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FRONTLINE: Growing Up Poor In America

The experience of child poverty against the backdrop of the pandemic and increasing racial tensions.
Courtesy of FRONTLINE (PBS)
The experience of child poverty against the backdrop of the pandemic and increasing racial tensions.

Stream now or tune in Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2020 at 10 p.m. on KPBS TV + Thursday, Dec. 10 at 10 p.m. on KPBS 2

FRONTLINE Exposes Reality of Child Poverty in America in the Time of the Coronavirus

Early in 2020, it was estimated that almost 12 million children in America were living in poverty, and that more than one in six lived in food-insecure households — a burden disproportionately borne by Black and Hispanic kids.

Then came the coronavirus.


As the pandemic continues, the presidential election approaches, and America reckons with racism, FRONTLINE presents a documentary offering a powerful look at child poverty in America in the time of COVID-19 — told from the perspective of the children themselves.

"Growing Up Poor in America" is the first in a series of documentaries from FRONTLINE this fall illuminating issues and choices facing American democracy in the runup to the election, including "Policing the Police 2020" on September 15, "The Choice 2020: Trump vs. Biden" on September 22, "America’s Medical Supply Crisis" on October 6, and "Whose Vote Counts?" on October 20.

From award-winning director Jezza Neumann, who also made 2012’s "Poor Kids," and producer Lauren Santucci, "Growing Up Poor In America" follows three children and their families (one mixed-race, one Black and one white) in the battleground state of Ohio for six months as the pandemic amplifies their struggle to stay afloat — with schools closing, jobs lost and need rising.

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Thirteen-year-old Shawn fears that his mom, Crystal, who keeps working at the local Salvation Army food pantry throughout the pandemic, will catch the virus. Including food stamps, Crystal takes home the equivalent of $885 each month, an amount that leaves them unable to fix their car when it breaks down. “My mom stretches the money that she gets to last out the whole month, but some things I can’t get that I want,” Shawn says.


At the trailer where they are living through government assistance, Shawn helps to care for his toddler sister, striving to be a positive role model for her: “I mean, it’s a lot of pressure on me, but I try to do my best,” he says. He feels the need to protect his mother from his fears about the family’s struggle: “If I feel sad or something, and I expressed to my mom, that would make her feel sad, and so I just keep it to myself.”

It’s a dilemma that’s familiar to 14-year-old Kyah. She, her mother, Becky, and her older sister, Kelia, became homeless when Becky became unable to pay their rent. Becky was supposed to start a new job in March, but it fell through due to the pandemic. And the family lost many of their cherished possessions when they could no longer make payments to the storage company holding their belongings: “I lost important things like pictures that I can't get again,” Kyah says.

Now, rather than entering the shelter system, they’re experiencing “hidden homelessness”—with all three of them temporarily living in a single room at a relative’s house as Becky looks for work and a home they can afford within Kyah’s school district. As an escape, Kyah watches video tours of houses online, imagining that her family will one day have a home of their own.

“What makes me the saddest about all this is seeing my mom like this,” Kyah says. “I try not to show my feelings because I know it will be overwhelming and it makes things worse.”

Twelve-year-old Laikyen, whose mother, Fantasy, works at a gas station to provide for Laikyen and her older sister, also feels her mom’s pain. Fantasy makes just over Ohio’s minimum wage: “In my opinion my mom doesn't get paid as much as she should, because my mom works hard and she deserves a little bit more,” Laikyen says.

Schoolwork has long been a struggle for Laikyen, who has ADHD. The documentary shows how that struggle is magnified when her school district goes remote. “We don’t have school because of the coronavirus. My grades — right now, my schoolwork is not very well,” Laikyen says. She is thankful for the food pantry down the street, where in addition to helping keep her family from going hungry, her beloved “Miss Candy” helps her with her homework. “She helps people that needs help,” Laikyen says.

As the pandemic continues and the country also reckons with issues of race and racism in the wake of George Floyd’s death, the children share their worries and hopes about their futures. Some of them participate in protests calling for an end to racial injustice.

“I think it does make it harder to get out of poverty,” Kyah says of racism towards Black people. “I actually am worried about the future… I just want us to be all right.”

 Poignant and unforgettable, "Growing Up Poor In America" is a window into the unique realities of child poverty in the U.S. in 2020.

Tune in or stream:

"Growing Up Poor In America" premiered Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020, and is available to watch in full at and in the PBS Video App starting that night at 7/6c. It will premiere on PBS stations and on YouTube at 9/8c.

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The film is supported by Chasing the Dream, a public media initiative from WNET in New York that examines poverty, justice and economic opportunity in America.

A FRONTLINE production with True Vision Productions in association with Channel 4. The director is Jezza Neumann. The producers are Jezza Neumann and Lauren Santucci. The senior producer is Frank Koughan. The executive producer of FRONTLINE is Raney Aronson-Rath.