‘Got No Choice’ : True Victims of Poverty: the Children

Times Staff Writer

Under a glaring sun, the battered gray trailer stands baking by parched corn and soybean fields. Inside, 16-year-old Barbara Pryor brushes flies from the face of her 7-month-old son, Jerome. The infant blinks but doesn’t move. Born prematurely, he is undersized and listless.

“He’s sick a lot,” said the unmarried teen-age mother, a ninth-grade dropout. “He gets worms. But sometimes he be sick and I can’t get nobody to take me to the doctor.”

On a block of front porches and pickups in Peoria, Ill., Debra Baron’s three school-age children wait as their mother carries home a brown bag of eggs, soup and beans from a church food kitchen. Her husband, Rick, laid off in 1981 from a factory job paying nearly $13 an hour, now earns less than $10 a day driving a cab. Despite welfare and food stamps, hunger forces Baron and her three children to scour the nearby streets for empty soda cans to cash in.


‘Out of Everything’

“It’s terrible to be a garbage picker to have enough to eat,” she said. “But at the end of the month you’re out of food. The last seven days are the worst. You’re out of everything.”

And by burned-out buildings in the Bronx, 15-year-old Ronald Richardson patiently fills plastic jugs from a dripping fire hydrant. Although his mother works as a New York City welfare clerk, they live in a condemned tenement in a dimly lit apartment with no water, gas or heat. The bathroom ceiling has collapsed. Rats roam the dark, rubble-strewn halls.

“Every day, I go to the fire hydrant to get water for cooking, to clean dishes and to wash up for school,” the shy eighth-grade student said as the pop song “We Are the World” blasted through a broken window. “I got no choice.”

Across America, an increasing number of children also have no choice. Urban and rural, black and white, they are the true victims of poverty.

Between 1979 and 1983, the number of poor children soared by 3.7 million to 13.8 million, according to government reports. By the most recent estimate, 22.2% of America’s children under age 18--the highest rate in two decades--live in impoverished families. Despite the increase, fewer children receive basic government aid, and what they do get is less generous.

“You’re talking about more hunger,” said Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children’s Defense Fund, a nonprofit, Washington-based children’s advocacy group. “You’re talking about more children being abused. You’re talking about homelessness and poor health. You’re talking about more kids with birth defects. . . . You’re talking about the difference between life and death.”

Hardest hit are the youngest and most vulnerable: One in four children under age 6 is poor. Family type is critical: Half of all poor children live in families without fathers. And race is crucial: Nearly half of all black children, more than one-third of all Latino youngsters, compared to one-sixth of all white children, are poor. All told, nearly 40% of America’s 35.3 million poor people are children.

According to the Census Bureau definition, a family of four is poor if its annual income falls below $10,610. But such cold numbers do not reveal the human dimensions of poverty, nor the wrenching hardships of millions of children in the world’s richest nation.

Pervasive Problem

In more than 100 interviews with families, educators, social workers, doctors, nutritionists, economists, government officials and others around the country, The Times found child poverty a growing, pervasive problem from Iowa’s failed family farms to Houston’s once-affluent suburbs, from Boston’s crowded soup kitchens to Youngstown’s depressed blue-collar neighborhoods, from Mississippi shanties to hungry and homeless youngsters in California’s wealthy Orange County.

“We’re seeing a lot more hungry kids now,’ said Jean Forbath, director of Share Our Selves, a nonprofit service agency at Rea Community Center in Costa Mesa. “We can tell they’re hungry when they tear into a bag of food and grab a crust of bread.”

In May, she said, the group gave food, shelter, medical care or cash to 200 poor families a day--9,500 persons in all, more than half of them children. About 470 children were homeless and living in “cars, parks and scrungy motels,” she said.

Evidence of Malnutrition

In America’s breadbasket, the Illinois Department of Public Health last year estimated that there were 38,000 to 43,000 “chronically undernourished low-income preschool children” in the state. In Chicago, where city officials estimate that up to half the city’s children are poor, doctors found that 30% of children under age 2 visiting Cook County Hospital’s pediatric clinic in June, 1983, showed evidence of malnutrition.

