In the United States, around 21% of children are living below the federal poverty line (“Child Poverty” par.1). A great deal of this is due to parents unable to get a job or their wage being too low to support a family. Poverty can have negative effects on these children growing up such as poor education, health, and mental health. What continues will show some of what these children must deal with living in poverty and the effects it has on them.
The time was 2011 in Camden, New Jersey. It is home to some of the worst drug dealers, pimps, and gangs in America. In Camden the population is mainly Hispanic or Black, with only a small percentage of Whites. Walking down the road, one can see the torn up, worn down houses and roads. Houses are boarded up, crumbling, with many of them being crack houses, home to violent drug dealers. The murder rate this year has gone up due to a third of officers being cut from the force. The rate is now 10 times that of the New York City rate (Boyle par. 1-3).
Marcell is a black 12-year-old who lives with his 76-year-old grandmother in Camden New Jersey. Her hair is dark grey and although 76, walks as fast as someone who is much younger, and her voice is rough yet frail due to smoking. Marcell is overweight and speaks with a very low voice. For someone who just met him, they would most likely think that he was much older than 12.
Marcell’s parents suffered from living on the Camden streets and did drugs, putting Marcell at risk. They were unfit to be a guardian for Marcell and this is when he came to his grandmother. The house that they lived in was small and cramped. The discolored white painting on the outside was chipping on many areas and as one entered, you could see the small, confined space where both lived each day.
Marcell wanted to lose weight. At only 12, he weighed close to that of a grown man. His grandmother tried buying healthier options for school lunches but struggled to come up with the extra money for it. Compared to the unhealthy junk food, the healthy food was out of reach in terms of price. Marcell thought to himself that its hard to eat healthy when junk is something that is always going to be on the table. Due to this, he had to take medication as he was very close to developing diabetes. Even after trying to fix the problem, Marcell had to go back to his unhealthy lifestyle.
A study done in 10 US cities concluded that those children who have grown up in poverty were 1.66 times more likely to become obese by 16 years of age (“Relationship Between Poverty and Obesity” par. 5). In poverty-dense areas of the United States, there are “food deserts.” These are areas where fresh, healthy food is hard or more expensive to come by. Because of this, many children who live in these areas will suffer from things like obesity, diabetes, and other metabolic diseases. In violent neighborhoods, such as in Camden, it is also harder to get out to exercise (Levine par. 5-7).
Every day was a constant struggle and the people who lived here were impacted as a result. Fear was constant within the neighborhoods and as Marcell put it “You have to think that your life is on the line every day…You could be in the crossfire and get killed because you were outside at the wrong time” (Coen par.2). In this place, making even one mistake will set back your life.
This type of constant anxiety, fear, and environment of poverty leads higher levels of depression and for people under 18 is linked to drug use, something the streets of Camden are familiar to. A study done Am J Public Health concluded that it was more common among people in poverty to develop a mental disorder when there is an increased fear of crime (Stafford par.17). This is true for both adults and children but will affect the child more than the adult. Also, those who reported high levels of fear were “50% more likely to exhibit symptoms of common mental disorder and more than 90% more likely to exhibit symptoms of depression” (Stafford par. 20).
For Marcell, the good thing about him being a 12-year-old in America was that “The world is sitting there waiting for [him] to come and change something…to do something good” (Coen 4:30).
Two years later in 2013, in Stockton, Iowa, the Hegwood family lives in poverty just as Marcell Jenkins has. Just last year, there were over 60,000 bankruptcies in Iowa and the economy has also been declining. Kaylie is an energetic 10-year-old blonde-haired girl that lives with her 12-year-old brother Tyler and their mother Barbara. Kaylie tries to see the best in her situation and when she grows up, she wants to be a dancer, possibly going on to shows such as Fox’s So You Think You Can Dance. Although Barbara is relatively young, the stress makes her look older than she is.
Their house is on an open space with green grass. On unemployment benefits they live paycheck to paycheck and Barbara struggles to pay the bills for the house because of the limited options. For the month, the family receives $1480 for which around $1326 is being used for rent and utilities. Tyler often uses his small lawnmower to mow other lawns, adding money to the food/gas fund, but each day they do not eat for every meal. Both Kaylie and Tyler are starving and sometimes cannot eat, even after asking their mother multiple times a day. Tyler, after watching a cooking show, wanted to vanish into the screen to eat the delicious food.
Skipping meals on a constant basis can affect a child’s brain and negatively affect their cognitive function, creating long lasting effects, even after having grown up. In the United States, the rate of food insecurity for those living in poverty is 40%. This incurs a great effect of cognitive and physical development in children and can lead to behavioral and educational problems. This lack of nutrition can also lead to conditions such as iron deficiency anemia. (Pascoe par. 42.)
Barbara, having recently gone to a doctor for depression, was given antidepressants and Xanax for her condition. In poor communities, this depression is common. She also worries about her ability to get a job after school to have a better life with her family. Although it may still be a problem because her grandmother has a master’s in accounting but is not employed.
