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Slipping Out Of The Middle Class Can Hit Kids Hard


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. The Department of Agriculture reports that the number of students receiving free or reduced lunch soared by 17 percent last year. That's up to 21 million. Given the state of the economy, the statistics may come as no surprise, but each new child who qualifies for free lunch means another family fallen out of the middle class.

Many of these kids are experiencing poverty for the first time, and whether the signal comes in the school cafeteria or when they see a parent struggling with the bills, they suddenly realize that they're poor.

If the economy forced you out of the middle class, how did your kids find out? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. The Opinion Page later in the program, the opposition in Russia finds a voice. Can it build a movement?

But first, children and poverty, and we begin with Joe Wemette, the former assistant superintendent for Roseville Schools in Minnesota, and he joins us now from his office there. Nice to have you with us today.


CONAN: And this is an incremental story, a slow creep of a slipping economy, but I wonder: Was there a moment when the reality of the new poverty hit you?

WEMETTE: Oh, it has been coming gradually. Each year, we've been really aware of the consistency of the trend, but it has been more emphatic in the last five years, I would say.

CONAN: And how does it manifest?

WEMETTE: We have - when we look at our trend, we were under 20 percent free and reduced-price lunch count in '02, '03, and if you fast-forward to about six years later, we were up to 29 percent. And right now, Roseville area schools has 44 percent of the students on free and reduced-price lunch.

So it's a really steady and consistent uphill climb toward that. About three percent more kids each year, two to three percent is what we see.

CONAN: Do kids know that they're on the free lunch program?

WEMETTE: It will depend on the family circumstances. I suspect most of the time they do.

CONAN: And do other kids know that kids are on the free lunch program?

WEMETTE: Hopefully not, but again it'll depend on circumstances. It's not through the district sharing the news, of course, but it depends on kid conversations with each other.

CONAN: And so there's no tipoff when you're standing in the cafeteria line?

WEMETTE: Right. Kids don't exchange money or anything anyway. They all go through the line and enter a number. Everybody enters a number. So there's no tipoff that way to the really best we can manage that.

CONAN: This is - there's usually a relationship between poor kids and academic performance. Is that slipping in conjunction with the poverty rates?

WEMETTE: We try really hard to avert that correlation, of course, but it's there. We know it is and has been for a long time in the research. But we work really hard to avert that. We get some special resources that help in the form of Title I dollars from the federal government and in the form of compensatory ed dollars from the state of Minnesota. So we are able to do more in those pockets where the poverty is greatest.

CONAN: And describe for those of us who have not been to Roseville, can you describe what that area's like?

WEMETTE: Sure, Roseville is a first-string suburb just north of Minneapolis-St. Paul, population of some over 50,000, I believe, with a student population of about 6,700. We are 57 percent white, 43 percent students of color, and that, like the poverty rate, has been changing incrementally for at least 20 years, I know because I've tracked those statistics.

And so both poverty and diversity have been increasing in the district for quite a while.

CONAN: Do you see an effect on kids when they are - newly find themselves in poverty?

WEMETTE: You know, each of those situations has its own context. It's really hard to generalize. Sometimes it's situational poverty. Sometimes it's generational poverty. So I hate to generalize too much about kids' situations. But each one of those students has their own story.

So sometimes it'll be dramatic, and sometimes it'll be just the way it's been.

CONAN: Just the way it's been, that may be the saddest story of all.

WEMETTE: Yes it is, yeah.

CONAN: Joe Wemette, thanks very much for your time today.

WEMETTE: You're welcome.

CONAN: Joe Wemette, former assistant superintendent of Roseville Schools in Minnesota, with us today from his office there. And we'd like to hear from those of you who have seen your families drop out of the middle class. How did the kids find out? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org.

Katherine Marshall Woods is a clinical psychologist with the Psychological Group of Washington. She focuses on child and adolescent psychology and been kind enough to join us here in Studio 3A. Thanks very much for coming in.

DR. KATHERINE MARSHALL WOODS: Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And I think Joe Wemette is right, it's probably a different story with each kid.

WOODS: Absolutely, everyone has their own story to tell, and each person is different and an individual. So the way they cope with the issues that they're facing is also very different.

CONAN: Well, your work focuses on kids in transition, I guess that's a kind way to describe it. What have you learned about the moment when kids first realize that their family's poor?

WOODS: Well, some kids handle it a lot better than others. Many have already developed specific coping skills that can help them through and actually want to be a very proactive participant in helping their family be able to become more successful.

