. His paternal granddad worked as a line cook. Grandmom took in other people’s laundry.
The senior Otis Bullock, now 59, grew up in South Philly, eating what he calls “government food” — beans, powdered milk, Spam. A hog maw was a rare treat of animal protein. When he was five or six, he outgrew his only pair of pants. His parents had no money to buy him a new pair. So his mom yanked a curtain down from the window and crafted him some. “It was embarrassing,” says Bullock Sr. “But she was doing the best she could.”
In the mid-’70s, outdoor drug bazaars became a common feature of the underground economy. Bullock Sr. dropped out of school. “I was tired of being laughed at,” he says, “and wanted to make some money.”
Today, Bullock Jr. listens to the details of the meager table his father enjoyed — “poor food” — and realizes what his father provided him. “That wasn’t my experience,” he says. “He did better for me than that.”
Bullock Jr. has 14 half-siblings. They had food but little else. At the start of each school year, his father and the woman Otis calls his stepmom bought each child two pairs of pants, two shirts and one pair of sneakers. To get through the week, he and a brother would rotate through each other’s outfits. “We had different builds,” says Bullock, “so half the time I wore baggy clothes.”
As time passed and the good grades kept coming, his teachers laid out a possible future: “They’d tell me,” he says, “if I could stay out of trouble, not get suspended, maintain perfect attendance and keep up my grades, I could get into one of the city’s good high schools. And from there? I could go to college. I could get out.”
A lot of kids might have trouble grasping this concept: What’s “out” to a child whose parents are too poor to take her on a trip to see the rest of the world? His stepmom, the woman with whom his father had six of his children, used to call him an “educated bum.” She didn’t understand, he says, why this sedentary kid thought reading books was a route to anything. His family expected him to blow off school on occasion, to skip class when they were short on money for bus fare. Otis Jr., a child, had to sift through these competing influences. With a wisdom uncommon to children, he did.
He got into that good high school, the one for engineering and science. And as the good grades kept coming, one of his younger brothers paid him a strange compliment. “I wish I could be like you,” his brother said. “You don’t have any pride.”
“What are you talking about?” Bullock asked.
His brother, who’d already begun working the corners to get new sneakers, explained that Otis seemed content sharing pants and donning old, worn shoes. He equated Otis’s acceptance of hand-me-downs with having no pride at all. But by this time, Otis Bullock Jr. knew that his shoes didn’t define him. Today, when he recounts this story, he still looks sad. But at the time, he just knew he had to escape.
In 1996, he departed for West Chester University, which had offered him the full academic scholarship he needed. On a late-summer day, his family gathered on the front stoop to see him off. They cheered, and Otis Bullock Jr. paused to look back. “I remember thinking, ‘I did it,’” he says. “‘I never have to come back here.’”
Diversified Community Services evolved from the University of Pennsylvania’s settlement-house camps, established in 1897, which housed poor citizens and added services as time went on, including racially integrated summer camps for boys and girls in the 1920s, when school integration was still generations away. Today, Diversified offers educational summer camps, day care and preschool services in two South Philadelphia locations. Parents can use Diversified to develop job résumés, find work, get job training and affordable housing, and also to gain access to mental-health services for depression or issues like anger management.
In terms of two-gen work, however, Diversified is just getting off the ground. The agency became the first in Pennsylvania to offer the Clinton-touted HIPPY program last year, and Bullock says he’ll be adding many more two-gen services in the years ahead, including a planned frozen-yogurt franchise. This, too, is cutting-edge stuff in the nonprofit world — a means of generating a regular stream of revenue beyond fund-raising, and a way to put adult clients to work.
Even small gains in parental income can yield huge dividends. A study published by Stanford found that a $3,000 annual boost in a poverty-stricken family’s income raises a child’s future adult earnings by 17 percent.
The benefits are also biological. “We know a lot about education now that we didn’t know even 20 years ago,” says Marjorie Sims, the managing director at Ascend. “A child’s brain is like a sponge. The more education and knowledge we offer them at an early age, the better able they are to retain it and learn the skills that will get them through school.”
