“It’s a tourist town, but we’re not tourists,” voiced mother Desiree Griffith, 26, at CCN on Monday, Sept. 16, with three of her four children in tow. “Most of us in our 20’s and early 30’s work the restaurants in town for minimum wage, $7.80 plus tips.” Single mother of three, Mary Plumb, said childcare for her children generally totals around $35 per hour. She said that even if you get state help (HRDC through the state offers scholarships), they cover $28 hour with a maximum of 20 hours. That leaves $15 an hour to cover besides the costs of living. “You end up working for .80/hour plus tips,” said Plumb. Such families struggle daily to make it. “The paperwork is overwhelming with the state and you get about four caseworkers, no clear answers, often differing from the day care’s requirements. They can’t calculate what they’ll cover in advance.
So bills pile up-then they don’t cover it all and you have debt,” said Plumb. Griffith said she had to pay $355 every two weeks in order to work full time. “My whole salary was day care.” “We crave fresh fruit and vegetables, but can’t afford them at the local store. As for buying clothes here-we just look,” said Griffith. The women said they came forward “because we have nothing to lose” by sharing their stories and those of others in the Red Lodge community often hidden from view. They know of at least another 8 families struggling to survive. “I know couples who have just catsup and mustard in their refrigerator,” said Griffith. She falls just outside the new food stamp regs as do her two sisters. The women blame limited access to affordable childcare. They want to work and do frequently. However, they can’t hold the job if the child gets sick, or the hours run late. Griffith’s had an employer yell at her when she reported her child had a 102 degree fever. She said there is no flexibility.
A young family’s economic security is fragile. Griffith and her husband just became ill from contaminated food. The medicine costs $200 each. “We were fine last month; this month is totally different.” Plumb has been told, “Mothers are unreliable.” She said, “It may be true but it’s not nice.” Her youngest was in the hospital three days recently and cost her a job. She just found new work at night. Some women they know were fired because they were pregnant. If they complain, they risk losing their reference in a small town. Griffith noted, “You’re always asked, ‘Why did you leave your last job?’”
“We all want to work and do work hard.”
Not being available to work weekends in order to care for children also limited employment opportunities. Both women said many families in Red Lodge deal regularly with food shortages. They find food prices in town unaffordable. The local food bank permits families to take food twice a month. They said their food does not last through that period. Griffith falls just outside the new food stamp regs and several other women have lost their food stamps as well. Griffith said good rental homes are precluded when they see her family. Another stumbling block, she noted, is the general requirement of a $300-500 pet deposit per pet. “I don’t know anyone who will take cats,” she said. As a result, “Most homes available to young families are substandard.” One woman discovered in winter there was no way to service her hot water heater or furnace-a wall had been built; only two outlets worked. She called the health department but found no help. Griffith said, “I had a house issue and was told by locals there is no local functioning health department.” Childcare is the biggest issue. Griffith said, “We all want to work and do work hard.” But they cannot be stable if their children get sick or they must work beyond 5-which almost all do in this industry. “Child care cuts off around 5 p.m. but what restaurant job does?” she asked. A new childcare place has opened recently Griffith noted, but she cannot afford it. Her family depends upon the two paychecks of husband and wife but she can't work steadily. She keeps losing her job because of childcare hours.
Plumb told one employer she'd leave so they wouldn't have to fire her after being told if she left one more time for a sick child-that's it. “How can you guarantee your child won’t get sick?” she wondered. Plumb said she only makes it because a teen lives with her for now with the consent of the parents. Griffith said families work together, but they all keep losing jobs and having to change hours. Home lives become unstable. “It’s a jungle gym of childcare,” she said as they juggle their lives, work and children’s needs. They said the used clothing sites in town have raised rates. “The better brands last longer but are marked up,” said Griffith.
“It used to be affordable to buy used clothing here,” she mused. Both Griffith and Plumb were born and raised in Red Lodge. “It’s a great place to raise kids,” said Plumb. Griffith said a lot of young families are not from Red Lodge. “Lots of women can’t find babysitters. They don’t have family here (to help).” When Father Keane of St. Agnes Catholic Church in Red Lodge was asked last year if he often has 20-somethings coming to him for help, he said yes. When asked if there were more than half a dozen needing assistance, he replied, “At least.” When you ask local wait staff they say couch surfing exists for those who can’t afford an apartment. Griffith knows one workingman who lives in cars. Plumb reflected, “Red Lodge used to be family friendly, that’s why I came back. But it’s not as friendly as it used to be.” Griffith said, “But you can always get food if you’re desperate-the people of this town will open their hearts. You don’t have to starve in Red Lodge. Farmers, locals, know each other.” She feels it’s harder for newcomers. Many coming to Red Lodge are of the younger generation sought by locals to fill the town’s growing needs. Plumb said, “This is the next generation of workers-and our children.” Part II: More families in need; some locals respond.