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History > 2009 > USA > Economy > Poverty (I)




Heads of State

Too Poor to Make the News


















Food Stamps

and the Tough Economy


December 6, 2009
The New York Times


To the Editor:

Re “Food Stamp Use Soars Across U.S., and Stigma Fades” (“The Safety Net” series, front page, Nov. 29):

It is ironic and a little sad that any stigma still attaches to acceptance of food stamps when jobs end and incomes disappear. When President John F. Kennedy established the Food Stamp Program on a pilot basis in 1961, a principal objective was to remove the stigma attached to receipt by poor families of Department of Agriculture surplus commodities — beans, cornmeal and milk powder — by providing vouchers (food stamps) to buy food at the store.

The Kennedy administration had to start the Food Stamp Program by executive order because Southern senators and representatives dominated the committees on agriculture and appropriations, and would not have passed a food stamp bill in 1961. But once the program was established, they were never able to end or limit it, despite repeated efforts.

Over the years, both political parties have provided the money to cover more eligible families when job losses made it necessary.

John A. Schnittker
Santa Ynez, Calif., Nov. 29, 2009

The writer was chief economist and under secretary at the Department of Agriculture during the 1960s.

To the Editor:

One aspect of the case for food stamps that was not mentioned is the positive multigenerational effects that food stamps can provide for families.

Studies show that stable access to food, like food stamps or subsidized lunch programs, can have profound effects on our country’s education systems and young children’s ability to succeed in school. The better children do in school at early ages, the more likely they are to graduate from high school, attend college and support their own families.

According to a recent study by First Focus, a family’s purchasing power increases by 40 percent when it receives nutritional subsidies. That means more money for stable housing and school supplies that will increase a child’s likelihood to succeed academically.

The equation is simple: When you stabilize the parents, you stabilize the children.

Programs mentioned in the article like Head Start and AARP need our country’s support to be able to share information about public benefits with the people who need them most.

Many thanks for shining the spotlight on these important safety-net issues.

Kirsten Lodal
Washington, Dec. 1, 2009

The writer is chief executive and co-founder of LIFT, a national nonprofit that assists low-income families with employment, housing and public benefits.

To the Editor:

We are seeing more Americans turning to a program they never thought they would need to put food on the table. The face of hunger has shifted at emergency feeding programs, too.

In addition to losing jobs, people are losing income in reduced hours, and the temporary or seasonal jobs that people turn to at this time of year often pay little. These “underemployed” may earn enough to disqualify them for food stamps, but they still need help. This fact is reflected in longer lines at New York City’s soup kitchens and food pantries, where City Harvest is seeing that demand is up an average of 15 percent.

There’s no shame in reaching out for help at a time like this. We should ensure that people who need food can get it, whether with food stamps or at the local food pantry.

Jilly Stephens
Executive Director, City Harvest
New York, Dec. 1, 2009

To the Editor:

The growing number of food stamp participants, particularly children, highlights the growing challenge for the program: not simply how do we feed 36 million Americans, but how do we feed them healthfully?

As it stands now, the average food stamp benefit only contributes to the growing obesity epidemic in America, a problem increasingly faced by the poor. When, calorie for calorie, fruits and vegetables cost 10 times as much as processed food, we create a system of nutritional injustice that is just as tragic and enduring as hunger itself.

Say what you will about the nutritional choices of adults, but there is no reason for half of America’s children to suffer nutritional deficiencies that will affect them for a lifetime. We need to ensure that food stamps are indeed a benefit, not another burden.

Alissa Nelson
St. Louis, Dec. 1, 2009

The writer, a master’s candidate in social work and public health, is a research assistant in the Health Communication Research Lab, George Warren Brown School of Social Work, Washington University in St. Louis.

To the Editor:

Despite the sobering implications, your thorough article about the increased use of food stamps is to be commended. In an era in which we focus on the obesity epidemic, we cannot lose sight of the fact that hunger exists here as well.

Several years ago, as a summer school teacher, I too often heard, “Mr. Jeff, I can’t do it.” The refrain came from one of my more impoverished students. His family struggled to put food on the table, and the boy’s hunger left him unable to concentrate. His success wasn’t about his needing to try harder, but about feeding his undernourished mind.