Moreover, we also know that stress and depression associated with poverty, addiction and the threat of violence suppress executive brain functions like learning and memory formation. In neurological terms, a child of poverty faces barriers to learning. But two-gen strategies can improve or even reverse this, replacing depression and stress with a routine of work and learning. “No one is going to get rich from this,” says Bullock. “For the parent, it’s too late for that. But work as a nursing assistant is solid and stable. If we can help them gain a basic income and stabilize the home, the child now has a real opportunity to thrive. And isn’t that what we all want?”
ONE DAY IN 1993, Mattie McQueen woke up with an IV in her arm and a big bank of fluorescent lights ticking overhead. A nurse told her she was in Episcopal Hospital, on Lehigh Avenue, which did nothing to jog her memory. She knew herself, though, and understood she must have been discovered in an abandoned house, blown out on crack.
At this point, her foster dad and both of her biological parents had died. She’d spent seven years in a fog, ever since she first took the pipe and experienced a high so rich, it spun her up and away — till all her problems were just little dots beneath her, and then gone. In these wild years, McQueen had three additional kids by three different men, scattering them into other people’s houses — an aunt she didn’t know all that well; relatives of the children’s fathers. Then, a couple of days into this hospital stay, the staff told her she was pregnant again, with her fifth child. She was 29 years old.
McQueen recounts all of this through a sad smile. Her house is mostly quiet today — two of her grandkids, the girls, nine-year-old Mayliyah and five-year-old Jaleehah, are gone. But she stops talking when her grandson comes tromping over — a little treasure four years old, with round cheeks and a round belly. “C’mon, Booda,” she says, “you get on your bike and pedal.” Booda pedals his trike through the mostly unfurnished dining and living rooms. “When I took crack,” McQueen continues, quietly, “I lost my mind.”
The hospital and the new pregnancy forced sobriety on her. She entered a rehab program to detox and get well. Then she took jobs at food distribution warehouses in South Philadelphia. She brought her kids back to live with her in a home in South Philadelphia and spent several years “moving potatoes and tomatoes and lifting them boxes all day,” till she hurt her back. Doctors also diagnosed her with diabetes. Today she walks with the aid of a big cane. She’s been unemployed for about 20 years, and her kids are grown.
Her oldest, Cheryl McQueen, 37, is unmarried and unemployed, living in South Philadelphia with four kids of her own. Henry Aaron Williams, 34, has been in jail since a 2004 rape conviction. Tameme McQueen, 28, is an unmarried mother of two and works as a customer-service rep at an insurance company. Stephen Jones, 27, was arrested in July and charged with assault. He was previously sentenced to five to 10 years in jail for a different assault. Mattie’s youngest biological child, Stephanie, is 26 and the mother of the three kids for whom she now cares.
“She was doing good in school,” says McQueen. “I was really proud of her, but she started hanging out with the wrong people.” And so McQueen is doing it all over again — sober, but still struggling with the same math problem she’s faced for the past 20 years: a monthly ledger that’s short and precariously balanced.
Her annual income is $17,976, well beneath the federal poverty level for a family of four, which is set at $24,300, and she qualifies for medical care to cover the kids. But she’s left with roughly $100 a week for clothes, transportation costs, school and housecleaning supplies, and personal-care items like toothpaste and shampoo. That money also goes toward the deficiencies in her budget. For instance, the standard food budget for a single parent and three children in Philadelphia County is about $850 per month. “I’m always juggling,” she says. “One month I might spend a little more on clothes for the kids. The next month I might spend a little more on food.”
To cope, she foregoes cable, most furniture, appliances and air conditioning. She has no window A.C. unit and just one fan. On hot nights, she and the kids pile in front of the fan to escape the heat.
What will become of these kids?
