Held Captive: Child Poverty in America

Release Date: December 20, 2010
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Held Captive: Child Poverty in America

“Held Captive”: Child Poverty in America, a new report commissioned and published by the Children's Defense Fund, found that the plight for poor children in Mississippi is so dire, enriching experiences so meager and government aid so inadequate and spotty that after school tutoring and reading programs in Quitman County and two other Delta counties are funded by foreign aid, a grant from the Bernard van Leer Foundation of the Netherlands. “The foundation focuses on children and families in what it refers to as oppressed societies,” said Betty Ward Fletcher, the director of a Jackson, Miss., -based consulting firm contracted by the Dutch foundation to help it design a program in Mississippi. “Some of its people wondered why it should be working in the most affluent country in the world, but they decided the reality is we have poor children in this country who are denied the opportunity to be all they can be.”

Julia Cass, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, chronicled the toll poverty is inflicting on America's children for the Children's Defense Fund. She spent time with poor children in Quitman County, Miss., Katrina-displaced children in Baton Rouge, La., and children of the newly poor in Long Island, N.Y. Cass found that despite safety net protections put in place over the past generation, poor children are still adrift in a sea of poverty with their future in jeopardy. Years of research link childhood poverty to a multitude of poor outcomes: lower academic attainment, higher rates of teenage pregnancy and incarceration, a greater chance of health and behavioral problems, and lifelong poverty. And the current economic crisis continues to drag more families and their children into poverty. This Christmas season 15.5 million children in America, more than one in five, are living in poverty, a number of them in extreme poverty. This is the highest child poverty rate the nation has experienced since 1959.

This new report begins in Quitman County in the Delta region of Mississippi, the starting point of the Poor People's Campaign of 1968. Audrey, a 13-year-old girl, illustrates the confluence of social, psychological and environmental risks that trap children in lifelong poverty. Audrey fell several years behind in school primarily because of suspensions. Asked if she felt isolated in her declining town where 34.5 percent of households live in poverty, Audrey responded, “Yeah. Isolated. Remote island. Held captive.”

In Baton Rouge, children displaced by Hurricane Katrina five and a half years ago are still struggling, and largely forgotten. The storm ripped apart fragile family safety nets. Too often, children are left to fend for themselves and they make poor decisions. Navia, 14 years old, is largely self-raised. She said she wanted to graduate from high school and be the first in her family not to have a baby before age 20. She didn't seem to realize that being truant and missing a year of school would make it difficult for her to reach that goal. With no family support, public institutions charged with involvement in Navia's life are failing her as well. She is out of school, yet the school district did not send a truant officer to her home all year. “She is already far off the pathway to a happy and successful life,” Cass reports.

All across Long Island, N.Y., the birthplace of the suburban American dream, families are falling from middle class to working poor and from working poor into poverty because of the recession, the housing crisis, the gap between wages and cost of living, and the insufficient safety net. Families are living in motels, food pantries are emptying, and outreach agencies are running out of funds to help with a month's rent or an overdue utility bill. The new faces of poverty – the families that now seek help – include Jodi, a white, college-educated school teacher with three children whose divorce and special needs child have pushed her into the working poor. And Joseph, sole supporter of his teenage son, says his paycheck from an auto body shop does not cover the mortgage, utilities and food. He reports, “I can't pay the bills. I don't qualify for anything. I don't eat lunch. I drink from the hose at work. That's just how things are. You gotta sacrifice for your child.” The director of the Long Island Council of Churches, which runs food banks that now provide food for a record 3,000 people a month, described the situation for many Long Island families as a “Sophie's choice: Do I feed the kids or pay the utilities?”

Download the report in its entirety. (.pdf, 4 MB)

About the Author

Julia Cass, Author of "Held Captive"Julia Cass is a journalist with more than 30 years of experience writing for newspapers, magazines and non-profit organizations. She has written extensively about civil rights, poverty and the prison system. As a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer for almost 20 years, she shared the Pulitzer Prize with other staffers for the paper's coverage of the Three Mile Island nuclear accident. She also received an award for her reporting on the Pennsylvania prison system.

She is the co-author of Black in Selma: The Uncommon Life of J.L. Chestnut Jr, published in 1990 by Farrar Straus and Giroux. It won the America Bar Association Award for best writing about the legal system that year and the Lillian Smith Award for writing about the South.

She has also worked as managing editor of the Sunday magazine of the San Jose Mercury News and as executive editor of the Buenos Aires Herald, an English language daily newspaper in Argentina. In addition, she has trained journalists and journalism students in enterprise reporting in Panama and Botswana. Several years ago, she contributed to writing CDF's Cradle to Prison Pipeline® report.

She is now a freelance writer living temporarily in New York City. Her home is in New Orleans, La.