Other children have a lot more difficulties handling the transition, and they begin to act out, become delinquent at school and also become very disappointed in their parents, as well.

CONAN: Yeah, so some see it as a challenge, the Horatio Algers of the world, and some see it as the latest discouragement from a life that has offered them some bad breaks to begin with.


CONAN: How do kids find out?

WOODS: Many times parents will sit down with their children and speak with them in age-appropriate manner. Other children begin to see a diminish in their surroundings, in their environment.

CONAN: They move from an house to an apartment to another, smaller apartment.

WOODS: Exactly, and sadly enough to say, some children find out by their peers, by being made fun of and bullied.

CONAN: That they're wearing not the right shoes or the right bag or stuff like that. It's very important to kids.

WOODS: Exactly, exactly.

CONAN: It's also - I assume there are a lot of kids in this situation, being a single parent increases the odds tremendously that a kid's going to grow up in poverty.

WOODS: Yes, actually it does. And specifically, currently right now, the statistics state that there's 8.1 million individual children who live with one parent at least who's unemployed, which then causes a lot of difficulties for that child, specifically it increases their rate of academic troubles.

Up to 15 percent of those students are then at risk of being retained, so - which also then causes issues for them long, well into their adult life.

CONAN: If this is your story, if you were one of those parents who saw your family slip out of the middle class, how did your kids find out? 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. Angela's(ph) on the line calling from St. Louis.

ANGELA: Yes, hi. I was calling because yes, my children are on free and reduced lunch in the school district that we're in. I did have to sit them down and talk to them and explain to them that, you know, it's not a crime. It's not horrible. There's nothing wrong with it - sorry, I'm getting emotional because it was kind of two-fold why we had to do this.

I'm a full-time student myself, and my husband was transferred with his job in May of 2010, and he's been transferred again since then. So we've stayed in St. Louis, and he's gone to two different states, two different cities, just so he can have a job. And because of that, you know, we don't have that - we're having to pay for two different locations, and one of the concessions we had to do, other than cutting out all the extras, was the children actually qualified for free and reduced lunch.

Last school year, they were on reduced. This year, they're on completely free lunch. It's kind of different, I think, in our situation because we are in an economic area where it's lower-middle class to poverty is the main population of our school district. So I would have to say that maybe even 60 percent of all of our students are on some kind of free or reduced lunch program.

CONAN: And you correctly told your children there should be no stigma, but is there?

ANGELA: Oh, exactly, yeah.

CONAN: But is there a stigma?

ANGELA: There is unfortunately. There is a stigma. When I went to high school, when we moved here to St. Louis, I went to a very affluent neighborhood and a very affluent high school, and that - to have anybody on free or reduced lunch in that school district meant that you were lower class, and you were stupid, and your parents were stupid. So there is a stigma, there really is.

But I think in our situation with the district that we're in, there's not as much of a stigma because there are so many struggling families that we all understand.

CONAN: And the kids took it pretty well?

ANGELA: Yeah, the kids took it pretty well because, well, like I say, we have a high percentage. So most of their friends were on free and reduced lunch, and, you know, before 2008 or 2010, we would even pack a lunch and send it to school so that some of our children's friends, you know, knew that they were, and they were afraid that they would get picked on because they were getting free or reduced lunch.

So, you know, they would - our kids would take them an extra lunch or take them an extra pudding or something, you know, whatever we had extra. And we still have that mindset, and I think because of us bringing up our children that there's no shame in being impoverished. I was extremely impoverished when I was growing up with my parents.

We had to go to the food bank and get the - it's back in the old days where you got the giant barrel of food that lasted a month. It was a giant grab bag. You had no idea what was in that government barrel.

CONAN: Usually government cheese.

ANGELA: Yeah, usually government cheese and powdered milk, you know.


ANGELA: So, you know, my mother would try to hide the fact that it was powdered milk by putting it in a real milk carton, you know, but, you know, we knew different. And my husband, the same thing. He lived on food stamps for most of his life until he was 12 or 14. So for us, it wasn't - we grew up with it.

We knew - we know that there's a way out of it, and it just so happens that right now economically, so many people overstretched themselves for so many years thinking that the bubble was never going to pop, that there was always going to be food in the pantry, and now there's not. So you just have to learn to make concessions. I think...

CONAN: Angela, I'm just going to say we wish you the best of luck. It sounds like you're doing well, and I hope your husband can find a job in St. Louis.

