Children of Hard Times

Child poverty remains at record high levels with children remaining the poorest age group in 2013 and one in five children are poor. Marian Wright Edelman with Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Julia Cass chronicles the new faces of poverty through the “Children of Hard Times.” Traveling across the heartland of America, Ms. Cass reports the desperate toll poverty takes on children and their parents. The stories offer fresh insight into the daily struggle to provide food and shelter, health care and educational support, and find stable employment paying a livable wage in the United States in 2011. Read their stories.

The Lynch Family

Elijah, 10, lives with his mother and three sisters. The family of five receives $583 a month in food stamps. They go to food pantries and raise tomatoes in pots but they often are down to peanut butter sandwiches at the end of the month.

The latest edition of UNICEF's report on child poverty showed the United States ranks second out of 35 developed countries on the scale of what economists call “relative child poverty” with 23.1 percent of its children living in poverty. Only Romania ranked higher. It was another shameful reminder that, as economist Sheldon Danziger put it, “Among rich countries, the U.S. is exceptional. We are exceptional in our tolerance of poverty.”

For the Lynch family in Columbus, Ohio, headlines like this aren’t news. Lucille Lynch and her children Sarafina, 17, Timeeka, 14, Daisha, 11, and Elijah, 10, live on just slightly over half of the federal poverty level. The family’s only cash income is the combined $1,200 per month Social Security disability checks for Elijah, who has autism, and for Lucille, who suffers from a lung condition, along with occasional and minimal child support. Their family is a portrait of deep poverty in America. In 2010 20.5 million Americans were living on less than half of the federal poverty level.

The Lynches live in isolation in a dark house in a dangerous neighborhood between several main roads. A church that helps the family built a chain link fence around the house so Elijah can’t run out into the street. A block and a half away is a group home for sex offenders. Lucille gets advisory flyers in the mail with photographs of the men and their offenses—rape and gross sexual imposition were listed on two of the flyers on the living room table the day Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Julia Cass met the family while on assignment for the Children’s Defense Fund. “It’s scary to know that,” Daisha said. “You don’t want to go out in the street because of them.”

Lucille, 47, considers herself lucky she has the house which she inherited from her parents. She left high school in the 11th grade—“It was horrible and I couldn’t learn. There was too much violence.” Later she took classes and became certified as a nursing aide and for seven years she worked in nursing homes bathing, dressing, and diapering patients. But in 2006 she began feeling ill and by the next year, “I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t lift them anymore at all.” She was diagnosed with sarcoidosis, which causes inflammation of the lungs, and had to stop working. She’s done occasional babysitting since then.

One of the many sad consequences of deep poverty is that autism often goes undiagnosed longer, which is critical because many therapies for autism are most effective when they begin before age three. Elijah was diagnosed at five. Lucille said she knew something was wrong because “he wasn’t speaking. He wasn’t looking at people.” But pediatricians told her to wait and see if he improved and he wasn’t tested until he reached kindergarten age.

When Elijah was eight he began having problems in his special education classroom. Lucille eventually found out a child sitting behind him on the school bus was hitting him and another in his classroom was choking him. She said that school had one teacher and one aide trying to handle two classrooms full of children with different special needs. Lucille took him out of school and enrolled him in Buckeye Online – a statewide private charter school that gives online instruction and receives money from the public education system.

The three girls experienced school violence too, and now Sarafina and Daisha also stay at home and study with Buckeye Online, which provided two computers for the family to use. Sarafina was just starting middle school when she had a gun pulled on her. Daisha left school three years ago. “I didn’t really talk to other kids because they were so mean to me,” she said. “I got into a fight once but I didn’t want to fight but I had to because they kept hitting me. Nobody stopped them.” Online schooling means the children are isolated at home. Church is their major outside activity.

The family of five receives $583 a month in food stamps. They go to food pantries and raise tomatoes in pots but they often are down to peanut butter sandwiches at the end of the month and regularly eat filling, starchy foods like rice, pasta, and potatoes.

Lucille is hoping her children will “do better” than she did. She has the idea that art might help them get ahead because they all have the family talent for it. “There’s a lady who volunteers at the church, an artist,” Lucille said. “She’s going to help them make portfolios. Sarafina wants to present hers to the Columbus College of Art and Design.” Lucille is still holding onto the American Dream for her children—but for now, the Lynches are living a much sadder American reality.

At the Children’s Defense Fund National Conference in Cincinnati July 22-25 we will have a series of plenaries, mini-plenaries, and workshops focused on economic inequality and child poverty. Join us to learn more about what we know works to reduce poverty—and how we can work together to insist we do what works and set different national priorities. It’s time to end child poverty in rich America.

The Dickens Family

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" recently 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.

The Harris Family

Five-year-old Kamari and his three-year-old brother Shamarr in the dining room of the YWCA Family Center in Columbus, Ohio.

