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Children of Hard Times

New Poor: The Dickens Family

By Marian Wright Edelman with Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Julia Cass reporting from Columbus, Ohio

Tristan Dickens

One-year-old Tristan lives in a Detroit homeless shelter with his mother Ashante Dickens. Programs like Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, food stamps, and transitional housing are lifelines for them and millions of others.

Since childhood, 21-year-old Ashante Dickens has had a clear goal: "I want to be an elementary school teacher. That's my passion." She got good grades in school, and did well enough in high school to be allowed to take a few early enrollment classes at a nearby college in early childhood education. She was on the road to realizing her dream when a family problem changed her course. Now Ashante is a parent to one-year-old Tristan and lives in a Detroit homeless shelter where Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Julia Cass met Ashante and Tristan while on assignment for the Children's Defense Fund. Ashante is still desperately hoping to return to college and her teaching dream, but for now, the shelter offers women and children a home for up to two years while they "get situated," as she says.

Ashante calls herself a "back and forth child." Her mother disappeared from her life when she was six. She grew up in Georgia with her father and spent summers in Detroit with her grandmother. Ashante's father was an assistant principal and they lived in Cobb County in suburban Atlanta. "I had a good life in Atlanta," Ashante said. But when she was 16 her father had two strokes that affected him mentally as well as physically.

"He became abusive," Ashante said. "He wasn't really right in the head." By then she had reconnected with her mother and told her "about the situation I was going through where he would hit me." Her mother called the police who removed Ashante from the home. She was 17 then and the authorities allowed her to go live with her grandmother in Detroit.

Ashante graduated from high school there and began attending Wayne State University. "I didn't do well," she said. "A lot was going on in my grandma's house . . . My auntie and my brother stayed there too. It was hard to study and deal with the different personalities." She quit school and started to work at McDonald's thinking that she would save enough to be able to move into her own place and then pick up her education again. She stopped work when she became pregnant with Tristan and left her grandmother's house for a homeless shelter. After Tristan was born, they moved to a transitional living shelter for mothers and children.

Ashante began receiving cash assistance and food stamps. As soon as Tristan was a few months old she went back to work. "I don't think anybody wants to be on assistance. My motivation is to work harder so I don't need it."

For seven months, Ashante took a three-hour bus trip each way to work a $7.85 an hour job at a Target in the suburbs. This was her schedule: Take Tristan to day care by 8 a.m., take the three buses to work; work eight hours; take the three buses back to Detroit, pick Tristan up at 11 p.m. One of the buses ran just hourly and if she missed that bus, she would be an hour late. This happened enough times that her hours were cut back to just 10 a week.

Eventually she left that job and started seeking another. "I've done retail. I've done office work. I've worked in day care so my experience is broad," she said. Her goal is to return to college but she thinks she should work to get a place to live and a car first. In October, she got a job at a McDonald's which is an hour to an hour and a half walk and bus ride each way. The pay was $7.40 an hour. Temporary Assistance to Needy Families gave her a voucher for day care; otherwise she would have ended up making very little.

"If my dad hadn't had a stroke, I would be somewhere totally different right now," she said. "I'd still be in Georgia. I would probably be in my second or third year at Kennesaw State in elementary education. But I'm just going to work to the best of my ability to get back on track. I think I'm young enough to turn it around."

Programs like Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, food stamps, and transitional housing are lifelines that work when people fall on hard times. We need to preserve them for people like Ashante who are already working hard to get back on track but still need extra support to keep turning their difficult circumstances around. But that's not what the Ryan "reconciliation budget" just passed by the House of Representatives would do. Instead it would eviscerate the food stamp program, literally taking food out of the mouths of babies like Tristan, and also make deep cuts in health and social service programs. We all need to raise our voices and vote this year to make sure children like Tristan have the opportunity to survive and thrive and return hope to find America's vanishing dream.

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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