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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.

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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.

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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."

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