As the autumn 2020 semester ended, my English composition students at Ohio State University’s Lima campus shared their research projects with their peers through Zoom symposiums. Poverty was one of the most popular subjects chosen for analysis.
During week three of the semester, back in September, Frontline released a documentary titled “Growing Up Poor in America” with a specific focus on children from three Ohio families. The film became the primary source for students writing about poverty and opened their eyes to the suffering that is close to home for all of us in the Buckeye State.
One student mentioned during her presentation that she cried during several parts of the documentary while listening to the heartbreaking personal stories of kids only a few years younger than her. Since my students were working on their primary-source-analysis essays when “Growing Up Poor in America” debuted, I did not have time to show it during class, but I recently sat down to watch it. The hardship these families are going through definitely tugs at your heart and exposes the magnitude of chronic and episodic poverty, particularly for single mothers struggling to make ends meet.
In the beginning of the film, we are introduced to Becky, a Columbus single mother of two teenage daughters, Kyah and Kelia. Becky had been out of work prior to Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine shutting down the state for three weeks in March. She had been juggling some temp jobs and did not have a stable income. Unable to afford the rent for her apartment, Becky and her daughters moved in with a family friend. They were sharing one bedroom, and the stress on Kyah was especially evident. Only 14, Kyah mentioned how she held many of her emotions in so her mother would not worry.
The other children featured were not homeless, but food insecurity and online schooling were daily challenges. Shawn, a 13-year-old living in The Plains, walks with his brother Edward, 15, to a McDonald’s to receive free lunch during the week. Their mother, Crystal, receives food stamps, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development pays the rent for her trailer home, but Crystal is concerned about her work hours at the Salvation Army being cut due to COVID-19. She must work a specific number of hours to keep her disability benefits.
The last family shown lives in a threadbare house in Marietta. Fantasy is a middle-aged mother working long shifts at a gas station to support her daughters, 12-year-old Laikyen, who has ADHD, and 16-year-old Miracle, who plans to attend college and become a teacher. Fantasy depends on the local food bank to feed her family and gets frustrated when Laikyen struggles to do her homework. Looking distressed, Fantasy says: “If they keep these schools shut, I’m going to go crazy. I cannot teach her. I don’t have the patience.”
I encouraged my students who are referencing “Growing Up Poor in America” in their final research papers to offer suggestions for alleviating poverty based on what they viewed in the documentary and read from their secondary sources. Many of them said they want to give more of their personal time and resources — canned goods and clothing — to help their local communities. Earlier in the semester, we discussed Census Bureau data for poor children in the U.S. Nearly 12 million kids under the age of 18 are living in poverty, and roughly 40% live in households headed by single mothers.
Like my students, I am thinking about what I can do in the Columbus community once the COVID-19 surge goes down. As we get into the Christmas holiday season, I am also reflecting on how the Bible commands us to aid those in need, that if we have “two coats,” to “impart” one to those who have none. I’m sure I have passed many people like Becky, whose homelessness is concealed, in public places such as a Walmart or Kroger. They should know they are not alone during this trying time.
Dr. Jessica A. Johnson is a lecturer in the English department at The Ohio State University-Lima. Email her at email@example.com. @JjSmojc