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Children of Hard Times

New Faces of Poverty: The McKee Family

Julia Cass reports for CDF from Dowagiac, Michigan

Skyler and Zachary's Shoes

Shoes tell the story of the McKee family’s descent into poverty. Those of Skyler, 10, and Zachery, 12, are falling apart. Their sister, Jordan, 14, wears the varsity coach’s shoes when she plays on her school’s volleyball team. Less visible is hunger. The children and their parents, Tonya and Ed McKee, of Dowagiac, Michigan, sometimes went without food this summer when Ed’s unemployment insurance ran out and the family was not yet receiving food stamps. Skyler said he gave the birthday money he got at church to his mom for groceries “and I told her she didn’t have to pay me back.” Skyler confided that sometimes his stomach has growled. “It’s hard not easy like it was before where we had money and could do stuff. Now we don’t’ go anywhere… Sometimes we don’t have food and we just don’t eat.”

Cass County, in southwestern Michigan where Dowagiac is located, is a pretty area of lakes and farmland. Ed McKee comes from a farming family and grew up working after school on his grandfather’s farm. His father farmed, too, and then got work at the Cass County Road Commission. Ed’s grandfather sold the farm in the 1980s, a decade when many family farms disappeared. “It was either get bigger or sell and he couldn’t afford to buy more land so he sold,” Ed said.

Ed was working as a breeding manager at a large hog farm when he was laid off on July 3, 2009. He remembers the date. He said that “to save money,” the company replaced him and several other employees with new workers earning a lower wage. Ed had made $13 an hour and often worked 60 hours a week so he made decent money. Before that, he worked at a smaller hog farm that went out of business because it wasn’t large enough to compete. Tonya baked cakes in their home to supplement their income. She said she hadn’t worked at a job since Zachery was born. He’s a special needs child who didn’t speak until a few years ago; his developmental level is that of a six year old, she said.

This time, Ed was not able to quickly get another job. “There are other farms around here but they just aren’t hiring,” he said. “If they are, you better be the first to know. There’s a lot of people waiting in line to get that job.” Factory work? “They closed most of them around here. There’s a tool and die plant that makes parts for Ford and Chevy that closed and just opened back up but you have to be on their call list to get hired “It’s frustrating to walk into a place and they say they’re not hiring or they say they are hiring and you put in an application and never hear from them.”

This summer, everything got worse. Ed’s unemployment insurance ended in May, and there was a month and a half gap before the McKees began receiving food stamps. Their only income was the monthly Social Security disability check for Zachery, which they used to make their house payments.

“Ed and I went hungry some nights so we could feed the kids,” Tonya said. “A lady here in town has brought us food several times and went shopping for us several times. And our parents helped when they could. Otherwise, we didn’t know where the next meal would come from. One of my friends brought over some cereal and milk one day and the boys said, ‘Wow! We get cereal!’” A further problem: When Ed and Tonya qualified for Medicaid, she went to a doctor and found out that her fainting spells were epileptic seizures and that she also has some kind of autoimmune condition. And another one: School budget cuts mean that Zachery isn’t getting the special education help his parents think he needs.

Tonya’s father, Harry Rasmussen, knocked on the door as Tonya and Ed was talking. He came to help with the $66.11 utility payment due that day or the power and water were to be shut off the next morning. Rasmussen said that he and his wife don’t have much extra money right now. They have jobs at the place he’s worked for 15 years—a factory in nearby Edwardsburg that makes tubs and shower pans for RVs—but they earn $7 an hour less between them. “The company was losing money, and it was either we all had to take a cut or have no job,” he said.

Rasmussen said his grandchildren don’t seem as happy as they used to be. “All they’re doing is fighting to hold it together,” he said. Jordan said she didn’t have part of the outfit she needs for cheerleading and doesn’t invite her friends home anymore.

After a summer of one crisis after another, the McKees were looking forward to the fall. The children will get free breakfast and lunch in school. And Ed has a job. He was one of 1,500 people who applied for 300 jobs at the new Four Winds Casino Resort built by the Potawatomi Indians in a neighboring county. “It’s just part-time,” he said—16 hours a week at $10 an hour for sweeping, dusting and wiping down the slot machines. “The gas will eat up most of that but it’s the only job offer I’ve had in two years,” he said. “I certainly couldn’t turn it down.” Meanwhile, his job search continues.

Read more about the new faces of poverty through the “Children of Hard Times” series by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Julia Cass.

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. More recently she wrote Held Captive: Child Poverty in America for CDF.

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