Poverty In America
3:42 pm
Tue July 10, 2012

Cycle Of Poverty Hard To Break In Poorest U.S. City

Originally published on Tue July 10, 2012 11:31 pm

In the middle of the night, most children are home in bed. But at the Second Street Learning Center in Reading, Pa., a half-dozen tiny bodies are curled up on green plastic floor mats, fast asleep.

Conversations are hushed. The lights are dim. At 1:30 a.m., day care worker Virginia Allen gently shakes two little sisters, snuggled under the same blanket, to tell them that their mother is there to pick them up.

"Let's go. Mommy's here," she says, telling these children what they already know: It's time to get up, so they can go home for a little more sleep before they have to get up again and get ready for school.

It's another day — or in this case night — at a center where parents can bring their children at any hour of the day or night. And they do, coming and going from round-the-clock work shifts, school or another job search.

Many low-income families in Reading rely on this center, which is something of a safe haven in a troubled city. With a poverty rate of 41.3 percent, Reading has been labeled the nation's poorest city with a population of 65,000 or more. As the economy slowly recovers, many here are being left behind.

Doing It For The Kids

The lives of those who use the Second Street Learning Center, run by the nonprofit Opportunity House, say a lot about what it means to be struggling and poor in America. It isn't starving in the streets as much as it is the countless frustrations that can add up to one step forward, and two steps back.

Take Meghan Gonzales. She's perky and optimistic, but clearly stressed.

"Sleep? What is sleep?" she says with a laugh. The mother of four says she's so tired, she sometimes feels like she's 50 years old. She's only 25. "My oldest daughter's 9, then 8, then 5, and my son is 2," she says. Her husband, the children's father, says there's another child on the way.

Gonzales is trying desperately to get ahead, and things are looking up. A few years ago, she was in a homeless shelter attached to the learning center. But she recently graduated from nursing school and just landed a full-time job at a nursing home.

Still, juggling four kids, school, and full-time work is "really tough," she says. "[My] motivation is probably the kids and setting a good example for them so they can never say ... 'My Mom didn't do it, so why should I do it?' "

You hear that again and again in Reading: I'm doing it for the kids. Many low-income parents seem to know instinctively what studies show, that poor children are more likely to become poor adults, to drop out of school and to become single teen parents.

It's tough breaking that cycle — and complicated, when lives are a messy combination of bad luck and bad choices.

'A Juggling Act'

Lori Lebo, 37, has had a string of setbacks. Her 20-month-old daughter, Mikaela, was born prematurely. She lost her job in February. And Mikaela's father has been in and out of jail, most recently for breaking Lebo's nose, and then for violating parole.

One of the conditions of parole was that he stay away from Lebo. But, she says, he loves the baby, and the baby loves him. So she let him back home. That was a mistake.

"Obviously life is happening around us, and I can't always focus on one thing," she says. "I feel like I'm doing a juggling act."

Lebo says she was let go from her job at the power company after five years because she missed too much work. But, she says, what was she to do? Mikaela weighed 1 pound, 5 1/2 ounces at birth. There were long hospital stays and doctor visits, not to mention court appearances after her boyfriend broke her nose.

"I mean the job market's tough right now. And a lot of employers are now cracking down, that you can't even take the time to take care of your family," she says. "They basically give you a choice. You want your job, or you want your family?"

Initially, Mikaela and her 9-year-old brother, Jeffrey, continued to go to the Second Street Learning Center while Lebo looked for work. But then, after several weeks, Lebo lost her child care subsidy from the state, and she had to remove her kids from day care.

She wasn't having much luck to begin with. But now her job search is more difficult, because she has to hire a baby sitter if she gets called in for an interview, and funds are limited. If she does find a job, she'll have to wait up to a year to get the subsidy renewed because of state budget cuts.

A System Of Dependency?

Modesto Fiume, who heads Opportunity House, says these things make him "crazy." He says it's difficult enough for low-income families to get on their feet without having the rug pulled out from under them at the wrong time.

"It's almost like we've set up a system where we want people to stay dependent," he adds.

Fiume says for many of his low-income clients, getting a job isn't enough. Some clients come from very dysfunctional homes and need support. He says the learning center can provide stability in the lives of children who might not get it elsewhere, and that maybe it can help break the cycle of poverty with that next generation.

