Listen: The Forgotten Fourteen Million

American RadioWorks presents the documentary “The Forgotten 14 Million,” which explores why both government and the free market are failing the most vulnerable young Americans. 

The rate of child poverty in the United States is more than double that in most developed countries. Critics of welfare and other social programs say government spending doesn't solve poverty. But neither has economic growth. After the longest peace-time expansion in American history, one in five American children is growing up poor.


2000 Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award, first place in Domestic Radio Broadcast category


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[MUSIC PLAYING] SUSAN STAMBERG: I'm Susan Stamberg from National Public Radio and American RadioWorks. This is a special report on child poverty in America, "The Forgotten 14 Million."

EULA HALL: You know, it used to be the black and white, but anymore it's the rich and poor.

SUSAN STAMBERG: In the wealthiest society the world has ever seen, 1 in 5 children is growing up poor.

JIM WALLEN: They always make fun of me. They don't like me, I guess.

SPEAKER: I had one young boy in my class, for example, today who just started to cry.

SUSAN STAMBERG: In this one hour documentary report, we examine the causes and costs of child poverty and why Americans tolerate it.

SPEAKER: If you said to the average person in this country, do you want there to be children at risk of being hungry, everyone would say, no, we don't want that, we're the United States of America.

SUSAN STAMBERG: This hour, an American RadioWorks special report, "The Forgotten 14 Million." First, the news.

This is a special report from NPR and American RadioWorks. I'm Susan Stamberg. The United States is the richest society in history, yet 1 in 5 American children grows up poor. Critics of welfare and other social programs say government has never cured poverty, but neither has the free market economy.

Even after eight years of economic growth in the US, child poverty is more widespread here than in any other developed country. Over the next hour, we explore what poverty means in the lives of children in this documentary, "The Forgotten 14 Million." American RadioWorks correspondent John Biewen begins with a profile of two families struggling in Eastern Kentucky.

JOHN BIEWEN: A string of ramshackle trailers lines a small creek that's wedged between steep hillsides in Bailey Branch Hollow. One of them, a banged up pink trailer vintage 1960s belongs to Virginia Trusty. She bought it from a relative for $800.

VIRGINIA TRUSTY: I'm 30 years old. I'm a single parent raising four kids.

PAUL TRUSTY: Sissy, get away at the door.

VIRGINIA TRUSTY: There's Paul Trusty. That's my oldest. He's 10. Then there's Brittany Trusty, she's eight, Jonathan Trusty, he's four, and Ashley Trusty, who's 14 months old.

JONATHAN TRUSTY: Would you buy me a little dog?

VIRGINIA TRUSTY: I just hope they have a better future, something to look forward to. A better life than what they got-- well, what I've had.

JOHN BIEWEN: Virginia grew up poor just a few miles away, the daughter of a tenant tobacco farmer. Now her kids are four of the nation's 14 million poor children. Her family survives on public aid worth $10,000 a year, barely half the federal poverty threshold for a family of five.

BRITTANY TRUSTY: This is mommy's bedroom.

JOHN BIEWEN: Who sleeps in here?

BRITTANY TRUSTY: Mommy, sissy, and Jon-Jon.

JOHN BIEWEN: And you sleep?

BRITTANY TRUSTY: On the couch.

JOHN BIEWEN: The couch that doubles as Brittany's bed is worn and stained. There's a chipboard ceiling and a patchwork of plywood paneling on the walls. The trailer is heated by a coal burning stove.

VIRGINIA TRUSTY: Well, it did stay real cold in here, we put plastic stuff up over the windows. We've so like insulated that to keep the cold air and stuff out. It's home. It's home for many kids. It's roof over our head right now, until better things happen for us.

JOHN BIEWEN: Virginia doesn't own a car. Her phone service comes and goes with her ability to pay for it. She fits some of the stereotypes of the welfare mother. She went on AFDC when her first son was born 10 years ago. She never married. Each of her kids has a different father. None stayed around for long and none helps Virginia support the children.

VIRGINIA TRUSTY: I can't give them everything they want, but I try, I do.

JOHN BIEWEN: 20% of American children live in families with incomes below the federal poverty line. That's down a few points since the mid 1990s. The swelling economy is beginning to lift some of the poorest Americans. But the child poverty rate is still almost double what it was in the early 1970s when Virginia was small. There's a complicated stew of reasons. The number of single parent families has grown, public aid buys less than it used to, and the jobs available to workers without special skills are more likely to pay poverty wages.

VIRGINIA TRUSTY: I think it's good that the economy is up, but what's it going to do for people in Eastern Kentucky?

JOHN BIEWEN: Under welfare reform, Virginia is required to look for a job. Until she finds one, she has to work for her welfare check. This day she's crushing plastic laundry bottles with her tennis shoe at the County recycling center in downtown Salyersville.

VIRGINIA TRUSTY: It ain't no fun job, tell you truth, but it's just to keep my kids on fed and took care of. This is the only means I've got right now.

JOHN BIEWEN: Kentucky's welfare to work law requires Virginia to put in 25 hours a week for the County. Her $383 monthly check amounts to a wage of less than $4 an hour.

VIRGINIA TRUSTY: Ain't nobody going to hand me nothing for free. They ain't.

