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Click here to find out how you can help the Poor Kids featured in the FRONTLINE documentary
As Americans prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving, one in five of the nation’s children are living below the poverty level. One in 45 is homeless.
In Poor Kids, premiering Tuesday, Nov. 20, at 10 p.m. ET on PBS (check local listings), FRONTLINE travels to the Quad Cities, a great American crossroads along the border of Iowa and Illinois, to explore the lives of children living in the suburbs of the nation’s heartland and growing up poor. Told from the point of view of the children themselves, this one-hour documentary offers a unique perspective on the nation’s flagging economy and the impact of unemployment, foreclosure and financial distress as seen through the eyes of the children affected.
For 10-year-old Kaylie, the hardest part of dealing with her family’s financial difficulties is ignoring the gnawing hunger in her stomach. “I’m just starving,” she says. “We don’t get that three meals a day, like breakfast, lunch, and dinner.”
Her brother, Tyler, 12, agrees. “Sometimes when we have cereal, we don’t have milk, so we have to eat it dry,” he says. “Sometimes … when there’s a cooking show on, I get a little more hungry, and I want to vanish into the screen and just start eating the food.”
Kaylie and Tyler’s mother, Barbara, earns $1,480 a month. Rent and utilities consume $1,326 of that, leaving little money for food or gas. To help her mother, Kaylie spends her free time collecting cans.
“I just walk around, look for cans. I walk around the whole town,” she says. “The non-squished ones are five cents.”
In Poor Kids, Kaylie worries about missing so much school as a result of her family’s transient existence. She also shares her fears about the precarious state of her family’s finances: “When we can’t afford to pay our bills, like our house bills and stuff, I’m afraid that, like, we’ll get homeless and me and my brother will starve.”
It’s a fear that 9-year-old Brittany understands all too well. After her father lost his job, Brittany lost her home. Her family bounces from one relative’s couch to another’s before finally ending up in a dilapidated house on the edge of the Quad Cities.
“One day I started getting in the shower, and it was cold,” she recalls. “It was like, freezing. It felt like shoving your face in snow. The hot water shut off because we didn’t pay the bill in time. It was overdue.”
Brittany and her brother, Roger, lost many of their cherished possessions when the family could no longer make payments to the storage company holding their belongings.
“I was surprised by how things can change so fast,” Roger says. “You can go from doing OK, not having to go hungry, to this: going hungry and having to pay all your bills and not being able to [buy food], on the verge of being homeless again.”
In Poor Kids, Brittany learns her mother is expecting another baby. The 9-year-old is fearful about how they’ll manage to feed and care for an infant as another Midwest winter draws near, bringing with it potentially crippling utility bills.
“We always manage, don’t we?” her mother asks. “Know why? We’re survivors: Struggle, survive, and smile.”
Poor Kids is a FRONTLINE production with True Vision. The producer, writer and director is Jezza Neumann. Lauren Mucciolo is the co-producer. The executive producer for True Vision is Brian Woods. The deputy executive producer of FRONTLINE is Raney Aronson-Rath. The executive producer of FRONTLINE is David Fanning.
FRONTLINE is produced by WGBH Boston and is broadcast nationwide on PBS. Funding for FRONTLINE is provided through the support of PBS viewers and by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Major funding for FRONTLINE is provided by The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Additional funding is provided by the Park Foundation and the FRONTLINE Journalism Fund. FRONTLINE is closed-captioned for deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers by the Media Access Group at WGBH. FRONTLINE is a registered trademark of WGBH Educational Foundation.
Barbara, Kaylie & Tyler
Kaylie is in the swimming team at school and she recently passed her blue belt in Tae Kuan Do. She is studying hard and scored all A's and B's for her latest school work.
Tyler is also doing well, he is going to Job Corps which is a free education and training program that helps young people learn a career, earn a high school diploma or GED, and find and keep a good job.
Barbara is not working long hours at Maid Rite, her mom has helped her to rent a new house with a view to eventually buying it, she is now saving up for household appliances as they don't have a fridge or a stove. Barbara still receives food stamps and has also been applying for several months for a better paid job at a factory but shes says that they are scarce and hard to get.
She would like to thank the viewers for recent donations, they will enable her to buy Kaylie and Tyler new clothes, shoes and school supplies and a new bed set for Kaylie's room and it will also go towards buying household appliances.
Denise & Sera
"Sera is now in high school. It's a school for creative kids so she fits in pretty well. She's made some really good friends. She's really gotten into music so she's teaching herself how to play her acoustic guitar with YouTube videos. She's also going to take chorus to improve her singing voice. She's even talked about starting a band.
I'm still writing and submitting stories to magazines. I've gotten stories sent up for a second read twice and responses other than that have been good. Sera and I are both still very active in the SCA.
Beth has been pretty busy with Harley. She was attending college classes, but had to stop due to lack of childcare for Harley. She's working on getting that issue solved so she can go back to school. She's also learning to drive.
Please thank the viewers for their donations, teenagers always need so many things, it will help us a lot!"