Kids at the learning center do get a lot more than just snacks and play. There's plenty of organized activity, computer training and homework help. The message is: Work hard and opportunity will follow.

Left Behind

But some things are easier said than done. It's clean and bright inside the center. But outside, the neighborhood is filled with empty lots and tired row houses. Jobs and companies have been fleeing Reading for years.

Tracy Boggs knows that all too well. She lives across the street from the learning center in a three-bedroom town house with her daughters, 7-year-old Emily and 21-year-old Tracine.

Boggs is 49, soft-spoken, tired. She's been working in recent months at a part-time job, cleaning a beauty supply store at the mall to make ends meet.

"My unemployment [benefits] stopped, and [I] didn't know where I was going to turn," she says.

Boggs worked for eight years at a company in Reading that made needlecraft kits. But then it was sold and the jobs were moved to China. At first, things looked promising. The state paid to retrain Boggs in medical billing and coding. There's a big hospital in Reading, so it seemed to make sense.

But when she got her certificate in December and started to look for work, she realized there were no job openings in Reading. "All the offices here outsource their billing and coding to other sources, other companies," she says. All the jobs were far outside the city. The only way to get there is to drive.

But as with many low-income families, transportation for Boggs is an issue. She owns an old car with 81,000 miles on it and a growing list of problems. And she worries about taking it on the highway. Still, she thinks she has little choice and goes for interviews when she can get them. But so far, she's had no luck landing a job.

Hope Despite The Bad Times

Like many mothers in Reading, Boggs has no husband to share the bills. Poverty is high, but it's a lot higher for single mothers. An astounding 66 percent of them in Reading live below the poverty line, less than $19,000 for a family of three.

Boggs admits that she made some bad decisions in life and that her daughters' two fathers turned out to be unreliable.

But, she quickly adds, "I wouldn't change anything in the world for my kids, my daughters. They're what keeps me going and keeps me fighting to keep searching, as bad as the economy is. If it was just me, I would have [given] up a long time ago."

You hear that a lot around the learning center: hope that things will get better if you just keep plugging away, despite the bad times.

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

It's about 8 p.m., and Meghan Gonzales is down the street from the learning center, at home with her four kids and husband. He's on disability with a bad back. She's had a long day with orientation at her new job.

Half-eaten plates of spaghetti are scattered across the kitchen table. Their row house is cheerful, but chaotic and tiny. "It's small, but we actually want to move out of the city," she says.

Gonzales would like her children to go to better schools. She's especially worried about the high school in Reading, where almost 1 out of every 2 students drops out.

"There's like over 4,000 kids [at Reading High School]," she says. "I think it makes it hard for them to do good in school. ... It's not cool to do good in school."

Gonzales dropped out of that same school a decade ago, when she got pregnant. She says she wants better for her kids.

But, again, it's often one step forward, two steps back. Earlier in the week, Gonzales and her family went to the bank to open their first savings account, so they could start putting money aside. But then the family van, with everyone inside, broke down in front of the bank. Another bill to be paid.

Copyright 2013 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Reading, Pennsylvania, was once a thriving railroad hub and factory town. There were good jobs and a strong middle class. Today, with a poverty rate of more than 41 percent, Reading has been labeled the nation's poorest city. As the economy slowly recovers, many families there are being left behind.

SIEGEL: And though we're in the midst of a presidential campaign, neither candidate is talking much about how to help these families and the more than 46 million Americans still living in poverty.

Well, this week, we're going to talk about poverty and meet some of those who are struggling. Our project begins with three families in Reading. NPR's Pam Fessler has our story.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: In the middle of the night, most children are home in bed. But at the Second Street Learning Center, a half dozen tiny bodies are curled up on green plastic floor mats, fast asleep.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Two or three should be her next feeding.

FESSLER: Conversations here are hushed. The lights are dim. But at 1:30 a.m., a worker gently shakes two little sisters snuggled under the same blanket.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Kimberland(ph), let's go. Mommy's here. Come on. Go home, go back to bed, get up and get ready for school.

FESSLER: It's another day - or, in this case, night - at a center where parents can bring their children at any hour.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: She's out like light bulb. Come on.

FESSLER: And they do, coming and going from late-night shifts, school or another job search. Today, we'll meet three mothers who rely on this center - a safe haven for many in this troubled city. These women's lives say a lot about what it means to be struggling and poor in America, that it isn't starving in the streets as much as it is the countless frustrations that often add up to one step forward and two steps back.

