Nurses fight childhood poverty by supporting new parents

Published: Saturday, Dec. 29 2012 10:40 p.m. MST

Jamie Tuckett, a nurse from the Nurse Family Partnership, meets with Andrew and Kailey Newton about their young daughter Rhiley.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

It's a week before Christmas, and the last of the afternoon sun is streaming across west Salt Lake City. Andrew Newton, a tall and skinny 18-year-old, guides his beat-up black Chevy Beretta into its parking spot at the low-income apartment complex he calls home.

He just finished an eight-hour shift at Jiffy Lube. No matter how hard he tries, he can't get the grease from his fingernails. This didn't bother him much a few months ago, but now that he's got a 4-month-old daughter, there are a lot of things about himself and his situation he'd like to change.

For starters, his apartment on the west side of Salt Lake City is sandwiched between the Jordan River Parkway, a favorite haunt of the homeless, and a trailer park. Gas fumes from the nearby interstate blanket the sky above his home.

Newton worries about how those things could affect his daughter's breathing and her well-being, but mostly he worries whether he'll have enough money to cover formula and diapers and the heating bill.

As he climbs the steps to his third-floor apartment, he can hear his daughter Rhiley crying. Once inside, he scoops up the baby, his oil smeared uniform rubbing up against the clean, pink blanket she is swaddled in. "What's wrong, little girl?" he whispers in her ear.

Across the small room, sitting on a tattered green sofa acquired from a friend, Kailey, Newton's wife of seven months, watches with relief. She's exhausted from being home alone all day with their fussy baby. A pretty girl with an easygoing disposition, she's just 19, a year removed from formal dances and late-night runs to Wendy's with her friends. Now, like her husband, her worries have changed.

"It can be hard to stay patient with her when she cries all day," Kailey says. She spends her days in a process of trial and error to soothe her daughter. Feeding, changing, burping, walking and singing only bring temporary relief. "She'll be OK for a few minutes, and then she starts crying again."

A crying baby is stressful for anyone, but in some ways it is the least of the Newtons' problems. The young parents are barely scraping by. Andrew's take-home pay from Jiffy Lube amounts to about $350 per week, a salary that puts the family well below the national poverty line.

Basic living expenses eat up every cent of Andrew's paycheck. "There is no extra money for anything," Kailey says. They don't go to dollar movies with friends. They don't eat out. But that's not what Kailey worries about. Late at night when the lights are out, she worries that they don't have enough or the right kinds of toys for Rhiley's development, things with color and texture.

Although the Newtons qualify for food stamps, they've decided not to apply for the federal program. Fiercely committed to being independent, they canceled their Internet to free up money they need to pay for the extra expenses that come with a baby. Kailey took a job as a night hostess at Village Inn, a local diner, to help bring in a little extra.

Although they both would like to go to college, get higher paying jobs and provide a better life for their daughter, thinking about the future is hard when the present is overwhelming.

Stress and poverty

Every year, more than 500,000 babies like Rhiley are born into low-income homes, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Studies by the Department of Health and Human Services show that low-income children are more likely to suffer from physical abuse and neglect, have parents in conflict with the law, be exposed to toxic chemicals and experience hunger. They are also more likely to struggle in school, to repeat grades and have behavioral problems.

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