Faces, pain behind poverty figures: Millions of poorest Americans trapped, living in despair

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By David Crary
September 19, 2011

Thomas McDaniel, left, Brandi Wells, and her 10-month-old son, Logan, are seen on the porch of an apartment in Kingwood, W.Va. Wells was evicted after she lost her job waitressing last year and couldn’t pay her bills. (Vicki Smith / Associated Press)

At a food pantry in a Chicago suburb, a 38-year-old mother of two breaks into tears.

She and her husband have been out of work for nearly two years. Their house and car are gone. So is their foothold in the middle class and, at times, their self-esteem.

“It’s like there is no way out,” says Kris Fallon.

She is trapped like so many others, destitute in the midst of America’s abundance. Last week, the Census Bureau released new figures showing that nearly one in six Americans lives in poverty — a record 46.2 million people. The poverty rate, pegged at 15.1 percent, is the highest of any major industrialized nation, and many experts believe it could get worse before it abates.

The numbers are daunting — but they also can seem abstract and numbing without names and faces.

Associated Press reporters around the country went looking for the people behind the numbers. They were not hard to find.

Bill Ricker, 74, looks out the door of his trailer in Hartford, Maine. He has two degrees, but now needs food stamps just to get by. (Robert F. Bukaty / Associated Press)

There’s Bill Ricker, a 74-year-old former repairman and pastor whose home is a dilapidated trailer in rural Maine. He scrapes by with a monthly $1,003 Social Security check. His ex-wife also is hard up; he lets her live in the other end of his trailer.

There’s Brandi Wells, a single mom in West Virginia, struggling to find a job and care for her 10-month-old son.

Some were outraged by the statistics. Marian Wright Edelman of the Children’s Defense Fund called the surging child poverty rate “a national disgrace.” Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., cited evidence that poverty shortens life spans, calling it “a death sentence for tens and tens of thousands of our people.”

Overall, though, the figures seemed to be greeted with resignation, and political leaders in Washington pressed ahead with efforts to cut federal spending. The Pew Research Center said its recent polling shows a majority of Americans — for the first time in 15 years of being surveyed on the question — oppose more government spending to help the poor.

“The news of rising poverty makes headlines one day. And the next it is forgotten,” said Los Angeles community activist and political commentator Earl Ofari Hutchinson.

Such is life in the Illinois town of Pembroke, one of the poorest in the Midwest, where schools and stores have closed. Keith Bobo, a resident trying to launch revitalization programs, likened conditions to the Third World.

“A lot of the people here just feel like they are on an island, like no one even knows that they exist,” he said.

Kris Fallon kisses her 4-month-old daughter, Addison, in Palatine, Ill. The Fallon family has been living in poverty for nearly two years. (Robert Ray / Associated Press)

It’s hard to find some of the poorest residents in Pembroke. They live in places such as the tree-shaded gravel road where the Bargy family’s dust-smudged trailer is wedged in the soil, flanked by overgrown grass.

By the official numbers, Pembroke’s 3,000 residents are among the poorest in the region, but the problem might be worse. The mayor believes as many as 2,000 people were uncounted, living far off the paths that census workers trod.

Ken Bargy, 58, had to stop working five years ago because of his health and is now on disability. His wife drives a school bus in a neighboring town. He sends his children, 15 and 10, to school 20 miles away. In the back of the trailer, he offers shelter to his elderly mother, who is bedridden and dying of cancer. The $18,000 the family pieces together from disability payments and paychecks must go to many things: food, lights, water, medical bills. There are choices to make.

“With the cost of everything going up, I have to skip a light bill to get food or skip a phone bill to get food,” he says. “My checking account is about 20 bucks in the hole.”

About 75 miles away, in the Chicago suburb of Hoffman Estates, dozens of families lined up outside the Willow Creek Care Center as truckloads of food for the poor were unloaded.

Among those waiting was Fallon of nearby Palatine, mother of a teen and an infant, who hitched a ride with a friend.

She recounted how she and her husband — once earning nearly $100,000 a year between the two of them — lost their jobs, forcing them to move from their rented home into an apartment and give up their car.

“We fight a lot because of the situation,” she said. “We wonder where we are going to come up with money to pay rent, where we are going to get food, formula for the baby.”

She began to cry.

Ricker’s woes date back to the 1980s, when he injured himself falling through rotten floorboards while doing carpentry at an inn. He hasn’t worked since.

He now lives in one end of a cluttered old trailer in Hartford, Maine, 60 miles north of Portland. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Ricker has two college degrees. As a younger man, he worked as an electronics repairman, a pastor and a TV cameraman. He and his first wife had seven children.

Now he receives food stamps, gets donations from a local food pantry and drives an 18-year-old car with 198,000 miles.

For a treat, he goes out to lunch at a cafe in a nearby town — about once every two months.

Until a few months ago, Wells lived paycheck to paycheck. She was poor, but she got by. Now, the 22-year-old lives “penny to penny.”

Wells started working as a waitress at 17 and continued when she became pregnant last year. She worked until the day that she delivered now 10-month-old son Logan, she says, and came back a week later. But finding child care was a challenge, and about three months ago, after one too many missed shifts, she was fired.

In no time, she was homeless. The subsidized apartment in Kingwood, W.Va., that had cost her only $36 a month came with a catch: She had to have a job. Without one — and with no way to pay her utilities — she was soon evicted. Logan went to live with his grandmother while Wells stayed with a friend for three weeks in a house with no running water.

“I didn’t realize that it could go so bad so fast,” she says now.

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