JOHN BIEWEN: While some who've gone from welfare to work have also left poverty behind, many have not. A recent report found one third of poor children now have working parents.

It's 4:30 the next morning. Just down the Hollow from Virginia Trusty's place, her brother-in-law, Wilbur Wallen, stokes the fire in his coal and wood burning stove.

JANET WALLEN: You freeze your ice thing last night.

JOHN BIEWEN: Wilbur's wife, Janet, is up making his lunch. The Wallen's four small dogs bustle about, but their two sons age 12 and 14 are still asleep. They share a single bed in the back of the trailer. Janet daubs hydrogen peroxide on the back of Wilbur's swollen right hand. He poked a deep hole in it on the job a couple of days ago.

WILBUR WALLEN: Well, it's sorer than it was yesterday.

JOHN BIEWEN: Wilbur says he could have taken the day off and collected workers' Comp.

WILBUR WALLEN: But if I'd done that, we're on overtime right now and I wouldn't have got overtime, and I need all the money I can get. See, my boy, he's graduating from eighth grade this year, I've got to buy his cap and gown for him. $25 I believe he said. And some schools is all the time wanting money for something.

JOHN BIEWEN: Until a year and a half ago, the Wallens relied on welfare and whatever minimum wage jobs Wilbur could find. Now the family lives entirely on Wilbur's wage at a truck assembly plant, $8.30 an hour.

WILBUR WALLEN: Well, I've got to admit I've got a little bit better job than I used to, but you have to travel so far to get to it.

JOHN BIEWEN: Far, indeed.


184 miles round trip every day. Once Wilbur gets his 1981 Dodge started, he'll spend almost four hours in it driving to and from his job in Central Kentucky. His reward is a paycheck that lifts his family just to the federal poverty line, about $17,000 for a family of four.


SPEAKER: This next song goes out to Mack Robinson. And we understand that Mac Robinson is a little bit sick and we hope he feels better.


JOHN BIEWEN: Take a drive in Central Appalachia and you'll understand one big reason for its chronic economic problems, businesses don't want to locate in a place that's hard to get to, and you can't drive more than 35 miles an hour on roads that dip and swerve so relentlessly through the hills.

(SINGING) I've just got time and I've got another round.

JOHN BIEWEN: Some things have changed since the 1960s when Robert Kennedy and other war on poverty advocates drove these roads. They called attention to laid off coal miners and their hungry, shoeless children. The images jabbed at the nation's conscience. The resulting federal spending created some middle class jobs for social service workers, but mainly strengthened the safety net. Food stamps, head start, and Medicaid eased the symptoms of poverty without curing it. So why not move to a place with more and better jobs? Janet Wallen says it's out of the question.

JANET WALLEN: I just like to stay somewhere where I know all the folks and know all the places. I know most of the places in Magoffin County because I was born and raised at 'em, and I know most of the people in Magoffin County. I've got a lot of kin in Magoffin County and everything. Some will help you and some won't.. Just take what you can get. And that's the way we do, we just help each other out around here, that's what I like about it.

JOHN BIEWEN: Anyway for the Wallens a move to the city would mean more expensive housing, they bought their trailer for $500, and it probably would not open doors to lucrative jobs. The new global information economy pays a premium for the workers it needs most, those with a college degree or technical training. Employers view people without those assets as a dime a dozen. Janet and Wilbur Wallen are educational have nots.

JANET WALLEN: I went to seventh grade. I passed out of seventh grade into the eighth grade, but I didn't go to the eighth grade. I got married three days after school was out. I was 13 years old when I got married. He was 17.


JOHN BIEWEN: In the late afternoon, an orange school bus crawls up the Hollow and drops off Janet's two sons and her nieces and nephews. Studies confirm child poverty is often a trap. Poor children get sick and die more often than middle class kids. They commit more crimes, and they're twice as likely to drop out before finishing high school. More than ever in this economy dropping out means repeating the cycle of poverty.

JANET WALLEN: My youngest one if I give him a chance, he'd quit school right now. But we won't give him that chance.


JOHN BIEWEN: There's a chilly spring drizzle and the creek is running fast. 12-year-old Jim Wallen gives his rooster, Red, some fresh water.

JIM WALLEN: My aunt got me a rooster. He is a half [INAUDIBLE] and a half big stock rooster.

JOHN BIEWEN: Jim explains how he got Red in a rooster swap.

JIM WALLEN: That rooster I had too, that one died.

JOHN BIEWEN: OK. Do you like this one better?


JOHN BIEWEN: How come?

JIM WALLEN: He's prettier and he fights better.

JOHN BIEWEN: Jim is a handsome athletic looking boy with tousled blonde hair. He says his mom is right, he doesn't like school much. His grades range from B's to D's and he doesn't get along with some of his teachers.

JIM WALLEN: They're grouchy and stuff, they gripe at me and stuff. Mostly cause I don't listen to 'em. And I turn my work and they say I don't turn it in, they say I get low computer grades and stuff, low test scores.



JOHN BIEWEN: Americans have carried on a long running politically loaded debate about why poor children don't fare as well on average as middle class kids. Some say poor parents fail their children by setting bad examples, teen pregnancy, addiction, and neglecting to teach the value of education. Others say that so-called culture of poverty is not the root problem but a predictable symptom of hopelessness. Recent studies have found poor kids are at heightened risk of quitting school even if they come from intact families in safe neighborhoods. Eula Hall, a near legend in Eastern Kentucky, thinks she knows why.

