Christina Sanders knows what it’s like to grow up poor. Her childhood in Hattiesburg, Miss. lacked so many of the simple joys that typify being a kid: toys, a birthday party held in her honor, a family trip, resources and support to take part in recreational activities like cheerleading or band. Even the most basic of necessities – like food, clothing and shelter – were often a luxury out of reach.
“When you’re not sure if you will have a meal the next day, you eat as much as you can when food is available,” she says.
A trio of milestones from her childhood made it almost insurmountable for her to be anything but poor: In foster care by age 5. Pregnant at age 14. Homeless by 15. Her teenage years were spent finding refuge with friends or, as a last resort, staying in hotels with different men.
Now, at age 28, she’s the mother of three – and still poor. So are her kids. And so the cycle continues. Or at least that’s the fear.
A 2010 study of childhood poverty by The Urban Institute conducted by the University of Michigan found that almost a third of children born into poverty (32 percent) remain in poverty into adulthood.
Since December 2007, the United States has officially been in a recession, an economic slow-down that’s created ripples in the lives of Americans: unemployment or lower-paying jobs, loss of wealth from the stock market and a drop in home equity – the list goes on and on. But one of the most significant and perhaps under-reported ripples has been the profound increase in kids growing up poor.
Here in Michigan, 1 in 4 children, or about 570,000 kids, live in poverty, which means that a quarter of our state’s kids live in a household that makes less than $23,000 (for a family of four). It’s a 9 percent increase in child poverty since 2000, according to the 2011 Kids Count Data Book, published by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the Michigan League for Human Services.
In the report, released earlier this year, Kids Count in Michigan director Jane Zehnder-Merrell summed up the sobering data with this succinct comparison: “Poverty in Michigan is as big a threat to our children today as polio was to a previous generation.” That’s not hyperbole.
The report goes on to indicate that 341,000 kids in Michigan are living in areas of extreme poverty, meaning a family of four is earning less than $11,000 a year. Thirty-two of 83 counties in Michigan have large numbers of children growing up in high-poverty communities.
For Christina Sanders’ kids and the other Michigan kids growing up poor today, this means a markedly increased risk of chronic health problems, developmental delays and the real risk of perpetuating the cycle of poverty.
Behind before the start
Even before they are born, children coming into the world as a member of a poor family are often already at a disadvantage. Prenatal care may have been lacking for some or all of their time in utero, leading to higher risk for their pre-term birth and low birth weight.
While low-income women may be eligible for Medicaid once pregnant, they may not know that, notes Zehnder-Merrell.
“They may be worried about the cost of prenatal care,” Zehnder-Merrell says. Or, “they may not even know they’re pregnant for a while. Those first three months of a pregnancy are vital, and low-income women are likely not to be getting care.”
These circumstances lead to disproportionately higher infant mortality rates among low-income families.
“Babies born to low-income families are often born too small or too soon, leading to developmental delays, chronic disease, mental retardation and even death,” Zehnder-Meller says.
Once that baby does enter the world, he or she is less likely to be breast-fed. While it may seem like a likely choice for a mother in financial duress to opt for this free and advantageous way to nourish her child, her circumstances are less likely to be conducive to pursuing this option.
“Many low-income women work in retail or restaurant settings or hold other jobs that make it difficult to breast-feed,” says Zehnder-Merrell. “It’s likely that there is nowhere private for them to pump their breasts. It’s likely they don’t have control over their schedule, either. Breast-feeding thus presents a formidable challenge.”
When Sanders gave birth to her first child, she didn’t for one minute consider breast-feeding him.
“I didn’t know anything about it,” she recalls. “And I didn’t care. Even if I did know, I would never have breast-fed in the environment in which I lived, where I might wake up and find a strange man standing over my bed.”
And the gap widens
After birth, the cards continue to stack against children born into low-income families. They are more likely to be at risk for chronic health issues like obesity, high blood pressure, lead poisoning and asthma.
The physical challenges a low-income child faces are often accompanied by emotional and developmental challenges. Being raised by a parent stressed or depressed over his or her circumstances can be felt by even the youngest of children.
