Cover Story

Below the line: Poverty in America

Official figures say 46 million Americans live in poverty. Beyond that, there's little about poverty that Americans can agree on.

By , Correspondent

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    Ed and Roberta Campbell cross the Wheeling Suspension Bridge. This is the cover story in the Oct. 8 edition of The Christian Science MonitorWeekly.

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Technically, Linda Criswell steals her fruit.

No one at King's Daughters Day Care, where she works, would begrudge her an orange or an apple, of course. This isn't that kind of workplace. When she grabs a piece of whatever the kids are having that day, she's welcome to it. But the simple staple is also something she can't buy on her own.

"I can't afford fresh fruit or low-fat meat. I can't get cauliflower or green peppers," she says. When she does buy food, "I buy things that stretch longer." She opts for whole roasted chickens that she spins into four or five meals. She can stretch a tomato, grown in her home garden, across an afternoon salad and an evening BLT sandwich. Until the first frosts come, and the plants die, that is. Then she waits until summer to eat tomatoes again.

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Ms. Criswell's stoic self-sufficiency isn't always enough to get her through. "I've eaten food that's seven, 10 days old." She gestures toward a reporter's notebook. "You can [write] that down."

Criswell works full time, with no benefits, and she hasn't had a raise in three years. After taxes, she brings home $1,030 a month – enough, if she's careful, to meet her expenses, with little wiggle room. "What I feel," she says, "is anxiety. I felt it just this morning. It's constantly in the back of my mind: 'Am I going to have enough to pay the bills?' "

Works full time; lives in poverty

Is Linda Criswell poor?

This turns out to be a very difficult question to answer. How you answer may depend as much on who you are – liberal or conservative, city-dweller or rural homesteader, low-wage laborer or salaried middle class – as on any single set of criteria. Even the government isn't sure how to think about the question: In some states, making $1,000 a month might qualify you for food stamps but could be too much income to qualify for Medicaid.

A presidential election year only makes the issue of the haves and have-nots more divisive. President Obama took heat for admonishing entrepreneurs that their businesses relied on tax-supported infrastructure and that "You didn't build that." Republican candidate Mitt Romney has been caught up in controversy over his statements at a fundraiser that nearly half of Americans don't pay income tax and "feel entitled" to government "handouts."

Americans know poverty exists and may agree on its broadest outlines, but when it gets down to the specifics, they often can't agree on exactly who "the poor" are.

Last month, the US Census Bureau released the latest official poverty figures, putting the number of poor people at 46.2 million, or 15 percent of the population. That's the same as the previous year – meaning the United States has sustained, for the second year in a row, the biggest increase in poverty since the government started keeping poverty records in 1969.

But what do these numbers tell us? And what are they used for? And what – and who – might they leave out?

The most obvious conclusion is that the nation is still dealing with consequences of the Great Recession. After the economic crisis, "of course poverty's going to go up," says Mark Rank, professor of social welfare at Washington University in St. Louis. "It didn't go up because people are working less or aren't working harder. It's that there aren't enough … decent-paying jobs out there."

Peter Edelman, a former Clinton administration official and now director of the Center on Poverty, Inequality and Public Policy at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., agrees: "There are literally millions of people … out there working … not getting out of poverty."

He says the numbers show that there are "people who are in low-wage jobs and get some income supplement. Nobody wants to really admit that's going on."

In fact, most of the new jobs seen since the economic crisis – and most of what will come in the next decade – are low-wage, according to the National Employment Law Project. More than 40 percent of the jobs added to the economy between 2008 and 2010 – the first two years of the recession – were low-wage jobs, the project reported in August. Six of the 10 jobs projected to see the most growth by 2020 are also low-wage jobs.

The long view of wages is even bleaker. Since 1979, the American economy "has lost about one-third of its capacity to generate good jobs," according to a recent paper published by the Center for Economic and Policy Research. A good job, in this case, pays about $37,000 a year and offers health insurance and retirement benefits – two things most low-wage jobs lack.

