What Happened to the Families from FRONTLINE’s Poor Kids?
From left: Kaylie Hegwood, 11, Brittany Smith, 11, Johnny Davis, 14, when Poor Kids first aired in 2012.
When Kaylie Hegwood first watched Poor Kids seven years ago, huddled with her family around a screen in their trailer, she didn’t realize the film would become “such a big deal.”
Hegwood, then 11, said she simply felt excited to be on TV. She remembers laughing about a dramatic on-screen fight with her brother, Tyler, then crying when the story turned to the beloved dog her family couldn’t afford to keep.
Poor Kids portrays poverty in America through the eyes of children in three struggling families, including Kaylie and Tyler. FRONTLINE first aired the film in 2012, earning both an Emmy nomination and a Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award.
The hour-long documentary concludes with Hegwood defiantly describing her future: “I believe that I’m going to get a perfect job that I like and that I want to do,” she said. “People can’t stop you from believing in your own dreams.”
The alternative, she declared, would be “living in a box, not eating … and then stealing stuff from stores. I don’t want to steal stuff.”
As the credits rolled, Hegwood recalls her family talked briefly about what it meant to be in a documentary about growing up poor. But then “we just kind of went on,” she told FRONTLINE in a recent interview.
Now 18, Hegwood still lives in Iowa with her mom, in a rent-to-own home. She’s a junior in high school, balancing a 3.4 GPA with two part-time retail jobs. Next year, she plans to apply for colleges and universities in Iowa and Alabama. Her long-term goal is to become a veterinarian.
“My future is up to me, it’s not up to anybody else,” Hegwood said, echoing her childhood convictions. “You can’t really depend on anybody to make your future.”
Hegwood has re-watched Poor Kids several times over the years, most recently after FRONTLINE aired an updated version of the film in 2017. “I feel like I’ve grown a lot more and matured,” she said, laughing at her 11-year-old self.
When her mother, Barbara Hegwood, sees the old footage, she simply wonders “What happened to my baby?”
After Poor Kids debuted, Barbara Hegwood became a certified nursing assistant, but had to leave her job due to health problems. She’s now re-training for less strenuous work as a medical assistant. In the meantime, the single mother is working shifts at a fast-food restaurant.
“Things are getting better – and you know they’re going to get better – but they’re not better yet,” she said. “It’s like at your fingertips, so you feel like you’re grasping the end of that rope, you know what I mean? It’s frustrating.”
When the film first aired, viewers from as far away as Canada sent cash donations and care packages full of food and toiletries, helping her family to stabilize.
“I’ve worked hard ever since, knowing that people help you when you have nothing,” Barbara Hegwood said. “That meant a lot to me.”
Her oldest son, Tyler Clayburn, was 13 when the film aired. Now 20, he dropped out of school two years ago and will soon be a father. Though Clayburn still wants to finish high school, he says he first needs to pass his driver’s test and find a job – before the baby arrives in April. Clayburn plans to name him Christopher, after a close friend who died in high school.
“I’m overall happy – I would say not, like, smiling to my cheeks but I’m pretty happy overall,” Clayburn said. “I’m glad I’m having a son, ’cause then maybe me and him could be best buds.”
“We lost one and then gained one”
Fourteen-year-old Roger Smith from Illinois was one of the oldest children profiled in Poor Kids.
The documentary in 2012 profiled Smith and his two younger siblings, living in a single-income home in the Midwest. Five years later, when FRONTLINE revisited the Smiths to update Poor Kids, he had graduated high school and was working with his father to support the family.
Smith died last year, after skidding across an icy bridge and crashing into a tree near the family’s home in East Moline. He was 19.
“We just miss him,” his father, Josh Smith, told FRONTLINE. “It’s painful.”
The family is doing “as well as could be expected,” he added, but he doesn’t like to talk about his son. Smith prefers privacy – and felt similarly seven years ago, when he first found out about Poor Kids. He eventually agreed to participate in the film because his wife, Christy, believed sharing their story would help other families living in poverty.
“I figured we could take the criticism because we’re strong enough and other people’s opinions don’t matter,” Christy Smith said. “If it’s going to help all these other families out, why not?”
They spent weeks recording footage for the documentary. When Poor Kids finally aired, Josh Smith watched with sadness as the most intimate moments of their struggle flashed on TV – “sad that I couldn’t provide better for my family and I just still feel the same way about it, really.”
“I just don’t want people to think that I’m not trying,” he added. “I mean, I get up and go to work every chance I get, and I do everything I can for my family.”
For a time, his income was just enough to support the family of five. Then, a week after Josh and Christy Smith celebrated their 20-year wedding anniversary, Roger died. Josh Smith stepped back from his job, returning months later to a lower-paying position. Christy Smith is on disability and can’t work.
“There’s just so much and it’s non-stop,” she said. “We started doing good and then Roger’s accident happened and now we’re just trying to scrape back out of that deep hole again.
“I can’t say we’re doing better because we’re not … right now, we’re at a standstill and we’re trying our hardest to stay positive and look forward.”
