Apr 2, 2015
It's past 7 o'clock on a Thursday night, and dinner is ready at Natalia Gardner's Florence apartment.
She scoops Salisbury steak, instant mashed potatoes and French-cut green beans onto plates for her kids, one at a time. Baby Mykail eats his tiny bites first, tucked behind a tray in a toddler seat on the kitchen floor. After some cajoling, little Harmony, who is almost 3, runs into the kitchen and climbs into her high chair to eat however much it takes to earn a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
Gardner puts 15-month-old Mykail to bed at 8 p.m. just before 9-year-old T.J. finishes his shower. T.J. stands at the counter to eat, teasing his mom about how she seasoned the gravy for his potatoes.
After the kids are finished, Gardner spoons the leftover food into plastic bowls and covers them with aluminum foil, never fixing a plate for herself.
"I don't eat," she says later. "By the time I actually get them settled, I just sit here and relax. I eat more at work on my lunch break."
Plus, dinner for three kids costs less than dinner for three kids and an adult. And these days, Gardner is watching every penny.
Like thousands of families across Greater Cincinnati, Gardner is struggling — despite the region's improving economy and lower unemployment rates.
Poverty that was confined primarily to inner city Cincinnati, Covington and Newport as recently as 15 years ago has spread. Now even some of the most affluent places in the Tri-State — places like Boone County — have pockets of poverty where hundreds of families worry each day about keeping their kids fed and clothed.
"Every time I turn on the television, and they talk about the economy in recovery, they don't see what we see," said Ralph Bradburn, executive director of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul of Northern Kentucky. "We get folks who ask us for a little bit of food, and we go in and find their children don't have a bed to sleep in."
Across the region nearly one in five children live in poverty. In Cincinnati, almost half of the city's kids are poor.
The Tri-State's spreading, persistent poverty is why United Way of Greater Cincinnati has a plan to help more families in the region become self-sufficient that will cost $100 million a year in public and private money.
It's why a new fund called GreenLight is coming to town to identify innovative ways to help poor kids and adults.
And it's why WCPO has decided to shine a spotlight on the problem in 2015 with ongoing reports online and on air.
Childhood poverty has grown faster in Boone County than anywhere else in the region since 2000, according to a WCPO analysis of U.S. Census data. The number of kids in poverty there jumped a whopping 122 percent in that time, the analysis found.
The number of households that qualify for food stamps, which is now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, also has increased dramatically.
Between 2005 and 2013, the number of Boone County households receiving SNAP rose from 2,339 to 4,131 — nearly 77 percent. Households with children under 18 that get SNAP benefits grew from 1,692 to 2,531 — an increase of nearly 50 percent in that time.
In all, an estimated 3,968 poor children lived in Boone County in 2013, according to Census data estimates. That's five times the number of kids who attended Hillard Collins Elementary School last year and nearly enough to fill every seat of the Florence Freedom's minor-league baseball stadium.
"There's a perception that there isn't much of an issue because we're outside of an urban core, but there is," said Laura Pleiman, human services director for Boone County Fiscal Court.
Last year in Boone County Schools, she said, more than 400 of the school district's 19,567 students were identified as homeless.
There are thousands more men, women and children in Boone County living in households that are barely earning enough to survive, according to the Community Research Collaborative, a partnership between United Way of Greater Cincinnati and the University of Cincinnati.
In a Census tract just west of Interstate 75 and just off Mount Zion Road, more than half the kids live in families with household incomes below the federal poverty level. The area is only two interstate exits south of Florence Mall, where Abercrombie & Fitch sells specially ripped jeans for as much as $180 a pair.
Many of those children live in mobile home parks just north of Dixie Highway where a blue Boone County Public Library bus delivered free meals last summer and brings books and magazines during the school year. Those meals made up for the school lunches that kids weren't getting during summer break. The library got a special grant to give meals to poor adults in the county, too.
About a dozen kids visited the library bus during a recent stop at one of the mobile home parks. Four-year-old Jayla Roskey remembered getting lunch from the blue bus over the summer. She and her 2-year-old cousin rushed inside to make tissue paper flowers and got free books and stickers to take home, too.