Robert Rector, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, sees the poverty problem differently, through the lens of government spending rather than workers' wages. In 2011, he says, the federal government spent more than $700 billion on assistance programs to help get people out of poverty. Yet the number of poor Americans did not change that year. His conclusion is that "you can't have any impact on poverty at all with the welfare state. That's kind of amazing, and it's kind of silly."

Mr. Rector connects the poverty numbers with welfare spending because the Census Bureau's analysis is used to determine eligibility for government assistance, from food stamps to housing vouchers to child care, paid for by the federal government, the states, or some combination of the two. Put simply, the Census Bureau decides how poor is "poor."

One poverty formula doesn't fit all

In this case, the benchmark of poverty is the ability to afford food. When a government economist named Mollie Orshansky sat down to write the poverty formula in 1965, she needed to understand how people spent their money. She knew, from a 1955 report called the Food Consumption Survey, that families spend about a third of their income on food. So she multiplied that by three to create the "poverty threshold," the least amount of money a household can bring in and get by.

In turn, the government uses those thresholds to set maximum incomes for everything from food stamps and prescription assistance to subsidized housing and day care.

The only change the government makes to Orshansky's formula is to update it annually for inflation. But so much else has changed since then – especially how Americans spend their money. Today, 13 percent of household income is spent on food, far less than the 33 percent in Orshansky's formula. Meanwhile, nearly 35 percent goes to housing, and 17 percent goes to transportation, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But those costs are ignored by Orshansky's formula – which means that when the government decides which families make too little money to survive on their own, it's ignoring the things that eat up the majority of the American family's budget.

So last year, the government experimented with a new number that economists hope might give a more realistic picture of poverty (even though it doesn't change how assistance programs determine whom to help). Called the SPM – "supplemental poverty measure" – it counts both disposable income and expenses differently than the official measurement. It includes the buying power that state assistance adds to poor families' budgets: If they have food stamps, they aren't spending their cash on food, so they use it for other things. It also subtracts buying power for other necessary costs that the Orshansky formula ignores, like housing and transportation.

Experts on both sides of the poverty debate agree that the formula isn't perfect, but it is a start for getting a more accurate handle on who has enough to live. And with that experimental formula, the poverty numbers go up, but not all that much – from 46.2 million to 49.1 million people, or from 15.2 percent of the population to 16 percent, according to last year's data. (The second SPM will be released in November.)

So, is Linda Criswell poor? The government says no, because she makes "too much" money. Yet if she needs to go to the mall or the grocery store, she hitches rides with her 35-year-old daughter, to save gas. When her brother gives her a gift card to Big Lots, a discount store, for her birthday, she buys towels and toilet paper.

While other Americans watch the stock market, she watches the grain prices. Grain feeds livestock, and Criswell stretches meat across multiple meals. She's worried. "Grain is going up," she says. "I don't know how much longer I will be able to afford my roast chicken."

A full refrigerator makes a man rich

In Detroit, the poor aren't talking about grain prices. Still, Michigan's most famous city has poverty in common with West Virginia's dwindling northern panhandle. Both places are once-hearty industrial towns – cars in Detroit, steel in Wheeling – whose heydays seem to be behind them. There's one big difference, of course: The steel industry never merited a government bailout, like the auto industry in Detroit.

Then again, no one was bailing out James Harris, who lives near Palmer Park, not far from the Detroit border at 8 Mile. Mr. Harris is the father of five grown children; he is also a high school dropout, an ex-felon, and a recovering drug addict. He's been clean for 26 years, he says, and during the 10 years he spent in prison, he finally learned to read.

Harris, age 56, has been homeless, on and off, since his mother died when he was 13. He's been in and out of shelters, on and off the streets. Now, he lives with his wife, on income well below the poverty line. Her disability payments bring in $600 monthly; his volunteer work at a church and homeless outreach ministry brings in $260 plus a bus pass and food – and a sense of meaning. "This is my calling.... This is family," he says of the men he works with. "I would die for these [guys]."