Common experiences among children in poor families include less exposure to rich learning opportunities, less parental attention and less focus on the things that help kids begin to develop the vital cognitive functioning in the first three years of life that put them on par developmentally, socially and behaviorally with their peers.
Sheila Smith, Ph.D., director of Early Childhood at the National Center for Child Poverty at Columbia University, says research has shown that discrepancies between children from low- and middle-income families in behavior and skills associated with later reading ability are visible as early as 12-24 months of age.
“We’ve seen research that at as early as even 9 months of age, differences in vocalizations can be detected in children, favoring more affluent kids,” Smith notes. “Mothers living in poverty experience more struggles and are more likely to be depressed. They have fewer resources to respond to their baby’s vocalizations that can ignite development.”
A now-famous 1995 study conducted by Betty Hart and Todd Risley titled “Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children” found that a gap of 30 million words exists by age 3 between children from families on welfare and children from professional families. The researchers went on to find a high correlation between vocabulary at age 3 and a child’s language test scores at ages 9 and 10.
One of five children of a single mother, Sanders often found herself home alone tending to her two younger brothers, attempting to shield them and herself from the sound of gunshots just outside the house and the violence often transpiring inside it.
“I’d sit in my room not moving an inch, afraid even to breathe,” she recalls.
In that environment, school work wasn’t a priority.
“There was no studying,” she says. “My mom was not involved or interested in my schooling. All of my teachers always said I had potential, but they didn’t understand that home was war.”
The three children of Treasure Moore of Redford must do their homework in a different place each week as they travel to a new church, synagogue or any one of the 67 partner congregations that make up the South Oakland Shelter.
Moore’s 11-year-old daughter Lyric finds it hard to concentrate on her homework in this new environment.
“My kids are seeing and hearing things that children should not be seeing and hearing,” Moore says.
Lyric also has trouble focusing at the new school she had to transfer to when she, her mom and her siblings left their abusive home in mid-August.
Moore’s youngest daughter, Essence, 7, has begun wetting the bed and was two hours late for her first day as she struggled to pull it together to start in a new school, knowing no one and separated from her big sister.
The reality of sudden upheaval from home and school is something with which Joy Pote’s three kids are familiar. After divorcing her second husband, absorbing debt from their marriage and facing the reality of supporting a family solo, Pote of Clarkston, had to uproot her family to a new apartment, a new school district and a new way of life.
Although Pote works full time as a cosmetics specialist at a major department store, she still makes less than $20,000 a year. A Bridge Card helps her feed her family of four, but because the child support payments she is supposed to be receiving from her two ex-husbands has been factored in, the amount she receives on the card was recently cut in half. The $300 she now gets in food assistance each month is supplemented with donations from God’s Helping Hands, a food pantry in Rochester Hills.
“It helps,” Pote says, “but it’s not enough.”
Pote’s youngest child, 8-year-old Madalyn, knows what it feels like to be hungry in a home with no food to fill her empty belly.
“Sometimes we don’t have a lot to eat,” she says. “This morning I had some spoonfuls of chocolate frosting. There was nothing else.”
Pote acknowledged that her daughter had been crying all morning because there simply was no food to be had. “It’s Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard over here,” she says.
The food that does make its way into the Pote home typically is not of the highest nutritional value.
“I work retail hours, so a lot of times I am not home for dinner,” Pote says. “I get things the kids can make themselves that aren’t very healthy, but that can be thrown into the microwave or toaster oven.”
Lauren Fuller is youth director at the Baldwin Center in Pontiac, a nonprofit organization providing food, clothing, education and youth programs. She oversees the center’s after-school and summer programs for kids. During a catered lunch that included fresh produce, she was taken aback to hear some of the children say they’d never seen a strawberry before – or even heard of one.
“Many of the children at the center are used to seeing a lot of canned foods,” she says. “They are used to foods purchased from a party store. Their family may not have a car, and the nearest grocery store may be three miles away.”