When one in four children is a recipient of food stamps, strengthening this knot in the safety net is crucial. But let us equally find the resolve and resources to support our other hunger-alleviating programs, W.I.C. and the school breakfast program. Our children need them.

Jeff Hom
Boston, Dec. 1, 2009

The writer is a student at Harvard Medical School and the Harvard School of Public Health.

    Food Stamps and the Tough Economy, NYT, 6.12.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/06/opinion/l06food.html






The Safety Net

Across U.S.,

Food Stamp Use Soars

and Stigma Fades


November 29, 2009
The New York Times


MARTINSVILLE, Ohio — With food stamp use at record highs and climbing every month, a program once scorned as a failed welfare scheme now helps feed one in eight Americans and one in four children.

It has grown so rapidly in places so diverse that it is becoming nearly as ordinary as the groceries it buys. More than 36 million people use inconspicuous plastic cards for staples like milk, bread and cheese, swiping them at counters in blighted cities and in suburbs pocked with foreclosure signs.

Virtually all have incomes near or below the federal poverty line, but their eclectic ranks testify to the range of people struggling with basic needs. They include single mothers and married couples, the newly jobless and the chronically poor, longtime recipients of welfare checks and workers whose reduced hours or slender wages leave pantries bare.

While the numbers have soared during the recession, the path was cleared in better times when the Bush administration led a campaign to erase the program’s stigma, calling food stamps “nutritional aid” instead of welfare, and made it easier to apply. That bipartisan effort capped an extraordinary reversal from the 1990s, when some conservatives tried to abolish the program, Congress enacted large cuts and bureaucratic hurdles chased many needy people away.

From the ailing resorts of the Florida Keys to Alaskan villages along the Bering Sea, the program is now expanding at a pace of about 20,000 people a day.

There are 239 counties in the United States where at least a quarter of the population receives food stamps, according to an analysis of local data collected by The New York Times.

The counties are as big as the Bronx and Philadelphia and as small as Owsley County in Kentucky, a patch of Appalachian distress where half of the 4,600 residents receive food stamps.

In more than 750 counties, the program helps feed one in three blacks. In more than 800 counties, it helps feed one in three children. In the Mississippi River cities of St. Louis, Memphis and New Orleans, half of the children or more receive food stamps. Even in Peoria, Ill. — Everytown, U.S.A. — nearly 40 percent of children receive aid.

While use is greatest where poverty runs deep, the growth has been especially swift in once-prosperous places hit by the housing bust. There are about 50 small counties and a dozen sizable ones where the rolls have doubled in the last two years. In another 205 counties, they have risen by at least two-thirds. These places with soaring rolls include populous Riverside County, Calif., most of greater Phoenix and Las Vegas, a ring of affluent Atlanta suburbs, and a 150-mile stretch of southwest Florida from Bradenton to the Everglades.

Although the program is growing at a record rate, the federal official who oversees it would like it to grow even faster.

“I think the response of the program has been tremendous,” said Kevin Concannon, an under secretary of agriculture, “but we’re mindful that there are another 15, 16 million who could benefit.”

Nationwide, food stamps reach about two-thirds of those eligible, with rates ranging from an estimated 50 percent in California to 98 percent in Missouri. Mr. Concannon urged lagging states to do more to enroll the needy, citing a recent government report that found a sharp rise in Americans with inconsistent access to adequate food.

“This is the most urgent time for our feeding programs in our lifetime, with the exception of the Depression,” he said. “It’s time for us to face up to the fact that in this country of plenty, there are hungry people.”

The program’s growing reach can be seen in a corner of southwestern Ohio where red state politics reign and blue-collar workers have often called food stamps a sign of laziness. But unemployment has soared, and food stamp use in a six-county area outside Cincinnati has risen more than 50 percent.

With most of his co-workers laid off, Greg Dawson, a third-generation electrician in rural Martinsville, considers himself lucky to still have a job. He works the night shift for a contracting firm, installing freezer lights in a chain of grocery stores. But when his overtime income vanished and his expenses went up, Mr. Dawson started skimping on meals to feed his wife and five children.

He tried to fill up on cereal and eggs. He ate a lot of Spam. Then he went to work with a grumbling stomach to shine lights on food he could not afford. When an outreach worker appeared at his son’s Head Start program, Mr. Dawson gave in.

