ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
And I'm Melissa Block.
Reading, Pennsylvania, was once a thriving railroad hub and factory town. There were good jobs and a strong middle class. Today, with a poverty rate of more than 41 percent, Reading has been labeled the nation's poorest city. As the economy slowly recovers, many families there are being left behind.
SIEGEL: And though we're in the midst of a presidential campaign, neither candidate is talking much about how to help these families and the more than 46 million Americans still living in poverty.
Well, this week, we're going to talk about poverty and meet some of those who are struggling. Our project begins with three families in Reading. NPR's Pam Fessler has our story.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: In the middle of the night, most children are home in bed. But at the Second Street Learning Center, a half dozen tiny bodies are curled up on green plastic floor mats, fast asleep.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Two or three should be her next feeding.
FESSLER: Conversations here are hushed. The lights are dim. But at 1:30 a.m., a worker gently shakes two little sisters snuggled under the same blanket.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Kimberland(ph), let's go. Mommy's here. Come on. Go home, go back to bed, get up and get ready for school.
FESSLER: It's another day - or, in this case, night - at a center where parents can bring their children at any hour.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: She's out like light bulb. Come on.
FESSLER: And they do, coming and going from late-night shifts, school or another job search. Today, we'll meet three mothers who rely on this center - a safe haven for many in this troubled city. These women's lives say a lot about what it means to be struggling and poor in America, that it isn't starving in the streets as much as it is the countless frustrations that often add up to one step forward and two steps back.
TRACY BOGGS: I do have a car, but I don't trust it...
FESSLER: There's Tracy Boggs(ph)...
BOGGS: ...because it needs a lot of work and I haven't had the money to put into it.
FESSLER: ...and Lori Lebo(ph)...
LORI LEBO: The paperwork alone is a headache. Like I said, I did the application for food stamps and medical this morning. That was 17 pages.
FESSLER: ...and Meghan Gonzales(ph).
MEGHAN GONZALES: I didn't have a babysitter, so I couldn't go to work. And then my dad and his wife, they foreclosed on their house, and they couldn't really take us all on a second-floor apartment.
FESSLER: First, Meghan: perky, optimistic, but clearly stressed.
GONZALES: Sleep? What is sleep?
FESSLER: She says she feels like she's 50. She's so tired. But she's only 25.
GONZALES: My oldest daughter's 9, then 8, then 5, and then my son is 2.
FESSLER: And her husband says, later, there's another one on the way. Meghan is cheerful as she picks her kids up from daycare. She wears lots of pink, even has a pink streak in her hair. She's gone from living in a homeless shelter to earning a nursing license, to getting a good job at a nursing home. But juggling four kids, school, work?
GONZALES: It's really tough.
FESSLER: Well, how do you do it?
GONZALES: Motivation is probably the kids and setting a good example for them so they can never say that, you know, my mom didn't do it, so why should I do it?
FESSLER: And we heard this again and again in Reading. These mothers know instinctively what all the studies show, that poor children are more likely to become poor adults, to drop out of school and become single teen parents. It's tough breaking that cycle, but also complicated, when lives are a messy combination of bad luck and bad choices.
LEBO: When he broke my nose, he was in jail. They locked - he went to prison. October 10 is what I have. They took him out of my house October 9.
FESSLER: Lori Lebo's had a string of setbacks. Her 20-month-old daughter was born premature. Her boyfriend hit her. Then she lost her job in February. But she's tough, resilient. Sitting in her row house, she shows me her nine tattoos: a dragon wrapped around a rose on her ankle, a sun and moon with her kids' birth dates on her thigh.
LEBO: She was born at night. He was born in the daytime.
FESSLER: She's talking about the baby, Mikaela(ph), and 9-year-old Jeffrey(ph). They're at daycare now, so Lori can look for work, but she's not having much luck. She's also preoccupied. Mikaela's father, released from prison in March, has just been sent back.
LEBO: His parole officer said, you realize he violated every condition.
FESSLER: Including staying away from Lori. But she says he loves the baby, the baby loves him - so she let him back home.
LEBO: Obviously, life is happening around us, and I can't always focus on one thing. I feel like I'm doing a juggling act. Mikaela.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Mikaela.
LEBO: Mikaela. Hi, baby girl.
FESSLER: Later, Lori goes to the Second Street Learning Center to pick up her daughter - a slice of a little girl with white blonde hair.
LEBO: Come here. You want mommy today? You want mommy now?
FESSLER: Lori says she was let go from her job at the power company after five years because she missed too much work. But she says, what was she to do? Michaela was 1 pound, 5 1/2 ounces at birth. There were long hospital stays, doctor visits, not to mention court appearances after her boyfriend broke her nose.
LEBO: I mean, the job market's tough right now. And a lot of employers are now cracking down that you can't even take the time to take care of your family. You know, you - they basically give you a choice. You want your job or you want your family?
