The Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Andrea Elliot Invisible Child: Poverty, Survival & Hope in an American City follows one homeless family in New York City during the 2010s. The book describes experiences of Dasani and her family as they navigate school, shelters, and the social service systems which are meant to be the safety net for families exactly like hers.
Andrea Elliot delivered the annual Eugene H. Freedheim Lecture on March 6, 2023 as a centerpiece of the One Community Reads initiative. As part of the initiative, Community Solutions is spending March and April traveling to several public libraries to share data and information about poverty in Cuyahoga County communities, and to talk about Invisible Children close to home.
Nearly 40 percent of Cleveland families with children have incomes that put them below the official poverty thresholds.
What Dasani’s family can teach us about poverty in Cleveland
Child poverty is more common in Cleveland than in New York City, the American City described in Invisible Child. Nearly 40 percent of Cleveland families with children have incomes that put them below the official poverty thresholds. A greater share of children in Cleveland are growing up poor than in any other large city in the country. There were over 9,700 families living in deep poverty in Cleveland—below 50 percent of the federal poverty level.
Dasani’s family does not represent a “typical” family living in poverty in our community. First, her family is large. There are 10 members including a mother and father who are married and 8 children, the result of a combination of their blended families. In contrast, 80 percent of poor families in Cleveland have four members or fewer. Dasani’s family is headed by a married couple, but at 14 percent, only one out of every seven families with children in poverty in Cuyahoga County include two married parents. Much more common is a “female headed household with no spouse present”—the data term for single mothers. While Dasani’s family is homeless or living in subsidized rental units, over half of poor married-couple families in Cuyahoga County actually own their homes.
Finally, Invisible Child rarely mentions Dasani’s parents engaging in paid employment. They are living in deep poverty, relying largely on public assistance with little to no earned income. The situation for most poor families in our community could not be more different. New York City has much more generous cash assistance than Ohio’s TANF/ Ohio Works First program.
11,000 adults in Cuyahoga County worked full-time for the full year in 2021 and still didn’t earn enough to lift their families out of poverty.
In our state, there is a three-year LIFETIME limit for most families to receive this cash assistance. Once your 36 months are up, you can never receive another check. This and other policy changes have eroded “welfare” over the years and a 2018 study by Community Solutions found that only 15 percent of Ohioans living in deep poverty receive OWF. Instead, 11,000 adults in Cuyahoga County worked full-time for the full year in 2021 and still didn’t earn enough to lift their families out of poverty. In Cleveland, 49 percent of families had at least one active worker, employed at least part time for at least part of the year. They are surviving thanks to their own hard work, but still struggling.
Reasons to be hopeful in Cleveland
The contrast between Dasani’s family and most of the families living in poverty in our community gives us reasons for hope. Homeowners tend to move less frequently than renters, and certainly have better housing stability than a homeless family like Dasani’s. Children who move less frequently are significantly more likely to be on track for reading and math, according to research conducted on Cleveland Metropolitan School District students.
While poverty is more common here, fewer families are completely destitute. The mean income deficit for poor families in Cuyahoga County was $11,727 in 2021, which breaks down to around $225 per week. That means that a raise of just $5.56 per hour would be enough for someone working full time to pull their family completely out of poverty.
No child chooses to be poor
During the Freedheim Lecture, Andrea Elliot talked about her motivation to tell the story of homelessness and poverty from a child’s perspective to contrast with the narrative that people who are homeless have put themselves in that situation due to bad decisions. No child chooses to be poor. In this community, we know that. Our understanding of the circumstances of poverty have evolved to recognize that poor children live in poor families. There are many more programs and interventions utilizing wholistic approaches to address the needs of the entire family. This brings promise to break cycles of poverty and for a brighter future for every Dasani in Cleveland.