EULA HALL: You give up. People give up. They're very, very bright, talented children if they just encouraged. And if you don't dream, you soon die.

JOHN BIEWEN: Eula Hall grew up in severe poverty, then endured an abusive marriage for years. Finally, in middle age, she gathered the strength to change her life and devote it to others. She used a federal grant to found the Mud Creek clinic for poor people in Grethel. Now at 71, she says the social divide that beats poor kids down is more palpable than ever.

EULA HALL: It's so sad. It's so sad to see little children withdrawn and isolated from the rest of lots of other children and because of their parents having to live in poverty. It's class. It used to be the black and white, but anymore it's the rich and poor. It's what you got.

JOHN BIEWEN: Jim Wallen says he doesn't know about class divisions, but he does feel picked on in school.

JIM WALLEN: I mostly fight a lot because they always make fun of me. They say I'm ugly and fat and stupid.

JOHN BIEWEN: But you're not any of those things. Why would they say that?

JIM WALLEN: I don't know. They don't like me, I guess.

JOHN BIEWEN: A lot of kids like Jim fall behind their classmates even before the first bus ride to kindergarten. Recent studies have found that a child's chances of succeeding in school are damaged most profoundly by deep poverty in early childhood. That's especially disturbing given that the percentage of young children living in deep poverty, that is with a household income below half the poverty line, has doubled since the 1970s. In fact, the government says 4.2 million American kids face moderate to severe hunger.


JUDITH COLLINSWORTH: We've got quite a few people will come down this morning.

JOHN BIEWEN: The Full Gospel Missionary pantry in Salyersville opens its doors at the end of each month. People start lining up early for the bags of groceries, enough to feed a small family for a few days.

JUDITH COLLINSWORTH: See, we're giving out cereal and then there's crackers in the boxes.

JOHN BIEWEN: Judith Collinsworth is a volunteer who helps to fill the bags.

JUDITH COLLINSWORTH: Then there's pop tarts and spaghetti, and there's green beans and corn and pork and stuff like that down in there, so they're getting a pretty good bag this month.

JOHN BIEWEN: The need for emergency food assistance is growing in Eastern Kentucky. The region is adding new distribution sites every month. That trend isn't limited to distressed places like Appalachia. The US Conference of Mayors says demand for emergency food in cities went up about 15% each of the last two years. Patricia Puckett founded the Salyersville pantry 10 years ago. She says her monthly clientele has grown from 25 families to 300.

PATRICIA PUCKETT: For one thing, the price of food has gone up. Another is that we don't have one factory here and they very seldom ever hire. Then the people that do get jobs here it's mostly service jobs like McDonald's and Burger King and that kind of thing where it's minimum wage. They just don't have enough income to feed their family.


SUSAN STAMBERG: I'm Susan Stamberg. You're listening to "The Forgotten Fourteen Million," a documentary on child poverty produced by American RadioWorks. Still to come, advice from an Appalachian mother and schooling for children of the urban poor. From NPR, National Public Radio.


SPEAKER: A, B, C, D, E, F, G--

SPEAKER: Like this, Coda. Coda.

JOHN BIEWEN: It's lunchtime at the Mayking Head Start Center in Letcher County, Kentucky. The four-year-Olds and their teachers sit at round tables and dish up spaghetti, sweet corn, lettuce salad, and buttered bread. The children get breakfast at the center too. Director Jeannette Yonts.

JEANNETTE YONTS: Our lunch is not really what you would consider a lunch, it is more like a balanced dinner, so that if this is the only meal and breakfast that the kids get, then they have already had their daily needs.

JOHN BIEWEN: Head Start is a federal preschool program designed to give poor children a boost. Congress funds it to serve just 1/3 of eligible children.

JEANNETTE YONTS: Make you some room, won't we?

JOHN BIEWEN: Yonts says it's easier to feed children than to fill other holes in their lives. According to parent surveys, only a 1/4 of the kids at this center have books at home.

JEANNETTE YONTS: The ones that do really enjoy being read to, and you can tell which ones have been emerged into books and literature of any kind. And then maybe 75% really pay no attention whatsoever to books.

JOHN BIEWEN: Back at Virginia Trusty's trailer, eight-year-old Brittany Trusty digs for the only children's books her family owns. They belong to her baby sister, Ashley.

BRITTANY TRUSTY: She only had three. Here's your other one. Sissy got this as he her Christmas present. She got from her social worker.

JOHN BIEWEN: Do you have any of your own?


JOHN BIEWEN: Parents in poverty can't afford many books or educational toys. It's tempting, though, to find fault with Brittany's mother for spending $30 on a used Nintendo instead of books.

PAUL TRUSTY: You got game over, bubba.

JOHN BIEWEN: Maybe that's one reason Paul, the 10-year-old, struggles in school. Then again, Brittany gets straight As.

BRITTANY TRUSTY: I want to be a teacher.

JOHN BIEWEN: Of course, some children do climb over the barriers that come with growing up poor. Nobody fully understands why some kids make it and some don't. Brittany's cousin, Jim Wallen, the 12-year-old who doesn't like school, eats his evening meal in a chair in front of the TV. With his fork, he taps out the beat to an ad for a college scholarship program.