The girls' mothers share a mobile home. Ashley Harbin, Jayla's mom, watches the kids while her cousin works at the Kroger across Mount Zion Road. The two young women don't have a car, but they generally have enough to pay the bills and meet their kids' needs, Harbin said.
"I really wouldn’t say we have it that bad," she said. "We get by."
But for many in the neighborhood, getting by seems to mean going without, said Lisa Sensale Yazdian, youth services manager for outreach at Boone County Public Library.
"When the summer program is over, the kids always come back to the bus, and they do ask for food," she said. "Some will come out with no jackets and no shoes in the dead of winter."
It's a vivid reminder of the desperate, concentrated need.
In all, 782 children live below the poverty threshold in that single Boone County census tract, according to 2013 data — nearly 56 percent of all the kids in that swath of land that covers roughly eight square miles.
That doesn't even count families like Natalia Gardner's.
Gardner makes $29,800 a year working full-time at a job placement agency. She is salaried and doesn't get overtime. But she's ambitious so sometimes she picks up extra shifts to learn new skills. She's also trying to teach herself Spanish at night so she can communicate better with the Hispanic workers her agency places.
Her take-home pay after taxes is $410 a week.
It doesn't sound like much — especially in Boone County.
Still, Gardner's salary is above the federal poverty level, which was $24,091 in 2014 for a family like hers with one adult and three kids under the age of 18.
The United Way and other social service organizations say a family must earn at least twice as much as the federal poverty level to be truly self-sufficient. About three in every 10 Tri-State families have household incomes below 200 percent of the federal poverty level, said Ross Meyer, United Way's vice president for community impact. And half of all Greater Cincinnati families with a child younger than five earn less than they need to be self-sufficient, he said.
In Boone County, 15,740 people live in households that earn more than 100 percent of the federal poverty level but less than 200 percent, according to the Community Research Collaborative.
Gardner and her kids are among them.
They live paycheck to paycheck, even with the extra help they receive.
Gardner gets $20 a month in SNAP benefits. TJ's dad pays $220 each month for child support, and she gets $225 per month from the state of Kentucky to help care for Harmony and Mykail. The two younger kids are actually her cousins. Gardner took permanent custody of them after child welfare officials took them away from their biological parents.
Harmony has emotional problems and is developmentally delayed because she was malnourished and physically abused as an infant, said Gardner, who has been raising the girl since she was 8 months old. Mykail was born addicted to heroin, and Gardner took him in when he was still suffering from withdrawal.
Because of their health problems and histories, Gardner said, both attend a medical day care with nurses on site, all paid for by Medicaid.
Even so, Gardner has a heap of bills to manage. Her rent is $452 a month, a total that she just found out will soon increase. She also pays $100 a month for utilities; $400 a month for her car payment; $120 per week for after-school childcare until she gets home from work; and $100 per month for her land line, Internet and cable. Gardner plans to take classes online at some point, and the cable is one of her rare luxuries so T.J. can watch the Disney Channel and WWE.
That leaves $143.25 each week to cover her cell phone bill and buy groceries, gas and diapers — and clothes when her kids need them. Not to mention the $600 she owes for her sanitation bill because she didn't realize she hadn't received it for a few months and got behind.
"When you bring home $410 each week, it's like you're juggling," she said. "I pray that God has my back. He hasn't brought me this far to leave me hanging."
Boone County has a small - but growing - number of organizations to help its most needy families.
Gardner goes to Brighton Center, a Newport-based nonprofit that opened an emergency food pantry at its Shelby Street office in Florence last July.
The organization helped nearly 280 Boone County families between July and December 2014 from that location. Those families consisted of 599 adults and children. Brighton Center doesn't have statistics on how that compares with previous years, but its staff knows the need in Boone County has grown, said Lauren Copeland, Brighton Center's Family Center coordinator.
Gardner enrolled in Brighton Center's Stable Families program, which is designed to help low-income families at risk of becoming homeless. She picks up food from the Shelby Street pantry at least twice a month to get meat, canned vegetables and canned fruit, she said. And the Stable Families program is giving her advice on how to save and budget her money better.
