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Children of Hard Times

New Poor: The Potter Family

Julia Cass reports for CDF from Marion, Ohio

The new faces of child poverty—Sydney, 12 and Brittanie, 13 of Marion, Ohio, sold baked goods at a garage sale to raise money for school clothes and supplies. Both parents had jobs but have been laid off. Their father’s unemployment insurance has ended, their mother is recovering from a badly broken leg and now the family has virtually no income. Brittanie worries: “I hear them talking about bills and it makes me upset. I just think we’re going to be okay but sometimes, I don’t think we’re going to be okay.”

The unemployment rate in Marion County in July was 10.2 percent. It had spiked to over 12 percent two years ago, when the girls’ father, John Potter, a machinist, was laid off. The State of Working Ohio 2011 report says that about 42 percent of those unemployed last year had been without a job for more than six months, the highest level in 60 years of record keeping.

Sydney, Brittanie and their older brother, Tre, 15, are three of the children behind these grim statistics. They live in a rented white frame house with a porch and front yard. Inside, where a couch would be, there’s a bed because their mother, Brandy Potter, cannot make it upstairs to the bedroom; her leg broke so badly in a freak accident in October that it has taken two operations so far and probably will require at least one more. She gets around on a wheelchair. Her husband, John, was over at a nearby American Legion club bartending for tips.

“They don’t get much business but at least it’s something for the kids’ school supplies,” Brandy said.

The beginning of the new school year seems to have underlined for Brittanie the family’s status as newly poor. “The other day Brittanie was sitting and crying,” Brandy said. “She said, ‘Mom, we’re poor! All my friends are getting school clothes and I don’t have anything to show them and I’m going to go to school and get made fun of.’ I brought her over into bed with me to calm her down.” Brittanie also worries about whether she will be able to play for basketball and softball this year because each sport costs $125. She wants to go to college and study nursing and thinks a basketball scholarship is the way she’ll be able to do this. “If I don’t get to play, then I won’t have a chance at a scholarship,” she said.

The Potters are a working class family. John and Brandy met because their mothers both worked at the Honda plant in nearby Marysville. Brandy’s father worked there too. This sort of dependable employment—one factory for a lifetime—eluded John and Brandy but they managed to work steadily and support their family until two and a half years ago—despite a terrible car wreck shortly after they married in 1995 that put John in a coma and required a facial reconstruction, a rod from his knee to hip, and pins in a knee and a hip.

John had graduated from high school and trade school and made $18 an hour at his first job as a at a forge shop that made axles for trucks. “But that place was sold and the new owners laid everybody off,” Brandy said. “When they called them back, they wanted to start them at $7 an hour.” Her husband refused to take such a large pay cut. From there, he held several factory jobs and then worked for six years as a supervisor at the county’s juvenile detention facility. He left that job when a boy his son’s age committed suicide there. “He said he couldn’t bear to go in. He kept seeing our son’s face,” Brandy said. His most recent job was at the local ConAgra snack food plant. Brandy, too, started working right out of high school. Most recently, she worked for seven years at the Marion Industrial Center, which made minor repairs to new Hyundai cars.

“We were making it,” Brandy said. “John made $16 something an hour and I got $10.50. Between the two of us it was decent money. The kids had the things they needed. We were able to pay our bills and do things as a family. Then it all fell down.”

First, John lost his job at ConAgra. He was on a medical leave from problems related to the 1995 accident when he was let go, Brandy said. Then Hyundai ended its contract with her company and it went out of business. They were already struggling to pay bills with their unemployment checks when John’s unemployment insurance ended in June and they lost even that income. Brandy stopped getting unemployment insurance when she broke her leg; you have to be able to work to receive unemployment.

“John couldn’t find a job. Nobody was hiring,” she said. “Then he had to take care of the kids when I was in and out of the hospital. Now he does a job search every day on the computer because we can’t afford the gas for him to just go out and run around.” Recently, she said, he had an interview at UPS and the family is hopeful yet afraid to hope because of previous disappointments when they’ve ridden a wave of hope only to see it crash. She’s worried that he is becoming depressed.

“It’s just so hard,” she said. She hates telling the children “no” when they need something, and she regrets that they can’t do things as a family anymore. “I know it doesn’t help that I’m in a wheelchair but we can’t even afford to go to McDonalds right now with the five of us. If it weren’t for the landlord, we wouldn’t even have a place to live. We have fallen behind in the rent and he has worked with us. I think any other landlord would have thrown us out.”

Brandy is thankful that she has “good kids.” Tre, she said, is very understanding and doesn’t ask for anything. Brittanie is often the one who cleans the house and does the dishes and she babysits in the neighborhood. All the children know how to cook. Their friends’ parents paid for them to go along on some outings this summer, and Tre went with a church youth group to West Virginia and helped put roofs on houses of people even poorer. They often use their friends’ cell phones, too, because the Potters no longer have a landline and are down to one cell phone. “It’s horrible!” Sydney said of not having her own cell phone. Brandy’s and John’s parents help when they can, but Brandy’s father recently had a heart attack and isn’t working; their mothers are still employed at the Honda plant but right now work only three days a week.

Brandy is also thankful for the government safety net. “If we didn’t have food stamps, we would starve. Without Medicaid, oh my God! This morning I went to an appointment to apply for cash assistance (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or TANF) because we have no income. That was hard. But what’s really hard is going from taking care of your family and having, not a lot of money but making it, to having to pretty much beg.” She was reluctant to go to the welfare office, she said, because she’s heard people put down people who get food stamps and welfare. “It scares me because I’m worried my kids may be made fun of.”

Brittanie heard her mother say this. “Oh Mom!,” she said. “We’ll be okay.” It was later that she confided, “Sometimes I don’t think we’re going to be okay.”

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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