Johnny & Family
News from Classie:
"Well our jobs are not so good, we had to apply for unemployment and file for unpaid wages from WIS International, so we left that job and are currently looking for something else.
The kids are ok, Johnny is in Chicago with my mom as he needs a push with his school work, he's in charter school and night school in order to get more credits and better grades. I pray for him in the big city, that's why we came up north, to bring him to my mom. Jaylan and Joshua are both in honors classes. Jaylan wants to go to the army and Johnny is still playing football and lost all feeling in his body, but thankfully he's ok. Jasmine is fine, she's just being a teenager.
We are just taking it day by day, but of course you always need things with kids; shoes, clothes and there are bills to pay.
Please thank the viewers for their donations from the bottom of our hearts because it's such a help and will go towards car insurance, lights and rent."
"Roger Graduated High School a year and a half earlier than his classmates. We are extremely proud of the way our children are growing up.
We had some sad news recently, we lost my mother in law unexpectedly. She had no life insurance, so along with my husband's sister we had to find money for her funeral costs.
Viewers donations will be a great help, please send our thanks."
Sera & Family
We've had this wonderful news from Sera's mum Denise; "Sera graduated 8th in her class and will be going on to high school next year. She's very excited because she got into the school she wanted. She plans to take Japanese and try out for the dragon boat team. It's a very creative school, so she's going to take dance if she can.
I have also just become a grandmother. Bethany had a beautiful little girl Harleen Quinzel. She's named after Harley Quinn from Batman. Mommy and baby are very healthy and doing great.
As for me, I'm still trying to get my own business going. I've also been doing a lot of writing. I'm starting to send stories out to magazines again, so fingers crossed!"
We asked all of the families for their news and this is what they've said:
Kaylie, Tyler and Barbara
"I wouldn't be where I am now if it weren't for all of the help and support from the viewers, I can't thank you enough for what you've done for my kids and I".
Barbara has great news; she is attending Certified Nursing Assistant classes and should have her CNA license in 4 week's time, which will mean that she will be able to start working at a hospital in the blood lab.
Kaylie and Tyler are very well. Thanks to the generosity of the viewers who have offered to pay for their Tae Kwon-do classes and for Kaylie's dance classes - it is still her passion!
(photographs are: Kaylie, Kaylie in Tae Kwon-do uniform, Tyler on a Haro bike donated by a professional rider, Tyler with the new family dog Bella)
Sera & family
"Sera is doing really well in 8th grade. She's taking dance classes and will be trying out for the swim team. She's already chosen the high school she wants to go to and is really looking forward to it. A huge thanks to all of the viewers who have helped us, we wouldn't be where we are without your generosity and support."
Johnny & family
"I'm deeply thankful to all the viewers for helping my family as much as they have, please let them know we are so glad to know that there are beautiful loving people in the world today.
We have relocated to Jacksonville, Florida. The kids are all in school and doing well, Johnny is currently playing football. Jasmine and Jaylan are at middle school and attend after school programs. Joshua has joined the safety patrol and boy scouts at his school.
Thomas and I are currently working, I am a cashier at a Supermarket and Thomas is working in construction as a labourer. We are living in a three bedroom apartment. The long term plan is to go back into business for ourselves again and buy a home at the end of this year. So thanks to you all we can now start to put the plan in motion."
Brittany & family
"I am extremely grateful to the people who have helped us. Words could never explain how much we appreciate them; for their kind words, and thoughts and for their generosity. I hope that one day I will be able to return the favour somehow.
With their help we have been able to get a new roof on our home, which was a top priority as it was leaking whenever it rained, we were able to paint our living room, which was also needed, as there was mould and the wallpaper was falling off the walls due to the leaky ceiling.
We have been able to buy all three of the kids new clothes and shoes which were desperately needed. We also paid off old bills.
Recently though, Josh had a bone infection in his hip and lost a good job, being unable to work for a few weeks, meant that we lost our vehicle. Josh is doing better now and is able to work again, but with the rain and him working outside he hasn't really had a steady income, so our bills have been piling up again, and we are still without a vehicle.
We still live pay check to pay check, it's very hard to try to save money, we always seem to manage though. We wouldn't have been able to do it without the help from all of the people who have donated."
Kaylie, Tyler and Barbara
23rd July: News just in: Barbara found out this morning that she is now employed as a CNA at a retirement home. Well done Barbara!
July 2014: Barbara has a new job as a nurse's aide; she is also going to classes to gain her CNA certificate of qualification, her long term goal is her LPN Licence. She is working hard to meet the payments on her trailer; it is still a struggle to pay all of the bills including gas, food, new school uniforms and shoes for Kaylie and Tyler who are both growing up so fast.
As soon as Barbara finishes payments on her trailer things will be much easier for them as they really need the extra money. Barbara has bought 4 chickens for their eggs, as they cost almost $4 US dollars for a dozen in the shops. Barbara's dream is to be able to buy some land to that they can keep cows and pigs, of which they would butcher and eat one a year, she would also like to have a garden and be able to grow food.