ANGELA: Well, I'm hoping his company can transfer him back to St. Louis. He's got a good job, and the last thing we want to do is see it go away. But the company just announced another layoff of another 37 people.

CONAN: Ouch.

ANGELA: So yeah, so we're kind of sitting on the fence again.

CONAN: Well, good luck.

ANGELA: Yeah. Well, thank you.

CONAN: We're talking about children and poverty. If the economy forced you out of the middle class, how did your kids find out that money was suddenly tight? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. Around the country, as layoffs and foreclosures grind on, changed families must regroup. Parents facing hardships caused by the rotten economy have to figure out how to make house payments, how to put food on the table, how to keep the car running.

As they talk with furrowed brows, kids pick up the signals and realize times have changed. If the economy forced you out of the middle class, how did your kids find out? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guest is Katherine Marshall Woods, clinical psychologist with the Psychological Group of Washington who focuses on child and adolescent psychology. Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. Let's go to Marcella(ph), Marcella with us from Houston.

MARCELLA: Hello, how are you doing? Thanks for having me on the call.

CONAN: I'm well, thank you.

MARCELLA: Yes, I realized that - well, my kids found out that we were kind of being pushed out when I - I mean, I work full-time, but I started not being able to have money to pay for their lunch. But I make too much to qualify for any reduced or - food. We moved to a smaller apartment, and winter came around this time, and I couldn't buy anyone winter clothes or anything. They were lacking - I mean, they (unintelligible).

CONAN: That's awful. We think of Houston as one of the warmer places, in summer yes, in winter not so much.

MARCELLA: Yeah, we're kind of having a unique time when we had cold periods that came through. I was getting by for a while because I knew I couldn't afford the coats, but it came around cold. So I was like oh gosh, I've got to figure out how we're going to do that.

CONAN: How are you going to do it?

MARCELLA: Well, my son used a coat from a cousin, and the two, the two girls kind of decided - teenagers kind of like to be cute anyway, but they decided they didn't need a coat. I think they just didn't want to bother me to try to get it. I mean, I myself have just used long sleeves and things that I had before but didn't buy anything.

CONAN: Layers also help, but...

MARCELLA: Yeah, that's what we've been - yeah, layers.

CONAN: And it sounds like the girls are doing their best to try to help you out.

MARCELLA: Well, my two older, my 19- and 17-year-old, didn't - have not been doing well with it because it's more of appearance with teenagers, and the 19-year-old, but he did find a job, but he's in college, but he had to get because I was paying for it. We didn't qualify for any aid. So he did find a job recently. So that's going to help soon.

And the 17-year-old pretty much cried a lot because she didn't have enough clothes and things for school because I couldn't replace. The 14- and the 10-year-old, I noticed that they were watching because a lot of times I would cook and feed them first, and they noticed that I wasn't eating, so then they started asking are you eating.

CONAN: And what did you tell them?

MARCELLA: Sorry, just eat when we could. And I do have a lot of family that help.

CONAN: I'm sure, Marcella. Family is a great resource in these difficult times. I wish you the best of luck. I hope that things pick up for you.

MARCELLA: Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the phone call. Katherine Marshall Woods, obviously a lot of emotion in her voice, and it's a terrible situation. The kids in that situation, obviously you don't know these individuals, but kids in situations like that, this can leave scars.

WOODS: Absolutely, and again it just is telling how she mentioned that her oldest children are having more difficulty being able to cope with it really because it's a change in what they may have known previously. And so they are hopefully relying on the idea that either things can get better and questioning what has happened.

And because they're older, they are able to question really the specifics and the details of what has happened with their finances, whereas the younger children are more of a protective role of why are you not eating and wondering whether or not that they can really take care of their mom.

CONAN: Every individual story is different, but is it more positive, do you think, for a parent to sit down with a kid and explain, age-appropriate obviously, or that kids realize it when there's no winter coat or no money for school lunch.

WOODS: Well, it's always good to prepare your children for what's happening. We even say if there's a death in the family and a child has never gone to a funeral, you want to talk to them about what they are going to see and what the experience will be like so then they have some sort of way to touch base with what you've stated and what they're experiencing.

And the same is true when it comes to financial challenges. It's a good idea to be able to sit down with your children, of course in an age-appropriate way, and talk to them about what is currently happening and what specifically may happen in the future and what difficulties the family may experience as a result of what's currently happening.