JANET WALLEN: Jimmy, quit. Eat your supper and quit.

JOHN BIEWEN: If you ask Jim's mother Janet what she thinks about the middle class world on the television, the implied contrast to her own life seems to poke at her pride.

JANET WALLEN: We get everything we need. As long as we get what we need and everything, make a living, that's it. And which daddy's out making a living and everything, mommy's at home and taking care of the kids in the house. So that's the way I see it.

JOHN BIEWEN: But at other times, Janet shows a very different and fierce wish for her sons. For instance, when Jim says he'd like to get married at 18 or 21 at the oldest.


JIM WALLEN: You're allowed to get married when you're 21.

JANET WALLEN: Yeah, you're allowed to get married when you're 21, but where are you going to take her to?

JIM WALLEN: I don't know.

JANET WALLEN: Without the money and without a home? You got to have money and you've got to have a home to take her to.

JIM WALLEN: Yeah, but I'm going to get me a home first.

JANET WALLEN: There ain't no way you can get married at the age of 18 and think that you can go through college, get a job, and support a family, and rent your own home and everything else. You can't do that. That's what mommy and daddy's been trying to tell you since. You get your education, everything, then you can get a woman. Other than that, you ain't-- If you don't go through all of that, then you ain't going to have nothing. And you know it.

JOHN BIEWEN: In the pre-dawn darkness, Wilbur Wallen starts his two-hour drive to work. He looks out at the highway through the cracked windshield of his old Dodge. For some kids who grow up poor, the American dream can seem out of sight, somewhere beyond the headlights. Wilbur says when he was growing up, he didn't know any adults with more than a high school degree, nor did anyone in his life have a salary or a mortgage, let alone stocks or retirement savings. He says the same is true of his son, Jim.

WILBUR WALLEN: I'll tell you the truth, back then I didn't think nothing about it. I guess that's where that young boy of mine gets it from. [CHUCKLES] That's why I'm trying to get him and his brother to go on through college, try to get him a good job where they can make a comfortable living without having to get out and rake and scrape to pay the bills and don't have to kill yourself like I have all my life.

JOHN BIEWEN: Wilbur and Janet Wallen are drilling their sons on perhaps the two most important steps out of poverty, stay in school, and don't have children until you can support them. Still poor kids enter the race well behind the starting line. For many of them, knowing the rules may not be enough.


DAVANTE: My name is Davante. I live in Northeast Minneapolis. And I want to be a lawyer when I grow up.

ISA: Hello. My name is Isa. I'm from Southeast Minneapolis. And I want to grow up to be an astronaut.

SUSAN STAMBERG: In the new information economy, education is more important than ever if children want to follow their dreams. But the dropout rate among poor American high schoolers is twice that of middle class kids and 10 times that of children from wealthy families. That's true in Eastern Kentucky, and it's true in the nation's poor urban neighborhoods. John Biewen's exploration of child poverty in the US continues in Minneapolis. A lawsuit over the adequacy of Minneapolis schools is sparking a lively debate over how to help poor kids succeed in the classroom.

SPEAKER: Let's do it. Where's your book?

SPEAKER: Let's go, guys. Got to get moving.

JOHN BIEWEN: Minneapolis is not one of those cities with falling down inner city schools. West Central Academy serves one of the city's poorest neighborhoods, the near north side, but the handsome new school boasts architectural touches like high cathedral windows and curved hallways as well as an up to date computer lab.

DONNA AMANN: You look pretty today. Have a good day.

JOHN BIEWEN: The teachers seem fully engaged, even passionate.

ANN CUMMINS-BOGAN: One more time, glanced.

CHILDREN: Glanced.


CHILDREN: Wondered.


CHILDREN: Imagine.


CHILDREN: Jauntily.

JOHN BIEWEN: Teacher Ann Cummins-Bogan leads a dozen third graders through a list of new words. She then asks how the words were used in the reading assignment.

ANN CUMMINS-BOGAN: If something else he was imagining about a person in his life that went away.

SPEAKER: Oh, his uncle Hawk.

ANN CUMMINS-BOGAN: His uncle Hawk. What was he trying to imagine?

SPEAKER: What it'll be like when he climbed the mountain.

JOHN BIEWEN: Some students and parents will tell you the Minneapolis schools are just fine, thanks. Many middle class kids of all races excel, and a healthy number go off to top universities. Yet over half of the city's students, most of them poor, get subpar scores on standardized tests. 2/3 of Black students fail to graduate on time.

JOHN SHULMAN: The Minneapolis schools are a comprehensive failure for 2/3 of all of the students in the entire city school district, and that's almost 50,000 kids.

JOHN BIEWEN: John Shulman is an attorney for the Minneapolis NAACP. In its lawsuit, the group says the State of Minnesota is shirking its responsibility to educate Minneapolis kids. The state sends extra money to the Minneapolis district, but the NAACP says the issue isn't just funding, it's a range of housing, transportation, and education policies that concentrate poor and minority children in Central City schools. Shulman says schools populated overwhelmingly by poor children almost never succeed and the state knows it.

