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Children of Hard Times

Normalizing Poverty with Hope

By Marian Wright Edelman with Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Julia Cass reporting from Dowagiac, Michigan


Kyleigh, 6, and Aidan, 2, of Dowagiac, Michigan, were cut off welfare on October 1. Their mother, Hope Bundy, has reached the lifetime limit of four years of cash assistance recently set by the Michigan legislature. Hope’s temporary job at a door factory ended about the same time, and she hadn’t worked there long enough to get unemployment. Right now, she has no cash income. More than 11,000 Michigan families lost their welfare benefits in October.

Is poverty in America becoming normalized? Have 16.4 million children living in poverty become an accepted part of American life? The answer seems to be yes because the conversation in Washington and state capitals these days is not about reducing child poverty but about reducing survival programs for struggling families. We are punishing innocents with federal and state cuts to reduce budget deficits they did not cause while 279 current members of Congress (238 Representatives and 41 Senators) have pledged not to ask the wealthiest corporations and individuals to pay a dime in new taxes to restore some of the hundreds of billions they drained from taxpayer coffers that have nearly bankrupted our nation and torn asunder the lives and hopes and futures of millions of Americans.

Here is one family who is suffering to reduce the budget deficit in the state of Michigan - Kyleigh, 6, and Aiden, 2, of Dowagiac, were cut off welfare on October 1.

Kyleigh and Aiden may become homeless because their mother, Hope Bundy, reached the new lifetime limit for cash assistance recently set by the Michigan legislature. In a time of recession, when jobs are scarce, the legislature cut the limit from five to four years, ending benefits as of October 1 for more than 11,000 Michigan families. This was done to help balance the state budget. Hope’s temporary job at a door factory ended at about the same time, and she didn’t work there long enough to collect unemployment insurance. As you read this, the Bundy family has no cash income.

Hope has played by the rules, explains reporter Julia Cass, on assignment for the Children’s Defense Fund. For the past four years, Hope has gone regularly to the Dowagiac office of Michigan Works, a workforce development association, to receive job training and job leads and to show the efforts she’d made to get a job or to report having a job. This is a requirement for receiving cash assistance under the federal/state Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, which replaced Aid to Dependent Children in 1996. The driving idea was to move recipients, mostly single mothers, from a dependence on welfare to work.

It hasn’t worked out that way for Hope. Although she said that the staff at Michigan Works is “really nice. They’re really trying to help me,” Hope, 25, has not held a single job that lasted as long as six months, the minimum needed to be eligible for unemployment, and she has been unemployed for most of the past four years.

Two problems stand out: Cass County, where Dowagiac is located, doesn’t have many jobs. Its current unemployment rate is 10 percent; two years ago it was even higher at 12 percent. And welfare recipients are rarely at the top of the list of candidates companies want to hire. The only workplaces that have considered Hope are fast food restaurants and temporary agencies, which companies use to fill in staff at times of need with no obligation to keep or to provide with benefits. When Hope has had a job, it hasn’t provided a livable wage for her and her children. She receives food stamps, subsidized housing on a flat treeless expanse of land outside Dowagiac, and Medicaid. Her recent temporary job at the door factory paid $10.50 an hour.

Hope has an additional problem – a learning disability that makes it hard for her to catch on and keep up. “I just feel really slow. Just not in place,” she said. On the assembly line at the factory that manufactures doors, she said, “what happened was, I didn’t get enough done within a certain amount of time and six or seven guys had to wait on me. I’ve tried to speed up but every time I did, I screwed up -- like putting in the wrong piece, little things.”

Hope said she applied for disability payments through Social Security and was denied. Kyleigh’s father pays a small amount of child support; Aidan’s father doesn’t work and pays nothing. Her family helps some but can’t support her because “they’re pretty much like me: low income.”

“I don’t know what to do,” Hope said, “We could end up being homeless. That scares me with my kids but I really don’t know….” Her voice trailed off. She didn’t finish the sentence.

Is pushing children into deeper poverty and homelessness while protecting the wealthy the America of fairness, compassion and equality that we purport to be? Beginning today, let’s live up to America’s promise by taking committed action to end child poverty and close the morally obscene gulf between rich and poor in our nation. The rich don’t need any more tax breaks and need to give back some of their unfair share of our nation’s tax subsidies and bailouts to feed and house and educate our children and create jobs to employ their parents.

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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