6/14/2012 7:35 PM ET|
America's own Third World
The percentage of US residents living in poverty is on the rise, according to the Census Bureau. We shine a light on the diverse faces of America's underclass.
America's poor: The grim statistics
● U.S. population: 313.7 million (June 2012)
● U.S. poverty rate: 15.1% (2010), up from 14.3% in 2009
● U.S. unemployment rate: 8.2% (May 2012)
● Real median household income: $49,445 (2010), down 2.3% from 2009
● People without health insurance: 49.9 million (2010), 16.3% of the population
The numbers are startling. But the names and faces tell the raw story.
Gary Thompson is one of those faces. At age 68, he's broke and sick, and he sleeps in a charity mission surrounded by homeless strangers in Atlantic City, N.J. It's not a pretty picture.
In general, poverty in America today is disturbingly unattractive. It is gritty and pervasive and hard to break out of. It's a story of men and women all around us who are suffering great pain, frustration and deprivation. It sounds banally dramatic, but only, gratefully, because most of us have never endured those circumstances. For the minority that has -- and, let's be clear, it is a small minority -- the suffering is substantial, and it has not lessened in recent years. Political divisions have made sure of that. Partisanship has frequently hindered or scuttled initiatives that each political party has proposed.
Democrats and Republicans manifest very different notions of how to cope with poverty. Some of us believe that people should take full responsibility for their actions under all circumstances and that "neediness" is a character flaw overcome through hard work and determination.
That's one point of view.
Others believe the government's main purpose is to care for the well-being of its people -- not just the "cans" but also the "cannots," the "have-nots" and sometimes even the "do-nots." They believe compassion is integral to civil society, that government's role is to make sure Americans are safe and healthy, and that if you don't or can't work, or can't get by on your paycheck, you should not be relegated to Dickensian penury.
We profile five people who come from different backgrounds and circumstances but now find themselves in America's underclass -- the working and nonworking poor. Some of these people have lived most of their lives in poverty. Others are new to it. Most say they never could have imagined they would be as dependent as they are today on friends, family, charities and government programs to support themselves and care for their families.
Click through the following pages to read their stories.
Tammie Shifflett of Glouster, Ohio
● Population: 1,791 (2010)
● Poverty rate, households with related children: 37.6% (2006-10 census estimate)
● Unemployment rate: 16.9% (2006-10 census estimate)
In 1966, when Tammie Shifflett was born in this sleepy village in southeastern Ohio's Athens County, most of the coal mines that had drawn her grandparents to Glouster had already closed.
As in so many other Appalachian towns, the demise of the salt and coal industries -- which had been the lifeblood of places like Glouster in the first half of the 20th century -- has left a stagnant economy that has resonated across generations.
Today, employment opportunities in such towns are limited by industry, geography and education. "You gotta have more than a high school education to get a job (that's) more than McDonald's," Shifflett says. "If you're looking for a job, you gotta get outta here."
Shifflett, however, has deep roots in the Glouster community. "All my friends, all my family, they are all here," she says.
It's a hardscrabble life for Shifflett. She ekes out a living working as a part-time home health aide. The work allows her to pay her mortgage while supporting her disabled husband, Terry, and helping her 18-year-old daughter, Jameska, who is a recent single mother. Food stamps and disability payments for Terry help, but Tammie Shifflett frequently finds herself borrowing money from her parents to make ends meet.
Glouster has struggled mightily in recent decades. Its population shrank 10% between 2000 and 2010. As of the 2010 census, this small rural town was contending with a 16.9% unemployment rate, and poverty was rampant.
More than 37% of Glouster households with kids in 2010 were living below the poverty level, which was defined that year as a family of four earning less than $22,113 annually.
Though Glouster's economy has shown no signs of brightening recently, the town itself is looking a little less shabby thanks to one man's painting crusade. According to a recent CBS News report, a widower named Jim Cotter has embarked on a project to paint the entire town. "It's just amazing what a little bit of paint will do," Cotter told CBS. "It changes people's hearts."
-- Andrea Morales
Gary Thompson on the Atlantic City boardwalk
Atlantic City, N.J.
● Population: 39,558 (2010)
● Poverty rate, households with related children: 32.3% (2006-10 census estimate)
● Unemployment rate: 12.4% (April 2012)
Like a lot of visitors, Gary Thompson came to Atlantic City in May to spend the summer at the Jersey shore. At 68, homeless and with HIV, Thompson is no tourist, however. He's an urban migratory worker, down on his luck and searching for a seasonal job. "I don't care if it's security work, cleaning up. Right now they (the casinos) are kind of busy, so they are gonna snatch people kind of quick."
With its beaches, boardwalk and glitzy casino hotels, this New Jersey gambling destination is in its high season in summer. Hiring picks up in the warmer months, and that attracts boardwalk vendors, college students and people looking for low-skill casino jobs.
Thompson isn't being picky. He left his sister's place at the landlord's behest in the nearby town of Chatsworth, N.J., and now he's starting over. His first stop -- as for so many other job seekers who flock to this city -- was the Atlantic City Rescue Mission, a refuge here since 1964. Last year, nearly 3,000 people stayed at the mission, which served more than 200,000 meals and provided counseling, clothing and classes to help people find and secure jobs.