November 2013: Barbara has moved several times since the film was shown. Viewers' generous donations have helped pay for rent, bills, furniture for the house and school supplies for the kids. Barbara is looking to start her own business and is saving up to buy a truck and spraying equipment.
January 2013: "Quad City Arts' Visiting Artists Series" invited Kaylie, her mother Barbara and her grandmother to a show by the Lula Washington Dance Company, a group from south Los Angeles. This was Kaylie's first time seeing a live performance. Afterwards Kaylie got to meet and talk to the dancers, several of them started in their teens and through hard work have excelled. They all encouraged her to follow her dreams.
While waiting for the dancers to come out after the show, Kaylie was asked if she'd ever been on a stage. She said she hadn't but would like to so was invited on stage. The picture of the handstand is her signature move.
Quad City Art's present over 160 educational outreaches during the year in several performing arts genres so students get a personal exposure to the arts and might be inspired by them.
November 2012: Kaylie was back school and loved it. Her mother signed her up to see the school councillor to help her and she received some extra tuition in maths to help her catch up with what she had missed.
A message from Brittany's family. "We did not get too much lasting water damage from the from the flooding, it did however move the foundation. So we are now unable to turn our garage into a bedroom for our older son Roger. We also tried to get the house in our names, but were unable to due to the fact that we have No credit. Which is actually worse than having bad credit. So by this time next year, we are going to have to move. We tried to rent a vehicle to help get us credit, and also because we lost our truck, but my husband was unable to work for a while due to illness, and we lost the car. Now we have no vehicle. Roger, Brittany and Zakkary are doing fine. We have definitely outgrown our home, but we make do. My stress levels have been extremely high lately. I have been trying as hard as I can to stay calm by meditation, etc. When my husband is working our food stamps and my SSI are lowered drastically, he makes just enough to pay some of the bills. As of right now, he does odd jobs off and on. We struggle on daily, but somehow we always manage."
October 2013: Donations helped with costs related to Zakkary's medical care. The family had to drive back and forth to Peoria for his doctor's appointments and donations also contributed towards the gas and repairs to the truck. They are now saving up to repair their house which was damaged in the floods.
April 2013: Brittany and her family suffered flooding and were only just able to survive in their house whilst floods swept across the Quad Cities.
Our thoughts go out to Brittany and her family who are currently suffering massive flooding and are only just able to survive in their house while floods sweep across the Quad Cities.
A message from Brittany's family: "Thank you all for the thoughts, and being willing to help us, it means alot:) So far we are doing fine, the water isn't inside of our home yet. Praying that it doesn't though, this rain in Not helping matters. There are soo many others out here in my neighborhood who have already lost their homes due to the flooding. We could definitely use some prayers though:) Once again, thank you All soo much:) Just knowing that others care means alot to us:)"
Fantastic news!! We have just heard that Tom has a job in Florida and that the family have moved back there. It has always been their dream to return. A huge thank you to viewers who have donated to the Willis family which has definitely helped them to achieve their dream.
April 2013: One viewer gave Johnny an incredible gift a "Legends of Iowa" football camp scholoarship. The viewer won this as the highest bidder at a schools trivia night. The camp was held in Bettendorf on a July weekend and was coached and presented by current and former Iowa Hawkeye players, coaches and NFL players!!
Classie would like to use any other donations towards their dream of moving to Florida.
October 2013: The children and doing well in school. Johnny is playing for his high school football team and is trying hard to raise his grades. Jaylan's grades are excellent. Joshua has the same great spirit and great grades. Unfortunately Jasmine has been sickly with asthma and a lung infection which has meant the family having to take her back and forth to the doctors. Despite this, her grades are good.
The move to housing did not work out as well as hoped. The children were not allowed outside and there were fights and robberies in the complex. The family stayed for two months and left. They made the decision to move to a smaller house where they are now sharing 2 bedrooms but despite this they are much happier.
Tom secured a job as head of security at a factory and is keeping the family afloat. Cassie's biggest challenge now is finding the family an affordable home in a good area.
July 2014 - Report from Denise: Sera is now 13 and has turned into a proper teenager. she has tons of friends, loves music (her favourite band is Black Veil Brides), and she did well in school this last year. She's very proud of the A+ she got on her Humanities project. It was a documentary on the Florentine Renaissance. She's been spending the summer camping with friends and playing baseball with the Junior Giants. She's really looking forward to starting 8th grade. Beth is engaged and living in Hanford. She's planning on going to college for Business. She wants to open her own costume shop. I am still looking for work. I've looked into fields other than office work, but going back to school is very difficult due to the type of housing program we are in. Money is very tight at the moment. We reuse and recycle as much as we can. It's difficult with a growing girl, but I think it's a good lesson. Our ancestors made it through the Depression, we can make it through this. We're very grateful.
December 2013: Denise won the custody case and is delighted that Sera is allowed to stay with her. They were planning to have a great Christmas and even had a real Christmas tree named Eugene.
Diane Hebert-Farrell, (617) 300-5366, [email protected]
pbs.org/pressroom: Download promotional photography from the PBS Pressroom.