Parents Cut Corners in Poor Economy

As if unemployment numbers weren't enough, the story of an infant in Florida really hit the country as a sign we are in desperate economic times: Five-month-old La'Damian Barton almost died Monday from watered-down formula because his mother tried to cut costs.

Child care and poverty advocates say poor families have always had to make dangerous decisions to cut back. Now, with the economy in trouble, experts say more families are likely to try cutting doctor visits or skipping their own meals so the children can eat.

Phyllis Harrison of Yonkers, N.Y., a member of Community Voices Heard, an organization of low-income people working to improve their communities in New York city and state, said occasionally skimping, or watering things down is nothing new.

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"When the milk ran out?" she said. "Well, you have to dilute the milk with water. You've got to do what you have to do."

She, herself, has five kids, 13 grandchildren, and receives welfare assistance. She also baby-sits for her neighbor while their family is out working for welfare benefits.

"It's like, every month, because over the week, they don't give you enough milk to last you the month," said Harrison. "I've been taking care of this baby since May. During that time we had to go to the pantry because the food from WIC ran out."

WIC is a federally run program to help subsidize the nutrition of women, infants and children up to age 5. WIC helps, but it's not meant to provide all food.

Like Harrison and her neighbors, La'Damian Barton's mother also relied on WIC. Also like Harrison, she ran out of formula by the end of the month.

Nancy Cauthen, deputy director of the National Center for Children in Poverty (NCCP) in New York, said she hopes this is an extreme, but she can't be sure.

"We can't always quantify these kinds of things," she said. "In general, there are the kinds of things we know happen and the kinds of things we worry about."

Making Tough Family Choices

Cauthen said even the kinds of "things" the NCCP knows happen aren't very encouraging.

"We know, when families are running out of money for food, that parents will tend to cut back on their own meals before they'll cut back on their own children's," said Cauthen.

However, when it comes to health care, Cauthen said everybody in the family usually suffers. If parents lose their jobs, they often lose their health insurance. Then, parents don't take their children for checkups, possibly missing vital red flags for developmental problems.

"If that baby isn't getting ... checkups, you can think about how that can snowball," said Cauthen.

In the Florida case, doctors discovered that Barton was 4 pounds underweight.

Cauthen said parents also often wait until a child gets really sick before seeing a doctor.

"Waiting to go to the doctor until something is serious ... that can turn a cold into bronchitis in the emergency room," she said.

Even if parents have jobs, Cauthen said a bad economy can cause children's health to suffer.

"We know that people lose jobs if they don't show up because they need to take a kid to the doctor," said Cauthen. "So, sometimes parents will send their children to school sick. And, of course, that just exposes other children."

With a bad economy, Cauthen said, "parents are going to be more fearful than before to not show up."

Denise Bonitto, Harrison's neighbor in Yonkers, knows she can't afford to lose too many days at work or she'll lose her welfare benefits.

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