Every morning, Thompson packs up his satchel and carries his 30 pounds or so of possessions around town, looking for work.
The job search in Atlantic City and the surrounding area has not been easy these past few years. In April, New Jersey's unemployment rate was 9.1%, a full percentage point higher than the national average. In Atlantic City, the jobless picture was even grimmer. The city's unemployment rate in April was 12.4%, owing in part to the bruising that the gaming industry has endured since the 2007-2009 recession. (Revenues at Atlantic City casinos last year were $3.3 billion, 37% below their peak in 2006.)
The decline in casino-related tourism to the city does not bode well for Thompson and his fellow job seekers. Resting on a bench on the famed Atlantic City boardwalk, Thompson dons an official city vendor's license, identifying him as a resident of the rescue mission. If and when he gets a job, the license will allow him to work in the city.
For now, however, Thompson relies on the mission, as well as Social Security, disability checks and his own sense of optimism to keep him afloat. "However you got homeless," he says, "you gotta leave it behind. You got to start over."
-- Lang Kirchheimer
Joe Kerekes of Berwind, W.Va.
● Population: 278 (2010)
● Poverty rate, households with related children: 100% (2006-10 census estimate)
● Unemployment: 90.3% not in the labor force (2010)
Like so many other mined-out coal towns in West Virginia, McDowell County's Berwind was once a thriving community that is now fighting to stay alive.
Joe Kerekes, 56, and his wife, Anita, know the struggle all too well. Both were born and raised in Berwind, and left only briefly for a work opportunity in neighboring Kentucky. Homesickness brought them back. "Berwind's it for me," Joe Kerekes says. "Berwind is home."
The couple, along with their children and grandchildren, are intimately familiar with job losses and dwindling economic opportunities that plague towns that have historically been dependent on a single industry.
This remote area in the southern part of West Virginia was once at the heart of America's coal producing region. Beginning in the late 1950s, however, increasingly mechanized coal extraction methods reduced the size of the labor force. By the 1970s and '80s, competition from nonunion mines in the western United States, as well as a sharp decline in U.S. steel production (steel plants were big coal customers), led to further job losses and a population exodus from McDowell County.
After more than 20 years working in both the coal and timber industries, Kerekes has seen another, more sinister enterprise move into McDowell County: the illicit sale of prescription drugs.
With West Virginia leading the nation in deaths from controlled-substance abuse, and McDowell County in the top tier of U.S. counties with severe drug infestations, Kerekes is worried. His granddaughter graduated high school this month, and he says he hopes she will leave the area and go someplace with better job opportunities.
"If kids had jobs, it would keep their mind occupied, and it would cut out a lot of this (drugs). I believe kids now, if they had the opportunity to take the work or take a pill, I believe they'd take the work. That's my opinion."
-- Roger Dale May
Annette Ramirez works at a church-run community center in San Bernardino, Calif.
San Bernardino, Calif.
● Population: 209,924 (2010)
● Poverty rate, households with related children: 36.5% (2010 census estimate)
● Unemployment rate: 15.7% (April 2012)
Being poor is new for Annette Ramirez. "When I first walked out of that welfare office, I came out in tears," she says.
The 44-year-old graphic designer from San Bernardino, Calif., used to lay out classifieds for the local paper and advertising for a beer distributor. She rented a four-bedroom house from her brother and was doing "OK."
But in 2008, in the midst of the Great Recession and just as the subprime mortgage crisis was popping the housing bubble, her brother lost his home, and Ramirez lost her job. Since then, she and her 11-year-old daughter have moved in with her parents, scraping by on $490 in state welfare payments and $300 in food stamps.
"I've worked so hard all these years. But now I'm right there with everybody else," Ramirez says.
San Bernardino has taken its hits over the years. On historic Route 66 in Southern California, the city of 215,000 was once a bustling bedroom community -- the 1950s birthplace of McDonald's and a 1970s "All-America City." But the thousands of jobs lost after the closing of Kaiser Steel in the mid-1980s and Norton Air Force Base in 1994 (about 10,000 jobs) rippled through the area's blue-collar workforce to devastating effect.
"We never recovered," says Marlene Merrill of the county's Community Action Program, which gets 20,000 calls a month from residents seeking help. The real-estate bubble in the late 1990s and early 2000s fueled a partial resurgence in construction and service jobs, but when the boom went bust, those jobs did, too.
Ramirez works for her welfare check, supervising the distribution of clothes, books and toys to the poor at a church-run community center.
-- Valerie Hamilton
Kids play in Daniel and Marlana Robertson's pool in Hattiesburg, Miss.
● Unemployment rate: 7.1% (April 2012)
Daniel Robertson, 33, and 29-year-old Marlana Robertson were born and raised in Hattiesburg, Miss., and have known poverty all of their lives.
For the past four years they have lived in a 1,000-square-foot, four-bedroom house, sharing the small space with their eight children and depending entirely on government assistance -- Medicaid, food stamps and disability checks -- to get by.
