September 1989
Text : Peter Meyer

Like 13 million other American kids, Carrie Ellen Copas, 10, is poor. Not since 1965 have so many children been so needy.

On school days Carrie gets up early in the bedroom she shares with her younger brother, mother and stepfather.

At school, where she qualifies for free breakfasts and lunches, Carrie has few friends. "I hate school," says Carrie, "because the boys bump you and don't say excuse me."

At home she is surrounded by family, including (above, left to right) cousins Angel and Marlene, stepfather Jake Holsinger and brother Jamie. "I love all these kids," says Jake. "I'd do anything for 'em." Carrie has three brothers. Her mother and stepfather's only child together is Jamie. Carrie has never seen her father.


"My name is Carrie Ellen Copas. I was born in 1979. My birthday is on August fifteenth. I am from Portsmouth, Ohio. And I have lived in the same place the whole time. And some people think I'm ugly and some people think I'm pretty. Sometimes I think I'm pretty and sometimes I think I'm ugly."

Carrie Copas lives with her mother, stepfather and three brothers in a two-bedroom rented apartment on the second floor of a mud-brown building on Washington Street, two blocks from the town hall and across the street from the Ramada Inn, the Star Service station and Castle's used car dealership. The house, believed to have been built as slave quarters in the early 1800s, is bounded on three sides by vacant lots. It is listed on the official Ohio Historic Preservation register as "demolished." It has four small apartments--all but one rented by relatives of Carrie's--six bedrooms, 12 beds, a sagging roof and dozens of holes in its walls, windows, screens, doors and floors. It is home to 10 children, nine adults, four dogs, six cats and an indeterminate number of mice.


On his apartment's front stoop, Chuck protects his dog, Bambam, from traffic on Washington Street. "When the trucks come down by here, the house shakes," he says. "It ain't a street, it's a highway."

"I'm Carrie's cousin. Chuck Riley. I'm thirteen and I live in the same building Carrie lives in but in Apartment 2. I don't have a middle name because my real name is Charles Riley III. Today at school we went to activity class with Mr. Bonzo and we had to draw pictures. I drew a dog on a porch sitting on a rug. Underneath it I wrote, 'If you can't keep up with the big dogs, stay on the porch.' But I can keep up with anybody if I want to. I'm fast. I can run."

Chuck Riley's parents separated three years ago."If Chuck were living in my house, with the kind of support my kids get," says a teacher at Chuck's school, "he could be getting A's and B's." Instead, he gets C's and D's and has trouble sitting still in class. But Chuck is known as a survivor. At four feet two and 65 pounds, he walks with a swagger that makes people notice him. He has a 28-customer paper route after school, eats alone when he gets home, does his own laundry--when he can't talk his sister Jenifer into doing it for him--and fills out every free contest entry form he finds, in hopes of winning a family portrait, a trip to an amusement park, a car.

Chuck's sister Jenifer (right) takes care of Tiffany, her stepmother's infant child, while her cousin Carrie plays mother to her "newborn" dolls, Haley and Bobo.

Chuck's father, Charles "Junior" Riley, 38, married his second wife, Luanne, last year, a few weeks after her 15th birthday. "She's still my friend," says Jenifer about Luanne, her former schoolmate. "She's just my mom too."


The TV is almost always on in the Copas household (from left: Carrie, Mike and Jeff Copas, Jake and Jamie Holsinger, and Dorothy Copas). "I don't like welfare," says Jake, a former road-crew worker who left school after sixth grade. "But I can't keep the kids on three dollars an hour. Get a job for three dollars an hour and you might as well forget it. But you just can't find another kind of job here. You gotta have a high school--a college education. And I ain't got it."

At 6:30 in the morning sunlight filters through the torn screen on the front door of Apartment 2. Chuck Riley and his 17-year-old brother, Mike, are asleep, side by side, on a thin foam pad on the living room floor, wedged between the coffee table, black-and-white television set and easy chair. It has been their "bed" ever since Uncle Ernest arrived from Cincinnati two months ago, taking the tiny, windowless mudroom for his bedroom. Chuck's dad and stepmother sleep in the apartment's only other bedroom, their bed abutting that of Jenifer, 12, who shares hers with eight-month-old Tiffany. Chuck and Mike share the living room floor with Bambam the dog, Puppie the cat and her four kittens. On one side of Chuck's head is a two-foot stack of newspapers for his route; on the other side is a deposit of cat dung.

Upstairs, in Apartment 4, Carrie Copas rummages through the battered dresser she shares with her stepfather, mother and brother Jamie, three. Her mother and Jamie are still asleep, a few feet away, on top of the covers of a twin bed. Her stepfather, Jake Holsinger, 49, is waking her older brothers, Mike, 16, and Jeff, 14. They sleep in a bunk bed in a 10-by-10 room furnished with a table lamp on the floor and cardboard boxes for bureaus. Mike lies on the top bunk on an old yellow blanket, no sheets; Jeff is curled up around a sleeping bag on the lower bunk. The grapefruit-size hole in the window next to his head has been there for two years. "We put plastic over it and freeze to death in the winter," says Mike.