There are affluent parents who spend McQueen’s entire annual income on a single semester of private elementary school — for one kid. There’s no percentage for McQueen to carve from nothing. A computer and a wi-fi connection — fundamental facets of any successful millennial kid’s life — aren’t possible. Treats might mean an occasional $10 pizza or Chinese food. Toys, for Christmas or a birthday, or “special” clothes for a school-related event, are extravagances. “Sometimes,” she says, “I’ve got to rob Peter to pay Paul.”
For example, just this spring, when Jaleehah graduated from pre-K, McQueen fell behind on utility bills. She needed to buy new clothes for her grandkids to wear to the ceremony. “I want them to feel like normal kids do,” she says, “like I never did feel, shopping in thrift stores and without any parents around.”
Bullock saw this thinking in his own upbringing. “A little money here or there isn’t going to get you out of poverty,” he says, “but it will provide you with a good day. And those temporary pleasures are worth a lot when you’re poor.”
Of course, it’s easy to take a hard line on McQueen. The 47 years since her mother abandoned her is a long time to cry, even over such hardscrabble origins. Today she’s a middle-aged woman who made her choices. She had five babies, dropped out of school, and lifted up that crack pipe. Some will hear her story and think she should count herself lucky that society hasn’t simply cast her beyond the city wall.
But then Booda pedals back into the room, gets off his tricycle, and runs to her. And McQueen, this conversation about her past finished, begins to stroke his hair.
IN MANY RESPECTS, college was far easier for Otis Bullock Jr. than his childhood. His tuition was paid for, and a job at Wawa kept him housed and fed. But computers had become essential college equipment, and he couldn’t afford one. He did keep in touch with his old school administrators, however, and within a week of learning that he was having difficulties, his middle-school guidance counselor, Florence Johnson — then a principal at University City High — turned up at his door bearing a Dell desktop.
“I didn’t do this by myself,” Bullock says of how far he’s come. “People need to understand that. It’s not like any kid can just rise above their circumstances and make it. They need help.” When he graduated from West Chester in 2000, he invited old teachers to the ceremony. One, Salome Thomas-EL, later cast the event as the last chapter of his best-selling book I Choose to Stay: A Black Teacher Refuses to Desert the Inner City. As far as Thomas-EL knows, in 10 years of teaching at North Philly’s Vaux Middle School, Otis Bullock Jr. was the first of his students to go on to graduate from college.
Johnson had also stayed in his ear, telling him to think not only of getting out but of reaching back afterward to help others. Bullock pursued a law degree at Temple — a choice put in his head by his second-grade teacher. He equated lawyering with the civil rights movement, but in retrospect, the choice reflected how little he’d been exposed to the world. Once on campus, he felt disillusioned.
“My classmates were not people who wanted to change the world,” he says. “They were very cutthroat, and they were not, most of them, idealistic about what they could do. At all.”
He became acutely aware of the gulf in experiences that separated him from his classmates, enduring the same stranger-in-a-strange-land feeling that had marked his life to this point. After he’d tested into gifted courses and arrived at Albert M. Greenfield Elementary School, he stood outside for a long time, thinking he was in the wrong place. There were no bars on the windows. Was this really a school? He even called the office at Vaux to make sure he was in the right place.
Sure, these other kids at Temple had worked hard for their success. But many had attended fine schools all their lives, with the best instructors in the world, and lived without any fear of dying. They learned about success from their parents, professionals with 401(k) plans and multiple cars. And as hard as these kids worked, they also got to play — to plan for summer barbecues, to attend elaborate birthday parties. In high school, they’d dressed in fashionable clothes purchased in late-summer buying sprees. And for most of them, once they left home, their families helped with college costs, with down payments on first homes, while their communities provided a foundation to which they could always return.
Bullock had a different store of memories. As a young boy, he sat on the living room couch one day and watched his father open the door to a group of rivals carrying baseball bats. He heard gunfire, commonly, on the streets outside his window, and worried that someday a bullet might find him. And when he left home, he saw his family and neighborhood as something he had to escape.
As Bullock studied at West Chester, his mother, born the same year as Mattie McQueen, hit her roughest stretch yet, enduring multiple arrests. He’d talk to his maternal grandmother about the news back home, but she sagely left the bad bits out. “I think if my grandmother had ever told me, ‘Your mom’s in trouble again,’ I might have just quit school and come home,” says Bullock. “And I think she knew that.”