“It’s embarrassing,” said Mr. Dawson, 29, a taciturn man with a wispy goatee who is so uneasy about the monthly benefit of $300 that he has not told his parents. “I always thought it was people trying to milk the system. But we just felt like we really needed the help right now.”

The outreach worker is a telltale sign. Like many states, Ohio has campaigned hard to raise the share of eligible people collecting benefits, which are financed entirely by the federal government and brought the state about $2.2 billion last year.

By contrast, in the federal cash welfare program, states until recently bore the entire cost of caseload growth, and nationally the rolls have stayed virtually flat. Unemployment insurance, despite rapid growth, reaches about only half the jobless (and replaces about half their income), making food stamps the only aid many people can get — the safety net’s safety net.

Support for the food stamp program reached a nadir in the mid-1990s when critics, likening the benefit to cash welfare, won significant restrictions and sought even more. But after use plunged for several years, President Bill Clinton began promoting the program, in part as a way to help the working poor. President George W. Bush expanded that effort, a strategy Mr. Obama has embraced.

The revival was crowned last year with an upbeat change of name. What most people still call food stamps is technically the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.

By the time the recession began, in December 2007, “the whole message around this program had changed,” said Stacy Dean of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington group that has supported food stamp expansions. “The general pitch was, ‘This program is here to help you.’ ”

Now nearly 12 percent of Americans receive aid — 28 percent of blacks, 15 percent of Latinos and 8 percent of whites. Benefits average about $130 a month for each person in the household, but vary with shelter and child care costs.

In the promotion of the program, critics see a sleight of hand.

“Some people like to camouflage this by calling it a nutrition program, but it’s really not different from cash welfare,” said Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation, whose views have a following among conservatives on Capitol Hill. “Food stamps is quasi money.”

Arguing that aid discourages work and marriage, Mr. Rector said food stamps should contain work requirements as strict as those placed on cash assistance. “The food stamp program is a fossil that repeats all the errors of the war on poverty,” he said.


Suburbs Are Hit Hard

Across the country, the food stamp rolls can be read like a scan of a sick economy. The counties of northwest Ohio, where car parts are made, take sick when Detroit falls ill. Food stamp use is up by about 60 percent in Erie County (vibration controls), 77 percent in Wood County (floor mats) and 84 percent in hard-hit Van Wert (shifting components and cooling fans).

Just west, in Indiana, Elkhart County makes the majority of the nation’s recreational vehicles. Sales have fallen more than half during the recession, and nearly 30 percent of the county’s children are receiving food stamps.

The pox in southwest Florida is the housing bust, with foreclosure rates in Fort Myers often leading the nation in the last two years. Across six contiguous counties from Manatee to Monroe, the food stamp rolls have more than doubled.

In sheer numbers, growth has come about equally from places where food stamp use was common and places where it was rare. Since 2007, the 600 counties with the highest percentage of people on the rolls added 1.3 million new recipients. So did the 600 counties where use was lowest.

The richest counties are often where aid is growing fastest, although from a small base. In 2007, Forsyth County, outside Atlanta, had the highest household income in the South. (One author dubbed it “Whitopia.”) Food stamp use there has more than doubled.

This is the first recession in which a majority of the poor in metropolitan areas live in the suburbs, giving food stamps new prominence there. Use has grown by half or more in dozens of suburban counties from Boston to Seattle, including such bulwarks of modern conservatism as California’s Orange County, where the rolls are up more than 50 percent.

While food stamp use is still the exception in places like Orange County (where 4 percent of the population get food aid), the program reaches deep in places of chronic poverty. It feeds half the people in stretches of white Appalachia, in a Yupik-speaking region of Alaska and on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.

Across the 10 core counties of the Mississippi Delta, 45 percent of black residents receive aid. In a city as big as St. Louis, the share is 60 percent.

Use among children is especially high. A third of the children in Louisiana, Missouri and Tennessee receive food aid. In the Bronx, the rate is 46 percent. In East Carroll Parish, La., three-quarters of the children receive food stamps.

A recent study by Mark R. Rank, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis, startled some policy makers in finding that half of Americans receive food stamps, at least briefly, by the time they turn 20. Among black children, the figure was 90 percent.