The children of 215 Washington Street--Chuck, Mike, Jenifer and Tiffany; Carrie, Mike, Jeff and Jamie--are not alone. At last count 13 million American children were growing up poor--one in every five. Since 1969 child poverty rates have risen from 14 to 20 percent, adding three million more youngsters--enough to populate a city the size of Chicago. From the children at 215, we can get an idea of what it is like to grow up poor in America in 1989. Like most American poor children, they are white, they do not live in a metropolitan area, their parents don't own a house, and their family's income is less than what the federal government says is necessary to survive.

By 7:30 Carrie has showered and dressed herself. Her hair still wet, she marches into the living room and hands her mother a king-size container of Queen Helene Styling Gel. Dorothy Copas, 37, her eyes droopy from sleep, sits her daughter on the tattered couch and runs the gooey stuff through Carrie's long curly hair. It is a morning ritual; so, too, is the spoonful of Robitussin she feeds her daughter. Carrie has a persistent cough that her living conditions encourage. Many of the windows are cracked or broken, the screens have patches upon patches, and in summer the mosquitoes are merciless. A ceiling fan whirs overhead, pushing stale air around the rooms. Most of the furniture is yard-sale secondhand, and the living room rug is so threadbare that Dorothy has taken to mopping it. "We're the fifth family to live on this," Dorothy says of the carpet. "And that means it's been down at least ten years, 'cause we've been here eight."

Dorothy ties a blue ribbon into Carrie's hair and pushes her up. "Hurry and get yourself some coffee," she says. If Carrie misses the school bus, she won't get to school. Jake and Dorothy don't own a car, there are no public buses in Portsmouth, and there is certainly no money for a cab.

In the kitchen Carrie pours hot water into her mug of instant coffee. On the stove are a few biscuits and a half empty pan of chicken gravy left over from last night's dinner. It is the end of the month. The welfare and General Assistance checks have been spent; the food stamps are gone. The refrigerator is empty save for a gallon of milk, a half-dozen eggs, a jar of mayonnaise and three packages of Hostess Ding Dongs. The cupboard holds only a sack of beans, a bag of flour and a box of instant potatoes. A 25-pound container of Fischer lard sits on the wobbly table. This will be the family's only food until next month's checks and stamps arrive five days from now. They have no bank account. Jake's wallet is empty; Dorothy's purse contains $1.50, three cereal coupons and a package of Tic Tac mints.


Dorothy Copas and Jake Holsinger support their family of six on a meager monthly budget: $464 from welfare and $146 from General Assistance (paid to Jake for working 26 hours at odd jobs for the city). Their income--$610 per month, $7,320 per year--is 25 percent of the average family income and almost $9,000 less than what the U.S. government says a family of six needs to get by. By the time Dorothy pays the bills (in cash)--in a typical month, $157 in rent, $56 for gas, $50 in electricity, $27 for the phone, $14 for the TV cable--there is $306 left for clothes, household supplies, transportation and emergencies. With $304 in food stamps, Dorothy gets her family through by careful coupon clipping, stocking up on hot dogs and bologna, and often waiting for an uncle to drive 80 miles down from Columbus to take her shopping at a discount grocery in a neighboring town. By the end of the month, it's hard for the children to pass up half a box of crackers that the mice have already gotten to. Carrie, sitting in church late one Sunday morning, admits that she would like bacon, eggs and toast for breakfast.

The Riley family (Uncle Ernest, Mike, Luanne, baby Tiffany, Junior, Chuck and Jenifer) has moved seven times in five years. "First we lived in Columbus, then Kentucky, then we moved here," says Jenifer. "Then we moved to Dona Vista, then to Leesburg, Florida, then to another place in Florida, and then we moved back here." Says Junior, "We make do. If we have to, we'll move again to where there's more work."

Things are little better downstairs in the Riley apartment. Chuck's father, Junior Riley, a self-employed dry-wall taper, makes just enough to keep the family off welfare and food stamps, but less than the federal poverty standard of $1,348.33 a month for a family of six. Chuck and Jenifer qualify for free breakfasts and lunches at school, and baby Tiffany gets milk and cheese from the federal Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program. But Junior has been watching television for most of the previous three weeks--out of work. "The only money we've got left is what I have in my pocket and stashed around the apartment," he says. "About $100. Good for a week."

Sometimes the children will contribute some change they've saved to the end-of-month hunkering down. They earn money by collecting cans, mowing lawns or running errands for Warren McCloud, who lost his legs in a steel mill accident in 1946 and now lives in a ground-floor apartment at 215 Washington Street. "Sometimes I tell him to forget about paying me, when he hasn't got the money," says Jeff.

