Pandemic-era benefits are long gone. Philly advocates are trying to bridge the gap for families living in poverty

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Alisha Gillespie likes to focus on silver linings.

Flashing a smile in her new home in Chester, she is an advocate for people like her. Her life experiences are her expertise. One day, she hopes to be a motivational speaker.

Gillespie, 34, was born into poverty, but wants to change that trajectory for her own kids.

“Poverty is for me … the hustle everyday just to get the bare necessities. That is what poverty is to me. Just to be able to survive,” Gillespie said. “You have to fight for everything you want and need.”

The latest Census report reveals a stark reality. Childhood poverty rates nationwide have doubled since the year prior. Experts call it “family poverty.”

Just one year prior, those rates had hit historic lows.

Gillespie, a single mother with three young boys, 16, 11, and 8 years old, feels like she is stuck in a revolving door at the welfare offices. She is tired of being a regular.

Alisha Gillespie and her 11-year-old son, Zion, on their block in Chester, Pa. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

But it is a struggle to come up for air, she says. Two years ago, in the throes of the pandemic, she fell ill and was unable to work. Her kids pumped gas and did other odd jobs to make money.

“The type of kids I have, they’re like, ‘Mommy can’t do it. And we got to figure it out.’,” she remembered. “I would have never thought it would have came to that.”

During that time, Gillespie said the Child Tax Credit provided some help. However, it did little to cushion the blow of inflation. The mom of three is frustrated with the inadequate care and support for single parents.

Expenses such as utility bills, gas, and food skyrocketed, so the added benefits only bought her an additional $300 in groceries, maybe the kids’ new shoes, but not enough to add to her savings.

“It wasn’t nothing for me to build any longevity off of,” she explained.

The instability of the pandemic had lingering impacts.

Alisha Gillespie and her 11-year-old son, Zion, on their block in Chester, Pa. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Other families in fragile financial situations faced job loss and feared eviction. Some were one illness away from not being able to pay their bills, like Gillespie.

Others, like Kia McCray, lost family and as a result income.

McCray, 43, became a single parent when her father’s children died suddenly after complications from COVID-19. At the time she was unemployed, and left to care for their four children.

Years before that, she had been diagnosed with congestive heart failure. She felt like her head was spinning.

“It was like a horror movie,” she recalled. “Everything was so scary.”

McCray relied on the Child Care Tax credits to help her stay afloat — pay bills, keep her kids fed and clothed. Then assistance ended.

No heads up. No case worker to walk her through the transition. All she knew was that her only source of income was no longer available.

“It was just like a punch in the stomach, like a really quick punch in the stomach that you weren’t prepared for,” she added.

That year, she frantically put in applications, looking for work to help sustain her household of five.

Last September, she got a call back. She got the job as a food service worker at a local school.

Now, she can get what her kids need — and sometimes what they want.

Gillespie and McCray are among the many families in Philadelphia who have been feeling more financial strain in the last two years.

They are current members of the Network Advisory Council for the Building Health and Wealth Network at Drexel University. The program provides financial literacy and peer support for families with young children and low income.

Through training and building community, the two realized they were not alone.

  • October 12, 2023
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