He and his wife rent an apartment for $425 a month. They have a refrigerator, a color TV, and cable. They have a Nintendo Wii and a PlayStation 2 that, he says, is "outdated, but to me it's a luxury."

To some, the possessions suggest disposable income that seems incongruous with poverty. "When the average American hears 'poverty,' they are thinking about somebody who is homeless, or has an inadequate house with a hole in the roof or something, who doesn't have food to eat, can't put clothes on kids' backs," says Rector at Heritage. "If you drove down the street and found a normal house of a poor person, you wouldn't recognize it because you wouldn't think that's a poor person. It doesn't look poor."

Harris can understand that, because he also sees it work in reverse: "If I go to someone else's house and see their bills are paid, their refrigerator's full, the dogs and cats [are] running around, it's clean, the kids are sociable – [that's] 'rich' to me. We all have some poverty. Somebody's richer than us; somebody's poorer."

A majority of Americans are poor at least once

Harris is expressing the relativity of wealth, but some studies suggest Harris is also literally correct: We all have some poverty.

Professor Rank, the Washington University sociologist, says that 60 percent of adult Americans will live below the poverty line for at least one year of their lives. "When those numbers come out each year ... many of those people might not have been poor two years ago, and many of them won't be poor two years in the future. They're experiencing a rough time that's picked up by those numbers," he says.

Wheeling's economy is a microcosm, of sorts, of Rank's research. Since the recession, unemployment in the county – one of West Virginia's wealthiest – has doubled. Middle- and upper-class families weather those changes with relative security, but the working class is more vulnerable to job loss, low wages, and other stressors.

Missy Nash knows what such rough periods can be like. Two years ago, Ms. Nash was given 24 hours to vacate her apartment with her then-6-month-old daughter, Amelia. Though her parents stored her belongings, she couldn't live with them at their house. "I had a stressful childhood," she says. So for two months, Nash slept at the Salvation Army homeless shelter in downtown Wheeling, and Amelia slept in a bassinet next to her. "It wouldn't have been a healthy situation for my child [to stay with my parents]. Some people can understand that or not. It's easy to think, 'Salvation Army, how healthy is that?' "

The shelter connected her with the Greater Wheeling Homeless Coalition, and after an extensive interview, the group offered her an apartment for two years through its transitional housing assistance program. She used those two years to get certified as a surgical technician at the nearby community college. With help from the coalition staff, she learned to budget and save. By the time her two years were up, she'd banked $2,000 and secured a voucher from the Housing and Urban Development (HUD) program to subsidize her rent. She wanted to continue her education to improve her chances of landing a well-paid job, but in the meantime, she'd found more than full-time work at a teen pregnancy center.

On paper, everything was in order. But local housing prices have skyrocketed as out-of-town oil and gas workers descend on the region to explore the natural gas reserves of the Marcellus Shale. It was hard to find someone who would bother with HUD vouchers, or anything for less than $1,000. "At $8.50 an hour, I don't even clear a thousand a month," she says. "I felt like I wasted two years. I felt like I would be in the exact same place I was."

The expiration of her transitional housing was looming: She had to be out by Aug. 24, even if that meant she'd end up homeless, again. Then, on Aug. 22, she found a subsidized place, with a sliding scale rent. She pays the maximum $450 for a two-bedroom apartment.

Other stresses loom. With full-time work, she earns too much to keep most of the assistance that got her through her toughest period. The state still covers her daughter's health care, and she still gets $14 a month in food stamps – but if that disappears, it will be tough to scrape by.

"Once you're making enough to make ends meet, they pull all of your food stamps and child care and you're back to Square 1," she says. "We have poverty but no proper bridge to get people out. It's a vicious cycle."

Michael Linger thinks the cycle might be about more than who qualifies for food stamps. In fact, says Mr. Linger, who runs the food pantry on Wheeling Island, a downtrodden community of sagging Victorian homes, the way many people in the US typically think about poverty doesn't help anyone stop being poor.