Five-year-old Kamari and his three-year-old brother Shamarr clown around in the dining room of the YWCA Family Center in Columbus, Ohio. They and their mother, Stekeshia Harris, slept on cots in the shelter’s library for their first three nights there because there were so many homeless families needing shelter—a 330 percent increase from two years ago.

“We’ve been in overflow for more than a year,” said Ginger Young, the Center’s Director of Housing Programs. She said homelessness is known to trail recession by two years. “The economy tanks. People are laid off. They go through their savings if they have savings. They lose their house—eviction, foreclosure. They sell their stuff. They live with so and so and so until their welcome runs out. Then it’s either the car or us.”

The YWCA Family Center is an emergency shelter, and for months mothers, fathers, and children have appeared at the door in record numbers and at all hours carrying bags of clothing and a few favorite toys. The Center’s policy is not to turn people away, so employees add cots everywhere they can find space. That’s where Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Julia Cass met the Harris family while on assignment for the Children’s Defense Fund.

As in Young’s scenario, Stekeshia Harris’ hard times began with a layoff. She was working at a group home for adults with intellectual disabilities, cooking, cleaning, and bathing the residents and earning $8 an hour when she became pregnant with her second child Shamarr. The group home shocked her by letting her go. “They were afraid I would fall and I couldn’t pick up the clients anymore. I was really upset because I thought I could handle it,” she said. That was more than three years ago.

After Shamarr was born, Stekeshia didn’t get the job back as she’d hoped. The boys’ father helped out for a while but then left. She babysat for other children and made a little money that way. She began receiving food stamps. She signed up with a temporary agency and worked some days here, some days there, nothing steady. “I put in a lot of applications but it’s hard,” she said. Eventually she fell behind in paying rent and faced eviction. Her sister helped her with the rent as long as she could. When she couldn’t afford to keep helping, she allowed Stekeshia and the boys to move in with her and her children but “that didn’t work out. She really didn’t have room,” Stekeshia said. And so the family ended up at the shelter.

Stekeshia’s goal continued to be to find “a job. Any job to get my foot in the door.” She regularly sent out a number of applications. A hospice needed a cook and she thought she would be qualified because she cooked in the group home. She went downtown to put in an application at a former Hyatt hotel with new owners. “Dietary, housekeeping, front desk. Whatever position I could get, I’d be happy with… Just keep trying. That’s my motto. I am so praying I get one of these jobs so I can move on and give some other family a chance to be here.”

A recent front page New York Times article by Jason DeParle reported that as many as one in every four low-income single mothers is jobless and without cash aid—roughly four million women and children with no money, no job. It said many of these families are blocked from receiving help by time limits and other restrictions put into place by the mid-1990s welfare reform: “[M]uch as overlooked critics of the restrictions once warned, a program that built its reputation when times were good offered little help when jobs disappeared.” And as a result, the article goes on to say, “The poor people who were dropped from cash assistance here, mostly single mothers, talk with surprising openness about the desperate, and sometimes illegal, ways they make ends meet. They have sold food stamps, sold blood, skipped meals, shoplifted, doubled up with friends, scavenged trash bins for bottles and cans and returned to relationships with violent partners—all with children in tow.”

But for many families even desperate measures to make ends meet aren’t working. The rising numbers of homeless families like those in the Harrises’ crowded shelter is a sign that for many Americans the safety net has collapsed while in Washington, the House Budget Committee’s latest draconian budget proposes even deeper cuts in the safety net while refusing to ask the rich and powerful to contribute their fair share. Indeed, it would give them more tax breaks at the expense of poor struggling families like the Harrises desperately trying to get back on their feet.

I hope enough citizens will lift their voices and votes against a federal budget which cuts the poor and coddles the rich.

The Nation Family

Levi Nation, age 12, and his sister Katherine, eight, live with their parents, James and Lois, in an old trailer in rural Kalkaska County, Michigan. Though both parents work, they can’t afford a better place—or health insurance or outings with the children. James says, “You can work your butt off and still not get ahead.”

Levi Nation, age 12, and his sister Katherine, eight, eat Sunday dinners at their grandparents’ house in rural Kalkaska County, Michigan. They live with their parents, James and Lois, in an old trailer next door. Though both parents work, they can’t afford a better place—or health insurance or outings with the children. “Sometimes I wish we could go someplace like down to a water park or, like, the zoo,” Levi said.

At one time, the Nations owned a home. But like so many other American families, their standard of living has declined over the past decade even though they are a two-parent working family.

James’s family employment story echoes the Michigan story, as Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Julia Cass learned when she met the family while on assignment for the Children’s Defense Fund. His father worked for General Motors in Flint until it offered him “a golden handshake and he took the check.” James said. James considers himself a member of “probably the last generation to be able to walk out of high school and get a decent job,” though he and his brother came too late to find well-paying work at GM and move up into the middle class.