“Many had been given infant formula that was highly diluted because their mothers couldn’t afford to buy enough formula,” said Dr. Agnes Lattimer, president of the Illinois chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

America’s poor children are not the gaunt starving faces of Ethiopia, or the ragged street beggars of Calcutta. But for millions of them the suffering is very real. Consider:

--More babies are dying. The death rate among infants aged 1 month to 1 year increased by 5.6% in 1983, while a 20-year decline in infant mortality has tapered off for the last two years. The number of women receiving inadequate prenatal care has grown, and a record number of teen-age mothers are producing more babies at risk of mental retardation, cerebral palsy, blindness, deafness and other birth defects.

Costly Disabilities

“When you talk about infant mortality, it’s not just living and dying that counts, but the number that live with very costly mental and physical disabilities,” said Gov. Richard W. Riley of South Carolina, head of the Southern Regional Task Force on Infant Mortality, which covers the region with the worst infant death rates.

--More children are at risk. Every state has reduced health services for poor mothers and children since 1981. Most states also have cut or eliminated health education and illness prevention programs, including immunization campaigns, efforts to eliminate lead-based paint and rat control. And the federal government’s Medicaid program (called Medi-Cal in California) covers half a million fewer children today than in 1976, when child poverty was lower by one-third.

“Without Medicaid, they fall between the cracks of the medical care system,” said Dr. Victor Sidel, president of the American Public Health Assn. “If there is a desperate medical emergency, they can get care in the emergency room. But for immunizations, for normal medical or dental care, for preventive care, access is extremely limited or impossible.”

--More children are hungry or poorly nourished. Three million children have been cut from school lunch programs since 1981, while food stamp benefits have fallen. A Harvard University study estimates that at least 20 million Americans, most of them children, now run out of food stamps and go hungry for several days each month. Although severe malnutrition is rare, the study says “silent undernutrition” is common, causing anemia, stunted growth and what doctors call “failure to thrive.”

‘Hidden Time Bomb’

“From a health perspective, it literally is a hidden time bomb,” said J. Larry Brown, a Harvard School of Public Health nutritionist who directed the study. “If adequate nutrition is not delivered, the brain is going to be smaller, fewer brain cells will develop and cognitive development will be impaired.”

--More children are failing school or dropping out. About a million fewer children are served by compensatory education programs, while most youth job training programs have been severely cut or eliminated. And new studies show that children bear the brunt when unemployment forces a family into poverty: Stress produces an increase in family violence, divorce, suicide, mental illness, alcohol and drug abuse, homicides, accidents and other serious problems.

“It creates a threat to the stability of the family and ultimately to the development of the child,” said Dr. M. Harvey Brenner, professor of behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

Rate Drops, Rises Again

What caused the alarming growth in child poverty?

In the 1960s, the nation’s booming economy and President Lyndon B. Johnson’s war on poverty nearly halved the child poverty rate, cutting it to a record 14% by 1969. But the rate climbed slowly back to 16% in the 1970s.

The problem, worried social scientists warned, was a “feminization of poverty.” The number of poor single women raising families doubled within a decade to about 19% of all families. More than half their children were poor, three out of four if the mother had never married.

But the real explosion began in 1979, pushing 3.7 million more children into poverty in four years. It was the sharpest growth since the government began measuring poverty.

This time, a weak economy and cuts in Aid to Families with Dependent Children, the major federal-state welfare program, were chiefly to blame, according to congressional studies.

Unemployment, Recessions

First, rapid inflation in 1979 followed by rising unemployment and back-to-back recessions between 1980 and 1982 pushed more than 1.8 million school-age children below the poverty line, according to a Congressional Budget Office study in December, 1984.

Second, Reagan Administration budget cuts in 1981 caused an estimated 1 million children to lose AFDC eligibility, according to a May, 1984, General Accounting Office study. Between 1981 and 1984, federal spending for welfare fell by 19% while the average monthly caseload fell 14%.

Additional cuts in Medicaid, food stamps, maternal health, child nutrition, education and other social programs exacerbated the welfare cuts. All told, federal spending fell by 11% in about 25 federal programs affecting children since 1981, according to a study prepared for the Urban Institute last December.

“In general, the federal government has abandoned children,” said Madeleine H. Kimmich, author of the study. “Where states have picked up the burden, they’ve done all right. But a lot of states haven’t, and a lot of children have fallen through the cracks.”