Need Overcomes Scorn

Across the small towns and rolling farmland outside Cincinnati, old disdain for the program has collided with new needs. Warren County, the second-richest in Ohio, is so averse to government aid that it turned down a federal stimulus grant. But the market for its high-end suburban homes has sagged, people who build them are idle and food stamp use has doubled.

Next door, in Clinton County, the blow has been worse. DHL, the international package carrier, has closed most of its giant airfield, costing the county its biggest employer and about 7,500 jobs. The county unemployment rate nearly tripled, to more than 14 percent.

“We’re seeing people getting food stamps who never thought they’d get them,” said Tina Osso, the director of the Shared Harvest Food Bank in Fairfield, which runs an outreach program in five area counties.

While Mr. Dawson, the electrician, has kept his job, the drive to distant work sites has doubled his gas bill, food prices rose sharply last year and his health insurance premiums have soared. His monthly expenses have risen by about $400, and the elimination of overtime has cost him $200 a month. Food stamps help fill the gap.

Like many new beneficiaries here, Mr. Dawson argues that people often abuse the program and is quick to say he is different. While some people “choose not to get married, just so they can apply for benefits,” he is a married, churchgoing man who works and owns his home. While “some people put piles of steaks in their carts,” he will not use the government’s money for luxuries like coffee or soda. “To me, that’s just morally wrong,” he said.

He has noticed crowds of midnight shoppers once a month when benefits get renewed. While policy analysts, spotting similar crowds nationwide, have called them a sign of increased hunger, he sees idleness. “Generally, if you’re up at that hour and not working, what are you into?” he said.

Still, the program has filled the Dawsons’ home with fresh fruit, vegetables, bread and meat, and something they had not fully expected — an enormous sense of relief. “I know if I run out of milk, I could run down to the gas station,” said Mr. Dawson’s wife, Sheila.

As others here tell it, that is a benefit not to be overlooked.

Sarah and Tyrone Mangold started the year on track to make $70,000 — she was selling health insurance, and he was working on a heating and air conditioning crew. She got laid off in the spring, and he a few months later. Together they had one unemployment check and a blended family of three children, including one with a neurological disorder aggravated by poor nutrition.

They ate at his mother’s house twice a week. They pawned jewelry. She scoured the food pantry. He scrounged for side jobs. Their frustration peaked one night over a can of pinto beans. Each blamed the other when that was all they had to eat.

“We were being really snippy, having anxiety attacks,” Ms. Mangold said. “People get irritable when they’re hungry.”

Food stamps now fortify the family income by $623 a month, and Mr. Mangold, who is still patching together odd jobs, no longer objects.

“I always thought people on public assistance were lazy,” he said, “but it helps me know I can feed my kids.”


Shifting Views

So far, few elected officials have objected to the program’s growth. Almost 90 percent of beneficiaries nationwide live below the poverty line (about $22,000 a year for a family of four). But a minor tempest hit Ohio’s Warren County after a woman drove to the food stamp office in a Mercedes-Benz and word spread that she owned a $300,000 home loan-free. Since Ohio ignores the value of houses and cars, she qualified.

“I’m a hard-core conservative Republican guy — I found that appalling,” said Dave Young, a member of the county board of commissioners, which briefly threatened to withdraw from the federal program.

“As soon as people figure out they can vote representatives in to give them benefits, that’s the end of democracy,” Mr. Young said. “More and more people will be taking, and fewer will be producing.”

At the same time, the recession left Sandi Bernstein more sympathetic to the needy. After years of success in the insurance business, Ms. Bernstein, 66, had just settled into what she had expected to be a comfortable retirement when the financial crisis last year sent her brokerage accounts plummeting. Feeling newly vulnerable herself, she volunteered with an outreach program run by AARP and the Ohio Association of Second Harvest Food Banks.

Having assumed that poor people clamored for aid, she was surprised to find that some needed convincing to apply.“I come here and I see people who are knowledgeable, normal, well-spoken, well-dressed,” she said. “These are people I could be having lunch with.”

That could describe Franny and Shawn Wardlow, whose house in nearby Oregonia conjures middle-American stability rather than the struggle to meet basic needs. Their three daughters have heads of neat blond hair, pink bedroom curtains and a turtle bought in better times on vacation in Daytona Beach, Fla. One wrote a fourth-grade story about her parents that concluded “They lived happily ever after.”