TRACY BOGGS: I do have a car, but I don't trust it...

FESSLER: There's Tracy Boggs(ph)...

BOGGS: ...because it needs a lot of work and I haven't had the money to put into it.

FESSLER: ...and Lori Lebo(ph)...

LORI LEBO: The paperwork alone is a headache. Like I said, I did the application for food stamps and medical this morning. That was 17 pages.

FESSLER: ...and Meghan Gonzales(ph).

MEGHAN GONZALES: I didn't have a babysitter, so I couldn't go to work. And then my dad and his wife, they foreclosed on their house, and they couldn't really take us all on a second-floor apartment.

FESSLER: First, Meghan: perky, optimistic, but clearly stressed.

GONZALES: Sleep? What is sleep?

(LAUGHTER)

FESSLER: She says she feels like she's 50. She's so tired. But she's only 25.

GONZALES: My oldest daughter's 9, then 8, then 5, and then my son is 2.

FESSLER: And her husband says, later, there's another one on the way. Meghan is cheerful as she picks her kids up from daycare. She wears lots of pink, even has a pink streak in her hair. She's gone from living in a homeless shelter to earning a nursing license, to getting a good job at a nursing home. But juggling four kids, school, work?

GONZALES: It's really tough.

FESSLER: Well, how do you do it?

GONZALES: Motivation is probably the kids and setting a good example for them so they can never say that, you know, my mom didn't do it, so why should I do it?

FESSLER: And we heard this again and again in Reading. These mothers know instinctively what all the studies show, that poor children are more likely to become poor adults, to drop out of school and become single teen parents. It's tough breaking that cycle, but also complicated, when lives are a messy combination of bad luck and bad choices.

LEBO: When he broke my nose, he was in jail. They locked - he went to prison. October 10 is what I have. They took him out of my house October 9.

FESSLER: Lori Lebo's had a string of setbacks. Her 20-month-old daughter was born premature. Her boyfriend hit her. Then she lost her job in February. But she's tough, resilient. Sitting in her row house, she shows me her nine tattoos: a dragon wrapped around a rose on her ankle, a sun and moon with her kids' birth dates on her thigh.

LEBO: She was born at night. He was born in the daytime.

FESSLER: She's talking about the baby, Mikaela(ph), and 9-year-old Jeffrey(ph). They're at daycare now, so Lori can look for work, but she's not having much luck. She's also preoccupied. Mikaela's father, released from prison in March, has just been sent back.

LEBO: His parole officer said, you realize he violated every condition.

FESSLER: Including staying away from Lori. But she says he loves the baby, the baby loves him - so she let him back home.

LEBO: Obviously, life is happening around us, and I can't always focus on one thing. I feel like I'm doing a juggling act. Mikaela.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Mikaela.

LEBO: Mikaela. Hi, baby girl.

FESSLER: Later, Lori goes to the Second Street Learning Center to pick up her daughter - a slice of a little girl with white blonde hair.

LEBO: Come here. You want mommy today? You want mommy now?

FESSLER: Lori says she was let go from her job at the power company after five years because she missed too much work. But she says, what was she to do? Michaela was 1 pound, 5 1/2 ounces at birth. There were long hospital stays, doctor visits, not to mention court appearances after her boyfriend broke her nose.

LEBO: I mean, the job market's tough right now. And a lot of employers are now cracking down that you can't even take the time to take care of your family. You know, you - they basically give you a choice. You want your job or you want your family?

FESSLER: And things have only gotten worse. Two weeks after we spoke, Lori lost her childcare subsidy from the state because she's unemployed. She had to remove her kids from daycare, which makes looking for work more difficult. And if she does find a job, she'll have to wait up to a year to get the subsidy renewed because of state budget cuts.

MODESTO FIUME: These things just make me crazy because when finally people are doing what they need - it's almost like we've set up a system where we want people to stay dependent.

FESSLER: Modesto Fiume heads Opportunity House which runs the daycare center. He says it's difficult enough helping families get on their feet without having the rug pulled out from under them at the wrong time. He says for many here, getting jobs isn't enough.