"For lack of any other way of describing it, we have assumed that people in poverty are ignorant. They're not," he says. "I see people trying to pull themselves out of poverty with businesses in the home: Somebody has a day care, or here's a salon, here's a tree-cutting service."

When he took over the pantry last year, the food on offer was always the same: canned peas, mandarin oranges, and green beans, and a jar of peanut butter. "People would leave here with that," he says, and later, "you'd see cans of food sitting on the sidewalk or on the bridge."

Many a sensible person might ask, "If you don't have anything to eat, aren't canned peas better than nothing?" But Linger says that deprivation of choice is precisely what helps keep the poor impoverished. "Choosing is empowering. Once you realize you do have control and have the opportunity to make some choices, that can carry over. You can realize your decisions impact how you live," Linger says.

Sometimes, that control means forgoing the very assistance you qualify for. Ronnie Bennefield of Detroit is a former chef not so much down on his luck as too in love with the ladies. His interest in women, and a onetime drug habit, led him down wrong roads, from which he's still recovering. But even though he's entitled to food stamps, he refuses them: "It's too much red tape."

Poor only on paper

But in other cases, that control means choosing a life that makes you poor – but only on paper. That's what Kacey Orr did at her home on her grandfather's farm, just outside Wheeling. Perhaps the rolling hills of West Virginia are kinder than the mean streets of Detroit and give a person like her more choice than a guy like Mr. Bennefield might feel. Perhaps it's about more than that.

Right now, for Ms. Orr, it's all about poultry: "The chickens are all named after West Virginia counties. We've got Braxton, Jackson, Logan, Marshall, Boone, and Pocahontas," she says, rapid-fire. "They lived in my bathroom for three months as chicks, so we're close."

They gather around her ankles; she leans over and pulls an egg from the wood chips.

Orr walks around the bright red henhouse she built in her front yard with her father. He was a key player in her decision, a year ago, to give up her hair salon business and become an organic farmer – precisely the kind of life from which her grandfather meant to shield the next generations. "In my grandparents' mind[s], farming is something you do only if you can't do anything else," she says.

So Orr's father went to college, but he kept the farm's secrets. "He knows so much," says Orr. "He knows where the blackberry bushes are hidden in the woods and how to keep groundhogs out of the garden without having to shoot them."

According to the government, Orr lives in poverty. She makes $300 a week selling jam and fresh vegetables at the Wheeling Farmers Market. "If you didn't live here, you would say, 'Oh, I'm so sorry.' I'm poor technically, but I don't feel poor. I don't go out to eat, ever; I haven't been to a movie in five years. I don't take vacation. But it's OK, because now my life is a vacation."

She may be cash-poor, but Orr feels resource-rich. She eats what she grows, and she uses her creativity to bridge budget gaps. In May, when her plants were still too young to harvest and sell, she used her family's 85-year-old rhubarb plants to make massive batches of jam.

Her resourcefulness extends beyond the organic: "I will dig through your garbage." And she has, using other people's discarded furniture to make wood pellets for her chicken coops and cast-off windows and doors to build a frame for her cold house, a kind of off-the-grid greenhouse, where she plans to grow spinach and lettuce right through the winter.

If this is poverty, it's chosen poverty. Orr says she made around $40,000 a year cutting people's hair, "but it was killing my mind." It's poverty overlain on a preexisting infrastructure: She lives in her grandfather's home, grows heirloom crops on land that's been in her family for five generations, sows corn with an improvised planter her great-grandfather made from two sticks and a coffee can. She's also enrolled in a master's degree program, so she has student loans.

But all of that would be invisible on the form she'd have to fill out to get government help. "I more than qualify for food stamps or utilities assistance," she says. "But I would never, ever do that. I am able-bodied and smart enough to figure it out. That money's not there for me."

•Anna Clark contributed reporting from Detroit.

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