Thirteen-year-old Brittanie Potter and her 12-year-old sister Sydney held a bake sale and garage sale at their Marion, Ohio home this summer with a simple goal in mind: raising money for their school clothes and supplies.
Their father’s unemployment insurance ended earlier this year. Their mother is still recovering from an accident last fall that broke her leg so badly she needed several surgeries and now gets around in a wheelchair. Their 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.”
New data just released by the U.S. Census Bureau reveals 46.2 million poor people in America, the largest number in the last 52 years. One in three of America’s poor are children — 16.4 million, over 950,000 more than last year — and 7.4 million children are living in extreme poverty.
More than one in three Black children and one in three Hispanic children are poor.
Brittanie, Sydney, and their 15-year-old brother Tre are three of the children behind these grim statistics. Their father John’s most recent job was at the local ConAgra snack food plant, and their mother Brandy’s was at the nearby Marion Industrial Center, which made minor repairs to new Hyundai cars.
“We were making it,” Brandy says. “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 ongoing problems related to a serious car accident years ago when he was let go, Brandy says. 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.
“It’s just so hard,” Brandy says. She hates telling the children “no” when they need something, and she regrets that they can’t do things as a family anymore. “We can’t even afford to go to McDonald’s right now with the five of us.”
Brandy is 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.”
The Potter family isn’t alone. The new poverty numbers are grim and shameful, and child and family suffering is widespread. Twenty-two percent of children — over one in five — were poor in 2010. Children under five suffered most: One in four infants, toddlers and preschoolers — 5.5 million — were poor.
Shamefully, children are the poorest age group in our country, are getting poorer, and have suffered more than any other age group during this recession and slow recovery. A country that does not stand for and protect its children — our seed corn for the future — does not stand for anything.
Sixty-five percent of poor families with children under 18 have at least one worker. More than 60 percent of all poor children — nearly 10 million — lived in single parent families. But as the Potters know first-hand, married couple families with children aren’t immune: Almost nine percent of all married couples with children under 18 were poor.
To give perspective on America’s shame: The number of poor children is nearly the same as the combined populations of the states of Michigan and Arizona. The number of poor Black and Hispanic children is slightly more than the entire population of Michigan, and the number of poor infants, toddlers, and preschoolers is larger than the entire population of the state of Minnesota.
This is a national disgrace. Parents like John and Brandy have no control over the massive joblessness and foreclosures and misguided tax cuts for the wealthy that have ravished our economy. Congress needs to wake up and change course to protect children and their families.
We must stop this devastation in our communities and protect children from all budget cuts.
We need to invest in the health and education of our children and create jobs for their parents without a day’s delay. And every citizen and voter should demand that they do so in the richest nation on earth where there should be no poor children at all.
Marian Wright Edelman is president of the Children’s Defense Fund. For more information, go to www.childrensdefense.org.