FIUME: A lot of this is just a product of dysfunction, quite honestly, and a lack of stability in their own homes. So what we try to do here is we try to bring some sense of stability to the kids' lives, and that's the most stable time in their life.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: You ready?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: Yes, we are.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #5: Begin.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: Open, shut them, open, shut them, give a little clap. Open...

FESSLER: And the kids here do get a lot more than snacks and play. There's plenty of organized activity, computer training, homework help, all with a message: Work hard and opportunity will follow. But some things are easier said than done. It's clean and bright inside the center. But outside, the neighborhood is filled with empty lots and tired row houses. Jobs and companies have been fleeing Reading for years: Lucent Technology, auto parts manufacturers, even Hershey candy plant.

And that brings us to mother number three: Tracy Boggs. She lives across the street in a three-bedroom townhouse with her daughters: 7-year-old Emily, 21-year-old Tracine.

BOGGS: So each of us have our own bedroom. It's real nice.

LEBO: Tracy is 49, soft-spoken but tired. She's just returned from her part-time job cleaning a beauty supply store at the mall.

BOGGS: My unemployment stopped and didn't know where I was going to turn.

FESSLER: She worked eight years at a company that made needlecraft kits but then it was sold, and the jobs moved to China. At first, things looked promising. The state paid to retrain Tracy in medical billing and coding. There's a big hospital here. But when she got her certificate in December and started to look for work...

BOGGS: Nothing here in Reading. All the offices here outsource their billing and coding to other sources, other companies.

FESSLER: All the jobs were way outside the city. The only way to get there is to drive. Tracy takes me outside to show me her car. This is yours?

BOGGS: That one's mine, yeah.

FESSLER: A 1997 Chrysler Concorde with 81,000 miles and a growing list of problems.

BOGGS: And just had the struts and tie rods put on yesterday. And I have to get tires, although my engine light came on yesterday, so I have to get that checked out today and see what's wrong with that.

FESSLER: Like most of the mothers here, she has no husband to share the bills. Poverty's high, but it's a lot higher for women like Tracy. An astounding 66 percent of single mothers in Reading live below the poverty line, less than $19,000 for a family of three.

Tracy admits she made some bad decisions.

BOGGS: Both of the men that I chose were louses, you know, or you know, not good choices.

FESSLER: Although she quickly adds...

BOGGS: I wouldn't change anything in the world for my kids, my daughters. They're what keeps me going and keeps me fighting to keep searching, as bad as the economy is. If it was just me, I would have gave up a long time ago.

FESSLER: And you hear that a lot around here. Hope that things will get better if you just keep plugging away. Down the street, Meghan Gonzales, who we met earlier, is finally home with her four kids and husband. He's on disability with a bad back. She's had a long day with orientation at her new job. Half-eaten plates of spaghetti are scattered across the kitchen table. Their row house is cheerful, but chaotic and tiny.

Meghan says she wants to leave Reading so her children can go to better schools. She's especially worried about the high school, where almost one out of every two kids drops out.

GONZALES: There's like over 4,000 kids there and - I don't know - I think it makes it hard for them to do good in school. Like it's - I don't know - (unintelligible) is just like it's not cool to do good in school.

FESSLER: Did you go to that high school?

GONZALES: Yeah.

FESSLER: For a year and a half until she got pregnant. Meghan wants better for her kids. Earlier that week, the whole family went to the bank to open a first savings account to start putting money aside, but then the family van with everyone inside broke down in front of the bank. Another bill to pay.

Pam Fessler, NPR News.

SIEGEL: And you can see pictures of some of the families and get a glimpse inside Opportunity House at NPR.org. For the second part of our series on poverty, we'll return to Reading to meet a single mother of three. She is 29-year-old Jennifer Step(ph). Her day starts at 6:30 in the morning.

BLOCK: She juggles work, school, daycare. It's a hectic life for her and for her children.

JENNIFER STEP: And I explain to them that I'm doing it for them, not for me, so later on down the road, we can have a comfortable life and a nice house. I try to make it look pretty for them. A nice house with a dog and a front yard for you to play in.

BLOCK: And she couldn't do it without a lot of help from her family, her work and from the government, but Step says she doesn't expect a handout.

STEP: I'm the opposite and I know there are some other single mothers out there that are also the opposite. They try hard and, sometimes, it's just not hard enough. You need that help.

SIEGEL: That story, Single Mothers and Poverty, tomorrow on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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