"I like winters more than summers, because you can shovel snow in the winter," says Mike Copas. "And I'm the best snow shoveler in town." Mike hides his money under his mattress so little Jamie won't find it. "But I don't like to," he says. "Mice get under it. I hate them things. They get in your food. Poop in it. I 'bout puke when that happens. They got in one of my old shoes once and had babies in it." Chuck makes $8.64 a week on his newspaper route, but quickly points out that "thirty cents of that is for insurance. In case I break a leg or die. It'll pay half my funeral costs." Last year Chuck won a $100 gift certificate from the Daily Times for signing up the most new subscriptions. He shared his prize with his sister Jenifer. They used all the money to buy clothes. On a recent can-collecting mission, Carrie earned enough to buy a pair of purple jellies at the Dollar Store. "Guess how much they cost?" she asks Jake. "Three ninety-nine."

Although the children of 215 have little to call their own, perhaps more telling than what they have is what they don't have. They get no allowance. They have no portable radios or tape players, no footballs or baseball gloves, no dress shoes, no Levi's jeans and no Nike Air sneakers. They have never been to a movie or taken a vacation. They have never been on a plane, a train or a Greyhound bus. They never eat out--even at fast food places. They've never been to the Dreamland swimming pool, which is only a mile away but costs $4.

Chuck and Carrie's prospects, like those of many children in the southern Ohio county of Scioto, are getting worse, not better. Located within 500 miles of half the nation's population and two thirds of its manufacturers, Portsmouth is both heartland and no-man's-land. When Jake and Dorothy grew up here in the '50s, Portsmouth was a bustling city of 50,000. The steel mills employed more than 5,000 people, and two shoe factories operated round the clock with three shifts each. "People didn't live high," says Dorothy Justus, who has taught in Portsmouth's schools for 31 years, "but this was a working place. People made a decent living." Today most of the factories have shut, and Portsmouth's population is down to 23,000. Its unemployment rate is at 13 percent, and an estimated one third of its children live below the poverty line.

Carrie Copas sits in the second row of her third-grade classroom at Abraham Lincoln Elementary school. Her feet barely touch the floor. She looks past the days of the week and months of the year neatly chalked on the blackboard. Outside the windows, clouds drift across the blue sky. Carrie never volunteers to speak in class because she stutters. "She is much smarter than her grades would show," says her teacher, Molly Glockner. (Carrie has one B, five D's and five S's.) "But considering what she has to contend with at home, I'm amazed that she does as well as she does. She always gets her homework done, though not always correctly. She gets far behind because most of the time she's in another world." 

During recess, although she is athletic and loves to skip rope and ride the swings, Carrie stands by herself against the schoolhouse wall while her classmates play. "The rich children won't let Carrie play with them because she's poor," says her mother, Dorothy, who dropped out of school after eighth grade. "Not real dirt-poor, but poor. They just make fun of her. I don't know why. Jeff and Mike, they're having problems too. The other kids have better shoes on and all this. And they make fun of 'em."


"Whoever liked this place would have to be crazy," says Jenifer Riley of 215 Washington Street. "It's the ugliest building in the world. I didn't know things could be that ugly. But the insides are beautiful."

Children have different ways of measuring poverty. "Rich kids have a lot of pencils," says Carrie, who maintains that there's only one poor person in her class: "Me." The worst thing about being poor, says her brother Mike, an eighth-grader at Grant Middle School, is "no money. No food hardly. All we got now is crackers and milk. Don't have nothin' else." Jeff, a seventh-grader, says, "I get embarrassed when people know that we get welfare. People make fun of people on welfare. They start hittin' on you. I don't like it. But welfare helps a lot with the food." Chuck Riley simply denies he's poor and says he knows only one poor person in all of Portsmouth. "He's a country-western singer and always wearing sloppy clothes," he says. "He's on the radio sometimes and you see him just walkin' around town." Jenifer admits that she is reluctant to visit her Aunt Tina in Columbus, because "all the kids up there spend money. And I don't have any."

Small pleasures are savored by the children of 215: a popsicle, a newborn kitten, a pie made with berries from the mulberry trees that grow in the dirt lot out back where the families hang their laundry. A promise by Jake to take the children fishing makes everyone giddy with anticipation for a week. Long sticks wrapped with tangled line are hauled out of corners and endlessly cast in and out of trees. Bottles and cans are collected to pay for a package of lures. Carrie scrounges for worms, digging furiously with her hands. All week she nurtures her panful of earth with abundant doses of water. Then on Saturday the children troop across Second Street and two blocks to the muddy Ohio River. For three hours they haul in bass after tiny bass while Jake and Dorothy--neither of whom can swim--squirm with worry from the bank. Although the river yields nothing big enough to keep, the kids have so much fun that Jake has a hard time herding them home at sundown.

