Families & the Community

Children in Poverty: ‘To Us, It’s Just How We Live’

By Lesli A. Maxwell — November 21, 2012 3 min read
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For all the academic and political debate over how much schools should be able to counteract poverty’s impact on children, how often do we actually hear from kids themselves about what being poor does to them?

Classroom teachers see the effects of poverty on their students every day, and hear about them, too, for sure. But I’m talking about the devastating, day-in and day-out experience of growing up poor that I think even educators in schools remain somewhat shielded from.

A new Frontline documentary, “Poor Kids,” by filmmaker Jezza Neumann, delivers you right into the middle of that experience, subtly, yet heartbreakingly told by three young girls and members of their families.

The film—which aired just before Thanksgiving on Nov. 20—starts off by providing all the necessary and important context for the rising rates of child poverty, unemployment, and homelessness in the United States, including the exacerbating forces of the recent economic recession. But it quickly turns to the individual stories of Kaylie, Brittany, and Jasmin.

Kaylie, who is 10, lives with her mom and her 12-year-old brother Tyler in the Quad Cities region that straddles the Illinois and Iowa border. They bounce between rental properties and dingy motel rooms as their mother struggles to keep them in one place for more than a few months. Lonely for friends her age, Kaylie strikes up a friendship with a 30-something front-desk clerk in one of the motels where the family stays, helping him with small chores around the rundown property. She tearfully gives up her dog to a shelter after stoically explaining to the camera that her family doesn’t have enough money to feed her pet. When she asks her mom if she can go to school, her mother tells her “it doesn’t make any sense to put you in school here,” when they are about to move back to the Iowa side of the state line in a few days.

“To us, it’s just how we live,” says Kaylie. “You don’t get to make choices in how you live.”

Brittany, also 9, lives with her parents and older brother Roger, who is 14. She belongs to the “nutrition club” at school and is summoned, along with a few other classmates, on a Friday afternoon to the front office to pick up a small bundle of food for the weekend. The contents: Cheerios, a small carton of milk, and some canned food.

In one scene, she stands next to her recently laid-off Dad and asks: “When is the cable being shut off?” He tells her soon, that they owe more than $200. She follows up: “How many jobs have you applied for?”

Finally, Jasmin, 9, is living in a Salvation Army shelter with her parents and three brothers. The family lost their home when the dad’s contractor business dried up. Jasmin’s father found a job in a factory, but it’s more than an hour away. Because they can’t be left alone in the shelter, she and her brothers have to ride along every day when their mother drives him to the job.

In different, but equally poignant, ways, the children in these families articulate how they long for better lives, but how hard it will be to find their path to upward social mobility.

“If I keep missing school, then I see my future poor, on the streets, in a box...asking for money everywhere...and stealing stuff from stores,” says Kaylie. “I don’t want to do any of that stuff. I want to get an education and a good job.”

That’s a devastating observation from a 10-year-old. As new research has found, the impacts of a dysfunctional or unstable home life can also have lasting negative effects on a child’s long-term learning and health.

To read and hear more about these remarkable children, check out today’s noon live chat with the filmmaker and other experts on children living in poverty.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.