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Children of Hard Times

New Poor: The Harper family

Julia Cass reports for CDF from Columbus, Ohio

Haleigh & Lindsey Harper

New faces of poverty in Columbus, Ohio–Haleigh Harper, 16, and her sister Lindsey Harper, 14, have more than grades and boys to worry about. Haleigh said her biggest concern is, “Not knowing what the next day is going to bring. It’s not knowing like whether we’re going to have…” Lindsey finished the sentence: “Food in the house. With money being tight, there were times we didn’t have a lot of food in the house but we always found some way to get it like borrow money from family. But now we have food stamps; we recently got accepted for food stamps.” Their mother lost her job, their father is making less than he used to, and their home is in foreclosure.

Haleigh and Lindsey are children of the working class. For almost two decades, their parents, Sandy and Walter Harper, have inched towards middle class—although at a pace of two steps forward and one or two steps back because their best positions more often than not ended when the companies they worked for went out of business or sold out to other companies. The Harpers’ hard work has not enabled them to consistently provide their daughters with safety or security. After nearly 20 years of labor, they’ve had to call on the safety net to put food on the table and to get medical insurance for Haleigh and Lindsey.

“I am terrified for my girls’ future,” Walter said. “Something seriously has to be done because people can’t survive anymore. Everything is going up except paychecks.”

They’ve had good jobs, only to see them disappear. In 1996, Sandy got a job with Winstar Communications in the call center of its disconnect department and advanced to become the department’s lead representative, making about $38,000 a year. Winstar, which sold broadband Internet to businesses, went bankrupt in 2002. A company that bought its equipment paid Sandy and a few other former Winstar employees “very well” to train its people on how clients used the Winstar system. She got enough severance pay to be a stay-at-home mom for a few years.

Walter, meanwhile, became an apprentice with the Sheet Metal Workers’ Union, studying the trade and working at several companies the union owns in the Columbus area. He made $11 an hour to start, with raises every six months for four years. At that point, he became a journeyman earning $25 an hour. “The last couple years, I was working only six or seven months out of a year,” Wally said. “I’d work a while, get laid off, wait for unemployment to start up, get called back to work, get laid off again, wait again for unemployment. It got to where I had to find something more stable.”

He found a job cutting and installing marble and granite in high-end kitchens and bathrooms, then construction declined and he was laid off. In early 2009, he got the best job he’d ever had – traveling around the country and installing movie rental kiosks with a new company named Eplay. He worked long hours and brought home about $1,000 a week. Sandy was working in the catalogue call center of a small company that sold women’s sports clothing. In 2009, it was bought by Gap.

In a very brief period Sandy calls “the golden age,” they bought a home—the first they’d ever owned. “It was something we’d always dreamed about and planned on,” Walter said. They looked at foreclosed homes that didn’t need too much work and selected a small three-bedroom in a lower middle class neighborhood. Haleigh and Lindsey really like it. “It’s so quiet and peaceful,” Haleigh said. Their previous neighborhood was “good when we were little but it got worse and worse. The house next to us got shot up and a bullet hit our house. If it had been two inches closer, it would have come through my bedroom window and maybe hit me,” she said.

Within a year, they fell behind in their mortgage payments. Eplay went out of business. Walter’s former boss at the marble and granite company hired him back - at $13 an hour, no benefits. In September 2011, Walter’s hours were cut back and the family fell below the official poverty line for a family of four. This was the latest setback in a year of setbacks. Last February, Sandy stopped working when she broke her hand. She needed surgery and received short-term disability payments. She was supposed to call in to Gap regularly but didn’t receive the notice specifying that requirement until too late and was fired as a “no call, no show,” she said.

Now Sandy has “the job of looking for a job,” as she put it. Recently, she took a civil service test for a possible job at the 211 state information call center. She knows she passed the test but wasn’t told how many positions are open or how many other applicants there are. Walter’s on the lookout for better paying work. “I was offered a job at $15 an hour but it was seven days a week. I said I needed Sundays for church and family.” The Harpers are very active in their church. Sandy runs the youth group, which includes Haleigh and Lindsey. Walter helps feed the homeless on Friday nights. All four volunteer at a soup kitchen. Occasionally, they’ve taken in homeless teenagers.

“We’re the kind of family that helps others,” Haleigh said.

The Harpers are trying to save their home through an FHA program called Hardest Hit, which created by the Obama administration to help families dealing with a loss of income avoid foreclosure. “We send in forms and they say they need more forms so we’re in a kind of limbo,” Walter said. They were able to get Medicaid for Haleigh and Lindsey – important because Lindsey has a degenerating hip and will need a hip replacement when she stops growing. Walter and Sandy have no health insurance.

Here’s what the past six months have been like for Haleigh and Lindsey:

“Moneywise it’s hard,” Haleigh said.

Lindsay added, “like if me or Haleigh ask Mom if we could get something from the store, she would feel bad because she’d have to say ‘No.’”

Haleigh clarified. “If it’s absolutely needed, we can get it. But it’s like things…I guess it’s not knowing the next trouble that’s going to happen. It always gets worse before it gets better. That’s how I see it.”

“I get worried about stuff that we need that isn’t always going to be there for us even though we find a way to get it,” Lindsay said. “ Like if our phones were shut off and then something bad would happen, not knowing how to reach our parents or have them reach us.”

“Or if we were to lose the house,” Haleigh said.

The girls have not given up on the future but their outlook has been tempered by the uncertainties they’ve experienced.

This fall, Haleigh attends her regular high school for a half day and to a career-oriented school the other half day to study surgical tech. She wants to become a surgeon. She’s heard that Ohio State has a good medical school but that it’s expensive. “One of my goals in life is to be able to help my parents—if they need money to be like, 'Hey, I got some.’ But I don’t know. You’ve got to be realistic.”

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.

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

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