JOHN SHULMAN: We're spending approximately $11,000 per student in the Minneapolis public schools compared, for example, to about 6 or $7,000 in the suburban schools around Minneapolis, yet the suburban schools have extraordinary success, are very, very highly ranked nationally, and the city schools are at the very bottom. For kids of Color in particular, they do worse than most of the major cities, including Detroit, Cleveland, Oakland, that one associates with problem urban schools.

ANN CUMMINS-BOGAN: So when you're smothered, you feel like what? You can't--

CHILDREN: Breathe.

ANN CUMMINS-BOGAN: OK, all right, what I want you guys to do--

JOHN BIEWEN: Most of the third and fifth graders at West Central Academy scored below their grade level on reading tests last year. The school uses an intensive reading program created specifically for urban schools with lots of kids who need extra help. Susan Schuff, who oversees the program, says West Central fits that description.

SUSAN SCHUFF: We have 98% free and reduced lunch at this school. We have a 40% mobility rate. Meaning that in any given year, 40% of our children leave. So we have a very high turnover. We have a 100% minority population. It's approximately 80% African-American and 20% Latino.

JOHN BIEWEN: The concentration of poor and minority children is exceptionally high at West Central, but overall, 70% of Minneapolis public school students are racial minorities, 2/3 come from low income families. The two groups are largely one and the same. Starting in the 1980s, thousands of poor Black families moved to Minneapolis from cities like Chicago, along with immigrants from Latin America, Africa, and Southeast Asia. Many middle class parents, White and Black, put their kids in private schools or moved to suburbs.

Connie Overhue is a teacher and social worker at West Central Academy. She says it's hard to teach in a classroom where most of the kids show the stress of living in poor, unstable homes.

CONNIE OVERHUE: One is the kids are falling asleep. Literally falling asleep as we're teaching. Or two is, I had one young boy in my class, for example, today who just started to cry. It's like, are you OK, and it's like, I'll be OK, I'll be OK. Or you'll see the violence erupt very quickly. Somebody may say something and it's like really blowing out of proportion, almost like an explosion. Again, I think some of what's coming from home is coming into the classroom.

JOHN BIEWEN: The NAACP says the solution is metropolitan-wide busing to, in effect, sprinkle low income children throughout the region. The group points to studies showing that disadvantaged kids fare better when they're surrounded by children who are not at risk. But the Minneapolis district is moving away from busing in favor of so-called neighborhood schools. School board member Bill Green points out that policy has a lot of support among poor parents, many of whom want their kids to attend school close to home.

BILL GREEN: Kids of Color sitting next to White kids does not necessarily lead to achievement. If you don't have a secure home life, and if the parent can't get to the classroom because the transportation system doesn't take a parent in one section of the city to another section of the metropolitan area, it's no use.

JOHN BIEWEN: School officials and the NAACP do agree on one thing, bad neighborhoods hobble many Minneapolis children. In the perennially poor Phillips neighborhood of South Minneapolis, Brian Johnson and his girlfriend, Tina, watch TV in the upstairs bedroom of his mother's house. Their new son sleeps beside them.

BRIAN JOHNSON: This is my baby. He's two months old. Brian Lewis Johnson Jr.

JOHN BIEWEN: Brian Sr. is 18. He dropped out of school a couple of years ago even though he says he usually got Bs and Cs. He says he would have liked to ride a bus to a suburban school.

BRIAN JOHNSON: Me personally I think I would have did a lot better in a school way out there just because it's not in the inner city to where there's a lot of negativity brought to school.

JOHN BIEWEN: By negativity, Brian means the threat of violence. He's been wounded by gunfire twice in the last three years, not in school, but in his neighborhood. After he was hit in a drive by shooting, Brian dropped out. School officials and some kids from middle class neighborhoods say Minneapolis schools are safe, but Brian says when he went to school, his neighborhood followed.

BRIAN JOHNSON: Weapons is all in the schools, from knives to nunchucks to all kind of weapons, some scary, something that you really don't want to be around because you feel uncomfortable. If you get into an argument with this person, will he stab you?

JOHN BIEWEN: Brian's mother, Sue Johnson, says it's been painful to watch her two sons turn hard. She blames the neighborhood.

SUE JOHNSON: They're still good kids, they're not bad kids. They just have a certain attitude they have to walk with. If they're seen as weak or show themselves as weak, they'll get beat up every day. They can't even go to the corner store.

JOHN BIEWEN: Johnson and some other parents say the schools are quick to put a bad kid label on poor, minority children, and then replace education with behavior control.

EVELYN EUBANKS: We have children who are being suspended for being verbal. We have children that are being expelled for fighting. First offense and you're recommended for an expulsion.

JOHN BIEWEN: Evelyn Eubanks and her four school aged children live in North Minneapolis. She pulled her kids out of the Minneapolis schools a couple of years ago. She now homeschools them, teaching all the lessons herself, including Spanish.

EVELYN EUBANKS: OK, pink, Winnie, what's pink called?

WINNIE: Rosado.

EVELYN EUBANKS: Rosado is pink. White, Brandon.

BRANDON: White, blanket.


If you have a classroom and you're failing all those students, you need to check yourself. And then consistently blame these children. OK, so they come with problems. And I bought into it sometimes because I thought, well, maybe there are kids, but when I saw it applied to my children, who had the ability, the intelligence, and the support, I knew there was something wrong with this entire system.