Due to the high rent of their current house, they must move into America’s Best Inn, where it would be cheaper month to month. Their Pitbull, Nala, with a big, white body and black spot on her left eye, also must leave the house and be taken to a shelter as costs for taking care make it harder to sustain a livable life. In the motel, there is a small room with one bed and an even smaller bathroom with white walls showing their age. 4 weeks in and they are still at the motel. They get canned vegetables and macaroni and cheese from a nearby shelter, but during these weeks, the family suffers through a hard time not having enough food. For some meals Kaylie must only have a small can of vegetables for either lunch or dinner.
Kaylie and Tyler’s education are also suffering through this time. Homeless kids in poverty are 8 times more likely to be put of a year or longer from school (Neumann 33:05). After moving out of the motel and back into a home, they realized soon that they had to move back. This happened multiple times at different homes and motels until they stopped at a motel. Due to frequently moving locations, Kaylie and Tyler are not enrolled in school for their education. Setbacks like this can have an impact on these children’s development and breeds a higher chance of them having a lower income / work hour as an adult. In many ways’ poverty follows children long into adulthood (Duncan 12:25). Even if they get out of the poverty that they are currently in, there will always be disadvantages for them as adults. While Kaylie knows that being in poverty makes it harder growing up, she believes in a perfect job when she grows up and that people can’t stop you from believing in your own dreams.
Within the same year, 10-year-old Sara is living with her 16-year-old sister and her mother in San Francisco. Although it is known mainly for richer families living there, Sera lives in a small one room apartment in a part known as the Tenderloin. The tenderloin is surrounded by wealthier communities and is filled with many of the homeless. The streets are dirty, and people are openly on the streets drug dealing. Sera and her family live on unemployment benefits of $600 a month.
The apartment is littered with their possessions because of the small space. There is nowhere you can walk where you won’t either be stepping on dirty laundry or toys lying on the floor. The walls of the apartment also have some mold/mildew making it hard to clean them. The family was waiting on getting into a place called Thomas Payne, which was long term subsidized housing. The other option, which was becoming more likely, was a homeless shelter, where they could only bring one bag of things. The food they ate were mostly canned goods and even the possibility of Spam would brighten Sera’s day. After waiting, they got Thomas Payne, which would bring better possibilities for their lives.
Living in these unsafe, poor neighborhoods has an effect on the psychology of a child’s brain. While the outward effects can clearly be seen due to poverty, some of the most damaging are the inward effects. According to Vox, “the more you’re exposed to it, the more it hurts you” and “changes your brain” (Chang par.12). Within poor neighborhoods, children and their parents have on average a lower IQ score and were less happy and hopeful about their lives (Chang 26-31). This stress is not healthy for anyone and is especially hurtful to those who are younger.
The Jenkins, Hegwoods, and Sara and her family have suffered through tough poverty during these times. After learning about each family, one can see a common thread. Some of this includes excluding meals or eating canned food most of the time to struggling to pay rent. The effects that this has on kids are and are long lasting, follow them far into adulthood.
- Boyle, Louise. “America’s Most Dangerous City Camden, New Jersey Where 39 People Murdered This Year.” Daily Mail Online, Associated Newspapers, 7 Aug. 2012, www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2184246/Americas-dangerous-city-Camden-New-
- Chang, Alvin. “Living in a Poor Neighborhood Changes Everything about Your Life.” Vox.com, Vox Media, 4 Apr. 2018, www.vox.com/2016/6/6/11852640/cartoon-poor- neighborhoods.
- “Child Poverty.” NCCP | Child Poverty, www.nccp.org/topics/childpoverty.html.
- Duncan, Greg. “Early Childhood Poverty and Adult Attainment.” Sidney Ball Memorial Lectures. 2019, Oxford, England, podcasts.ox.ac.uk/early-childhood-poverty-and-adult- attainment.
- Levine, James A. “Poverty and Obesity in the U.S.” Diabetes, vol. 60, no. 11, 2011, pp. 2667– 2668., doi:10.2337/db11-1118.
- “Marcell’s Story: Growing up in Poverty in the United States of America.” UNICEF, 29 Apr. 2011, www.unicef.org/protection/usa_58390.html.
- Neumann, Jezza, director. America’s Poor Kids. True Vision TV, True Vision, 2013, truevisiontv.com/films/details/182/americas-poor-kids.
- Pascoe, J. M., et al. “Mediators and Adverse Effects of Child Poverty in the United States.” Pediatrics, vol. 137, no. 4, 2016, doi:10.1542/peds.2016-0340.
- “Relationship Between Poverty and Obesity.” Food Research & Action Center, frac.org/obesity- health/relationship-poverty-obesity.
- Stafford, Mai, et al. “Association Between Fear of Crime and Mental Health and Physical Functioning.” American Journal of Public Health, vol. 97, no. 11, 2007, pp. 2076–2081., doi:10.2105/ajph.2006.097154.