"The way it is now is frustrating on a lot of people," Daniel says.
When he was 15, Daniel was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, an autoimmune disease that limits his ability to work and requires him to take about $700 worth of medications each month. His disability checks cover his prescriptions, but money is very tight. Neither parent works, and church and community food programs frequently provide hot meals for the family during the week.
"I want my kids to have a good job and own a better house," Daniel says, proud of his eldest daughter, Emmi, who just started high school.
The obstacles facing his kids are daungting, though. Despite being home to University of Southern Mississippi and William Carey University, Hattiesburg High School has a very high dropout rate, and the area is surrounded by pervasive poverty. More than 30% of Hattiesburg residents live in poverty, according to U.S. census data.
-- Bryant Hawkins
VIDEO ON MSN MONEY
Daniel Robertson, 33, and 29-year-old Marlana Robertson were born and raised in Hattiesburg, Miss., and have known poverty all of their lives.
WHY DID THEY HAVE 8 KIDS?
I am sorry, if you have been poor all your life, and you have 8 kids, I no longer feel bad for you. You are not very bright! I am almost wondering the statistics on this, because I think the lower class is growing simply because they are out reproducing any other class. This is by no way science, but you see it in all communities, it doesn't matter race, black, hispanic, white, if they have more than 5 kids, 9 times out of 10 they are dirt poor.
I think greatter access to birthcontrol and sexual education might help put a dent in this madness!
Knew about his MS at age 15, can't work, but went ahead and had 8 children. When you can't afford to keep yourself, you need to keep it in your pants! And, how many of those kids did he pass that MS on to?
It's funny how Americans will give aid in the BILLIONS to other countries and we won't even give a single poor woman in the ghetto a toaster.
We'll step over the homeless right here at home, but give MILLIONS to the poor abroad.
The hollywood movie stars will step over a child that need adopting at home, but go to Africa and adopt a baby there.
Aren't we great people.
I don't know any of these peoples' situations personally, except what little details they have given us, but most of them seem to have brought poverty upon themselves. Having 8 kids when you know you are going to be disabled your entire life is ridiculous! As is staying where your "friends and family" are, in a town of only a couple hundred or thousand, when you know damn well that there are no jobs there! With the exception of the sick, homeless man, who actually travels to find work, the rest of these people are just making excuses. And I say this as a liberal. I am sick of the excuses made in this country for not having to support yourself.
I know times are tough, but eventually we are going to have to cut people off. We can't support everyone all the time, especially people who refuse to make sacrifices (like relocating or having less children) to better their life.
Hmmm... people single parenting... a married couple where neither works and they have EIGHT kids... people who refuse to leave their hometowns to seek work... golly, wonder why they're having trouble getting by, poor abused folks...
Rudolf, at least the illegal aliens you speak of are willing to pursue a better life... rather than sit back and expect it to come to them.
I understand there are people who cannot work for medical reasons, and they should not be left to starve, but neither should they be eating much steak... and there are those who would work, but their industry is suffering right now, same deal as above... but recognize that "from each according to ability, to each according to need" is the DEFINITION of socialism. "From each according they have more, to each because they feel entitled," that's just STUPIDism.
The homeless man in Atlantic City is at least making an effort... but there was probably a reason his sister's landlord said he couldn't stay at the house anymore...
What a sad comment on the state of affairs in what used to be the greatest country in the world.
Just look at us now...despised by the rest of the world for our foreign policies.
Basically broke! Actually even worse than that. Our entire government operates on borrowed money that we have no way of knowing how we will ever pay it back.
Millions without health insurance and many that have it, going broke trying to pay for it.
Unemployment that is at an all time high and the number in this article doesn't count all the people that have given up finding a job or used up their unemployment benefits.
The Middle Class is now the working poor.
Greed so rampant in our businesses it's just sickening!
A political system that's corrupt, ineffective and so wasteful it makes you want to puke.
And don't tell me to leave if I don't like it, because I spent my entire life working to make this country a better place and a better life for my family and I'm staying right here to voice my disgust for the way it's been destroyed. After all, isn't that what the thousands of soldiers that have died all over the planet were fighting for...our freedoms?
Yet we still have famous hollywood actors begging for our $$'s on tv commercial's to send overseas. Whatever happened to taking care of our own first?! Wow what a concept.
Want to get "the poor" working. Insist that to get their unemployment they have to show up each day witout fail at the unemployment office where they are formed into work gamgs and sent throughthe city with brooms, mobs, bags, pick up th gargage, scrape off the graffitti, an dsweep and mop the streets. Six hours a day 6 days a week. In the winter they get snow-shovels and brooms to clean up the snow. Work prgrams planting flowers in parks and beautifying the country.
In four weeks you'll cut the unemployed poor in half. Make sure the orders are only given in Englsih and you'll find out amazing that most illegals have learned English in record time.
Disciplinary problems simply lose their check. Extreme disciplinary problems lose their check forever and are sent to a re-education camp. Someplace like Magadan or Chelyabinsk.
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