JOHN BIEWEN: School officials say it's just not true that they expect poor kids to fail.

- OK, children, everybody should be seated. If you are done with your [INAUDIBLE] and writing--

JOHN BIEWEN: Back at West Central Academy, principal Donna Amann takes me into a reading class for kids with discipline problems. She encourages 13-year-old Eric Berry to read a sentence he wrote using the word "gruffly."

ERIC BERRY: I gruffly yelled at my sister, "No, you are not going to drop out of school at the age of 15."

DONNA AMANN: Good advice.

JOHN BIEWEN: Is that true?


JOHN BIEWEN: Did that really happen? [LAUGHS]

Principal Amann says given time and support, the schools can work wonders with kids like Eric.

DONNA AMANN: You know how proud he was to read to you? A year ago, he couldn't read or write. And he's now at about fifth or sixth grade level. I mean, that's a real success story.

JOHN BIEWEN: Minneapolis school officials point out that the percentage of eighth graders passing a state reading test increased by 15% the past two years. And even though most kids at West Central fail reading and math tests, a majority did show improvement last year. The NAACP isn't satisfied. It argues the state must heal poor neighborhoods before it can educate the children who live in them. On that point, school board member Bill Green agrees. He says some poor kids carry crushing burdens to school. To expect schools alone to overcome them, he says, is simply asking too much.

BILL GREEN: If we're going to do what's right for kids, we've got to be willing to push the envelope in terms of solutions. If we want to have a series of policies that result in concentration of kids of these needs, then what are we prepared to do to assure them of the quality of education they deserve?


ADRIAN HERNANDEZ: My name is Adrian de Jesus Hernandez. This is Hernandez Adrian de Jesus, that's Jesus in English. Adrian de Jesus Hernandez, I have eight years old--

SPEAKER: No nine.

ADRIAN HERNANDEZ: Nine, nine, nine years old. I want to be a teacher.

SUSAN STAMBERG: Adrian de Jesus might be a teacher someday, but his first job is likely to be farm worker, and chances are he'll start that career before he finishes junior high. When Americans talk about the problem of child labor, they're usually thinking of other countries. This country banned most kinds of work by young children decades ago, certainly dangerous work, except in the nation's orchards and fields. Farm worker advocates say agriculture is the last big stronghold of dangerous child labor in the US. Much of that labor is legal, and most of the children doing it are poor.


John Biewen's report "The Forgotten Fourteen Million" continues in a moment with a visit to the orchards of Washington State and the politics of poverty in Washington D.C. I'm Susan Stamberg. You're listening to a documentary from American RadioWorks and NPR, National Public Radio.


SPEAKER: Major funding for American RadioWorks is provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, with additional support from the Florence and John Schumann foundation. For tapes, send $12 to NPR tapes, 45 East 7th Street, St. Paul Minnesota, or call 1-800-288-7123. To find out more about "The Forgotten Fourteen Million," go to our website at You'll find photos of the families profiled in this program along with links and other information on child poverty. That's

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JOHN BIEWEN: Santiago and Emma Mata work side by side inside a natural tunnel formed by overlapping branches of Granny Smith Apple trees. They wear gloves and surgical masks to guard against dust and pesticide residue. It's a crisp perfect October day near Mattawa in South Central Washington State. The Matas are not migrants. Like thousands of farm workers in this part of Washington, they live here year round.


INTERPRETER: I work all the time, picking cherries, picking apples, trimming and pruning the trees.

JOHN BIEWEN: The Matas pluck the green apples with smooth rapid motions quickly filling the canvas bags strapped over their shoulders. Every few minutes, each of them climbs down to lay a bag full gently into a squat wooden bin the size of a big freezer chest. Economists who study the industry say on average, hired farm workers make $6 or $7 an hour with no health coverage or other benefits. Between seasons, farm workers live through long stretches of unemployment, so the average farm worker in the US earns about $7,000 a year.

LUIS HERNANDEZ: I sleep in the floor because I feel better on the floor.

JOHN BIEWEN: 13-year-old Luis Hernandez shows me the small house where he lives with his parents and five siblings in Toppenish, Washington.

LUIS HERNANDEZ: My older brother, he sleeps right there, in the bed.

JOHN BIEWEN: Where do the other kids sleep?

LUIS HERNANDEZ: Sometimes they sleep right there on the floor. And my dad and my mom too.

JOHN BIEWEN: Everybody else sleeps on the floor in the living room?


JOHN BIEWEN: Luis's parents, Juan and Antonia, are Mexican immigrants. They both work much of the year, so they make more than the average farm worker family, $18,000 last year. But that's still 10,000 below the federal poverty line for a family of eight. Luis and his 14-year-old brother, Jose, work sometimes too. Jose harvested cherries last summer, then continued after school started, picking apples on weekends through mid october.

JOSE: Not all day, but in the morning to 3:00, at 3:00 PM, to help my parents get money to pay the bills and all that.

JOHN BIEWEN: Antonia and Juan Hernandez seem sensitive to questions about their sons doing farm labor. They say they don't require the boys to work.


INTERPRETER: No, they wanted to come and help us. It was their idea.