Ms. Wardlow, who worked at a nursing home, lost her job first. Soon after, Mr. Wardlow was laid off from the construction job he had held for nearly nine years. As Ms. Wardlow tells the story of the subsequent fall — cutoff threats from the power company, the dinners of egg noodles, the soap from the Salvation Army — she dwells on one unlikely symbol of the security she lost.

Pot roast.

“I was raised on eating pot roast,” she said. “Just a nice decent meal.”

Mr. Wardlow, 32, is a strapping man with a friendly air. He talked his way into a job at an envelope factory although his boss said he was overqualified. But it pays less than what he made muscling a jackhammer, and with Ms. Wardlow still jobless, they are two months behind on the rent. A monthly food stamp benefit of $429 fills the shelves and puts an occasional roast on the Sunday table.

It reminds Ms. Wardlow of what she has lost, and what she hopes to regain.

“I would consider us middle class at one time,” she said. “I like to have a nice decent meal for dinner.”


Matthew Ericson and Janet Roberts contributed reporting.

    Across U.S., Food Stamp Use Soars and Stigma Fades, NYT, 29.11.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/29/us/29foodstamps.html






Hunger in U.S. at a 14-Year High


November 17, 2009
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — The number of Americans who lived in households that lacked consistent access to adequate food soared last year, to 49 million, the highest since the government began tracking what it calls “food insecurity” 14 years ago, the Department of Agriculture reported Monday.

The increase, of 13 million Americans, was much larger than even the most pessimistic observers of hunger trends had expected and cast an alarming light on the daily hardships caused by the recession’s punishing effect on jobs and wages.

About a third of these struggling households had what the researchers called “very low food security,” meaning lack of money forced members to skip meals, cut portions or otherwise forgo food at some point in the year.

The other two-thirds typically had enough to eat, but only by eating cheaper or less varied foods, relying on government aid like food stamps, or visiting food pantries and soup kitchens.

“These numbers are a wake-up call for the country,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

One figure that drew officials’ attention was the number of households, 506,000, in which children faced “very low food security”: up from 323,000 the previous year. President Obama, who has pledged to end childhood hunger by 2015, released a statement while traveling in Asia that called the finding “particularly troubling.”

The ungainly phrase “food insecurity” stems from years of political and academic wrangling over how to measure adequate access to food. In the 1980s, when officials of the Reagan administration denied there was hunger in the United States, the Food Research and Action Center, a Washington advocacy group, began a survey that concluded otherwise. Over time, Congress had the Agriculture Department oversee a similar survey, which the Census Bureau administers.

Though researchers at the Agriculture Department do not use the word “hunger,” Mr. Obama did. “Hunger rose significantly last year,” he said.

Analysts said the main reason for the growth was the rise in the unemployment rate, to 7.2 percent at the end of 2008 from 4.9 percent a year earlier. And since it now stands at 10.2 percent, the survey might in fact understate the number of Americans struggling to get adequate food.

Rising food prices, too, might have played a role.

The food stamp rolls have expanded to record levels, with 36 million Americans now collecting aid, an increase of nearly 40 percent from two years ago. And the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, passed last winter, raised the average monthly food stamp benefit per person by about 17 percent, to $133. Many states have made it easier for those eligible to apply, but rising applications and staffing cuts have also brought long delays.

Problems gaining access to food were highest in households with children headed by single mothers. About 37 percent of them reported some form of food insecurity compared with 14 percent of married households with children. About 29 percent of Hispanic households reported food insecurity, compared with 27 percent of black households and 12 percent of white households. Serious problems were most prevalent in the South, followed equally by the West and Midwest.

Some conservatives have attacked the survey’s methodology, saying it is hard to define what it measures. The 18-item questionnaire asks about skipped meals and hunger pangs, but also whether people had worries about getting food. It ranks the severity of their condition by the number of answers that indicate a problem.

“Very few of these people are hungry,” said Robert Rector, an analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “When they lose jobs, they constrain the kind of food they buy. That is regrettable, but it’s a far cry from a hunger crisis.”

The report measures the number of households that experienced problems at any point in the year. Only a “small fraction” were facing the problem at a given moment. Among those with “very low food security,” for instance, most experienced the condition for several days in each of seven or eight months.

James Weill, the director of the food center that pioneered the report, called it a careful look at an underappreciated condition.

