Poverty still darkens lives of Kentucky kids

by Deborah Yetter

Brandon and his mom Katrina Ellis at the Volunteers

Struggling to provide for themselves and their growing family, George and Katrina Ellis found themselves on the brink of homelessness several years ago when they lost their rental home and couldn't find another they could afford.

"We never in a million years thought it would happen to us," Katrina Ellis said.

With help from the Volunteers of America, which housed them for nine months in its Unity House, the couple has recovered financially and lives in a new rental home with their five boys ages 9, 8, 7, 5 and 1.

But the ordeal was stressful for the parents, who feared they might lose their boys, and for the boys themselves, because they had to deal with the upheaval and fear of not having a permanent home.

"It got to us when we were struggling," Katrina Ellis said.

Poverty continues to affect too many children in Kentucky, in counties ranging from the poorest to the wealthiest, and a family's income, where they live and their race are powerful influences on prospects for children's success, according to a report released Sunday by Kentucky Youth Advocates.

"Race, income and geography do matter," said Terry Brooks, executive director of the nonprofit child advocacy organization that produces an annual report on the state of Kentucky's children. "The challenge is, do we do anything with those findings?"

Alex, right, and Robert Ellis play at the Volunteers

Advocates have long argued that parents working at low-wage jobs simply can't make enough to support a family.

George Ellis, who put in long hours at two food-service jobs at the time his family faced homelessness, knows that well.

"I was working 15 to 20 hours a day and we still couldn't make it," said Ellis, who has since found a better, full-time job at a local hotel.

According to the report, Kentucky Kids Count 2016, more than one in four Kentucky children, or 26 percent, live in poverty. Among the report's findings:

» Black and Hispanic children are more likely to live in poverty and also more likely to live in "deep poverty" — less than 50 percent of the federal poverty level — and in neighborhoods with concentrated poverty more often than white children.

» Children are at greatest risk of poverty in Eastern Kentucky, which has some of the state's highest unemployment and poverty rates.

» Poor children are more likely to be born at a low birth weight, a condition linked to smoking by pregnant women, and associated with impaired cognitive development, which affects a child's success in school.

» Low-income children are half as likely to be proficient in reading than children from higher-income families.

The report ranks child well-being in all 120 Kentucky counties based on data from four categories: economic security, education, health and strength of family and community. Oldham County ranked first and Eastern Kentucky's Wolfe County, last.

In Jefferson County, which ranked 54th in child well-being, 25 percent of children live in poverty.

In Louisville, the Family Success Center at St. Vincent dePaul strives to help children overcome disadvantages of poverty through after-school and summer programs that include tutoring and enrichment activities.

"Poverty has a lot of effects," she said. "Education is not always a priority. We try to instill reading and a love of learning in children so it will be lifelong."

But knowing some children don't have enough to eat, the center also provides a daily hot meal through its Kids' Cafe, she said.

In Wolfe County, the state's poorest with a poverty rate of 40 percent, schools send home backpacks filled with food every Friday for about 130 students of the district's 1,300 students, said Wolfe County School Superintendent Kenny Bell. Some students report hiding their food to keep others from eating it.

"We have a lot of kids who go home hungry," Bell said.

But poverty also affects children in wealthy counties like Oldham, with the state's lowest poverty rate of 6.8 percent. Eight percent of its children live in poverty, the report said.

"Within a couple of miles of us, there are people in extreme poverty," said Rick Davidson, executive pastor of LaGrange Baptist Church.

The Oldham County Ministerial Association has organized efforts to help with food and clothing pantries, housing needs, vouchers for emergency assistance and other services, he said. But the larger goal is to help families improve their situations.

"We work heavily with the community to try to figure out long-term solutions," he said.

That is the focus in Wolfe County as well, where the school system is seeking ways to encourage children to graduate and get either college degrees or advanced vocational training that will lead to jobs, said Bell, the school superintendent. The challenge is finding ways to break the cycle of poverty that has affected some Kentucky families for generations, he said.

Poverty brings a host of problems into children's lives, including unstable housing and eviction, stress, inadequate health care, and a lack of proper food and clothing as well as insufficient time and attention from adults in their lives, Bell said. Some of the children's parents are suffering from drug problems sweeping the state.

"A lot of kids have to come to school to get the emotional connection they need," he said. "It's probably the best place that they see."

Poverty also carries a stigma.

The Ellises said they found stereotypes about poverty and homelessness frustrating, saying some people assumed they must have done something wrong or acted irresponsibly to end up at a shelter.

"Neither one of us do drugs," George Ellis said. "We didn't go in there because of any type of drugs or alcohol. We went in there because of the economy."

The couple credits staff and programs at the Volunteers of America, including budgeting and life skills classes as well as emotional support during their ordeal, for helping them re-establish their household.

"To this day, I can call the VOA and they will help us," Katrina Ellis said. "It's been wonderful."

The couple is proud to be meeting the family's needs without government assistance.

Katrina Ellis, 31, who is disabled from a serious arm injury she sustained on the job, doesn't work outside the home but spends hours each week volunteering at her children's school. George Ellis, 45, said he enjoys his work at the Crowne Plaza hotel.

And they don't dwell on past problems.

"It's made us grow stronger," Katrina Ellis said.

Contact reporter Deborah Yetter at (502)582-4228 or dyetter@courier-journal.com.