PITTSFIELD, MASS. — MANY of the young women who visit the Berkshire secondhand stores to find clothes for their children, or who use food stamps to buy food, occupy an anonymous place in government reports.
They are identified collectively as the rural poor. But do they think of themselves as poor, and how do they get by?
"We never did have a lot of money when I was growing up," said Tracie Errichetto, a quiet, 21-year-old single mother with a nine-month-old son, "so it's not so different now."
Currently receiving $486 a month from Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), and food stamps, Tracie lives at home with her mother here. In a few months she will move into a public-housing apartment. She admits to being a "little scared" about the coming move.
"I have to believe in myself now," she said, indicating that she has not yet completed her high school education and that she wants to go to college someday.
"If it was up to me," she said, "I'd much rather work right now. I love my son and want to do the best for him." She gave up her first child for adoption in 1989.
Jasmine Smith (not her real name) from Lee at first wanted to use her real name in this article.
"I want to really hit on the men who aren't supporting their children," she said, but later asked to be identified as Jasmine because "I don't want any more trouble" in her life.
She said she had her first baby at 16 because "I wanted something to love." With four children now - ages 15, 13, 9, and 2 years - Jasmine said only 1 of 3 different fathers provides financial support to her.
"I used to clean houses," she said, "but I can't handle it right now," she added, saying she was recovering from injuries from an accident.
AFDC provides her with some money, but she said "it's never enough." Part of her rent is paid by public housing, clothing comes from secondhand stores, most food from food stamps, and sometimes from Stephen's Kitchen in Lee where free meals are available.
Without a smile she said, "I would seriously consider suicide before I had another child. When girls come around my house and say they are in love with a boy and think they want to have a baby, I tell them to look around (at my house) and see what it's like."
Recently when Sally Jones (not her real name) applied for an office job in the Berkshires, 70 others applied, too.
With three children - the oldest 15, the youngest nine months - Mrs. Jones and her husband are struggling to get by even though both of them have completed two years of college training in office management.
"My husband recently lost his job," Jones said. The job was seasonal and low paying. She said she has been approved to use her small home as a day-care center, but has had no children yet. She and her husband have applied for public housing.
"It's very stressful to have so little money," she said. "Everyone wants their children to have more than they did. My son will wear only the best, and we're a little behind on our credit-card payments now. It's the old story of robbing Peter to pay Paul."
With the laughter that comes from hard experience, she said that when her daughter becomes a teenager, "I'm going to lock her in a closet" to keep her away from young men. "I was 20 when I had my first child," she said.
In Great Barrington, David and Jane Merrett moved into new subsidized public housing three months ago. When Mrs. Merrett had her two children - now 1-1/2 and 6-1/2 - she used the WIC program (Other programs, below.).
"I was so happy being pregnant," she said, "because the doctors said I couldn't get pregnant. The WIC people were great with me, and I am so appreciative."
Mr. Merrett, a high school graduate, has driven a school bus 20 hours a week for several years, but continues to look for better
He says on some days he makes up to three inquiries about jobs he hears about.
Several years ago he had a job that paid $500 a week, but the job disappeared in the economic downturn. "My husband and I turn to God when we really get low," Mrs. Merrett said.
In their previous apartment, fuel assistance helped pay the $300 a month for electric heat in winter.
"We tore up our credit cards a long time ago," she said. "Companies just kept sending them to us, and we finally said no."
Mrs. Merrett, standing in the small living room of her neat home, said the pink curtains are 20 years old, dyed recently. Most of the furniture in the room was given to them or found.
"It's no easy ride for us," she said. "I'd rather be off food stamps, but I am grateful, and all the help we get from our church, from the Salvation Army or anybody, we receive it as humble people."