“Many people are outright hungry, skipping meals,” he said. “Others say they have enough to eat but only because they’re going to food pantries or using food stamps. We describe it as ‘households struggling with hunger.’ ”

    Hunger in U.S. at a 14-Year High, NYT, 17.11.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/17/us/17hunger.html






Running in the Shadows

Recession Drives Surge

in Youth Runaways


October 26, 2009
The New York Times


MEDFORD, Ore. — Dressed in soaked green pajamas, Betty Snyder, 14, huddled under a cold drizzle at the city park as several older boys decided what to do with her.

Betty said she had run away from home a week earlier after a violent argument with her mother. Shivering and sullen-faced, she vowed that she was not going to sleep by herself again behind the hedges downtown, where older homeless men and methamphetamine addicts might find her.

The boys were also runaways. But unlike them, Betty said, she had been reported missing to the police. That meant that if the boys let her stay overnight in their hidden tent encampment by the freeway, they risked being arrested for harboring a fugitive.

“We keep running into this,” said one of the boys, Clinton Anchors, 18. Over the past year, he said, he and five other teenagers living together on the streets had taken under their wings no fewer than 20 children — some as young as 12 — and taught them how to avoid predators and the police, survive the cold and find food.

“We always first try to send them home,” said Clinton, who himself ran away from home at 12. “But a lot of times they won’t go, because things are really bad there. We basically become their new family.”

Over the past two years, government officials and experts have seen an increasing number of children leave home for life on the streets, including many under 13. Foreclosures, layoffs, rising food and fuel prices and inadequate supplies of low-cost housing have stretched families to the extreme, and those pressures have trickled down to teenagers and preteens.

Federal studies and experts in the field have estimated that at least 1.6 million juveniles run away or are thrown out of their homes annually. But most of those return home within a week, and the government does not conduct a comprehensive or current count.

The best measure of the problem may be the number of contacts with runaways that federally-financed outreach programs make, which rose to 761,000 in 2008 from 550,000 in 2002, when current methods of counting began. (The number fell in 2007, but rose sharply again last year, and the number of federal outreach programs has been fairly steady throughout the period.)

Too young to get a hotel room, sign a lease or in many cases hold a job, young runaways are increasingly surviving by selling drugs, panhandling or engaging in prostitution, according to the National Runaway Switchboard, the federally-financed national hot line created in 1974. Legitimate employment was hard to find in the summer of 2009; the Labor Department said fewer than 30 percent of teenagers had jobs.

In more than 50 interviews over 11 months, teenagers living on their own in eight states told of a harrowing existence that in many cases involved sleeping in abandoned buildings, couch-surfing among friends and relatives or camping on riverbanks and in parks after fleeing or being kicked out by families in financial crisis.

The runaways spend much of their time avoiding the authorities because they assume the officials are trying to send them home. But most often the police are not looking for them as missing-person cases at all, just responding to complaints about loitering or menacing. In fact, federal data indicate that usually no one is looking for the runaways, either because parents have not reported them missing or the police have mishandled the reports.

In Adrian, Mich., near Detroit, a 16-year-old boy was secretly living alone in his mother’s apartment, though all the utilities had been turned off after she was arrested and jailed for violating her parole by bouncing a check at a grocery store.

In Huntington, W.Va., Steven White, 15, said that after casing a 24-hour Wal-Mart to see what time each night the cleaning crew finished its rounds, he began sleeping in a store restroom.

“You’re basically on the lam,” said Steven, who said he had left home because of physical abuse that increased after his father lost his job this year. “But you’re a kid, so it’s pretty hard to hide.”


Between Legal and Illegal

Survival on the streets of Medford, a city of 76,000 in southwest Oregon, requires runaways to walk a fine line between legal and illegal activity, as a few days with a group of them showed. Even as they sought help from social service organizations, they guarded their freedom jealously.

Petulant and street savvy, they were children nonetheless. One girl said she used a butter knife and a library card to break into vacant houses. But after she began living in one of them, she ate dry cereal for dinner for weeks because she did not realize that she could use the microwave to boil water for Ramen noodles. Another girl was childlike enough to suck her thumb, but dangerous enough to carry a switchblade.

