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A day with Rhonna
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Rhonna tucks her daughter, Madison, into bed at 1 a.m. On nights when Rhonna works, they always get home after midnight. (MPR Photo/Chris Julin)
There was a time when all you had to do was get a job. In the 1950s and '60s, most full-time jobs paid enough to support a family and even buy a house. But times have changed. Today, you can work 40 hours a week and still not be able to pay your bills. Just ask Rhonna Kalstad. She has two kids, and a full-time job. And she's barely getting by.

Bovey, Minn. —

8:00 a.m.

It's 8:00 in the morning in the kitchen of a little, rented house in the town of Bovey, up on the Iron Range. Everyone's getting ready to go out to the car.

"We got to go drop Mike off at school," says Rhonna Kalstad.

Mike Lazicki is Rhonna's boyfriend. They live together, along with Rhonna's two kids, Madison, who's 4, and Austin, who's 18 months. Rhonna and Mike are 21.

Rhonna has the day mapped out. Their first stop is the community college in Grand Rapids, about six miles away, where Mike is a full-time student.

"And then we head on over to Hill City so Madison can go to school," Rhonna says. "Then both kids have appointments with the doctor. And after that I got to drop them off so I can go to work."

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Image Rhonna and Mike's house

Rhonna works the night shift at a chemical dependency treatment center for teenagers.

Two cars are parked out behind the house. Rhonna and Mike can only afford insurance for one car, so the 25-year-old beater just sits here. They drive the nicer car. It's a nine-year old Mercury with some quirks. Rhonna has to put the gear shift in just the right place or she can't start the engine.

This morning the temperature is about zero, and the car whines and moans when Rhonna turns the key. Finally, it coughs to life. But this car runs a lot better than the one she drove last year.

"I had a tire go flat on me a couple times," she remembers. "My alternator died. My drive shaft fell off. I went in the ditch. My battery died. Pretty much anything that could have happened to me last year happened."

Rhonna and Mike can't get by without a car. Rhonna often drives more than 100 miles in a day. Her mom watches the kids when Rhonna's at work, and her mom lives 15 miles outside of town. There's no city bus system here. There are a few taxis, but it costs $10 to catch a cab from Bovey to Grand Rapids.

At 8:30 a.m. Mike climbs out of the car at the community college. He spends a lot of time here at school. Most days he has to find a friend to give him a lift back to Bovey. Sometimes it's 8:00 p.m. by the time he finds a ride. Today, he's not sure how he's getting home.

Sometimes Madison cries when they drop Mike off at school. Rhonna says the kids don't see much of Mike these days, because they don't get home until midnight. That's when Rhonna picks them up after work.

Rhonna says she doesn't see much of Mike, either.

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Image Madison and Austin bundle up to go outside

"We've talked about it quite a bit lately," she says, as she pulls out of the parking lot at the college. "We just come down to the conclusion that we want to be together, and we're just going to do anything we can right now. When his school's all done, it'll be better."

Rhonna and the kids have to be in Hill City by 9:00 a.m. That's almost 20 miles from Grand Rapids. It's close to Rhonna's parents' house, and since the kids spend so much time at Rhonna's parents', Rhonna got Madison into the Head Start program at the public school in Hill City. Sometimes Austin goes to a relative's house, but today he comes to Head Start, too.

9:00 a.m.
The Head Start room is painted in bright colors, and it's sunny. There are shelves and shelves of books and toys like LEGOs, wooden trains, and buckets of plastic dinosaurs. A half dozen 4-year-olds are painting pictures of dinosaurs and playing dinosaur games with their parents.

"Madison likes coming to school," Rhonna says. "She gets to play with lots of toys that she doesn't have at home. And it's all in really good shape. When I worked at the day care we had all the same stuff and it was always really beat up."

At noon, Rhonna and the kids get back in the car. The kids have doctor's appointments. Austin seems to have an ear infection, and Madison has a rash. It's another 20-mile drive from Hill City to Grand Rapids.

"That's where I work," Rhonna says as she drives into Grand Rapids. She points to a low, institutional building that looks like a school built in the 1970s. It's the adolescent unit of the Northland Recovery Center.

Rhonna started working there a little more than a year ago. She just got a 25-cent raise, so she makes $8.75 an hour. Rhonna also gets child support, and Mike gets student aid. Their household income is a bit above $20,000 a year.

Social service agencies in Itasca County calculate that a family of four has to scrape to get by on $25,000 a year. But one-quarter of the jobs in Itasca County pay less than that. And those numbers were collected before the big lay-offs at the Blandin paper mill in Grand Rapids in January.

Rhonna gets to the doctor's office about 10 minutes early. The kids are sleeping in the back seat, so she gets out of the car and lights a cigarette. She pulls the collar of her jacket up and hunches her shoulders. Her blonde hair is tied in a knot behind her head, and the wind yanks some strands loose and pulls them across her face.