She’s leaning on immediate family and close friends, determined her remaining two children will age into a life that isn’t defined by poverty. She won’t accept anything less, she said.
Her daughter, Brittany Smith, had voiced similar feelings in the updated 2017 version of Poor Kids. Like her mother, she didn’t want her own children growing up poor.
The 17-year-old was supposed to start 11th grade in September. She dreams of college and moving “somewhere far,” ideally New York, to become a photographer. But for now, she’s pausing school to raise her first child, Odin, who was born in August.
“My Dad was pretty mad at first, but he got over it,” she said. “He just told me that he was really, really disappointed in me.”
Still, Brittany Smith says she’s happy as a mother and wants people to know, “I’m stronger than I look.”
Josh Smith admits the baby has brought back a measure of joy following Roger’s death. “We lost one and then gained one,” he said.
“I want to make something of myself”
In Chicago, 21-year-old Johnny Davis is also adjusting to life as a new parent. His son Jayden was born in late November.
Poor Kids first profiled Davis at age 14, intent on a future playing football. After the film aired in 2012, Davis chased his dream to Florida. There, the aspiring athlete says he “started hanging out with the wrong people” and landed in jail.
“By me getting myself in a little trouble down there, it derailed my chances of me ending up in a really good school,” Davis said. “It played a major factor in my recruiting process.”
Davis now lives in Chicago with his grandmother, trying to refocus on school. He wants to study kinesiology and become a personal trainer. And he’s not giving up on football.
“I figure if you want something bad enough, there’s no reason in quitting,” he said. “If it’s just not for me, then at that point – then that’s when it’ll be realized. But so far it hasn’t sunk in and I feel honestly this is something that I can end up doing for the rest of my life. It’s just that I got to hustle. Maybe I need to apply myself a little more.”
Davis still keeps in touch with his parents and little sister, Jasmine Willis. Now 18, Willis is home-schooled and on track to graduate next year. She wants to go to college, then law school. As a self-described “argumentative person,” Willis trusts she’ll make an excellent lawyer.
“I just want a career. I want to make something of myself,” she said. “I don’t feel like anyone can tell me what I can and can’t do.”
She remembers the first time her face appeared on Poor Kids, on a communal television at the Salvation Army where she lived in 2012 with her parents and three siblings. In the documentary, an 11-year-old Willis describes watching other people walk into their houses – and wishing she, too, “had a house like those people.”
She has re-watched the scene three or four times since. As a young woman, Willis still wants the same thing. She’s currently living with her parents in a rental home. Across the street, a house has been sitting vacant for months.
“I look at it every day and nobody’s in it,” said her father, Thomas Willis. “I just look and say, what a waste.”
Like his daughter, he dreams of a permanent home. The idea germinated more than 25 years ago, before his children were born. At the time, he was making money painting houses in an old Chicago neighborhood. One stood out.
“It was really, really white – like pure crystal white with burgundy trim,” he recalled. “And I was younger then and it never left my mind. And I said, ‘I want a house like that one day.’”
He still works in building maintenance, fixing other people’s homes, most recently at an apartment complex that also employed his wife. Together, they were doing well and saving for a mobile home.
Earlier this year, the complex sold to a new owner and the couple lost their jobs in the process. That day, Thomas Willis cried. He calls poverty “the beast,” tormenting people who live in poverty with endless anxiety. And the beast was back.
“That’s something that you tried to put in the back of the closet, in the back of your mind and you don’t ever want to think about struggling so severely,” he said. “We’ve gotta go back to that beast again.”
The father-of-four is now working odd jobs at restaurants. When work is steady, he can save about $150 per month. He has his eye on a run-down mobile home that costs just over $3,000.
“And I would work on it until it was fixed up and suitable for us to call home,” he said. “That’s the only vision that you have as a parent, as a father, a husband – we’re finally home. I cannot wait until God releases us from this torment.”
“You Have to Believe It Can Be Better”
Poor Kids filmmaker Jezza Neumann has watched the families’ lives unfold in a rollercoaster of social media posts and occasional calls. He mourned Roger’s death, rooted for Johnny during football tryouts, and worried about Brittany after she shared news of her pregnancy.
When he revisited the families to update the film in 2017, Neumann said he realized they still faced many of the same challenges.
Children born into low-income families are more likely to experience poverty in adulthood than those who don’t grow up poor, according to the National Center for Children in Poverty. The research center also found that black children are more likely to be poor than white children.
Moreover, families living in poverty move more often, switching between school districts that are usually underfunded. At home, they have fewer educational resources, coupled with higher levels of stress.
Over the years, Neumann has received countless emails and phone calls from people who have launched community charities inspired by Poor Kids, amounting to “quite a lot of change on a much bigger scale than you would at first think.”
“You have to believe it can be better,” he said. “If you didn’t believe it could be better, you might as well just give up now.”
For information on making contributions to support children feaured in the film, visit the Aletheia Foundation.