During the earlier years of their marriage, when they were able to afford to buy a home, James and Lois lived in Durand, near Flint. He worked for 14 years in a family-owned machine shop that made tools for the aluminum wheel industry. Lois, who’d taken some junior college classes, worked as a bank teller. When Levi was born, she wanted a career she could base around a child’s schedule and went to a school for massage therapy. In 2004, they sold their house and moved to Kalkaska County, where Lois grew up. They wanted to raise their children in a safer place, and planned to live in a trailer on property Lois’s parents owned and build a home there later.

Kalkaska and neighboring Grand Traverse County on Lake Michigan are, in part, resort areas with second homes and luxury condos. James started a handyman service and Lois had massage clients. “Then the economy kind of fell apart and I had to get a job to be sure the bills were paid,” James said. He worked as a mechanic at a farm equipment store for a few years and recently moved to a part-time job with the Village of Kalkaska as a wastewater operator. “It’s a little less money, but the commute is shorter, so it evens out,” James said. “Also, I’m hoping it will turn into a full-time job with benefits.” James earns $13 an hour and works 30 hours a week. He earns a little more than $19,000 a year.

Lois didn’t have enough clients in her massage business so she took a job at McDonald’s. “I’ve worked there four years and am just now breaking over the $8 an hour mark,” she said. That job, too, is part-time. She says the company keeps hiring new people and spreading out the hours so that if someone leaves or doesn’t show up, they have other employees who can fill the shifts. “They think you can just come in whenever they need you, but a lot of people can’t do this because they have family,” she said. “My kids are too young to leave by themselves.” She works 15 to 25 hours a week and earns between $10,000 and $15,000, depending on how many hours she gets.

The family is working so desperately to stay afloat, Lois recently began training for a second part-time job at a credit union. She will be a fill-in person working from 20 to 30 hours a week and earning $8.50 an hour. The number of hours will vary from week to week at both jobs, but she expects to wake up at 3:30 a.m. to work at McDonald’s from 4:15 till 8 a.m. and to work at the credit union from late morning until 5 or 6 p.m. on Mondays and Fridays and half-days on Saturdays, the credit union’s three busiest days. “I’ll miss the kids’ soccer games,” she said, “but we need the money.” Because both jobs are part-time, she will receive no benefits.

Their children Levi and Katherine are covered by Medicaid, a critical safety net support for their family. But James and Lois make too much to be eligible for Medicaid themselves, but not enough to buy health insurance. James recently needed $2500 in dental work and Lois had $1200 in medical tests, for which they reluctantly used CareCredit cards; with this method, if they pay off the doctor and dental bills within 18 months, they pay no interest, but if they don’t, James said they will be charged 24 to 36 percent interest retroactive to date of service, adding, “We will pay them off somehow because we’ve worked hard to keep good credit”—to be able, someday, to get another home for themselves and their children.

The Nations receive about $80 a month in food stamps. When their children were younger they were eligible to attend Head Start. It helped a lot with the children’s development. “We couldn’t afford to pay for preschool, and if it hadn’t been for Head Start, we wouldn’t have gotten Levi diagnosed [with mild attention deficit hyperactivity disorder]. And the teacher taught me ways to work with him.” Katherine, she said, is going into third grade and already reads on the fifth grade level, “and they have to challenge her in math too because of Head Start. Every week they were sending something home on how to challenge your child’s brain and make it fun.”

Lois said they applied to Habitat for Humanity for a house but “they turned us down. They said we had more opportunities than other people because we have land and good credit.” James commented, “We’re kind of between a rock and a hard place” of being somewhat poor but not poor enough. “The way grocery and gas prices keep going up, I don’t see where we’re making that much money that we should be in between. You can work your butt off and still not get ahead.” For now, they keep going—not yet getting ahead, but working as hard as they can, and never giving up.

The Hanebuth Family

Daniel, 6, Ayden, 7, Aaron, 10, and Serenity, 5, live in a housing project in Middletown, Ohio. In the past two years, they’ve also stayed in a motel and a homeless shelter because their mother, Tiffany Hanebuth, lost her job and has not been able to find another job.

The January jobs report from the U.S. Department of Labor was good news for the 243,000 people who found jobs. And good news for the American economy as the unemployment rate fell to 8.3 percent, the lowest level in nearly three years. This is the 16th straight month of jobs growth, but the recovery can’t come soon enough for the millions of long-term unemployed like Tiffany Hanebuth from Middletown, Ohio. She says, “I just want a job, any kind of job.”

As with other families barely afloat on minimum wage jobs, the Hanebuths never had steady smooth sailing, but they were self-supporting until two years ago when Tiffany was laid off as a carhop at a Sonic drive-in and could not find another job. “I remember before, you could just go anywhere and get an application and get hired that day. It’s not like that now,” she said.

Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Julia Cass recently met Tiffany Hanebuth on assignment for the Children’s Defense Fund, and Cass says by anybody’s definition Tiffany is a survivor and a worker. Tiffany was raised by her father who she said was a biker and bar owner. “He started bringing friends home and it was too much for me,” Tiffany said. By the time she was 12 she left home to stay with friends and eventually found a job, got her own apartment, and finished high school. Tiffany didn’t meet her mother until she was 17. “My father told me she didn’t want to take care of me because she was a drug addict,” Tiffany said. “I wanted to find her and I did. She was a drug addict.”

Despite the fact that her own childhood was so chaotic and cut short, Tiffany wants to provide a better life for her own children, Aaron, 10, Ayden, 7, Daniel, 6, and Serenity, 5. Aaron said he wants to go to college, get a job at NASA, live with his mom, and pay the bills for her. Tiffany has always been the breadwinner for her children although their father, who doesn’t live with them, helps out with child care and other occasional needs. She’s worked at gas stations, fast food restaurants, grocery stores, a Bob Evans restaurant, and various factories through temporary agencies before she lost her job two years ago.

Tiffany managed on unemployment for almost a year but fell behind on her rent and the family was evicted. She lost $150 when a landlord kept her deposit and didn’t give her the apartment. “He said, ‘Take me to court if you want to.’ I think he knew I couldn’t afford to do that.” That’s when the family lived for a while in a motel and a homeless shelter. The shelter staff helped her get public housing at a sprawling complex named Freedom Court where Tiffany pays $180 a month rent. She also signed up for food stamps and in June 2010, for cash assistance from Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).

Anyone who thinks welfare recipients do nothing but sit around and cash their checks isn’t familiar with the schedules of Tiffany and many others like her. The welfare reform of the late 1990s put the emphasis on moving recipients from welfare to work and set a lifetime limit on federally-assisted cash payments for many families. Initially recipients are required to go to a job readiness site for a month to get training in resume writing and interview skills and use the computers and fax machines to apply for jobs. The big problem is that when there aren’t many jobs, the system doesn’t work as designed. So Tiffany was assigned to community service in exchange for receiving cash assistance (about $650 a month for her and the children). Her assignment was at the local Salvation Army where she put donated clothing on racks and did whatever else she was asked to do. After several months, she was hired there and went off cash assistance. “But I only worked there a month and a half before they had to let the new people go,” she said.

When she reapplied for cash assistance she was told she would be sanctioned for not reporting to community service and could not receive assistance for three months because she was on record as not having signed in at the Salvation Army. But Tiffany said she didn’t sign in for community service because she had started to work there instead. She said she took her pay stubs to the welfare office but the sanction was not withdrawn. “The guy was actually rude. He said if I wanted to keep complaining, he’d take my food stamps and Medicaid too.” By that point Tiffany had sold her car and television and gotten behind on bills. She’s still in a hole.

Tiffany got back on cash assistance after the three months passed. She now does 86 hours a month of community service at the food pantry of Family Services of Middletown and likes it there. The people are nice and she can sometimes take home extra produce. She usually takes the bus but at the end of the month she sometimes walks—a two-hour trip. The director gave her a bicycle, but it was stolen at the housing project. Recently she missed a day when Ayden was sick. “I’m a stress ball that I won’t be able to make up the hours and be sanctioned again,” she said.

Tiffany’s children sometimes get backpacks of food at school on Fridays to take home for the weekend. Tina Osso, Executive Director of the area’s Shared Harvest Foodbank, said that 300 children in Middletown schools received the backpacks last school year. “They don’t go to all the children who receive free breakfasts and lunches, just to those identified as showing physical, behavioral, or academic problems associated with chronic hunger,” she said. But cuts in federal and school district funding have put this school year’s backpack program in jeopardy. Tiffany, who’s never been afraid of hard work, doesn’t want to have to rely on assistance and donated food forever. For now, the safety net is doing exactly what it is designed to do: programs with proven track records are keeping Tiffany and her family above water while she continues searching for a job. Proposals to dismantle many of these proven programs wouldn’t make unemployed parents’ job hunts any easier—but they would leave millions of poor children with less help and less hope. They need jobs!

The Thomas/Dinwiddie Family

Eighteen-year-old Toni Thomas, who gets up each morning in the small room she shares with her mother in Mom’s Place, a transitional housing shelter for the homeless in Detroit, Michigan, is a role model for all the struggling young people like her who continue striving and trying their best despite the overwhelming odds stacked against them.

In his State of the Union address, President Obama spoke about his grandparents, who were part of the World War II “generation of heroes” who “built the strongest economy and middle class the world has ever known.” The President said, “My grandfather, a veteran of Patton’s Army, got the chance to go to college on the GI Bill. My grandmother, who worked on a bomber assembly line, was part of a workforce that turned out the best products on Earth. The two of them shared the optimism of a nation that had triumphed over a depression and fascism. They understood they were part of something larger; that they were contributing to a story of success that every American had a chance to share—the basic American promise that if you worked hard, you could do well enough to raise a family, own a home, send your kids to college, and put a little away for retirement. The defining issue of our time is how to keep that promise alive.”