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Image At Head Start

She squints into the wind, takes a drag off her cigarette, and just starts talking.

"There aren't enough jobs in this town that have good pay, where you can pay all your bills and still have some money left over," she says. "It just doesn't work that way."

She says she manages to pay all her bills. Usually.

"Sometimes it's barely. This month it's barely. Usually not a month goes by that Mike and I don't have to go and pawn whatever just to have 30 bucks for diapers and gas," says Rhonna. "But if my dad ever found out I did that, he'd flip. I don't like to ask for help from my parents. I just kind of want to show them I can do it. I don't want them to think that I can't make it on my own, and that I have to move back home with Mom and Dad."

Rhonna says Itasca County has "some good people."

"Some people I work with, they understand my situation, and they'll help out," she says.

Like her supervisors, Billie and David.

Rhonna says David has come to work and asked her, "How's the food doing at your house?" Rhonna tells him, "It's been kind of a bad month." And David says, "Oh good. I have all this stuff. I just cleaned out my cupboards," and he puts a box of food in Rhonna's car.

"Billie will give me a couple bucks here and there," Rhonna says. Billie tells her, "You bum me cigarettes, and I bum you a couple bucks here and there. It all works out, right?"

Rhonna takes a puff from her cigarette and shakes her head.

"Some people really don't care, though. They don't," she says. "They're better off than you, and they think, 'Ha ha. Look at this.' That's not the way it's supposed to be."

Inside the clinic, Rhonna and the kids get to see the doctor right away. Rhonna picks up some advice. Keep Austin off milk while his nose is stuffed up, and get more air on Madison's rash.

Rhonna says the county pays for health care for the kids. But right now, she and Mike don't have any health insurance. Rhonna got insurance through work for a while, but she had to pay $160 a month, plus the co-payments and the deductible. She couldn't afford to go to the doctor, even with the insurance. Now she's waiting to hear if she can get insurance through Minnesota Care, a state insurance program for working families.

After the doctor's appointment, Rhonna has to drop the kids at her parents' house before she goes to work. On the way out of town, she passes the turn-off to the kids' other grandparents' house. That's where her "ex" lives. After he and Rhonna split up, he moved back with his parents.

Rhonna got pregnant when she was 16. She got married when she was 19. She and her husband separated after five months. They're still legally married, but Rhonna's trying to get the money together for a divorce. The kids haven't seen their biological father for more than a year. Rhonna and Mike have been together for a couple years now, and the kids call him "Daddy."

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Image Getting into the car -- again

2:00 p.m.
Most days Rhonna gets to her parents' house just in time to drop the kids off, but today she's ahead of schedule. It's only 2 o'clock.

"Oh, I got an hour before I got to leave," she says. "It's kind of nice."

She fetches a can of soda pop from the refrigerator and sits down at the kitchen table. The kids plunk down in front of the TV to watch cartoons.

Rhonna's parents live here with Rhonna's younger brothers. They're 12 and 7. Rhonna's 25-year-old older brother lives here, too.

"Three working people, two people go to school. It's just kind of chaotic," Rhonna says. "That doesn't quite help the mess."

Rhonna says her older brother is under court order to stay in the house unless he's at work. She says he got his fourth or fifth DWI a while ago.

Rhonna's mom comes into the kitchen wearing a night shirt and blinking at the sunlight. Her name's Celeste Bramer. She sits down at the kitchen table with Rhonna. They light up cigarettes and talk about the kids. Celeste will watch Rhonna's kids until 10 tonight. Then Celeste goes to work. She's on the night shift at a group home for disabled adults.

"It gets hectic sometimes, but it works all right," she says, her voice still thick with sleep. "I get home from work about 8:30 in the morning, try to get to bed before 10, sleep until she gets here with the kids. Most times I make supper, or get something arranged for supper, and when somebody else gets home I go back to bed for a while."

The phone keeps ringing for Rhonna's brother. He talks to his parole officer. He talks with a lawyer. He wants the lawyer to help him get visitation rights. He just found out a while back that he had a 2-month-old daughter. He and the baby's mother don't see each other any more, but Rhonna's brother wants to reach some kind of custody agreement.

3:00 p.m.
At 3 p.m., Rhonna kisses her kids and heads back out to the car. Time to go to work. She gets back on the highway to Grand Rapids. As she drives, she talks about her family.

Rhonna says she's worried about her sister. Her sister's 19, and she's pregnant. She lives in a two-bedroom apartment with four other people. One of them is her boyfriend.

"It's kind of like a déjà vu thing," Rhonna says.

Her sister asked what Rhonna thought would happen after the baby is born. What did Rhonna think the boyfriend would do?