INTERPRETER: His older brother goes to help out the family. And so he wanted to go too, because he wanted to make some money. We let them keep some, only a little, but some.

JOHN BIEWEN: Media reports often focus on illegal child labor in agriculture, but it's legal for 14-year-old Jose to work in the orchards. His 13-year-old brother Luis apparently broke state law by picking cherries last summer. Cherry orchards are off limits in Washington until age 14. But at 13, Luis could work legally in cucumber, berry, and spinach fields. Agriculture's child labor laws vary from state to state and crop to crop, but as a rule, they're more lenient than in any other industry, that, despite the fact farming ranks with mining and construction as one of the most dangerous industries.

DIANE MULL: It's OK for a kid under 14 to work in the fields using knives and machetes and other sharp cutting instruments, but they can't work under 14 in an air conditioned office collating paper.

JOHN BIEWEN: Diane Mull directs the Washington D.C. based Association of Farmworker Opportunity programs. She estimates 800,000 children work legally and illegally in agriculture, though hard numbers aren't available. Brian Little, chief lobbyist for the American Farm Bureau Federation says farming has the most relaxed child labor laws for good reason.

BRIAN LITTLE: The average agricultural producer is a very, very small business, and family farms, by and large, cannot succeed without relying on the efforts of family and friends and anybody else you can find to come and drive the truck, drive the combine, put a new alternator on the tractor, and do stuff like that when you're in the middle of trying to get the harvest in before it rains.

JOHN BIEWEN: But statistics show that communal picture of child labor is largely outdated. The Census Bureau says only a quarter of kids working on farms are the children or neighbors of farm owners. 3/4 are hired laborers. Luis Hernandez worked on the cherry harvest for just a few days last summer because in the first week just before his 13th birthday, he got hurt while taking a break to play.

LUIS HERNANDEZ: I was standing on a ladder. When I got off and I was playing with the guy, my friend, that was on a tractor, I was playing with him throwing cherries [INAUDIBLE], then I tripped. When I tripped, the tire, it ran over me and stopped right here on the middle of my stomach.

JOHN BIEWEN: Luis's mother, Antonia, was working on a ladder nearby. She says when she saw the flatbed trailer knocked Lewis down and roll onto his chest, she screamed at the driver.


INTERPRETER: He heard me and he stopped and looked down. The wheel had come up just short of Luis's head. The driver then backed off him.

JOHN BIEWEN: Luis was flown to a hospital in Seattle with a bruised heart and blood in his lungs. He's OK now. But a 17-year-old boy picking peaches in Utah last summer was not as lucky. He died of a brain hemorrhage after being sprayed accidentally with pesticides. Teenage farm workers make up just 4% of all employed teens, but a much higher 25% of those killed on the job. Farm groups say those figures overstate the danger to young hand laborers. Mike Gempler of the Washington Growers League says most kids killed on farms are those who live there. They are far more likely to handle dangerous machinery and pesticides.

MIKE GEMPLER: But for somebody who is involved in a field work position who's not working around concentrated forms of pesticides, who is handling a piece of fruit that is going to be sold and marketed the next day, the threat is not there at all. The hard evidence just doesn't stack up.

JOHN BIEWEN: But federal officials acknowledge they don't know much about the risk because long term effects of pesticide exposure on field workers have never been studied. Farm worker advocate Diane Mull points out federal standards for when workers can enter a field after pesticides have been sprayed are based on the estimated risk to an adult male, not a child.

DIANE MULL: We're using these kids, we're using farm workers as guinea pigs to really look at what intensive pesticide exposures are. And as a result, if you look at that population, and you know that they're largely minority, that's an even more egregious form of discrimination.

JOHN BIEWEN: A report last fall by the National Research council's Institute of Medicine said the government should tighten restrictions on child labor, especially on farms. Commission member Barbara Lee says it's healthy for kids to help on farms if the work is safe and doesn't go on too long.

BARBARA LEE: But if you put them into a situation where they're actually taking the place of an adult laborer, then you have to ask the question, would that be acceptable in any other industry. And if it is not, then we have to say we've got a problem here.

JOHN BIEWEN: Farm worker advocates say the best way to curb child labor in agriculture is to reduce the need for children to work by raising the wages paid to adult farm workers. Farm employers say they couldn't compete in global markets if they had to pay much more.


SUSAN STAMBERG: The federal laws that govern child labor on the farm were made in my town, Washington D.C. Of course, the capital is also the place for key debates over head start and food stamps and grants for schools that serve impoverished kids. The US government spends billions on anti-poverty programs, but does not provide the kind of comprehensive safety net that's common in other rich countries. John Biewen concludes our report on child poverty by exploring why.

JOHN BIEWEN: Last October Congress passed a huge spending bill that included $7 billion in emergency relief for farmers and $9 billion in last minute additions for the military, including a billion for missile defense that the Pentagon didn't ask for. Anti-poverty forces watched with envy.

DEBORAH WEINSTEIN: Those of us who work on these issues tried desperately to be on top of what last minute thing might be negative. There's not any little bonus presents that come as a surprise usually in the dark last hours of a budget session.

JOHN BIEWEN: That's Deborah Weinstein of the Children's Defense Fund. For decades, groups like hers have called for a stronger safety net while pointing at Western Europe. Their governments use income supplements and universal health care and daycare programs to help keep the child poverty rate under 10%. That's less than half the US rate today. But the notion of expanding the welfare state doesn't have many friends in Washington these days.

