MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
One third of children in New York City grow up in poverty. And we're about to meet one of them - Jairo Gomez. He says he doesn't want to wind up in the same position as his parents. But the vicious cycle of poverty makes his ambitions hard to achieve. His story comes to us from Radio Rookies, a youth media program at member station WNYC.
JAIRO GOMEZ, BYLINE: Get out.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Unintelligible).
GOMEZ: There are nine of us in my family. And we live in a one-bedroom apartment. I share a bunk bed with my sister Judy.
JUDY: I mean, it's just so stuffed and, like, we don't have enough space for seven kids.
GOMEZ: On the floor we have two mattresses side by side where three of my other sisters sleep. You have to step toe to heel to get out of the room.
JUDY: All we actually need is, like, a big closet.
GOMEZ: My mom and stepdad and the two youngest ones sleep in the living room. Tell me about, like, your work. What do you do?
MOM: Yo soy una cleaning - cleaning lady.
GOMEZ: My mom cleans other peoples' houses. And when she gets home she keeps on cleaning and takes care of my sisters and brother. I used to think of my family as middle-class. But after my parents split up, my mom had four more kids.
Do you think we're poor?
MOM: (Through translator) The truth is I haven't looked it up in the dictionary, the word poor. To me, poor is when you don't have enough for soup or a roll of toilet paper.
GOMEZ: During my freshman year in high school, I wore ripped jeans, and my sneakers had holes in them. It was kind of embarrassing. But I still didn't think I was poor.
I asked my mom to do the math, and she said right now my family makes 30,000 a year. According to the federal government, we're $15,000 below the poverty line. I mean, that kind of scares me. I've seen articles posted on Facebook about how unlikely it is to get out of poverty, how poor people usually stay poor. If I don't get an education, I'll be stuck like my parents.
But I haven't always been able to make school my priority. When I was younger, I felt like a robot. All I did was go home and help babysit and clean. I never had that freedom before, to be able to hang out and skate with my friends. So in ninth grade, I started cutting every day. And then, when I was in the tenth grade for the second time, my mom started asking me if I could stay home from school to watch the kids. If I said no, most of the money she would make would go to a babysitter. I failed every class that year. That made me finally realize that if I ever want to graduate, I needed to be in school.
I switched to a transfer school. And my first trimester, I got perfect attendance. I told my mom I wasn't going to take care of the little ones anymore.
(Speaking Spanish). Remember when I would tell you that you weren't being responsible for your kids?
MOM: (Through translator) At first I felt annoyed. Like, how could this kid dare say that to me when I feel that I try my best to give what's necessary? But then I thought about it. And I thought, maybe I'm not doing my job right. I'm not providing enough.
GOMEZ: Hearing her say that made me feel selfish, especially since now my sisters are stuck at home every day.
JUDY: Sometimes I wish, like, yeah, you would stay home and, like, help.
GOMEZ: Judy is 14. She and my older sister are always home babysitting, cleaning up after my little sisters and helping feed them.
Why are you still change diapers and do all that?
JUDY: I don't want to put this all on Mom.
GOMEZ: I mean, compare yourself against to me. What do I do around the house?
JUDY: (Laughing). Nothing. Nothing?
GOMEZ: My older sister Sarahi is like the second mother. And she's in college.
SARAHI: Right now I have to finish my paper, this 8-page paper.
GOMEZ: OK, but what else am I responsible about? 'Cause I don't think babysitting is my responsibility.
SARAHI: Why is it not your responsibility?
GOMEZ: Because I didn't make 'em.
Sometimes I feel like I blame my mom too much for having more kids than she could afford. She's always telling us we're lucky because we'll have each other to go to. But when we still had two of our sisters in diapers and the pregnancy test came out positive again and again, Judy, Sarahi and I were like, I'm not washing the bottles this time.
Is that why you had us? Like all of us?
GOMEZ: I asked my mom why she had so many of us.
MOM: (Through translator). With each pregnancy, I accepted it and let it happen. And I felt happy. But I never thought the son I'm going to have, I'm going to educate and motivate to become a doctor, or this daughter I'm going to have, I'm going to motivate to become a lawyer. The job of the mother is to feed and clothe them, to give them love when maybe I didn't have time to give them each enough love.
GOMEZ: Do you remember last year when I had to stay home to babysit? How do you think it affected my grades?
MOM: (Through translator). Academically, it affected you a lot. I did wrong in making you stay, but I didn't have an option. At the time, I sacrificed you. It was either good grades for you and you'd go to school, or we were going to suffer and lack necessities.
GOMEZ: I don't feel sacrificed. To me, sacrificed is being given up. She just delayed me.
MOM: (Through translator). Sometimes I feel guilty that you haven't graduated. But I feel like you've contributed so that economically things aren't so tough. It's a balance.
GOMEZ: It gets me mad that my mom works so hard and there are people out there who are just born into it. They make money like nothing. They don't have to clean houses, wake up early, drain themselves. I needed to make some money for myself. So I took a week-long carpentry job. I knew it mean I'd be making less than minimum wage. And I'd have to miss school. But I was failing the second trimester anyway. When I went back to school the next week, I checked in with my English teacher Erin.
I still had a chance of passing? I did?
ERIN BAUER: Yes. You definitely could have passed my class. Did failing your classes push back your graduation date?
GOMEZ: I think it did.
GOMEZ: I was working for less than minimum wage. I mean, I don't know. I don't want to do that for, like, the rest of my life.
I know I should be thinking about going to college when I graduate if I don't want that life. But I'd have to stay at home to afford it. Nine of us in a one-bedroom apartment - no privacy, one bathroom and toys everywhere. I don't know if I can make myself do it. Now I'm working 13-hour shifts making food deliveries on a bike. Honestly, I'd rather do that and earn money for my own place. We are told if you work hard, you'll get results. But for my family, there haven't been any results - just survival. For NPR News, this is Jairo Gomez in New York.
BLOCK: Jairo's story comes to us from Courtney Stein and Kaari Pitkin at WNYC's program Radio Rookies.
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