A note on this series: Facing child poverty in L.A. and our own conflicting emotions

Times columnist Steve Lopez shares paper and pens with Sophia, 4, right, while interviewing her family living in a motel in Pacoima.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

When I began trying to learn more about child poverty in Los Angeles earlier this year, I knew that at some point the story would take me to school.

If you measure poverty by the number of students whose family income is low enough for them to qualify for meals at school, eight out of 10 children in the L.A. Unified School District hit that mark.

That’s an astonishing figure, given L.A.’s wealth and California’s standing as the world’s fifth-largest economy. But photographer Francine Orr and I wanted to see the faces and find the stories behind the statistics. Telfair Elementary in Pacoima seemed like the logical place to do some exploring, partly because it has more homeless students than any other school in the district.


For two months, Orr and I made frequent visits to the school, the neighborhood and the homes of those living in motels and garages. We found adults who’d had their own difficult childhoods, only to struggle as parents, but we weren’t there to judge them.

Our focus was on the children. Orr and I shared dual, conflicting emotions. The kids didn’t create their circumstances, and we wanted to protect their innocence as much as possible even as we felt obligated to tell the truth about the faces of poverty.