Republican Bill Frenzel was a Congressman from Minnesota throughout the 1970s and '80s. He's now a guest scholar at the Brookings institution. He thinks most members of Congress, including the Republican majority, would support more federal help for the poor if they thought it would help.

BILL FRENZEL: On the other hand, I think most conservatives believe that we had a long period in our nation's history in which we sprayed a lot of money around and didn't do a lot of good.

JOHN BIEWEN: Critics blamed the main welfare program AFDC for encouraging teenage pregnancy and rewarding dependency. President Clinton signed the welfare reform bill that dismantled AFDC in 1996. But some observers think there's a lesson in the fact that a few anti-poverty programs have survived more or less intact, namely those that provide food assistance to the poor. Jim Weill is executive director of the Food Research and Action Center, an anti-hunger group based in Washington.

JIM WEILL: The politics of food stamps and other nutrition programs are interesting because even in an era when programs for poor people have been under attack, food programs have shown a lot of resilience. Some Republicans wanted to end food stamps as an entitlement in 1996, but influential members from farm states blocked the move. Farm groups support anti-hunger programs for reasons we'll get to in a moment. First consider this, while advocates for the poor rely on statistics and moral persuasion, the farm industry has given $82 million to congressional campaigns since 1994.

BRIAN LITTLE: We have I think 12 registered lobbyists on staff that handle a variety of different issues ranging from commodity price export--

JOHN BIEWEN: Lobbyist Brian Little of the American Farm Bureau Federation explains why groups like his have been key supporters of Federal Food assistance programs.

BRIAN LITTLE: For the same reason that rural electric co-ops for years and years have sold electric refrigerators and electric stoves. You might think of it as building a market, but in a lot of ways, they sort of boil down trying to build a political coalition that can win.

JOHN BIEWEN: Little refers to a long standing marriage of convenience between urban and rural lawmakers. For decades, big city representatives have voted for farm subsidies. In return, rural legislators supported anti-hunger programs that cities wanted. To some in Washington, the example proves it's all about power politics, that poor families only get help when their interests coincide with other more favored constituencies. Charles Lewis directs the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit group that investigates the impact of money on congressional behavior.

CHARLES LEWIS: The simple truth in Washington today is that children do not vote, they do not lobby, they don't contribute to political campaigns, they don't pay for politicians all expense paid trips, the only thing children are good for to politicians is as a photo op during an election.

JOHN BIEWEN: Lewis says even with support from the farm lobby, Congress doesn't spend enough on food assistance to meet the need, and he's convinced that does not reflect the wishes of voters.

CHARLES LEWIS: If you said to the average person in this country, do you want there to be 13 million children who are hungry or at risk of being hungry, everyone would say, no, we don't want that. We're the United States of America, we don't do that in this country.

JOHN BIEWEN: But there's evidence that the US government's more limited anti-poverty efforts do reflect the values of ordinary Americans. Larry Aber heads the National Center for Children In Poverty at Columbia University. The center has done extensive surveys on public attitudes towards the poor.

LARRY ABER: One of the reasons Americans say they're concerned about kids but seem less willing to act on behalf of kids, especially poor and vulnerable kids, is that they're not willing to do something to help the children if it means helping what they see as their shiftless and worthless parents.

JOHN BIEWEN: Aber says a solid majority of Americans is inclined to help those in need, but that majority is divided. About half is willing to offer assistance with no strings attached. The other half wants to help only those who somehow earn the assistance.

LARRY ABER: And it's a more reciprocal relationship, you help them and they in turn help you. And the people who believe in this reciprocal benefit idea also believe that charity should begin close to home with places you live in and people you can see.

JOHN BIEWEN: Aber thinks the time may be right for advocates of a stronger safety net to repackage their appeal. That is now that the old welfare system is being replaced by work requirements, and a growing number of poor children have working parents. Former Republican Congressman Frenzel agrees.

BILL FRENZEL: I think the American public had a very heavy tilt against welfare as exemplified by the AFDC programs, and had the feeling that they were subsidizing generations of people who never could arise from the welfare system. I think if we were talking about helping children who were in need in working families, there would be a far greater appeal to the American public and ultimately, to the public's representatives in Congress and in the White House.

JOHN BIEWEN: People who work with the poor say America's burgeoning national wealth gives the country its best opportunity ever to solve child poverty. Most agree any such assault should not be just a government initiative, charity and business must play big roles too. I'm John Biewen.

SUSAN STAMBERG: The people who call for a national attack on child poverty admit they need a public relations campaign first. When asked to name the biggest problem facing this country, only about 5% of Americans named poverty. This has been a special report from American RadioWorks "The Forgotten Fourteen Million." It was produced by John Biewen and edited by Bibi Krauss and Deborah George, associate producer Stephanie Curtis, mixing by Craig Thorson, the managing editor for American RadioWorks is Stephen Smith, executive producer Bill Buzenberg. I'm Susan Stamberg. This is NPR, National Public Radio.

SPEAKER: Major funding for American RadioWorks is provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting with additional support from the Florence and John Schumann foundation. For more information on this and other American RadioWorks documentaries, go to our website

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