CONAN: Yeah, some parents don't want to really admit it to themselves, but it's a hard thing to do.

WOODS: True.

CONAN: Let's go next to Susan(ph). Susan's on the line with us from Medford in Oregon.

SUSAN: Hi, (unintelligible) your show.

CONAN: Hi, Susan. Thank you.

SUSAN: I am both a social worker and a school psychologist in this area. I don't - I think that people, when they think about Oregon, think about lots of green trees and lots of beauty and a national park nearby, Crater Lake National Park. We live in the southern part of the state, right on the California border, which has become pretty much a service area for retirees.

Because I worked in the schools, both in this area, in this part of southwest Oregon, and also in a remote high-desert part of Oregon - Oregon's a huge state, it's the ninth-biggest state, and it's very, very big. I'm from New England originally, and you could put New England in one corner of this state, all six states.

So I have seen not just hunger in this state, not - certainly obesity, much less obesity in schools than elsewhere, I've worked in schools on the East Coast, as well. But what you see are very thin kids and a great deal of hunger everywhere. We are one of the top hungriest states in the union, Oregon is.

And people think about Portland, it's where the jobs are, it's where most of the urban area is, but the rest of the state is very rural, and rural areas are hurting really, really seriously bad.

CONAN: And how do the kids take it when they find out?

SUSAN: Kids, in my case, my kid was always on my team. We had a team. We - I'm very proactive. I always talk with kids about money. It's a real fact of life. It's very important to know about it, how to handle it, how to help save it, and if you are a kid who gets an allowance.

You know, I work with kids daily, so I do a lot of that kind of thing with kids. You know, it's a fact of life and we mostly ignore it, I'm afraid to say, many families do.

CONAN: Susan...

SUSAN: But what happens when kids learn about it, I think the older ones particularly get extremely upset. I think it diminishes their self-esteem, their self-confidence. I mean teenage, older teenagers, high-school level. I think they get quite depressed, they can.

I think younger kids, as your guest was saying, are very protective of parents and - but they're really hurting also. I myself grew up in a very poor home that didn't have enough to eat in New England, outside of Boston, and I remember what it was like.

CONAN: Well, thanks for sharing your story, Susan, appreciate the phone call.

SUSAN: Okay, thank you.

CONAN: Taniesha Woods is a senior research associate at the National Center for Children and Poverty. She specializes in teacher development and equity in education and joins us from her office in New York City. Thanks very much for taking the time to be with us today.

TANIESHA WOODS: Thank you, thanks for having me.

CONAN: Earlier we hear Joe Wemette speak about Roseville, Minnesota. Certainly teachers and school districts have their hands full with newly poor students. And what is the best way to approach those kids in their new situation? Clearly their parents have an obligation to explain them to it, but what about the schools?

WOODS: Well, I think that there are a couple of things that can take place, and I'm going to speak to it particularly from an early childhood perspective because this is a period that's really critical for children's development and their later school success.

So there's actually a good amount of research that shows that mental health consultation, which is when a mental health expert who has expertise around children zero to six years of age actually provides support to teachers, to social workers, to health professionals that may not be knowledgeable about children's mental health.

But this individual that provides the mental health consultation, that really can help to improve children's development, their social and emotional function, their - and also their learning outcome, social and emotional function is related to learning outcomes.

So that's one of the really important things that can take place in early childhood programs in schools.

CONAN: Are those kinds of resources available at most schools?

WOODS: Well, in early childhood programs, they are available some of the time. I mean, part of the issue is funding, but there are some programs, for example Head Start programming, oftentimes they rely on mental health consultation, and there are other programs, early childhood programs, that when the funding is there, that's something that they can do.

But it actually can be done with very limited resources. I did some work in upstate New York with a community-based coalition that worked on early childhood initiatives. And what this group was really interested in doing was holding a monthly meeting or every other month, having this early childhood mental health consultant come in, and to talk to the members of their coalition, and then also to - they would invite other stakeholders to attend the meeting. And so if it's done in that manner, it's very cost-effective. But if you actually want to have someone go into a classroom, that actually does require some funding to have that person's time and effort covered.

CONAN: You were mentioning upstate New York. You're in New York City. How does this problem differ between, well, urban centers and suburbs, and upstate, that's country?

WOODS: Well, I mean, I think it's a problem regardless of geographic locale. It's something that has to be addressed. And so some of the issues in terms of urban, rural and suburban, children's mental health and social and emotional development, that's something that really needs to be addressed regardless of where they are in terms of their geographic locale.