For decades, the cornerstone of fulfilling the American dream has been getting a good education. But that cornerstone has crumbled for millions of America’s children. The President said making sure students graduate from high school and are able to go to college must be a priority. He said, “Higher education can’t be a luxury—it is an economic imperative that every family in America should be able to afford.” The economic imperative of graduating from high school and college is especially critical for the 16.4 million poor children if they are to have the best opportunity to lift themselves out of the cycle of poverty. But instead of leveling the playing field, inequities in funding, resources, and access to high quality teachers for public schools place millions of poor children in low-performing schools with inadequate facilities and often ineffective teachers. Thirty-five percent of Black and 29 percent of Hispanic high school students attend the more than 1,600 “dropout factories” across our country where 60 percent or fewer of the freshman class will graduate in four years with a regular diploma. For these students, the cost of tuition might be just one more thing on top of poor preparation that makes college seem like another impossible barrier separating them from the rapidly disappearing American dream.

Getting a high school and college degree and achieving the American dream could easily have seemed impossible to eighteen-year-old Toni Thomas. Toni gets up each morning in the small room she shares with her mother in Mom’s Place, a transitional housing shelter for the homeless in Detroit, Michigan, and takes the bus to Wayne County Community College. She plans to transfer to Wayne State University in two years to study engineering. Her goal sounds a lot like the President’s definition of the basic American promise: “having a good job and my own house and my own car and my own money.”

Unlike many teenagers her age, Toni has had none of these. As Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Julia Cass learned when she met Toni and her mother while on assignment for the Children’s Defense Fund, Toni grew up moving from place to place in poor neighborhoods in a once booming but now poor city. Her mother, Linda Dinwiddie, describes herself as “lost in drugs for a long time.” Toni said, “Until last year, until I was 17, pretty much she’d been on drugs most of my life. I wanted her to get off of it. Her using meant we had to get up and move. Sometimes we didn’t have food.” Extended family gave what support they could—especially Toni’s grandmother, who died several years ago—but Toni and her sister, who is now 26, often scraped by on their own. Throughout it all, Toni kept one goal in mind: “I wanted to graduate from high school on time.”

During Toni’s junior year, her mother Linda was gone—first hospitalized with asthma attacks and blood clots, and then staying in a residential drug treatment facility. “She gave me and my sister her food stamp card so we could eat and everything,” Toni said. “She’s a good person, a caring person. She just got hooked on drugs.” Before their mother left, they’d been living in an abandoned house that their cousin had lost in a foreclosure. Toni and her sister continued to live there while their mother was gone. The utilities had been shut off although someone in the neighborhood illegally hooked up the electricity for the stove and small heaters. “In the wintertime, we’d scoop up snow to get water, put it in pots and boil it so it would be like sterilized,” she said. “We put sheets up around the windows to keep the rooms warmer. The beds and stuff had got moldy so we slept on the couches.” Her sister cooked. At the end of the month when the food stamps ran out, “we tried to get food any way we could or go to somebody’s house,” she said. Sometimes, Toni would spend the night with one of her two closest friends and go to school from there. “They had a better environment in their house than I did.”

She stayed in school and tried to keep up. At one point she failed three classes but took them over in summer school so she could graduate on time. Then she got in trouble for fighting and transferred to West Side Academy, an alternative school. “It’s a school for a second chance. It helps you get your grades up and do better,” she said. There, she got on the student council, went to Lansing for a student government meeting, and met the governor. “It was fun. It was interesting,” she said. A science teacher encouraged her to join the robotics team where students build robots and compete with teams from other schools. “I’d go after school and on weekends helping build the robots,” she said. “I learned how to use tools. That’s how I got interested in engineering.”

In May 2010 after Linda got out of the treatment facility, Toni and her mother moved into Mom’s Place, part of Cass Community Social Services. “I’m proud of her. I’m proud she got off drugs,” Toni said. Linda said she is very proud of Toni for not getting into trouble and for finishing school “in spite of what I put her through. She kept herself together.”

Last summer, Toni got an AmeriCorps job with the Detroit Parent Network, going door to door giving information about the organization. “It’s about helping parents get their kids in better schools,” she said. It provided a salary and $1,100 towards college.

Toni has a distance to go to graduate from college with an engineering degree. West Side Academy is one of Detroit’s 44 persistently low achieving schools, and in her first year in community college, she is taking mostly remedial courses, including pre-algebra. “I’m not sure I can handle it, but I’m going to try my best,” she said of college. “That’s what I been doing, trying my best.”