Many of the children coming to the center are thus overweight, a common health concern among children from low-income families. When Alex Plum, Baldwin’s associate director for programs, first joined the center, he couldn’t help but notice that many of the children would come to the center with fingers orange from eating Cheetos.
“We’re working with the community now to make a culture change,” he says. “We’re trying to lead them through how to incorporate healthier living.”
To that end, Fuller tries to incorporate yoga and other physical activity into the programs she leads at Baldwin, hoping not only to help the kids become more active but to help raise their self-esteem.
Positive self-esteem can be a challenge for the most privileged of children to develop. Poor children experiencing stressors that most adults would struggle to overcome are even more susceptible to a poor self-image.
Christina Sanders recalls feelings of shame over having too few clothes to wear growing up, an experience that absolutely affected her sense of self-worth.
“What I did have didn’t fit and never matched,” she recalls. “My hair was never done. I didn’t want to bring attention to myself because I was so embarrassed, and, as a result, I became really introverted.”
Three months behind on her rent and facing eviction, Pote laments that her children are in a similar situation. Her youngest lacks appropriate shoes for school.
“She has only flip flops,” Pote says. “She has no tennis shoes, and I don’t have a penny to my name.”
And so Madalyn will take on the fall in sandals, and bear the stares, comments and teasing of classmates who, at her age, are sure to point it out.
It’s not the first time clothing has been an issue for the Potes – and specifically little Madalyn.
“I’ve had to go to school in dirty clothes,” says the third grader. “One of the girls in my class called me a dirty girl. I felt really bad.”
Pote also worries about her oldest daughter, 16-year-old Alissa, who is feeling the stresses and strains of being a teenager compounded by her family’s financial situation. Unlike her friends, Alissa hasn’t been able to take driver’s training, and even if she had, no wheels await her upon the course’s completion. She spent her summer stuck at home watching her little brother and sister while her friends hit up the pool and enjoyed being teenagers.
“She has a lot of resentment and anger,” Pote says. “She doesn’t want to go to school and would prefer to do virtual home schooling, but we don’t have a computer or Internet. I worry about her.”
Determined it will be different for them
Taking steps to end the cycle of poverty she has always known, Christina Sanders, at 17 and pregnant with her second child, applied to be part of Lighthouse of Oakland County’s PATH program. For two years, she lived in the supportive environment of PATH and prepared to live independently through the program’s empowerment and life skills programming.
Nowadays, Sanders can be found Monday through Friday at W.H.R.C. Elementary School in Pontiac, where she works as a building helper. Simultaneously, she is studying phlebotomy at Oakland Community College. Through PATH, she is now in her own house, where she resides with her children. Though still living below the poverty line and receiving food assistance, Sanders doesn’t consider herself poor.
“Compared to where I was, what I grew up knowing, I am not poor,” she says. “I am getting by. The life I had as a child, I don’t want that for my children.”
Treasure Moore is hopeful to land a nursing assistant or home health care position soon, so she can move her family out of the shelter and into a better life.
“I live for my children,” she says. “I am living for them until they can live for themselves.”
Joy Pote has signed up for full-time schooling and, like Sanders, will be studying phlebotomy. Terrified to take out yet another loan, she sees it as the only way.
“I don’t even have a credit card,” she says. “But my situation won’t change if I don’t do this.”
Policy changes steepen the climb
Government programs aimed at helping struggling families during times of extreme duress have seen cuts in recent years, taking away some of the safety nets that poor families have been able to rely on in the past.
“Single women with children have typically been able to fall back on cash assistance if they were to lose their job,” explains Zehnder-Merrell. “Now it’s time-limited, and they can take advantage of it only for 48 months over their entire lifetime.
“And the amount of the grant that funds the cash assistance program for women with dependent children is half what it was 15 years ago. The amount has not been adjusted for inflation.”
Similarly, the change in the traditional period of unemployment from 26 to 20 weeks means tough times for those struggling are likely to get tougher.
“There’s much less public support for struggling families at a time when Michigan’s economy is reeling, and we are adjusting to a very different world,” Zehnder-Merrell says. “People can’t find work without these programs in place. The next generation is bearing a big price.”