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Recession leads to jump in child poverty rates

By Athena Jones, CNN
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Poverty rates among children rise
  • The child poverty rate increased 18% between 2000-2009, a new report says
  • An associate policy director at a charity calls to keep programs that help the poor
  • "The kids eat or we eat," says one unemployed mom

Washington (CNN) -- The Wallaces know what it means to struggle.

The recession may have ended two years ago, but the ripple effects continue to be felt across the country, including in the living room of their apartment in a public housing complex in Washington, D.C.

Nathan Wallace lost his job as a painter at a college in March 2008. His wife, Keana, lost her position as a medical assistant in July 2009. Since then, neither has been able to find steady work and they struggle to pay their bills and feed Keana's four children -- aged 17, 14, 9 and 7 -- from a previous marriage.

The Wallaces, who used to bring in $5,000 a month, now take odd jobs and sell food to get by.

A new report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a national charity, shows the child poverty rate increased 18% between 2000 and 2009, returning to the level of the early 1990s. The worst recession since the Great Depression saw 2.4 million more children fall below the poverty line and some 42% -- 31 million -- now live in low-income families, ones with incomes below twice the federal poverty line of $43,512 for a family of four.

"Kids have really been hit hard by the current crisis," said Laura Speer, associate director for policy reform and data at the Casey Foundation, who added that there was a striking increase in the number of children and families that had never before experienced poverty.

Speer said that even as lawmakers at the state and federal level focus on budget cuts, organizations like hers do not want to see programs that help the poor, from childcare subsidies and health coverage to the Earned Income Tax Credit, slashed.

"We can't forget about children as we make decisions in the fiscal crisis," Speer said. "We can't cut the programs thinking that eventually we can put money right back into them because ... childhood is a very short time."

The Wallaces live in public housing, which means they do not have to pay rent. But their unemployment insurance ran out at the end of last year and they have struggled to pay their utility bills. At one point, their gas was cut off for about a month and they recently had their power cut off for a month and a half. They used candles for light until a local church helped get it turned back on.

"Some days during that six-week period it was either, the kids eat or we eat," Keana said. "We just had to make sacrifices."

The Wallaces are among the 6.2 million people who have been out of work for 27 weeks or more. Both of their cars have been repossessed and they will have to come up with $120 a month for subway passes for their four children once school starts. Nathan said their faith in God has kept them going over the past few difficult years and his wife, Keana, is determined to get the family back on track, for the sake of her children.

"I get up with my boxing gloves on every day for them," she said. "My main thing is to get a job, with benefits, that pays well."

The Wallace family receives $700 in food stamps each month, but with a family of six, that aid usually runs out after about three weeks. Keana says that on a really good day, typically toward the beginning of the month, she has brought in as much as $145 selling snow cones, hot dogs and candy on the street and the subway.

Nathan is hoping that a training program he enters next month will help him get a construction job in the fall. Meanwhile, Keana's 14-year-old daughter, Danielle Bedney, is optimistic that things will turn around for her family. She has big plans for her own future.

"First I want to go to college for designer school," she said. "Then after I graduate from designer school, I want to send my pictures in to be a model. After I be a model for five years, I want to open my own store called Danny 101, a clothing store, then after I open my own store, I want to be a writer and write a few books and movies and then I want to open my own homeless shelter."