Two-Parent Families

Although the number of female-headed families has continued to rise, the impact has been overshadowed by the larger growth in poor two-parent families since 1978. Indeed, the “relatively small shifts in household composition . . . did not contribute significantly to the increase in the number of poor children,” according to a 670-page study of children in poverty issued in May by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service and the Congressional Budget Office.

As long as unemployment stays high and welfare payments stay low, the future does not look much better, experts say.

“The poverty rate among children is not apt to drop very sharply, and large numbers of children will almost certainly be poor for some years to come,” Congressional Budget Office Director Rudolph G. Penner told the House Ways and Means Committee on May 22.

Who is hurt and how? Making up the answer is a broad mosaic of disparate, often desperate, pieces:

Beaten as a child, Gladys Vallanilla ran away at 12 from her mother to live on the hard, cold streets in Hartford, Conn. Unmarried, unemployed and uneducated, she had her first child at 15. Three others soon followed. Welfare, Medicaid and food stamps helped pay the bills.

“Really, I didn’t plan to have no kids,” said the 23-year-old, shy, thin, black-haired woman. “They just popped out.”

But the second child, Eveline, was born early and weighed less than four pounds. She died of pneumonia nine months later. The fourth child, a boy, was stillborn last year.

“It’s like having hell in the family,” said Vallanilla, crying softly in the fading afternoon light of her city-owned home. “There’s two in my life I lost, a boy and a girl. And I think about it every day. And I suffer, and I still think about them, and I still don’t know why they die.”

Doctors Perplexed

Hartford doctors also are perplexed. This graceful Colonial-era city of about 136,000 people on the Connecticut River is the capital of a state boasting the nation’s second-highest per capita income, and white-collar headquarters for the nation’s insurance industry. Traffic surges and business bustles around imposing office towers and government complexes.

But when the office workers return to the suburbs, they retreat from a city with the nation’s fourth-highest poverty rate.

Heavily black and Latino, more than half of Hartford’s preschool children are impoverished. Salvation Army soup trucks and church kitchens attract hundreds of families and young children. Despite three major hospitals and two health clinics, a study last year found that 30% of Hartford’s residents had no regular source of medical care.

Partially as a result, Hartford’s death rate for infants under a year old in 1983 was 15.9 per 1,000 live births--down from 24.7 in 1977 but still nearly 50% higher than the national rate. In several of Hartford’s poorest areas, the infant mortality rate is triple the nation’s.

‘Too Early or Too Small’

“The principal reason babies die is they’re born too early or too small,” said Dr. Stewart Wolff, Hartford’s director of maternal and child health. “And there’s a direct link between being poor and having a baby who dies.”

The link is medical care and age. Only 40% of Hartford’s poorest pregnant women register for prenatal care in their first trimester, officials estimate. Only about one-third of the eligible mothers are enrolled in federal and state nutrition supplement programs. And a Community Council report in February noted that “60%-80% of Hartford primary care physicians do not routinely accept Medicaid reimbursement.”

“Hospitals have started closing their doors to the poor, the near-poor and the uninsured poor,” Wolff said. “In some hospitals, it now takes 8 to 10 weeks for a poor pregnant woman to get an appointment. And if she’s in her third trimester and has diabetes, all the medical technology in the world isn’t going to help the baby.”

In addition, the younger the mother, the riskier the pregnancy. Teen-age mothers are 40% more likely to have premature or low birth-weight babies and thus have the highest share of infant deaths. In Hartford, one out of four babies is born to a teen-ager, more than twice the national rate.

More Children

“The problem is children having children,” said Sherry Deane, a coordinator in a new five-year, $2.9-million project sponsored by the city, several foundations and corporations to coordinate and extend medical outreach and education programs in seven neighborhoods. “Once a teen-ager has one child, she is more than likely--in fact 80% likely--to have a second pregnancy unless there is intervention.”

One in eight babies born in Hartford has a low birth weight--less than 5.5 pounds--Wolff said. In some neighborhoods, one infant in six has a low birth weight. And one in every 44 babies dies before its first birthday. Following the national pattern, black infants are nearly twice as likely to die as whites.

That has devastated low-income, black neighborhoods such as the Charter Oaks public housing project, a sprawling complex of graffiti-covered brick apartments in southwest Hartford. At the nearby Warburton Community Church, the Rev. Paul Ritter leafed through a small, red, dog-eared date book to count the toll.