"I don't see him spending much time with your baby," Rhonna remembers telling her sister. "I think you'll be pretty much doing things on your own, and he'll be pretty much off doing whatever."

Rhonna saw her sister's boyfriend shopping for rings at Wal-Mart.

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Image Rhonna at work

"One piece of advice I want to give you," Rhonna told her sister later. "If he asks you to marry him, don't go jumping into getting married right away. Wait and see what's going to happen after this baby is born."

Rhonna says her sister said OK. She'd wait.

"That's smart," Rhonna says.

Next, Rhonna talks about her older brother, too. She says he's actually her half-brother.

"My dad adopted him," Rhonna says. "He's my mom's first biological child from her first marriage. She went through the same stuff I did, just many years earlier. We used to sit down and watch The Brady Bunch, trying to see how that all fit into our life, and how their blended family could work but ours seemed so off. And the only thing we came to is that sitcoms are not reality, by any means."

3:30 p.m.
Rhonna pulls into the parking lot at work a few minutes before 3:30 p.m. She'll be here until 11:30 p.m.

About a dozen kids live at the residence at any given time. Rhonna and two other staffers supervise the kids during dinner, and evening chores, and free time. Rhonna says she likes most the kids she works with. One 17-year-old who left months ago still calls up to talk at least once a week. She calls Rhonna "Mom."

"There are some days that are a lot more strenuous than others," Rhonna says. "But for the most part I actually very much enjoy it. It would not hurt if there was a little more money."

She figures she'll get another 25-cent raise this year, up to $9 an hour.

Rhonna grabs her jacket and steps outside for a break. She lights a cigarette. She likes her co-workers, she says, and her supervisors are "good to her." Last summer, they let her take a couple weeks off. One week was unpaid.

Rhonna, Mike and the kids went camping out west. Rhonna says her family didn't ever take vacations when she was a kid. She wanted to go to the mountains, so she and Mike decided to take the kids to Yosemite Park in California.

They were going to sell their junker car to pay for the trip. When they were all set to go, the buyer backed out of the deal, so they cancelled the trip. Then Mike's parents said they'd pay for it.

When Rhonna talks about camping at Yosemite, her face gets dreamy.

"You would not believe the temperature changes," she says, looking out into the dark as though she could still see the mountains. "It was hot during the day, and as soon as the sun went down it was freezing. You slept in winter jackets and gloves and hats. And you get up the next morning, all of a sudden you're like, holy heck, you're just taking all this stuff off. We went swimming down rivers and rapids. It was a blast."

The last hour of work is quiet. The kids are in bed. At 11:15 p.m. the overnight staff shows up, and Rhonna gets out a few minutes early.

She pulls her car onto the highway, and 15 minutes later she's back at her parents' house outside of town.

11:30 p.m.
Austin is sitting in his grandpa's lap watching TV. Madison is sleeping in a back room. In a couple of minutes, everybody is bundled up and back in the car. It's a 40- minute trip back home to Bovey, and the kids nod off in the back seat.

Rhonna has spent two-and-a-half hours in this car today.

"It's 12:17 and we're just pulling into my driveway," she says as the car rolls to a stop behind the house. "This is about the normal time that we get home. Get up at 7 o'clock and get home at like 12:30."

Larger view
Image Dinner is served at 1 a.m.

1:00 a.m.
Up at the house, Mike's still awake. He's in the kitchen making shepherd's pie. Rhonna puts the kids to bed and helps clean up the kitchen. A little after 1 a.m. Mike serves dinner.

Mike tells Rhonna about a meeting of the psychology club at the community college. He's the vice president of the club, and he's volunteering his time to help with a study of domestic abuse services in Grand Rapids.

Mike plans to get a bachelor's degree in psychology. He'd like to get a Ph.D. Rhonna wants to go to college, too. But school's expensive. Right now Mike has a full ride to the community college. He figures they could get other help, like heating assistance. But he doesn't want it.

"We've discussed food stamps and stuff like that before, but we make it just fine," Mike says. "It's not the best situation in the world, but we make it, so leave it for those that can't."

Rhonna sits at the table with Mike, but she doesn't eat anything. She had a peanut butter sandwich at about 4:30 p.m. That's all she's eaten since breakfast.

"I'm sure there are plenty of things that he would like and I would like," she says. "I know there's things that I'd like to be able to do and be able to get. We don't get a lot of the frivolous things that we don't really need. If it's not a necessity we kind of say, 'Maybe next paycheck.' Normally, next paycheck doesn't come."

"We struggle at times now," Mike says. "But that's not the plan for the future, and it doesn't look like that's the way the future's going to be. So it's just something we deal with right now, I guess."

1:30 a.m.
It's 1:30 in the morning. Dinner's over. Rhonna and Mike head off to bed.

Rhonna says, "It's a long day."

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