He’d come home for a weekend or holiday and engage in a charade in which his whole family was complicit: No one said anything about how much he was missed or how bad things had gotten back home.
He met his future wife, Donna, in his first year at Temple. Herself the child of impoverished parents, Donna grew up in New Brunswick, New Jersey, never realizing she was poor until a newspaper reporter for the Home News wrote an article in which she appeared, at eight years old, happily eating her Thanksgiving dinner in a neighborhood soup kitchen. Classmates in her predominantly working-class school teased her. But Donna, too, had tested into advanced courses. She also started calculating a path out. At Temple, she and Bullock started going to dinner and seeing movies together, dating for six months before they kissed.
Post-graduation, Otis worked in the public defender’s office but felt frustrated. “It was not a place where I was going to make big changes in anyone’s life,” he says. He kept an eye out for job openings and saw that Jannie Blackwell needed a legislative aide on City Council. That job, researching and writing legislation, suited him better. And a few years later, he was hired by then-mayoral candidate Michel Nutter, going on to work in the Office of Community Services, connecting impoverished citizens with the programs available to them. Along the way, he made a name for himself.
In the spring of 2012, Diversified’s board offered him his current job. He’d taken a circuitous path, but the strands of his life had come together. He was poised to fulfill the hopes of those adults who’d recognized the big intellect in the boy so interested in fighting. Bullock no longer wanted to run from his old neighborhood, choosing to make his home with Donna and their kids in Strawberry Mansion. “I consider myself the sum of the people who got me here,” says Bullock. “I am not anything special, and I worry for the kids who don’t have that kind of help in their lives.”
THE FIRST TIME Mary Bunn arrived at Mattie McQueen’s South Philly rowhouse, last fall, she intended to fill out enrollment paperwork to place Booda in HIPPY, the early-childhood-education program. But there was a problem: McQueen didn’t have a table.
They made do by going into her bedroom, where McQueen got down on a mattress she keeps on the floor. Her bed served as both chair and desk. “This is how it is,” says Siria Rivera, Bullock’s director of two-generational programming. “Our clients often don’t have very basic things.”
By signing up for HIPPY, McQueen received books and preschool learning materials for her grandson. She also received an advocate in Bunn, who’d help her understand just how much she could help Booda learn. “They see their child learning,” says Rivera, “and they know they did that. For a parent who is poor, who might be struggling and depressed, that sense of accomplishment is a big thing.”
Bunn’s title is “parent partner,” positioning her as an equal to the caregiver, not a boss. In practice, though, she’s there to teach the caregiver. For each lesson, she and the parent engage in role-play: The parent plays the part of the child, and Bunn plays the adult.
A lot comes out in these sessions.
Bunn remembers one mom who would snap “No, no, no!” whenever her child made a mistake. During role-play, Bunn modeled good teaching behavior — giving positive reinforcement, gently stating the correct answer, never calling the child wrong. “She got to see the best way to teach her child,” says Bunn, “without anyone lecturing her.”
From the first, McQueen radiated enthusiasm and grasped, right away, the techniques of teaching — turning the sessions into play and a chance for Booda to be the sole point of focus, without distraction. Still, Bunn didn’t expect the results she got. Each week, when she checked on their progress, McQueen and Booda had completed the mandatory exercises and the written “suggestions” for further work. If the booklet Bunn left behind called for them to go out and identify a flower together and press it between the pages of the book, Bunn would arrive to find every kind of flora on McQueen’s block. “We’ve got other, very good parents,” says Bunn. “But no one else was doing all that.”
The real test of how things are going, however, comes at weeks 10, 20 and 30, when the peer partner tests the child directly. Booda, says Bunn, exceeded any expectation. “The longest session, that I figure will take 30 minutes, he did in 10,” she says. “Mattie is clearly working with him, above and beyond, and he is picking it up.”