She goes to St. Vincent de Paul to get clothes for her kids every three months. Sometimes she also gets a $100 voucher there to help with either groceries or utilities. Gardner's mom helps out with clothes for the kids when she can, too.
Another resource is United Ministries in Erlanger, which provides food and clothing for Boone County families in need. The faith-based nonprofit serves a large number of elderly residents who are struggling, in addition to families with children.
"I'm a Boone County girl. I grew up there, went to school there," said Rebecca Ewing, United Ministries' executive director. "It's where my heart is, and I want people to succeed. I don't want there to be such a vast difference."
Gardner wasn’t always living this way.
She grew up in Erlanger and graduated from Notre Dame Academy in Park Hills, Ky. She has a four-year degree from Northern Kentucky University and earned a lot more when she worked as a phlebotomist and could get overtime. She changed jobs because she wants to work in human resources and eventually get her master's degree. The placement agency was the only place that would give her a shot without prior experience.
Gardner's finances got a lot tighter after she agreed to take permanent custody of Harmony and, later, Mykail.
T.J. loves his cousins, but he's noticed a difference, too.
"I don't get attention as much," he said. "When they weren't here, I would get a whole lot of attention."
Gardner doesn't talk to T.J. about her money problems. He knows that he can't get toys or gadgets like the ones that some of his friends have at Howell Elementary School in Elsmere. He's saving up for an electric guitar, he said, and he has some gold coins at his dad's house that are worth $1 each.
Gardner has goals, too.
A dream board hanging on the wall next to her bed lists them. She wants to be able to take care of her kids, earn her master's degree, get a house someday and take her kids to Disney World. If she can find a man who supports all those goals, she would like to have a husband someday, too.
"But he would have to put up with all this," she said with a laugh, as Mykail and Harmony both squealed for her attention. "If he can, he's a winner."
Gardner wants to find a new job — or possibly a new position at her company — that pays better. With her college degree, she's confident she's worth at least $40,000 per year. A salary of $50,000 a year would be even better, but her dreams don't stop there.
"My six figures will be coming in about 10 years after I get my master's," she said with a broad smile.
Gardner smiles a lot, even when she talks about how difficult things are for her. Even when she's stressed out because Mykail has just gotten ear tubes and Harmony has a double ear infection and the cable bill is past due. She doesn't want her kids to worry. And she has faith that things will work out.
"You've got to struggle sometimes to get where you need to go," she said. "It makes you go even harder."
It's a Friday afternoon. The snow has melted, the sun is out, the air is warm. Gardner tells her kids they can finally all go to the park at their apartment complex.
T.J. races ahead while Gardner pushes Mykail in a stroller. Harmony scoots along behind them on her pink Disney princess three-wheeler, pushing with her feet instead of using the pedals.
T.J. grabs an overhead bar for a half-hearted pull-up before he claims a swing. Gardner lifts the younger kids one at a time into bucket swings and begins to push. Mykail giggles, and Harmony smiles as T.J. tells her how to pump her legs to push herself.
"Mom, watch me!" T.J. says and pumps his legs to go higher. He jumps from his swing and tumbles onto his knees.
Gardner asks T.J. to take over pushing the little ones. She gets in a swing and pumps higher and higher until she jumps off and lands on both feet.
"I still got it," she says with a broad smile.
The kids run and play and slide until they get hungry.
For nearly an hour, Gardner's only worries are skinned knees and playground tumbles. Then it's time to head back home, to dinner and bills and her dream board.
"As long as my kids have a roof over their heads, clothes on their back, shoes on their feet and food on the table," Gardner says, "at the end of the day, it will be OK."
Reporter Lucy May, photojournalist Emily Maxwell and data specialist Mark Nichols have spent the last three months examining the stubborn issue of childhood poverty in the Tri-State to bring WCPO readers the first installment of Below The Line. In coming months, they will continue to introduce you to some of the region's poorest kids, their families and those working to help them.
This year-long series launches in April and will be an ongoing focus for WCPO during 2015.
Design: Brian Niesz
Data: Mark Nichols
Editor: Chris Graves