Children feel stress as poverty rates rise

October 14, 2011

Eleven-year-old Sarai Camacho of Donna, Texas, tears up when she
tells why her mother let the babysitter go for her and her younger
sister this summer. It's the same reason her father brought the family
to Indiana so he could work the melon fields for a season.

"Last
December, my mom didn't get paid for one month, and we started having
problems," said Sarai at Oaktown (Indiana) First Christian Church, which
hosted free classes for children of migrant workers. "My mom said for
us to come here [to the church] so she doesn't have to give money to the
babysitter because we're running out of it."

For churches, it's
become an all-too-familiar sight: working families that aren't able to
make ends meet. As household resources are tapped out, churches are
often the first to see the changing face of poverty—and it's often a
young one.

"We're seeing younger families come in," said Ken
Campbell, food coordinator for Lazarus House, a Christian ministry to
help the needy in Lawrence, Massa­chusetts. "They're coming forward
be­cause one member in the household got laid off or had their hours
cut, and now they're just barely making it."

Across the United States, rising numbers of children are coping with the stressors of economic hardship:

  • Child poverty rates reached 22 percent in 2010, up from 20.7 percent in
    2009 and 16.2 percent in 2000, according to a September report from the
    U.S. Census Bureau. Between 2000 and 2009, the number of children
    living in poverty increased from 13.1 million to 15.5 million, according
    to the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
  • The Casey Foundation also
    reported that 4 percent of American children had been affected by home
    foreclosures since 2007, and 11 percent had at least one unemployed
    parent in 2010.
  • Catholic Charities USA, which serves about one
    in four Americans who live in poverty, served 2.7 million children in
    2010, up from 2.4 million in 2006. The steepest increase came in
    food-­related services, as Catholic Charities fed 56 percent more
    children (935,000) in 2010 than in 2006 (600,000).

As
families cycle in and out of poverty, faith-based service programs tend
to catch people who fall through the cracks of other safety nets,
according to Robert L. Fischer, codirector of the Center on Urban
Poverty and Com­munity Devel­opment at Case Western Reserve University.

When
emergency needs arise, people often turn to churches first. "The most
disadvantaged families oftentimes don't go to formal settings to receive
services, but they will go into a church," said Taniesha Woods, senior
research associate at the National Center for Children in Poverty at
Columbia Uni­versity. "Churches can provide information and reach
families and children who ­wouldn't know about [public] services
otherwise."

On the front lines, religious workers see signs of
growing desperation. Four years ago at Torrente De Cedron Pentecostal
Church in Lynn, Massa­chusetts, the weekly food pantry stayed open for
two hours as about 75 families came through for a few days' worth of
groceries.

Now the line begins forming hours before the pantry
opens, according to Senior Pastor Oscar Ovalles, as more than 200
families come from city neighborhoods and affluent suburbs alike. Even
with the use of smaller bags to stretch supplies, everything is gone
within 30 minutes.

"Families are in crisis," Ovalles said. "What
used to be saved for a rainy day is now the main course because Dad lost
his job or Mom is no longer working."

Similar signs of stress are
visible in nearby Lawrence. The overnight shelter at Lazarus House is
always filled to capacity, Campbell said, and needs for food continue to
increase. In early 2010, the weekly pantry gave a few days' worth of
groceries to about 300 individuals who were, in most cases, picking up
for families with children. This fall, the pantry is serving about 800
per week on average.

Many who now need help aren't used to
receiving any sort of church-based assistance. Sarai's family in
Indiana, for example, until recently had lived stably on income from her
mother's teaching job and her father's work in agriculture and food
processing. Now they depend on the church's help with child care to make
ends meet.

"Because of what we're going through right now with
money, I would love to help my family," Sarai said. "I would love to go
to college," she said, and earn enough afterward to support her parents.

To
meet growing needs, religious groups are trying to be resourceful
despite the uphill challenge. In Massa­chusetts, Torrente De Cedron used
to run its pantry on $3,000 raised from parishioners' donations, but
now the congregation can't afford the $10,000 that's needed to run the
program. This fall, the church began hosting regular fund-raisers to
sustain the pantry.

"The food pantry is no longer just something
that we want to do on a volunteer basis for the community," Ovalles
said. "Now it's a mandatory thing that we have to have because of the
need that we can see in these families and in these kids."  —RNS