Is Economic Boom Leaving Too Many People Behind?

Unemployment rates low, but so are wages in places like Florida, creating new post-welfare challenges.

It's on the outskirts of chic Fort Lauderdale, but the basement of St. David's Roman Catholic Church here is a haven of last resort for the have-nots seeking food.

But today there are new faces among the regulars at food pantries statewide.

They're the hotel maids who mop floors and change bed sheets; the waitresses who serve food; the workers who run Walt Disney World's rides. They work in the tourism industry.

They are - on the surface only - part of America's middle class.

One such worker is Doreen Brodnax, who made her way through the stacks of canned food shyly. Like her, they may work six days a week. They may own a house. But they're just one missing paycheck away from disaster.

"I have no choice," says Ms. Brodnax, looking exhausted after working two shifts at a popular seafood restaurant. "I have to go to the church for food."

As the economy here expands to historic levels, the ranks of people who work but still live on the edge of poverty are growing, changing the face of poverty in ways that experts say are worrisome because they're largely overlooked by people and politicians.

Forty percent of the American families living below the threshold of poverty have at least one adult working, according to US census estimates. These families often tell the grim human stories hidden beneath the rosy unemployment statistics reported by the media. "There is a real undercurrent of increased economic poverty that is beneath the surface of the good times," says Julian Palmer of the National Center for Children and Poverty at Columbia Universit in New York. "It will have long-term consequences if we don't address it."

But just as America focuses on an economy that's never been better and welfare rolls never trimmer, a slow movement is beginning to take hold to pay attention to the lives of the working poor - and on ways to create jobs that lift people out of poverty.

From economists to legal-aid lawyers to activists, experts agree that while the nation has spent considerable energy moving people off welfare, the effort is bound to fail as long as the issue of adequate wages isn't addressed.

"We need as much focus on moving people from poverty to economic security," says Mr. Palmer. "Just moving poor people to work isn't enough."

"These are people doing what they're supposed to do, except that the outcome isn't the same," says Arthur Rosenberg, an attorney with Florida Legal Services.

Out of 26 million families who sought meals or groceries in food pantries and shelters across the country last year, 39 percent had at least one adult working, according to a new study by the nation's largest hunger-relief agency, Chicago-based Second Harvest. The numbers are more dramatic in south Florida, where 44 percent of the families needing help had one person working. In half of those households, someone was working full time but didn't earn enough.

"Most people are familiar with the homeless, the people asking for money," says Steve Krepcho, executive director of the Daily Bread Food Bank in Miami, one of 75 food banks that participated in the Second Harvest survey.

"But they represent the tip of the iceberg," Mr. Krepcho says. To be sure, the enthusiasm for the economy has pushed home prices upward and the housing to a historic low. But the sharp increase in the number of working families who need housing assistance has received far less attention. From 1991 to 1995, their numbers jumped 24 percent as low wages failed to keep pace with rapidly rising housing costs, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Squeezed between the contradictions of a booming economy are, for instance, those who've been downsized, legal immigrants cut off from food stamps, and low-wage workers like Ms. Brodnax.

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