“I did 13 infant funerals in 1983,” he said softly. “I had 14 the year before. I had nightmares. I couldn’t sleep. I was wiped out all the time. It got so I’d just go home and go to bed. So I stopped (doing the services). I hated burying babies.”

The 23 students in Pearlie Mattison’s fifth-grade class have special reasons not to like Hardeeville Elementary School, a 58-year-old decrepit red-brick institution nestled between tall pines and broad oaks in South Carolina’s Low Country.

“Every time it rains, it comes in,” one girl complained, pointing at a jagged, water-stained crack in the yellow wall.

“There are roaches and rats,” said another. “The lights don’t work,” added a boy. “The paint peels off the walls,” offered another student.

“It’s a dump,” shouted still another boy, as the children giggled.

But educational neglect is no joke in Jasper County. On April 10, the state Department of Education warned that four of the county’s five public schools had failed minimum education requirements for the third straight year, and it threatened to cut funding and accreditation by September unless conditions improve.

‘Continuing Problems’

“We’ve got serious and continuing problems,” said Solomon E. Bonds, chief school administrator in Ridgeland, the county seat. “A few of our teachers were uncertified. . . . Many of the schools are old and have not been maintained to assure safety.”

Bonds said $520,000 in emergency repairs will keep the schools open. But new paint and plaster will not solve the grinding rural poverty and overt racism that has given the 14,504 rural residents here what may be the worst schools in the nation’s ninth-poorest state.

Set between Charleston and Savannah, Ga., Jasper County is a lush land of wind-swept marshes and Spanish moss, neat farms and sprawling plantations. But the rich scenery is deceptive.

One in eight homes lacks indoor plumbing. In 1982, residents earned an average of $6,144 a year, barely half the nation’s average per capita income. Nine out of ten students are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches. For some, it’s the only meal.

‘They Want to Eat’

“There are children who come in and they haven’t eaten anything since lunch yesterday,” said remedial reading teacher Molly Malloy. “They want to eat, not learn.”

“We used to charge parents $15 or $17 a year for class workbooks,” said Patricia A. Pilgreen, principal at Hardeeville Elementary School. “A lot couldn’t pay, so we’ve reduced use of workbooks.”

At Hardeeville High School, the hall clocks are all stopped at differ ent times. The marching band cannot afford uniforms to march in. Spanish is the only foreign language offered, but not in a language lab. In a recent achievement test, 87% of tenth graders scored below national norms. And only one in five graduates continues his or her education, half the state average.

“Kids from poor families do poorly, there’s no question about it,” Principal Bill Singleton Jr. said. “One of the disadvantages here is we cannot offer the programs, the curriculum, that students need.”

Tax Hikes Rejected

Despite the apparent need, Hardeeville’s mostly-white voters rejected proposed property tax increases in 1982 and 1983 to improve public schools. Both times, opponents argued in full-page ads that the tab of $10 million to $13 million was too high.

But others blame racism. Jasper County’s public schools are virtually segregated today, 15 years after separate black and white schools were officially closed. About 790 white students attend three new, all-white, private schools. The public schools are overwhelmingly black.

“It wasn’t a financial thing,” said George H. Spare, Hardeeville town administrator, of the failed referendum. “White parents don’t want to pay to send black children to school. . . . The sad thing is the private schools are no better.”

Bomb Threat

“It boiled down to a racial thing,” agreed Bill Hornung, editor of Low Country Weekly. He said the tiny Hardeeville paper received a bomb threat and was “deluged” with angry letters and phone calls after he endorsed the school referendum in a mildly worded column noting that “40% of (county) residents won’t be able to read this editorial.”

Help may be coming. After 14 weeks of heated debate, the state Legislature passed a penny sales tax last year to improve education across the state. In the first year, teachers’ salaries and requirements were raised, special programs were added for both gifted and remedial students, attendance is up, truancy down.

Whether it is enough for Hardeeville’s poor is still unclear.

“Education is just not a priority in the community,” said Veronica Thomas, a first-grade teacher and mother of three. “The truth is, this town neglects children.”