CONAN: And are you seeing a surge in the necessity for these services?

WOODS: I would say that it's always been somewhat high, but there have been, in terms - I haven't got data that actually say that there's a surge, but I can speak to it anecdotally. And there have been some increases, as families are experiencing more economic hardship. Parents are more stressed out. So that affects their relationship. And oftentimes, that affects the interaction that parents have with children. And that manifests itself in different ways in the classroom, so you may see children acting out more and having problems in the classroom. So there is a need for the mental health consultation.

CONAN: Well, Taniesha Woods, thanks very much for your time today. We appreciate it.

WOODS: Thank you.

CONAN: Taniesha Woods, senior research associate at the National Center for Children and Poverty, joined us from her office in New York City. Still with us here in the Studio 3A is Katherine Marshall Woods, who's a clinical psychologist with the Psychological Group of Washington. And when she's talking about those people going into that situation - that's you she was talking about, right?

WOODS: It is, actually. Many times, I do go into children's classrooms to be able to provide consultation services. For five years, I actually worked for the District of Columbia Public Schools doing that exact thing, and also worked hand in hand with Head Start in being able to provide consultation services as well as being able to provide psychological testing for children who were at risk of being identified with learning disabilities and emotional disturbance.

CONAN: We're talking about children and poverty. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Let's go next to Margaret(ph). Margaret with us from Northfield in Minnesota.


CONAN: Hi, Margaret.

MARGARET: My situation is kind of gone from bad to getting better. We lost our home in - last summer. And our 16-year-old was our youngest at home, really went into a dive. She took the loss of her home very personally and felt that it was something that - she felt it very personally - as if that this was being done to her. And we had wound up with issues with her attendance at school and her grades in trouble. And we moved from a moderately large area to a very, very small town. And we decided that something really serious needed to be done in our daughter's case because we felt like we were losing her. And so we took her to Minneapolis, into the more urban area and had all of us, our whole family, do some work in some of the more hard-hit areas of the - urban areas to give our daughter a little tiny bit of perspective.

She was in a really bad self-sadness area, and it was important to try to get her to stop thinking about poor me, and to look at the facts that even though she was losing her home, she still had a place to live, she still had a family that loves her. She had academics and academic opportunities. And she is doing better. And it's still hard. She doesn't like it, but she's motivated to change things. She wants to see why we can't get more schools to look at a dress code, for example. It's one of the things that she's embarrassed about, wearing the same clothes. Well, looking at - trying to look at ways that she can be a little empowered has made it a little bit better. It's still really rough, heading into Christmas. It's really tough for her.

CONAN: It's not going to get easy, but it seems like you've made a real pro-active move to get her engaged and, as you say, give her some perspective.

MARGARET: She has to have empowerment because this isn't - the job climate for us and for what businesses we are in is not improving dramatically. Things are not likely to get a whole lot better really soon.

CONAN: Margaret, thanks very much for the call. I know this is hard for you.

MARGARET: Thank you.

CONAN: Appreciate it. Katherine Marshall Woods, we heard some kids' depression - grades go down. Other kids turn into mini-adults, it seems. Yes, they cope a little bit better, but they lose that childhood too.

WOODS: Yes, they do. Unfortunately, they're placed in a very adult-like situation, and many of them cope by becoming, as you mention, mini-adults as well. Actually, the caller mentioned the idea of feeling empowered, which is really important for some children in order to be able to feel like they have some control over some situation in their life and to feel like they have some self-efficacy. And a lot of individuals who begin to go down that road are individuals who actually continue to have specific variables in place that helps them become resilient, like staying in the same academic center or like continuing to stay with their peer groups, having parents that are supportive in bringing them out, giving them perspectives and making it more of a team approach and also remaining cognitively stimulated.

CONAN: Cognitively stimulated. Do your lessons. So stay in school. Do your homework.

WOODS: Yes. Read books. Go to the library and use the resources that they have, the computers, if you are unable to keep your own.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Well, thank you so much for your time today. Appreciate it.

WOODS: Thank you again.

CONAN: Katherine Marshall Woods, clinical psychologist with the Psychological Group of Washington, where she focuses on child and adolescent psychology. Coming up: It's the Opinion Page. After protests in Moscow, some Russians hope to end the reign of Vladimir Putin, but Kathryn Stoner-Weiss says that's highly unlikely. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.