Toni is a role model for all the struggling young people like her who continue striving and trying their best despite the overwhelming odds stacked against them. Countless other struggling children have not been able to overcome the same odds the way Toni has and have been sucked into our nation’s Cradle to Prison Pipeline™. We must reroute all children into a pipeline to college and productive work with investments in early childhood, education, out of school programs, and youth and parental jobs. Each child should have a chance to reach their God-given potential. The AmeriCorps program and a caring teacher made a difference in Toni’s life. How many young people will never get the chance to see how far their best can take them? We don’t have a moment or a child to waste.

The Barrett Family

The Barrett girls, Anjerrica, 15, Daryanna, 10, and Jaeda, 7, would go hungry without food stamps, free school lunches, and a local food pantry.

As the new year’s news cycles turn to presidential politics and primary contests, there is another story our leaders should be talking a lot about—and acting to alleviate. End-of-year news stories about holiday spending happily reported on the unexpectedly high totals many Americans spent—or put on credit—this year. But for millions of families there was another story: how to provide enough food and shelter and keep alive the spirit, wonder, and joy of the season for their children when resources are scarce? Darryl and Jeanna Barrett are both college graduates who together earned about $60,000 a year. Blessed with three beautiful daughters, they survived Hurricane Katrina and bought a home in New Orleans, eager to help rebuild their city. According to Darryl, they were “on the road to the American dream.” Then he became disabled and Jeanna lost her job. Their current income—Darryl’s Social Security disability and Jeanna’s unemployment insurance—places them just barely above the official poverty level for a family of five.

The family recently qualified for food stamps. The Barrett girls, Anjerrica, 15, Daryanna, 10, and Jaeda, 7, would go hungry without food stamps, free school lunches, and a local food pantry. Darryl has been going to the food pantry at the nearby Community Center of St. Bernard every week and can’t say enough about how “tremendous” the center has been for them. “I called last year our $36 Christmas. That’s how much money we had in the bank. The Center made sure we had a turkey. They got a sponsor who got the girls bikes. We went to their toy drive… if it hadn’t been for them, we wouldn’t have had any Christmas,” Darryl recently told Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Julia Cass, on assignment in New Orleans for the Children’s Defense Fund.

The economic rise and fall of the Barrett family mirrors what has happened to so many Americans who were moving up into the middle class but fell backwards in the past few years. The Barretts’ hard times resulted from the double whammy of disability and recession. Darryl graduated from Loyola University with a degree in computer systems. He worked for a casino company linking up statewide games in casinos around the state. But when he injured his back and a disc in his neck while moving a heavy piece of furniture, pressure from the disc injury severely damaged the nerves in his arms. Two years of physical therapy and a surgery failed to restore the use of his arms and he was approved for Social Security disability payments of $1550 per month.

Meanwhile, Jeanna graduated from Xavier University with a degree in chemistry. She worked as a pharmacy technician and science teacher in a Catholic school before going to work at a non-profit organization providing after-school and summer programs for low-income children in 2004. But she lost her job when the program lost state funding in 2010. In October 2011, Jeanna got what she calls a “part-time part-time” job—working at a cell phone company two days a week, three hours a day at $8 an hour. “Of all my applications, this was the only place that wanted to hire me,” she says. But the Barretts know this job is not even a short-term solution to their tough financial problems.

Sadly, the Barrett children were in the majority this year. In November, the Census Bureau released its first report using a new way of measuring poverty in America: the Supplemental Poverty Measure. This new measure won’t replace the official poverty measure but it’s an important tool to give us a more nuanced picture of poverty today.

The Supplemental Poverty Measure monitors common household expenses including food, clothing, shelter, and utilities and adjusts for regional differences. Income calculations include the value of federal nutrition programs, tax breaks like the Earned Income Tax Credit, and housing subsidies but subtract taxes paid, work and child care expenses, medical expenses, and child support payments. These more detailed calculations yielded some surprising results.

The majority of children in America—a stunning 56.7 percent—are either poor or low-income with these calculations compared to 43.9 percent using the official measure. While there is a substantial rise in the number of children considered low-income, the child poverty rate itself was actually lower using the new measure. This is important because it shows the effectiveness of key programs in lifting children out of poverty especially child and family nutrition programs, housing subsidies, and the Earned Income Tax Credit. These programs had the largest positive impact on children’s lives.

Now that we know the majority of children in America are at risk—including families like the Barretts—and need a lot of help right now to stay afloat, we must act. The details the Supplemental Poverty Measure captures give us a fuller picture of poverty’s reach during these perilous economic times and should serve as a road map to help our leaders and policymakers see what’s helping and what’s hurting. The proof of effectiveness of crucial safety net investments shows the wisdom of expanding refundable tax credits and nutrition programs to stave off widespread hunger. All of us must urge our legislators right now to make the right choices with our tax dollars and use them to benefit the majority of our children struggling to survive and thrive on too little rather than non-needy powerful special interests.

