Looking behind the statistics of child poverty

Marketplace Contributor Aug 7, 2012

Looking behind the statistics of child poverty

Marketplace Contributor Aug 7, 2012

Kai Ryssdal: Here’s a more human window than we usually get into the realities of the present economy. The Annie E. Casey Foundation says that one in three children in this country are in families where neither parent has full-time, year-round employment. And that that situation does things to those kids and their prospects.

From the Wealth & Poverty Desk and Michigan Radio, Dustin Dwyer.

Dustin Dwyer: Ronnie Coulter can’t tell you much about the recession. She’s more interested in her mom’s phone.

Lamanda Coulter: Oh, no, this is Mommy’s. This is Mommy’s.

Officially, Ronnie — whose full name is Veronica — was born after the recession. But her mom, Lamanda Coulter has bounced around from job to job for Ronnie’s entire life. Not even for the typical, recession reasons. When Ronnie was 10 months old, Lamanda had to leave her job.

Coulter: It was just, I couldn’t find daycare.

At least not daycare she could afford.

Coulter: So, I just had to stay home and try to find ways to support me and my baby.

Coulter did her friends’ hair for cash. She signed up for assistance from the state. She moved in with family. But even after getting the daycare situation fixed, Coulter has been bouncing between temp jobs, which is stressful.

Coulter: Because every time I lose a job, I be in a bad mood the whole day, to the point where I’m stressing people out around me, ‘You need to take me to the place to go fill out applications right now.’

It’s true that the recession affected everyone in America, rich and poor. But some groups were hit worse: People with no college degree; African-Americans. Coulter is in both of those groups.

But another group that was hit hard is kids. Ariel Kalil is a public policy professor at the University of Chicago.

Ariel Kalil: So, at present, about a quarter of children under the age of six are living below the official poverty line.

That line comes it at a combined income of $23,000 for a family of four. And the poverty rate for young kids is about eight percentage points higher than it is for the general population.

Slipping into poverty is just one of the risks for kids when their parents lose a job. Kalil says kids in this situation are more likely to have behavior problems, they’re more likely to be held back a grade — and that can hurt their chances of getting into college, even years after the parent went back to work.

Kalil: I think we need to think about the recession and job loss and unemployment in general as a two-generation problem.

Lamanda Coulter is working hard to make sure that’s not the case for her daughter.

Coulter: I’m going to have to tell her if you got to do it, do it. If you’ve got to get a temp job, get it. You know, by all means necessary. Do it.

Coulter has been bouncing around with these temp jobs for a while. Now she’s working in a factory that makes parts for heavy-duty trucks. She’s getting good hours, and there’s potential for permanent work. She’s looking into getting her own apartment. She’s paying down her debts.

Coulter: I’m seeing a little progress. Because at first I was working, and I couldn’t get nothing paid off, you know. So it felt good for me to go in and pay $500 worth of bills off.

The ultimate goal is to go to college, and to start her own business. And maybe, Ronnie won’t even remember what it’s like to see her mom struggle.

In Grand Rapids, Mich., I’m Dustin Dwyer for Marketplace.

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