One of poverty's most sinister effects is the toll it takes, directly and indirectly, on a child's health. Government statistics indicate that poor children are almost twice as likely to suffer health problems. At three months, Carrie was hospitalized with pneumonia and "almost died," according to Dorothy. Chuck missed three weeks of school last semester with the flu. Mike Copas, who at 95 pounds is 30 pounds underweight for his 16 years, stays home from school with colds and coughing spells. And last spring a routine exam revealed elevated levels of lead in Jamie's blood. Doctors believe it came from his swallowing paint flaking off the porch railing. "Lead poisoning in children can damage the brain at a very critical time," says Dr. Mary Ellen Mortensen of Children's Hospital in Columbus, where Jamie is being treated. "Motor skills, language skills, cognition are all impacted, often permanently. Jamie's lead level is quite serious." Because they have no car, Dorothy and Jake pay Junior $15 to drive them to Columbus for Jamie's treatment. After school Carrie sits on the metal stairs leading to the front door of her apartment, a schoolbook resting on her knees, trying to do her homework. She writes furiously--using her left hand for math, spelling and English, her right hand for multiplication tables and handwriting. Jamie scrambles up and down the stairs, jostling her. Chuck pesters her from the sidewalk. "Shut up!" says Carrie without looking up. "Or I'll hit you in your privates!"

Perhaps the most difficult task for the children of 215 is to find space for themselves. In both households, doors are left unlocked and no one knocks. Cousins and brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, wander into each other's homes at will. Yet despite the cramped and public quarters, each child has managed to eke out a private corner. Chuck looks after a section of the living room wall where he has hung a picture of his newspaper subscription award ceremony alongside an autographed 8-by-10 glossy of his favorite country-western crooner, Earl Thomas Conley. ("He's from Portsmouth!" Chuck brags.)

On the wall of the bedroom she shares with her infant sister, father and stepmother, Jenifer has mounted a blackboard that she uses to write messages: "Six days of school left!!!" And without any help, Carrie gets herself up every Sunday morning at seven, scrubs her white high-top sneakers, puts on a pretty dress and catches a bus to church. She has a perfect attendance record in her Bible-study group. "I like to hear stories about Jesus," she says.

What are the children's dreams for their future? Mike Riley: I'm going to the Navy, be on one of them aircraft carriers. They put you through high school and everything. Then I will go into the Air Force.

Jeff Copas: I want to be a fisherman and make $400 to $500 a week and live in Miami in a big house. Not apartments, noooooo. A full house. Five bedrooms in case I get married. TVs in three rooms--living room, front room, my room. The kids would have bunk beds. And if they wanted TV, I'd get them one of those 16-ounce ones. And they'd get any kind of fishing pole they wanted. I'd have a Lamborghini and a huge swimming pool open 24 hours a day. I'd only charge 35 cents for people to swim though, 'cause people don't hardly have any money.

Jenifer Riley: I want to be an artist or train horses. I also want to be a mother and have a kid and a husband. Not just any kind of husband. And I don't want to live here. I want to live someplace where it's pretty. Where you don't have to listen to all this traffic. Somewhere I can have a horse. I'd like to have just a normal house. In one of those small towns, country towns--if they have 'em any more. Western towns.

Mike Copas: Real soon I want to get me a job and make some money to help buy food for the family.

Chuck: It's between policeman, Marine or horse jockey. I'd like to carry guns. But my dad says you can make a lot of money as a jockey.

Carrie: I want to be a dancer and be rich. [How rich?] A thousand dollars. Enough to buy a stereo.

Finally, Dorothy Copas has a simple wish for the children. "I want the best for them," she says. "Just like a rich person does."

According to estimates by the Children's Defense Fund, if present economic trends continue, by the year 2000, one in four American children will be poor. "More and more children are growing up into poverty," says Sue Hagerty, head of Scioto County's Department of Human Services. "They don't know any other way of life. We have to find a way to break the cycle. Children are just innocent victims."

At one in the morning, the house is quiet. Occasionally, a tractor-trailer rig groans by outside. In the living room of Apartment 2, a dull light bounces off the walls. Chuck Riley, in the bathing suit he has worn for the last several days, sits by himself, his head resting on the sofa arm, his nose six inches from the television screen. When the horror show ends, Chuck pulls himself up and unrolls the piece of foam rubber onto the floor. He lies down, three feet from the front door, his face still pointed at the television set. His next day's newspapers are stacked nearby. By two he has drifted off, sprawled in the glow of the television, with a thin blanket for cover. Upstairs, Peanut the puppy pulls a sock out of Jake's shoe and thrashes it around the living room. Everyone is asleep. And Carrie's steady breathing suggests that she is finally in a real dreamland. The children of 215 Washington Street have found their own private spaces--at least for a few hours.