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When Working Hard Is Still Working Poor

Many poor families have at least one working parent but can't keep their heads above water and their children above poverty.
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Recently Federal Reserve Chairman, Ben Bernanke, stated what most of us know, long-term unemployment is a national crisis. Our slowly recovering economy is not producing enough jobs and the number of poor children and families continues to grow. Many poor families have at least one working parent but can’t keep their heads above water and their children above poverty.

The Children’s Defense Fund asked reporter Julia Cass to visit families across the country like the Harper family of Columbus, Ohio, to see how children were being affected by economic downturn. Sixteen-year-old Haleigh said her biggest concern over the last few months has been “not knowing what the next day is going to bring. It’s not knowing like whether we’re going to have …” her sister Lindsey, 14, finished the sentence: “Food in the house”. The girls’ mother lost her job, and although their father is still working hard, he’s making less than he used to, and his hours have just been cut back. The family’s home is in foreclosure, and recently they were accepted for food stamps. The Harpers have just joined the growing numbers of America’s working poor.

New faces of poverty in Columbus, Ohio–Haleigh Harper, 16, and her sister Lindsey Harper, 14, have more than grades and boys to worry about. Haleigh said her biggest concern is, “Not knowing what the next day is going to bring. It’s not knowing like whether we’re going to have…” Lindsey finished the sentence: “Food in the house. With money being tight, there were times we didn’t have a lot of food in the house but we always found some way to get it like borrow money from family. But now we have food stamps; we recently got accepted for food stamps.” Their mother lost her job, their father is making less than he used to, and their home is in foreclosure.

According to Cass, “For almost two decades, their parents, Sandy and Walter Harper, have inched towards middle class – although at a pace of two steps forward and one or two steps back, because their best positions more often than not ended when the companies they worked for went out of business or sold out to other companies. The Harpers’ hard work has not enabled them to consistently provide their daughters with safety or security. After nearly 20 years of labor, they’ve had to call on the safety net to put food on the table and to get medical insurance for Haleigh and Lindsey. ‘I am terrified for my girls’ future,’ Walter said. ‘Something seriously has to be done because people can’t survive anymore.’”

Walter and Sandy both had good jobs in 2009.“In a very brief period Sandy calls ‘the golden age,’ they bought a home – the first they’d ever owned. ‘It was something we’d always dreamed about and planned on,’ Walter said. They looked at foreclosed homes that didn’t need too much work and selected a small three-bedroom in a lower middle class neighborhood.” But as both parents’ companies went through restructurings, closings, and layoffs, within a year they fell behind in their mortgage payments. Sandy’s last job was working at the catalogue call center of a small woman’s sports clothing company that was bought by Gap. But last February, “Sandy stopped working when she broke her hand. She needed surgery and received short-term disability payments. She was supposed to call into Gap regularly but didn’t receive the notice specifying that requirement until too late and was fired as a ‘no call, no show’ . . . Now Sandy has ‘the job of looking for a job,’ as she put it.”

Walter had been earning $1,000 a week installing movie rental kiosks until his company went out of business. His old employer gave him a job installing marble and granite countertops—at $13 an hour, no benefits. But then in September, Walter’s hours were cut back, and the family fell below the official poverty guideline of $22,350 for a family of four - the latest setback in a year of setbacks. Walter’s still on the lookout for better paying work. “‘I was offered a job at $15 an hour, but it was seven days a week. I said I needed Sundays for church and family.’ The Harpers are very active in their church. Sandy runs the youth group, which includes Haleigh and Lindsey. Walter helps feed the homeless on Friday nights. All four volunteer at a soup kitchen. Occasionally, they’ve taken in homeless teenagers. ‘We’re the kind of family that helps others,’ Haleigh said.”

Where is the help for them? Cass notes the family is currently trying to save their home through a federal program called Hardest Hit, created by the Obama Administration to help families dealing with a loss of income avoid foreclosure. They’re stuck in a loop of paperwork requirements. They’ve been able to get Medicaid for Haleigh and Lindsey, though Walter and Sandy still have no health insurance. Now the same cycle that’s taken away the girls’ security for today is starting to eat at their hopes for tomorrow. Cass says, “The girls have not given up on the future, but their outlook has been tempered by the uncertainties they’ve experienced. This fall, Haleigh attends her regular high school for a half day and a career-oriented school the other half day to study surgical tech. She wants to become a surgeon. She’s heard that Ohio State has a good medical school but that it’s expensive. ‘One of my goals in life is to be able to help my parents – if they need money, to be like, “Hey, I got some.” But I don’t know. You’ve got to be realistic.’” The Harpers have become one more American family faced with vanishing dreams.

Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children's Defense Fund and its Action Council whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to

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