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.
I recently sat down to watch “Growing Up Poor in America.” 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. Unable to afford the rent for her apartment, Becky and her daughters have moved in with a family friend. They are sharing one bedroom, and Kyah mentions how she holds many of her emotions in so her mother won’t 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, near Athens, 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.
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.”
After watching “Growing Up Poor in America,” many of my students 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. In the wake of 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.
Jessica A. Johnson is a lecturer in the English Department at Ohio State Lima. firstname.lastname@example.org @JjSmojc