The Rogers/Cohen Family

Faces of poverty in Cincinnati, Ohio—Christopher Rogers, 13, sometimes uses the $3 an hour he earns cutting grass and working on a candy truck to pay the phone and electric bills when money runs short. He and his mother, Ana Cohen, are occasional welfare recipients, with Ana going off welfare when she finds work and then back on again when the jobs end or the hours and pay don’t add up to a livable income. “The way they have it now, the system is based on work but when there isn’t any work, it doesn’t work,” Ana said.

Ana’s mother and her grandmother were welfare recipients. The welfare reform of the late 1990s sought to break this “cycle of dependence” by providing job readiness and job search programs, requiring community service in exchange for receiving cash assistance, and setting a lifetime limit of five years. Ana’s experience reveals how difficult it can be for those at the bottom of the economic ladder to maintain independence as hard times trickle down.

Ana signed up for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) when she and Christopher moved from Texas to Cincinnati in 2000. She went to a mandatory job readiness program called SuperJobs for “classes on resume writing, what to wear, interviewing skills and how to fill out an application,” she said. Through SuperJobs, she filled out applications and sent them in by computer or delivered them directly to possible employers.

Her problem then wasn’t the job market but Christopher’s physical and mental health problems. He had chronic ear infections and needed tubes put in his ears. “And he didn’t know how to talk so I had to take him for speech therapy,” Ana said. She was frequently called by his preschool to come get him because of behavioral problems. When Christopher was five years old, he appeared in a front-page story in the Cincinnati Enquirer with the headline “Kicked out of Kindergarten Five Times.” By the end of that year, she was able to enroll him in a special school for children with behavioral problems. He was diagnosed with ADHD and began receiving medication, which Ana said has helped. He now goes to a regular public school and does all right.

“It was hard to find work that would fit around all this,” she said. To fulfill the work requirement for receiving cash assistance of $355 a month ($4260 a year), she did 30 hours a week of community service at an agency that helps poor people. She selected it because it was one of the few community service sites that allowed women to bring their children to work.

In 2003, Ana began attending Cincinnati State Technical and Community College on a Pell Grant and federal student loan that included tuition and an additional $1500 per semester for expenses. She majored in graphic imaging and packaging and advertising. “They told us there was money to be made in that,” she said. “I didn’t know printing on paper was about to go obsolete.” She worked in the college’s printing department as her co-op assignment but when she graduated in 2006, she couldn’t find a job. “There weren’t that many printers left,” she said. “If I knew then what I know now, I would have taken computer graphics or something else.”

Through SuperJobs, she found work with a security agency that handled events—football games, concerts, and circuses. She liked it but it was occasional work that ended altogether when the company went under in 2009. “They would just call when they needed you, and I would be asking them, ‘What do you have coming up?’ so I could see how much I would be making.” A few months here and there, she got so few hours that she went back on public assistance. Sometimes, she made less than she would have made on welfare but she didn’t want to ask for assistance to make up the difference because “even if I got just $5 of cash assistance,” it would count as a month towards her lifetime limit. “It’s nerve-wracking,” she said.

Sometimes, she took by-the- day jobs at places like Labor Ready and Labor Works. “They paid you $5.50 an hour and most of the jobs were outside Cincinnati,” she said. “If you didn’t have transportation, you had to pay them $7 each way.” Through another temporary agency, she did telemarketing for four months until the company’s Cincinnati office closed. At one point when she was being recertified for food stamps, she was recorded as having six different jobs although all of them were irregular and occasional.

Through another security agency, she found work at the football stadium. Whenever the Bengals play, Ana is stationed at the stadium’s $500 a game club level checking tickets and keeping people from the cheaper seats away. For more than a year, she worked close to full time doing security at a CVS store through the same security agency. She was paid $11 an hour. When she was laid off, she received unemployment insurance. That lasted through March 2011. At that point, she had no income—just food stamps and subsidized housing—and was not able to find another job. This is when Christopher’s earnings paid some of the bills.

“I hated to ask him but he knows our situation,” she said.

Listening to the conversation, Christopher said, “Yeah, but it’s okay, Mom.”

She applied for cash assistance again and received it for four months. During that time, she went to a different jobs program, Cincinnati Works. “They had this class where they teach you to write the perfect resume,” she said. In August, she took her perfect resume to a potential employer and got the job: sitting at the sign-in desk at a residence for senior citizens. It pays $9 an hour. Right now, she’s a “floater,” meaning that she comes in when needed—so far about 24 hours a week.

Ana said that she has never “made enough money not to be on food stamps, and I’ve had to use welfare as a fall back. There’s just not enough jobs that pay enough for me to get over that hump.” Recently, Ana received a notice stating that she has five months to go before she reaches her lifetime limit.

The Nailor Family

Amanda, 4, and Emily, 3, play with toys their parents got on a bartering website called freecycle. Their father, John Nailor, owns a computer repair business in Evart, Michigan but makes less than $22,314 a year, the poverty level for a family of four. “If it weren’t for food stamps and the income tax credit, I don’t know where we’d be,” he said. “We would be lost.”