FESSLER: And things have only gotten worse. Two weeks after we spoke, Lori lost her childcare subsidy from the state because she's unemployed. She had to remove her kids from daycare, which makes looking for work more difficult. And if she does find a job, she'll have to wait up to a year to get the subsidy renewed because of state budget cuts.
MODESTO FIUME: These things just make me crazy because when finally people are doing what they need - it's almost like we've set up a system where we want people to stay dependent.
FESSLER: Modesto Fiume heads Opportunity House which runs the daycare center. He says it's difficult enough helping families get on their feet without having the rug pulled out from under them at the wrong time. He says for many here, getting jobs isn't enough.
FIUME: A lot of this is just a product of dysfunction, quite honestly, and a lack of stability in their own homes. So what we try to do here is we try to bring some sense of stability to the kids' lives, and that's the most stable time in their life.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: You ready?
UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: Yes, we are.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #5: Begin.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: Open, shut them, open, shut them, give a little clap. Open...
FESSLER: And the kids here do get a lot more than snacks and play. There's plenty of organized activity, computer training, homework help, all with a message: Work hard and opportunity will follow. But some things are easier said than done. It's clean and bright inside the center. But outside, the neighborhood is filled with empty lots and tired row houses. Jobs and companies have been fleeing Reading for years: Lucent Technology, auto parts manufacturers, even Hershey candy plant.
And that brings us to mother number three: Tracy Boggs. She lives across the street in a three-bedroom townhouse with her daughters: 7-year-old Emily, 21-year-old Tracine.
BOGGS: So each of us have our own bedroom. It's real nice.
LEBO: Tracy is 49, soft-spoken but tired. She's just returned from her part-time job cleaning a beauty supply store at the mall.
BOGGS: My unemployment stopped and didn't know where I was going to turn.
FESSLER: She worked eight years at a company that made needlecraft kits but then it was sold, and the jobs moved to China. At first, things looked promising. The state paid to retrain Tracy in medical billing and coding. There's a big hospital here. But when she got her certificate in December and started to look for work...
BOGGS: Nothing here in Reading. All the offices here outsource their billing and coding to other sources, other companies.
FESSLER: All the jobs were way outside the city. The only way to get there is to drive. Tracy takes me outside to show me her car. This is yours?
BOGGS: That one's mine, yeah.
FESSLER: A 1997 Chrysler Concorde with 81,000 miles and a growing list of problems.
BOGGS: And just had the struts and tie rods put on yesterday. And I have to get tires, although my engine light came on yesterday, so I have to get that checked out today and see what's wrong with that.
FESSLER: Like most of the mothers here, she has no husband to share the bills. Poverty's high, but it's a lot higher for women like Tracy. An astounding 66 percent of single mothers in Reading live below the poverty line, less than $19,000 for a family of three.
Tracy admits she made some bad decisions.
BOGGS: Both of the men that I chose were louses, you know, or you know, not good choices.
FESSLER: Although she quickly adds...
BOGGS: I wouldn't change anything in the world for my kids, my daughters. They're what keeps me going and keeps me fighting to keep searching, as bad as the economy is. If it was just me, I would have gave up a long time ago.
FESSLER: And you hear that a lot around here. Hope that things will get better if you just keep plugging away. Down the street, Meghan Gonzales, who we met earlier, is finally home with her four kids and husband. He's on disability with a bad back. She's had a long day with orientation at her new job. Half-eaten plates of spaghetti are scattered across the kitchen table. Their row house is cheerful, but chaotic and tiny.
Meghan says she wants to leave Reading so her children can go to better schools. She's especially worried about the high school, where almost one out of every two kids drops out.
GONZALES: There's like over 4,000 kids there and - I don't know - I think it makes it hard for them to do good in school. Like it's - I don't know - (unintelligible) is just like it's not cool to do good in school.
FESSLER: Did you go to that high school?
FESSLER: For a year and a half until she got pregnant. Meghan wants better for her kids. Earlier that week, the whole family went to the bank to open a first savings account to start putting money aside, but then the family van with everyone inside broke down in front of the bank. Another bill to pay.
Pam Fessler, NPR News.
SIEGEL: And you can see pictures of some of the families and get a glimpse inside Opportunity House at NPR.org. For the second part of our series on poverty, we'll return to Reading to meet a single mother of three. She is 29-year-old Jennifer Step(ph). Her day starts at 6:30 in the morning.
BLOCK: She juggles work, school, daycare. It's a hectic life for her and for her children.
JENNIFER STEP: And I explain to them that I'm doing it for them, not for me, so later on down the road, we can have a comfortable life and a nice house. I try to make it look pretty for them. A nice house with a dog and a front yard for you to play in.
BLOCK: And she couldn't do it without a lot of help from her family, her work and from the government, but Step says she doesn't expect a handout.
STEP: I'm the opposite and I know there are some other single mothers out there that are also the opposite. They try hard and, sometimes, it's just not hard enough. You need that help.
SIEGEL: That story, Single Mothers and Poverty, tomorrow on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.