Bobetta Bowcott saw her 10-year marriage and comfortable home collapse after her husband was laid off in June, 1983, from a $12.05-an-hour job assembling yellow Caterpillar bulldozers and graders outside Peoria, Ill. He began drinking and beating her, she said.

“Once, I was purple from here to the top of my head,” said the soft-spoken, freckled 28-year-old woman, holding her hand across her chest. “Even my ears were black and blue. There were bald spots where he’d pulled my hair out.”

Late on May 9, after she was knocked down again, she took her three frightened daughters to her sister’s. The next morning, she said, she obtained a court order to keep her husband out of their home and to force him to seek counseling.

“It affects everyone,” she said tearfully. “Especially the children.”

Strain Is Too Much

Her neighbor, Patricia Marx, 36, finally broke down last fall. The strain had grown ever since her husband, Phillip, was laid off from his $500-a-week union job at Caterpillar’s Mossville plant in June, 1982.

“I was in the hospital for nine days for a nervous breakdown over the humiliation of it all,” said the short, red-haired mother of three young boys.

“The stress of feeling guilt, thinking maybe I did something wrong. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep. I lost 42 pounds in three weeks. I was afraid to eat for fear I’d be taking it out of my kids’ mouth. . . . I got to the point of trying to commit suicide. I had pills. I thought of cutting my wrists. I thought I had no right to be here because I couldn’t support my kids.”

Such tragedies are increasingly common around Peoria, a one-time blue-collar boom town of 120,000 that lived--and now is dying--at the hand of the “great yellow God,” the sprawling Caterpillar Tractor Co. Since 1981, Caterpillar has laid off more than 20,000 highly paid workers, while other local companies have laid off more than 7,000 other employees.

Costs Staggering

The human costs have been staggering. Local officials say a broad array of social ills has grown with Peoria’s unemployment and poverty, including battering and divorce, child abuse and runaways, severe depression and mental problems, alcoholism and drug abuse, assaults and suicide.

“I can tell you stories of kids who take their own lives because they don’t want to be a burden to mommy and daddy because they don’t have any money,” said Dr. Jack Gilligan, head of Peoria’s Human Services Center, a private, nonprofit social service agency.

Last year alone, suicide calls to the center’s emergency response team jumped from 348 to 468, psychiatric and mental health calls climbed from 1,319 to 1,649 and calls for such basic needs as food and shelter shot up from 552 to 695.

“We attribute this to the economic times in the community,” Gilligan said. “These are families living in cars. Utilities being shut off and people not having heat. People running out of food. It’s happening more and more.”

‘Taking It Out on Kids’

“It’s kind of like Archie Bunker going on welfare,” said Debra Oberg, a center family counselor. “It’s just not in their plan. . . . So you have a lot of real depressed dads, and they have to take it out on someone, and a lot of them are taking it out on kids.”

The center’s adolescent counseling and treatment program has a three-month backlog for the first time. School officials say truancy is up and grade averages are down. “I see kids from unemployed homes, broken homes, as having more stress and less ability to solve their problems,” said Jay McCormick, head counselor at Peoria High School.

“I got guys come in and cry,” said Tony Green, president of the United Auto Workers Local 974 in East Peoria. “They’ve worked 12, 13, 14 years. They’ve never been without a job. They’re losing their homes, their cars. They’re fighting with their wives. They’re fighting with their kids. They’ve never seen their kids hungry before.”

“This was supposed to be the all-American city,” said John Colgan, head of a regional Anti-Hunger Coalition that helps 30 food banks and soup kitchens in Peoria. “Well, we can say without a doubt that 10% of the local population needs emergency food services. That’s 12,000 families a month.”

Heads Scout Troop

Mike Gillam, 37, heads one such family. Laid off from Caterpillar last December after 12 years, he still heads a Boy Scout troop. His wife, Janet, who earns $85 a week as a secretary, is active in the League of Women Voters. Both take a strong interest in their three children’s schools and sports.

“I went to work when I was 16,” said Gillam, smoking and drinking coffee as the children finished homework on the dining room table. “I was middle class. I could afford to buy my kids shoes, new clothes, pay for lunch. Now they get free lunch at school. I never had my hand out except to help someone. . . . I gave to my church, gave to the United Way. Now I’ve had to accept food from them. That hurts.”