There is, too, a noticeable change in McQueen. Teaching Booda and caring for these grandchildren does something for her. She is largely estranged from her birth family. Two of her siblings are “in the wind,” turning up unexpectedly before drifting out of contact again. She and her oldest brother, Alfred, rarely speak. She and her sister Mary Elisabeth often check in over the phone, and sometimes they fight about the past.
During one argument, which occurred over speakerphone, Mary Elisabeth reacted angrily to McQueen sharing the family business with a reporter. “I am gonna come over there if you keep doing all of this talking,” she said, her voice raised. “You come over here,” McQueen yelled back, “I’ll crack you upside the head with this cane!”
There was no violence between the sisters, but there is the sense that there are two different Matties — the one whose past is inscribed and tragic, and the one whose future is still being written. “She’s talked to me about her past,” says Bunn, “and she’s cried. But her whole demeanor changes when she talks about her grandkids.”
Speaking of her grandkids, McQueen brightens. Her husky voice takes on a singsong tone. “There’s only one thing I really want,” she says. “I want to live long enough to see them kids graduate from college.”
THERE IS A temptation to seek answers in the stories of people like Otis and Donna Bullock, who did pretty much everything differently than their parents.
Otis’s parents had 15 children between them. His father had children with three women and married none of them. His mother had children with six different men, marrying one in a relationship that ended after four years. Donna had a similar upbringing. Her mom was unmarried and had six children with five different men. Her biological father was never in the picture. “It’s a mind-set,” says Otis Bullock. “There’s a way you grow up and what you see around you — you take it as normal. But I was fortunate enough to be exposed to other things, so I could see there was a different way.”
In middle-class society, says Bullock, kids are taught to approach life in a specific order: 1. Finish high school. 2. Graduate from college. 3. Start a career. 4. Marry. 5. Have children.
Otis and Donna now have two boys, ages eight and five, and are unlikely to have any more children. They have plans, says Otis, to “live a certain lifestyle” and send their kids to college. But they understand why their parents, given their circumstances, chose the paths they did.
“You’re already poor,” says Otis. “If you do or do not have another child, you’re still going to be poor.”
“And children,” says Donna, “mean love and family.”
Otis’s mother, Denita Washington, now 52, improves upon those answers. “Kids are love,” she says, “and you tell yourself, every time, that this time is going to be different. This guy is telling me that he is going to take care of me, and this one means it. You want to believe that you’re going to have that normal life.”
Conservatives decry the presence of so many poor children born out of wedlock. But the decision to have kids perhaps reflects the potency of that very American, Horatio Alger-like dream. Babies are one piece of that dream the poor can have.
The teachers who supported Otis Bullock Jr. stepped in and pointed out a completely different path he might take through life, educating him in both academics and how to get along in the world. And though his mother continued to struggle with drug addiction throughout his adolescence, she supported him when she was there. His father dealt drugs through the first 10 years of his life. But Otis Bullock Sr. went straight before his son entered that dangerous period of adolescence when the streets come calling for new workers.
“The first time I got a paycheck for an honest day’s work,” says Otis Sr., of a job he got unloading boxes at Toys ‘R’ Us, “that night was the best sleep I ever had. I thought, ‘I’m never going back.’ And I never did.”
Today, Otis Sr. is a church deacon and Denita Washington is 13 years sober, with an accelerated master’s degree in human services from Lincoln University and a steady job helping ex-offenders reenter society. “What Otis probably doesn’t know,” she says, “is that I told his grandmother, ‘Don’t you tell Otis anything that’s going on with me’ — because I did not want him to be distracted.”
All of this — the dad who went straight, the mom who always had a master’s in her, the teachers who educated him about the different path he might take — is small support next to the elaborate infrastructure available to middle- and upper-class children. But for a gifted, driven kid like Otis, it was enough. Donna’s story is even starker in this regard. Her mother suffered from depression. The man she calls her dad swept in when she was still an infant, getting her mom — who by this time had six children — into mental-health treatment. He also enrolled little Donna in the Head Start program.
