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Natalie Cole, right, her boyfriend and four children lived in a bedroom of a friend’s apartment until she and the friend argued. From left are boyfriend Juan Sena, goddaughter Yolanda and son Gemini.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times

Cole's children play in the driveway, seen through a gate, at the building where the family lived for a time. “My mother struggled, my grandma struggled and I am struggling,” she says.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times

On Christmas Eve, Cole’s youngest son, Jaylyn, 2, gets treatment for a severe asthma attack at Miller Children’s Hospital in Long Beach.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times

Sena comforts Jaylyn at the hospital.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times

Cole brushes her son Gemini's hair as her oldest boy, Peter, 12, plays with her goddaughter Yolanda.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times

Cole gives Gemini a kiss. She has received a license to work as a security guard and hopes jobs she gets will help the family escape the grip of poverty.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times

Cole walks with three of her four children to the St. John’s Well Child and Family Center in Compton.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times

Struggling with diabetes, Cole gets a checkup at a Compton clinic. Her blood sugar was high and the nurse set up a physical, but Cole didn’t go, fearing bad news.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times

Cole's daughter Destiny, 10, tries to cheer up Jaylyn after a medical checkup at a clinic in Compton.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times

Cole and Sena juggle food for their children on the Metro Blue Line as the family heads to Miller Children's Hospital in Long Beach.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times

Gemini stares out the window on the Blue Line on the way to the hospital. He had been suffering from a serious rash. Medical issues add to the family's woes.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times

Her two youngest children in a double stroller, Cole negotiates a Metro platform after a visit to the hospital. With no car, the family relies heavily on public transportation.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times

Cole has a meal on the stairwell outside a friend’s apartment where she and her family lived for a time. With her are boyfriend Juan Sena, left, and son Peter.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times

Cole, with Jaylyn, goes through all the family's belongings on the front porch of her mother's Compton home. They bagged their possessions to move them down the street to an apartment that Cole rented for $800 a month.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times

After living in a cramped bedroom of a friend’s apartment, Cole rejoices in the space offered by the apartment she got in Compton.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times

Cole, in relief and joy, embraces Sena after learning that they had gotten the new one-bedroom apartment.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times

Cole is adamant about keeping the new apartment they have rented.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times

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A life spent battling poverty

Natalie Cole isn’t a victim of the struggling economy. She was poor before and is poor now. Hers is a story of entrenched poverty — a whirl of choices, challenges and chaos that keeps undermining her spurts of personal progress. Tracking Cole’s life over six months offers a messy and at times disheartening insight into vexing social policy questions: How do you break the cycle of generational poverty?

Read Anna Gorman’s article “Caught in the cycle of poverty.”


  1. May 23, 2012, 8:33 pm

    There is basically a few things that can help you move forward.

    Stop having children you can't support.

    Get an education, be serious about getting any education.

    I also saw in one of the photos a man with what appear to be diamond earrings. You don't need that.

    By: Stephen
  2. May 24, 2012, 3:37 am

    [[How do you break the cycle of generational poverty?]]

    The answer to that question is, stop having children you can't afford to raise. Then, live like an immigrant…pool your resources. And get some sort of advanced education or training beyond high school.

    By: guest
  3. May 24, 2012, 9:26 am

    First, dump the bum with the tattoos. Second, don't have anymore kids, Third, focus on improving the future of the kids you have, keep them in school and out of trouble, because it's probably not possible for you to improve your current situation.

    By: Truth hurts
  4. May 24, 2012, 10:12 am

    Seen this over and over. She needs to stop mating with every guy she meets. I see that in these women. get some education and training. take what she can and then learn to depend on ones self strengths. hand outs are nice but for some they learn there is no other option and never seek another way of life.

    By: cgcatt
  5. May 24, 2012, 10:56 am

    When is this cycle going to end? I do not want to sound mean but if you can barely afford yourself don't have children. Children should not face struggles of poverty that affects the upbringing of a child. After your first child you should have known better to get your life together. An education and a job your children should not pay for your mistakes.

  6. May 24, 2012, 11:49 am

    She needs a team dedicated to 1) her health care including mental health and reproductive health that will prevent her from becoming pregnant and transportation to/from appointments; 2) regular babysitters so she can work; 3) and employment. She is easily discouraged and needs someone that can hold her hand and basically do everything from arrange doctor's appointments, transportation, and prepare her resume. I feel very badly for her. It is easy to say it is her fault for having so many kids and being irresponsible, but clearly she lacks the tools, know-how, resources, and maturity–these need to be provided by someone else consistently for at least a couple of years.

    By: M. McKay
  7. May 24, 2012, 12:51 pm

    She's not a victim at all! She didn't want to hear bad news, so didn't keep her doctor appointment? She didn't want to study for the food safety course so left? I am flummoxed as to why she is society's problem at all. Until she and others like her take an iota of responsibility for themselves, it is not my problem or my children's future problem. Why are you continuing to have children? Once the fulcrum tips and the "haves" are no longer willing to COMPLETELY support those with little or no interest in supporting themselves, our society is doomed. TAKE RESPONSIBILITY FOR YOURSELF LADY!

    By: kimkim
  8. May 24, 2012, 8:33 pm

    I have ZERO sympathy. She's just laying up dropping babies everywhere. That's all she'll ever do.When you ignorant you can't expect much from those folk .So it's their burden to bear and for them to sit up in the bed ,then get up and do something to improve their situation..

  9. May 26, 2012, 11:06 am

    It's very easy to judge "those people" until you've walked in their shoes. Education is not always the magic elixir it is claimed to be. It's a tool. The tattoos, style of dress and diets "those people" embrace are reflections of a political socialization formed by ages-old economic hardship. Until the public or private sector can offer an open hand-up as opposed to a clenched handout, you will never see a change in these generational safety-net behaviors of "over-breeding" (How racist or classist!) your mouths "say" you want to modify. Give "those people" credible choices, and many will embrace them as better than nothing. "Those people" rejoiced over a one bedroom apartment! Just think how they'd respond to a $12 an hour job! It's not magic or rocket science. It's monetary. Isn't it for you? Nobody loves you when you're down-and-out, but we all want love when WE are on our knees. THINK about what you're writing, from glass houses, about other people's Lives — people you don't even want to know.

  10. September 1, 2012, 12:41 am

    I feel for her, but she does need to take responsibility. While her kids are cute, she does not need anymore. I hate when ppl act like poor women need someone else to manage their birth control, but I guess in some cases, it is needed. (Not saying that here) It is much harder to go to college than people realize when you have the resources. However this lady seems to have a lack of drive when it comes to certain things. She wants to work, but didn't pass the test and didn't try again. Maybe she has trouble reading. She definitely needs help. But as a woman of similar background, struggling through college, with no kids, I can say it is hard but it can be done. We can't choose our circumstances, but we can make better choices.


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