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Caught in the cycle of poverty

Choices, challenges and chaos keep undermining a woman's attempt to escape the struggles her mother and grandmother faced. She wants to provide a better life for her children but seems not to know how.

May 24, 2012|By Anna Gorman, Los Angeles Times
  • Natalie Cole, right, her boyfriend and four children lived in a bedroom of a friend’s apartment until she and the friend argued. From left are boyfriend Juan Sena, goddaughter Yolanda and son Gemini.
Natalie Cole, right, her boyfriend and four children lived in a bedroom… (Michael Robinson Chavez…)

After months searching for work and feeling increasingly discouraged, Natalie Cole caught a break — an offer of a part-time position at a Little Caesars Pizza shop in Compton. The manager scheduled her orientation and told her she had to pass a food safety test.

She took the test — and failed. But rather than study and take it again, she shrugged it off.

"I guess I am not working for a reason," she said.

PHOTOS: A life spent battling poverty

Cole isn't a victim of the struggling economy. She was poor before and is poor now. Hers is a story of entrenched poverty — a whirl of choices, challenges and chaos that keeps undermining her spurts of personal progress.

Tracking Cole's life over six months offers a messy and at times disheartening insight into vexing social policy questions: How do you break the cycle of generational poverty? Can or should society do more to change the trajectory of the young and poor?

Cole, 27, and her four children have moved nearly a dozen times in the last year while living on about $1,000 a month in public cash assistance and food stamps. She wants to provide a better life for her children but seems not to know how.

"I just know what I know," she said. "All I can do is raise them.... They are going to make their own path in life."

But if Cole doesn't find a better way, chances are her children won't finish school, hold steady jobs or stay healthy.

"Poverty is bad for kids," said Harvard Kennedy School professor Kathryn Edin, who studies poverty policy. "It just makes everything a struggle."

Children who are born into poverty and spend years that way are more likely to be teenage parents and remain poor as adults, according to the Urban Institute.

"Getting out of poverty takes extraordinary perseverance," Edin said. "When disadvantage builds over generations, it is going to take generations to unbuild it."

Cole, who has high blood pressure and diabetes, worries about the future but focuses mostly on the present as she moves from crisis to crisis.

::

Cole was raised by a single mother in Compton who worked off and on as a security guard. In her early teens, Cole started drinking and smoking pot, dropped out of school and got pregnant. At 17, she was raising two children: Peter, now 12, and Destiny, 10.

Her relationships with their fathers didn't last. When she was 21, she met Juan Sena. He was kind and calm. The couple had two sons: Gemini, now 4, and Jaylyn, 2.

Last summer, Sena got laid off from his construction job. He receives some unemployment and earns a little money doing tattoos. Cole sometimes braids hair to earn a few extra dollars. But mostly, they rely on public assistance. Cole has learned not to be embarrassed. "You do what you got to do," she said. "Everything we do is for our kids."

Cole knows she's made bad decisions — she should have graduated and waited to get pregnant. But she says she can't undo that now. "I'm not gonna worry about it if I can't fix it," she said.

At a Factory-2-U store in Compton one day, Cole found some socks and underwear in a box of discount clothes. At the checkout counter, she held up Superman pajama pants. "Are these mark-down?" The clerk shook her head.

"$3.99?" Cole said. "Oh, no. I can't afford that."

When the money runs out, Cole says, she sometimes has resorted to shoplifting — usually diapers or food. She prays not to get caught.

Cole, who is heavyset and laughs easily, has tattoos of her children's names and her own nickname — triste, or sad in Spanish. She tells her children to study and stay away from drugs. She warns Destiny that boys are trouble.

But Peter, sullen and quiet, has already been kicked out of several schools for fighting and was arrested for shooting a BB gun at passing cars. And Destiny, outgoing and affectionate, has trouble keeping up with her classmates.

"My mother struggled, my grandma struggled and I am struggling," Cole said. "Hopefully they will see what we went through as a family and it makes them want to be better and go to school and graduate so they don't have to struggle."

::

Their struggles often involve housing. Cole and her family have briefly stayed in an old van, in a motel and, for one night, on skid row. "I try not to cry in front of my kids," she said. "I cried."

Late last year, Cole was paying $400 to rent a room in South Los Angeles, where the whole family slept. But the roommate complained about the noise and the mess, and she eventually kicked them out.

About the same time, Cole started feeling sick. Her legs swelled, her head throbbed and she was tired. She was anxious and depressed. Some days she couldn't get out of bed.

She finds life frustrating. She and Sena insist they are good people, but can't get ahead. They say they don't do drugs or drink and dote on their children, often taking the youngest two to parks and the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach.

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