“Right now, if my kids get sick, we couldn’t pay it,” Gillam added, clenching his fists and staring at the floor. “We’d have to sell the house. How’s that for the American dream?”

It was long past midnight on a cold, windy Friday, and infants and children outnumbered adults in the dingy city-run emergency assistance office for the homeless and helpless in the south Bronx.

The 15 children, mostly curled up and dozing on hard plastic chairs under harsh fluorescent lights, were victims of evictions, fires, fights and fear. The dozen parents, mostly women, sat silently, some smoking cigarettes, and all waiting for beds in New York’s overloaded shelter system.

“All I want to do is get another job, put my kids back in day care or with a baby sitter,” said Yvonne Harris, 23, whose two infant daughters slept under a yellow flannel blanket. “I am not a vagrant.”

Shelter to Shelter

Indeed, Harris wore a neat brown corduroy business suit. But she and her daughters have been homeless, shuttling from shelter to shelter since an angry boyfriend evicted them last Christmas. Without a home, she lost her job as a secretary for a Manhattan insurance company. And unable to pay a baby sitter, she takes her children and their five plastic bags of clothing to every job and apartment interview.

“I drag ‘em with me everywhere,” she said.

As child poverty has grown, it has grown worst in large cities. More than 40% of New York City’s children are poor, twice as many as in 1970, according to the nonpartisan and nonprofit Community Service Society of Greater New York. The rates are even higher in Chicago, Detroit and Philadelphia.

One symptom is an increased number of homeless children. Nationally, 22% of the homeless in shelters are children, according to a 1984 Department of Housing and Urban Development study. On most nights, New York City provides a dry roof and a warm bed for more than 7,000 homeless children and their families--triple the number of four years ago--in some 50 aging hotels, hundreds of renovated apartments and four crowded shelters.

Long Waiting List

“It’s very difficult to see it getting better real soon unless there’s a real influx of low-income housing,” said Steve Thomas, director of New York’s shelter program. The city’s Housing Authority estimates that 17,000 families are doubled up in public housing, with a waiting list of 164,000 families to get apartments.

At the Roberto Clemente State Park gymnasium near Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, for example, dozens of families share a dusty basketball court that has become a bedroom. The city-run shelter, opened in late 1983, has 210 cots and cribs lined in rows. It is filled with harried women and children almost every night.

Although the city provides armed guards, mothers complained about fighting, stealing and constant noise at the shelter.

“I don’t know what hell is like, but it certainly looks like hell to me,” said Martha Santiago, a 25-year-old unmarried mother who moved to the shelter two months ago when her apartment burned.

‘I Want to Go to School’

As Santiago changed the diaper on her 10-month-old infant and tried to quiet a second wailing baby, her 8-year-old daughter, Teresa, bounced on the bed and chanted: “I want to go to school. I want to go to school. I want to go to school.”

Many of the mothers are teen-agers themselves. With more than 1 million adolescents becoming pregnant each year, the United States is the only developed nation where teen-age pregnancy is on the rise.

“A lot of these mothers look to the baby for the love they didn’t get,” said Verna Eggleston, a director at the Clemente center. “It’s sad, but it’s real. I’ve met kids as young as 15 with four kids, births nine months apart. They get counseling, birth control. In one ear, out the other.”

One Clemente resident, 15-year-old Emily Torres, had given birth that morning, two weeks earlier than expected. According to her father, Angel Torres, Emily had refused to go to a prenatal clinic. He said the infant would be placed in foster care for safekeeping until the family found a place to live.

“We got to think of the baby now,” Torres said.

The reason for such thoughts is clear. In the end, the poor die at a rate three times higher than other children, mostly from accidents, diseases, murders and suicides, according to a recent study of 1,030 child deaths in Maine.

In the end too, society will pay for the survivors with added costs in medical care, crime, family breakup, homelessness and more. And those costs are only part of the problem, according to Dr. Stewart Wolff, director of maternal and child health in Hartford.

“Is it different for a baby born in a cold-water flat?” he asked angrily. “Where the mother is shivering, where the father is gone, where there’s not enough food, where there are no toys or books? Of course there’s a difference. Children born into poverty learn a message from their birth. The message is we as a society do not value your life. And that’s the tragedy.”

Times researcher Nina Green contributed to this story.