Want to help kids in poverty? Help their parents

Posted at 6:00 AM, Dec 23, 2015
and last updated 2015-12-24 14:50:38-05

NEWPORT, Ky. — Torrie Watkins' dreams for her 18-month-old daughter Mia extend far beyond a merry Christmas.

She wants little Mia to enjoy learning and have a good educational foundation before she starts preschool.

"I want her to go to a good school and grow up in a good community," Watkins said. "My goals and plans for myself are right now just graduating school and eventually owning a house, owning a car, having good credit."

Watkins is 23, a single mom living on her own for the first time at Northern Kentucky Scholar House.

Torrie Watkins and her daughter, Mia. (Photos by Phil Didion for WCPO)

At Scholar House, Watkins and Mia live in a two-bedroom subsidized apartment, with rent based on her income. There is on-site childcare where Mia can stay while Watkins attends Northern Kentucky University. And staffers at Scholar House help with anything else Watkins needs to be successful — from dish soap to interview clothes.

"It establishes a great foundation for my future," Watkins said of Scholar House. "I don't have to worry about where I'm going to take (Mia) so I can study. I don't have to worry about completing school now because I have support."

Watkins knows that to build the kind of life she wants for her baby, she will have to work on her own dreams, too.

And if we ever are going to reduce Greater Cincinnati's shameful childhood poverty rate, the community as a whole needs to understand that, too.

It's a message I have heard time and again as I have reported about childhood poverty this year for WCPO.

Most recently, Rob Reifsnyder, the president of United Way of Greater Cincinnati, put it this way: "You can't get children out of poverty without helping their parents out of poverty, and you can't consider children and parents as two silos."

Building a Better Life

I understand why it's tempting to want to only help kids in need. It's easy to look into a child's face and see potential and possibilities.

Photos by Phil Didion for WCPO

For many people, looking into the faces of adults living in poverty is a different experience.

People have questions about what adults did — or didn't do — to become poor or stay poor. If only those people had finished high school and gone to college, the thinking goes, or had waited until marriage to have children or had worked harder to get or keep a job.

I'm no expert on poverty, but I have talked to a lot of people who are struggling financially. They have told me about why they made the choices they did, and what they believe is standing in the way of them building better lives for themselves and their children.

The answers are just as complicated as their lives.

• It can be nearly impossible to keep a third-shift job when you don't have a car and can't take a bus.

• It has gotten a lot more difficult to pass the test to get a General Educational Development credential for adults who dropped out of high school years ago.

• And moms without much education can hardly afford quality childcare working low-wage jobs without paid time off for when the kids are sick.

Moms who had babies at a young age have told me how they are cautioning their daughters not to do the same. All the parents I have interviewed said they want to provide better lives for their kids.

That's almost impossible to do, though, unless they build better lives for themselves.

Places like Northern Kentucky Scholar House understand that.

Doing What You Must to Survive

Scholar House, a collaboration of Brighton Center and Newport-based Neighborhood Foundations, is just the latest local effort to help entire families with what people in the nonprofit sector call a "multi-generation" or "two-generation" approach.

It is located near bus lines. It provides financial services. There's even a place for the 48 families who live there to grow their own vegetables, said Deana Sowders, Brighton Center's marketing and communications specialist.

Photos by Phil Didion for WCPO

"That's a two-generation approach at the epitome of that philosophy," she said.

Newport-based Brighton Center has a long history of helping families become self-sufficient with programs that serve people ranging from infants to senior citizens.

Related: Helping people in poverty help themselves

Santa Maria Community Servicesserves that broad range of people, too, from its five locations in the Price Hill communities.

"It's an old social worker axiom — work with families and communities as a comprehensive approach," said H.A. Musser, Santa Maria's president and CEO. "Whatever happens with the child is affected by the family and community."

Related: This group helps people get off welfare

Santa Maria works with young women who have just turned 18 and can't get apartments of their own because family members have used their Social Security numbers to get utility services and then haven't paid the bills.

It's identity theft, but it's done in the name of keeping the heat on for the whole family.

"People do what they need to do to survive," said Chellie McLellan, Santa Maria's income impact director.

The people who work at places like Scholar House, Brighton Center and Santa Maria understand that giving needy kids winter coats is only part of the solution if Mom can't pay the utility bill. They're working to find ways to help the whole family stay warm, winter after winter.


Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and also shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. Childhood poverty is an important focus for her and for WCPO this year.

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