For many, recession means all the responsibilities, half the income

By Chris L. Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 9, 2010; 10:11 PM

The crockpot was stuffed with turkey wings, green peppers and rice. The aromatic stew sat on a table in Keyona Sills's kitchen, gurgling and ready for her two children, her mother, her brother and a family friend who had just walked in the door.

"You cook tonight?" asked the family friend.

Sills nodded. It had been a long day of looking for work, applying for jobs and paying bills, and she was tired. But it was time to eat, so she got up to serve the meal.

Sills, 26, lost her job as a custodian at Walter Reed Army Medical Center five months ago. Now, she receives $350 a week in unemployment, placing Sills and her children just below the poverty line.

When she was working, earning twice what unemployment pays, she regularly helped keep her extended family of siblings and cousins afloat.

Her diminished income hasn't changed that. In addition to her children, she regularly feeds two other adults and is the informal guardian of her 15-year-old brother.

"When I have it, I help. That's how it's always been," she said.

Recently released census data shows a sharp increase in the percentage of black children living in poverty in Washington - 43 percent in 2009, up 7 percentage points from the year before. For their families, bills sometimes don't get paid, clothes sometimes aren't bought, savings dry up.

Research has raised concerns about the levels of stress felt by children living in impoverished homes. And recent data from the National Bureau of Economic Research has found that involuntary job loss by a parent increases by 15 percent the probability that a child will be held back a grade in school.

For many who hover around the poverty line, the daily struggle to make ends meet is more complex than the numbers indicate.

When Sills was working and bringing in $2,500 a month, there was enough to pay for her $700-a-month rent, utilities, car insurance and all of the needs of her children. And she could be the go-to person in her family.

'The responsible one'

Now, the car is gone - she couldn't afford to keep it running. But the expectations of her family still largely fall on her.

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