The Nailors don’t fit the old image of a poor family. They live in a house with a yard in a small town in Middle America—the sort of place that might have been featured in a Norman Rockwell painting. They are the new face of poverty. Almost a quarter (23 percent) of children in Michigan live in poverty today, according to the 2010 Kids Count Data Book for the state. The rate is even higher—up to 35 percent—in rural counties in central Michigan like Osceola, where Evart is located.

Day to day, this means that John and his wife Sarah are “on a budget so tight we are down to dimes and pennies” by the end of the month, he said. For food, they eat “just the basics except maybe one meal a month where I’ll cook something super special like shrimp,” she said. They have no cable television. “We can’t afford it! No way!” John said. They never go out to eat or take trips. The childrens’ toys are mostly second hand, and their clothes are hand-me-downs that John got through freecycle.org, an international website with local groupings that trade items for free. About 300 people in Osceola and three neighboring counties, undoubtedly struggling like the Nailors, are in their group, exchanging household items, furniture, toys, clothes and even foods like fresh eggs. If not for the Earned Income Tax Credit, he said, they wouldn’t have anything new at all.

“Amanda and Emily are young so they don’t realize how poor we are,” Sarah said. “But when they get older…” She did not finish the sentence.

The Nailors are deeply worried about the future because they don’t know what else to do. Anyplace but Evart would be more expensive because they live in a house owned by Sarah’s mother and don’t have to pay rent. Their computer repair business is struggling—and they started the business because John couldn’t get a decent job. “The business made just $1,900 over the past three months and summer’s usually the best time,” he said. “Now comes winter when it’s slower.”

The Nailors retreated to Evart when Sarah got pregnant with Amanda and they’d both become frustrated with the job market in Grand Rapids, the largest city in the area. “Granted there were jobs there but so many people looking for them it was hard,” he said. John graduated from high school and went to a technical school to become a certified computer technician. He said he has loved computers and worked on them since he was 14.

A telling moment came when he saw a Help Wanted sign in the window of a computer repair store in Grand Rapids. He put in an application. As he walked out the door, a man with an NEC decal on his work suit came in and asked for an application. “I knew there was no way I was going to get that job,” John said. “NEC is a major computer builder for businesses. I knew he had more credentials than I did.”

Sarah, who moved to Grand Rapids after high school, held a series of jobs with ever lower pay. The best was at a bank where she handled applications for credit cards. When that bank sold out to another bank, she lost the job but got some severance pay. She used it to go to culinary arts school. “I thought it would be great but I ended up with low paying jobs in food service. I didn’t have the experience for fine dining, and there was more competition.” Like many other employees in fast food restaurants, she didn’t always get a full 40 hours a week and kept looking for something better. “Then my having gone from job to job worked against me because they saw me as not stable. But I’m a very hard worker and I enjoy work.” She’d worked after school in her father’s real estate office when she was in high school, she said, and helped care for her grandfather when he got Alzheimer’s.

In Evart, Sarah stayed home with the new baby and John worked wherever he could, mostly cleanup type jobs with temp services. That didn’t bring in enough steady money so they applied for cash assistance. One of its requirements is going regularly to a Michigan Works office that offers job training and help with job searches, resumes and work skills. Recipients must show that they are actively seeking work. The Nailors received cash assistance for about a year.

“Then they changed the rules,” John said. “You had to put in qualified applications. If you didn’t put in applications to places that were actually hiring, not just maybe hiring in the future, you would be put off. I thought, ‘Forget that! There’s no way. This is Michigan! Nobody’s hiring!’” He quickly summarized the local employment scene: A factory that hires through temp agencies, which didn’t count. A glass plant that closed and then reopened and gave preference to prior employees. A dairy where you have to have family that works there. Some mom and pops that employ only family. “I told them to keep their cash assistance. I was going to open my own business.”

Nailor Services opened two years ago in a small building downtown that once housed an A & P. The best John can say about it is that “I’m still in business even though we don’t have enough business to get off food stamps.” He fixes computers that people bring in or he goes to their homes. He finds inexpensive programs and parts for his clients and recycles old computers. “People bring me computers they want to get rid of and I break them down and sell the metal and copper. That’s what gets me through the winter.” With Emily going to Head Start this fall, Sarah said she’ll have time to help him.

The Nailors are due soon for a redetermination of their food stamp allotment of $669 a month, John said, and this worries them. “The state’s been cutting a lot for the budget,” he said. A proposal to throw out the earned income tax credit entirely was dropped in the state legislature but lawmakers recently shrank the benefit by about one fourth.

Normalizing Poverty with Hope: Bundy Family

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.

The Harper Family

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.”

The Potter Family

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.”

The McKee Family

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.

About the Author - Julia Cass

About the Author

Julia Cass, Author of

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.