STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

Life on public assistance, a personal story

Photo courtesy of Keisha Johnson

When it comes to the “cycle of poverty,” the brutal truth is more than 40 percent of children raised in poverty stay in poverty as adults. Among those who make it out, most don’t make it very far. But I'm going to introduce you to one woman who is determined to buck the trend and climb the ladder out of poverty.

I met Keisha Johnson this past summer, and have talked with her a half dozen times since. One of the things I’ve consistently noticed about her is that no matter what’s going on in her life, she always comes across as positive and upbeat, quick to smile. That is no small feat, considering the world Keisha Johnson grew up in.

"I slept outside once in the alley," recalls Johnson. "My mom was in the house drunk, and we’re bamming on the door, my brothers and sisters and I ... We couldn’t get in, so I slept outside on a mattress in the alley." When I asked Johnson if she was scared, she simply replied "I mean I had to do what I had to do." Johnson says she slept on the porch a couple times as well because her mom "would be in the house drunk and high and we couldn’t get in."

"I want my children to be loving, caring, not violent. I don't want them to go through what I went through," says 24-year old Keisha Johnson.

Johnson, 24, grew up poor and is still poor to this day. But she has three reasons she wants to climb out poverty, and their names are Kaleb, Journey, and Alan, Jr.

I "love my babies," says Johnson. "I want my children to be loving, caring, not violent, you know what I mean? I don’t want them to go through what I went through."

There were no nursery rhymes or bedtime stories for Keisha Johnson and her three siblings when they were growing up in Detroit.  There were too many roaches in the house, and never enough food. Johnson’s mom never went to college or held a steady job, and she never sobered up enough to raise her children. Johnson’s dad is serving life in prison for murdering his step brother. 

Before Child Protective Services could remove Johnson and her siblings from their home, the grandparents stepped in to help; two of the kids went with one set of grandparents, and Johnson and another sibling went to live with their mom’s mom, Grandma Ella. 

Johnson's grandmother lived below the poverty line, too, but Johnson says her grandmother provided her with something her mom never could: a safe, loving environment. Johnson says moving in with her grandmother was "the best decision in the world." Johnson thrived at grandmother's house, graduating among the top in her class in high school. But when she went to away to college and got out from under Ella’s watchful eye, things started to slip. Johnson sold drugs, got pregnant, dropped out. Now she’s got three kids and a boyfriend who’s in jail. 

The world Keisha Johnson is trying to create for her three children is vastly different from the world she grew up in. She wants to provide a future for her kids, but she has no family safety net to speak of, so she’s turned to nonprofits as well as the state and federal governments for help, and she’s getting a lot of it: food stamps, medical insurance, daycare, housing assistance, and job training. For Johnson, public assistance will provide the push she needs to get going. 

"A lot of women in my neighborhood, they think being on Section 8and being with Human Services, they think ‘Ok we can do this forever!’ No it’s supposed to be just a start, just a push to help you out for right now, and then you’re supposed to grow and progress on your own that’s the whole point of the program," explains Johnson. "So that’s what it is for me right now."

In three years, Keisha Johnson hopes to have her own home. She wants her children enrolled in good schools, she wants to land a secretary job for herself, get married, and volunteer in the community. Obviously we don’t know if she’ll make it. But Keisha Johnson is pretty confident she will. If she does make it, it will be no small feat for a young woman whose earliest memories include sleeping on a mattress in an alley in Detroit.

Jennifer is a reporter with Michigan Radio's State of Opportunity project. She previously covered arts and culture for the station, and worked as a producer for WFUV in the Bronx.
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