Looking back, says Donna, she can see how her dad executed a two-gen strategy: He stabilized the caregiver, brought some peace to the home, and provided educational support to the child. And this raises some crucial questions: What about all the other kids? What about children with average intellects, extra-large obstacles, and less support in their lives than Otis and Donna Bullock?
THE CROWD COMES in right on time, filing into a small gymnasium at one of Diversified’s centers, the Dixon Academy in South Philly. Mattie McQueen and her family are the second group through the door. Booda is dressed in crisp khaki shorts and a short-sleeved, vertically striped button-down shirt. McQueen wears a blue floral-print dress and a proud smile, because Booda’s mother, Stephanie, is here, too. “I kept calling,” says McQueen, “and she’s here.”
There are hugs from Diversified staff members. And there’s a sense that McQueen herself is pointed, ever so slightly, up. She recently moved into a new home, in West Philly, through public-housing assistance, and will pay about $200 less per month. She finally got an air conditioner. She also found a charity to supply her with a dinner table. She and the kids no longer eat picnic-style, with plates in their laps.
Tonight, she, Booda and Mayliyah are here for Diversified’s “Moving Up” ceremony, a way of acknowledging the achievement associated with completing the 30-week program. The party itself is humble. Balloons and blue paper tablecloths add some color to the gym. A pair of long banquet tables stocked with pizza, sandwiches and grape sodas are arranged underneath a basketball hoop. And a big poster advertising HIPPY hangs at the front of the room as a backdrop for “graduation” pictures.
Booda smiles, cherubic despite a bee sting that has caused his ear to swell, and seems to understand that his family is here for him. Mostly, he eats pizza and scrambles between his mother Stephanie and McQueen for snuggles as the awards program gets under way.
Much of McQueen’s life remains unsettled. Her other daughters, Cheryl and Tameme, note that she was absent for great chunks of their childhoods. When they ask about those lost years, McQueen refuses to answer. This is, of course, just what Ida Tucker did to her. But McQueen rejects the comparison. “They know the basics,” she says. “I ain’t tryin’ to hide nothing. I was addicted. But the details … they wouldn’t understand.”
Even Cheryl and Tameme, however, acknowledge that the present Mattie is different. “I see it in the way she is with her grandkids,” says Tameme. “They love her. She loves them. It’s good.”
“I see it, too,” says Cheryl. “She’s there.”
At the Moving Up ceremony, when Booda’s name is announced, McQueen holds his hand and gets her picture taken with him. A little later, though, Siria Rivera calls out her name, shouting, “Mattie McQueen!”
McQueen goes up, surprised, and gets a hug from Rivera, plus an award of her own. The award itself — a single sheet of heavy paper, unframed and unlaminated — reads “HIPPY Grandmom of the Year.” When McQueen receives it, she surprises everyone, plucking the microphone right out of Rivera’s hand. Her speech is short, maybe 20 seconds, but impassioned: She talks about her love of this HIPPY program and what it can do for the children. Then McQueen booms, with infectious good humor, “These people really care about our children!”
At that, the whole crowd — which seemed a bit dubious about this woman giving an unplanned speech — offers up applause and shouts. McQueen returns to the table, dabbing tears from her eyes. “I got an award,” she says, seemingly shocked.
Then Booda throws up.
McQueen goes over to pat him on the back. She even offers a warm laugh — “Oh, Booda” — as the child opens his mouth and all the pizza he’s eaten spills back out. Then she takes his ear between her gentle fingers and makes an announcement: “We’ve got to take him to the hospital,” she says. “He must be allergic to that bee sting.”
In less than a minute, with a paper plate and some napkins, McQueen cleans up little Booda’s mess. Then she marshals the procession, three generations long, out the door.
Mattie McQueen will always bear the burden of her troubled past. But tonight, the role she plays in this world is understood. And in the street, she seems to hold the future right at her fingertips — with one hand always at little Booda’s shoulder and the other still clutching her award.
Published as “Is There A Way Out?” in the October 2016 issue of Philadelphia magazine.