PBS Frontline examines issues surrounding child poverty during the pandemic by visiting southeast Ohio, and will show a documentary film called Growing Up Poor in America, set to air on WOUB HD on Sept. 8 at 9 p.m.
The film follows children living in The Plains, Marietta and Columbus. Filmmakers spent six months with three children and their families (one mixed-race, one Black and one white). Their families were already living below or near the poverty line when the coronavirus hit, and now, they’re confronting the new challenges that come with surviving the pandemic and the social occurrences that have coincided with the viral outbreak: school closures, rising unemployment, and the momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement.
“We were looking to make a film that examined child poverty in America with the presidential election coming up. We were considering swing states to film in, and I was in Ohio when things started to happen with COVID-19,” said Producer/Director Jezza Neumann. “The film then became about poverty in America with the backdrop of COVID.”
Shawn, 13, fears that his mom, Crystal, who keeps working at the local Salvation Army food pantry throughout the pandemic, will catch the virus. Including food stamps, Crystal takes home the equivalent of $885 each month, an amount that leaves them unable to fix their car when it breaks down.
At the trailer where they are living through government assistance, Shawn helps to care for his toddler sister, striving to be a positive role model for her.
“I mean, it’s a lot of pressure on me, but I try to do my best,” he said. He feels the need to protect his mother from his fears about the family’s struggle: “If I feel sad or something, and I expressed to my mom, that would make her feel sad, and so I just keep it to myself.”
It is a dilemma that’s familiar to Kyah, 14. She, her mother, Becky, and her older sister, Kelia, became homeless when Becky became unable to pay their rent. Becky was supposed to start a new job in March, but it fell through due to the pandemic. And the family lost many of their cherished possessions when they could no longer make payments to the storage company holding their belongings
“I lost important things like pictures that I can’t get again,” Kyah said.
Now, rather than entering the shelter system, they’re experiencing “hidden homelessness” – with all three of them temporarily living in a single room at a relative’s house as Becky looks for work and a home they can afford within Kyah’s school district. As an escape, Kyah watches video tours of houses online, imagining that her family will one day have a home of their own.
“‘Hidden homelessness’ is a term for those who are not accessing available services. They are not living in shelters. They are living with relatives or sharing a house with another family,” said Neumann. “There is a stigma and embarrassment around homelessness. People do not want to talk about it. This is the first time we’ve been able to talk to and show the experience of those who are part of the ‘hidden homeless.’”
Laikyen, 12, whose mother, Fantasy, works at a gas station to provide for Laikyen and her older sister, also feels her mom’s pain. Fantasy makes just over Ohio’s minimum wage.
“In my opinion my mom doesn’t get paid as much as she should, because my mom works hard and she deserves a little bit more,” Laikyen said.
Schoolwork has long been a struggle for Laikyen, who has ADHD. The documentary shows how that struggle is magnified when her school district goes remote.
“We don’t have school because of the Coronavirus. My grades — right now, my schoolwork is not very well,” Laikyen said.
She is thankful for the food pantry down the street, where in addition to helping keep her family from going hungry, her beloved “Miss Candy” helps her with her homework.
“She helps people that needs help,” Laikyen said.
“A high percentage of children in the region also relied on the school district for meals,” said Neumann. “When the schools shut down, we saw the teachers, custodians and cooks get on buses and drive the food to children who needed it.”
As the pandemic continues and the country also reckons with issues of race and racism in the wake of George Floyd’s death, the children share their worries and hopes about their futures. Some of them participate in protests calling for an end to racial injustice.
“I think it does make it harder to get out of poverty,” Kyah said of racism towards Black people. “I actually am worried about the future… I just want us to be all right.”
Growing Up Poor in America premieres Tues., Sept. 8. It will be available to watch in full at pbs.org/frontline and in the PBS Video App starting that night at 7/6c. It will premiere on WOUB HD and on YouTube at 9 p.m.