They camped in restricted areas, occasionally shoplifted and regularly smoked marijuana. But they stayed away from harder drugs or drug dealing, and the older teenagers fiercely protected the younger runaways from sexual or other physical threats.

In waking hours, members of the group split their time among a park, a pool hall and a video-game arcade, sharing cigarettes. When in need, they sometimes barter: a sleeveless jacket for a blanket, peanut butter for extra lighter fluid to start campfires on soggy nights.

Betty Snyder, the newcomer in the park, said she had bitten her mother in a recent fight. She said she often refused to do household chores, which prompted heated arguments.

“I’m just tired of it all, and I don’t want to be in my house anymore,” she said, explaining why she had run away. “One month there is money, and the next month there is none. One day, she is taking it out on me and hitting me, and the next day she is ignoring me. It’s more stable out here.”

Members of the group said they sometimes made money by picking parking meters or sitting in front of parking lots, pretending to be the attendant after the real one leaves. When things get really desperate, they said, they climb into public fountains to fish out coins late at night. On cold nights, they hide in public libraries or schools after closing time to sleep.

Many of the runaways said they had fled family conflicts or the strain of their parents’ alcohol or drug abuse. Others said they left simply because they did not want to go to school or live by their parents’ rules.

“I can survive fine out here,” Betty said as she brandished a switchblade she pulled from her dirty sweatshirt pocket. At a nearby picnic table was part of the world she and the others were trying to avoid: a man with swastikas tattooed on his neck and an older homeless woman with rotted teeth, holding a pit bull named Diablo.

But Betty and another 14-year-old, seeming not to notice, went off to play on a park swing.

Around the country, outreach workers and city officials say they have been overwhelmed with requests for help from young people in desperate straits.

In Berks County, Pa., the shortage of beds for runaways has led county officials to consider paying stipends to families willing to offer their couches. At drop-in centers across the country, social workers describe how runaways regularly line up when they know the food pantry is being restocked.

In Chicago, city transit workers will soon be trained to help the runaways and other young people they have been finding in increasing numbers, trying to escape the cold or heat by riding endlessly on buses and trains.

“Several times a month we’re seeing kids being left by parents who say they can’t afford them anymore,” said Mary Ferrell, director of the Maslow Project, a resource center for homeless children and families in Medford. With fewer jobs available, teenagers are less able to help their families financially. Relatives and family friends are less likely to take them in.

While federal officials say homelessness over all is expected to rise 10 percent to 20 percent this year, a federal survey of schools showed a 40 percent increase in the number of juveniles living on their own last year, more than double the number in 2003.

At the same time, however, many financially troubled states began sharply cutting social services last year. Though President Obama’s $787 billion economic stimulus package includes $1.5 billion to address the problem of homelessness, state officials and youth advocates say that almost all of that money will go toward homeless families, not unaccompanied youths.

“As a society, we can pay a dollar to deal with these kids when they first run away, or 20 times that in a matter of years when they become the adult homeless or incarcerated population,” said Barbara Duffield, policy director for the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth.


‘You Traveling Alone?’

Maureen Blaha, executive director of the National Runaway Switchboard, said that while most runaways, like those in Medford, opt to stay in their hometowns, some venture farther away and face greater dangers. The farther they get from home and the longer they stay out, the less money they have and the more likely they are to take risks with people they have just met, Ms. Blaha said.

“A lot of small-town kids figure they can go to Chicago, San Francisco or New York because they can disappear there,” she said.

Martin Jaycard, a Port Authority police officer in New York, sees himself as a last line of defense in preventing that from happening.

Dressed in scraggly blue jeans and an untucked open-collar shirt, Officer Jaycard, a seven-year police veteran, is part of the Port Authority’s Youth Services Unit. His job is to catch runaways as they pass through the Port Authority Bus Terminal, the nation’s busiest.

“You’re the last person these kids want to see,” he said, estimating that his three-officer unit stops at least one runaway a day at the terminal.

Pausing to look at a girl waiting for a bus to Salt Lake City, Officer Jaycard noticed a nervous look on her face and the overstuffed suitcases that hinted more at a life change than a brief stay.

“Hey, how’s it going?” he said to the girl, gently, as he pulled a badge hanging around his neck from under his shirt. “You traveling alone?”

“Yes,” she replied, without a glimmer of nervousness. “I’m 18,” she quickly added before being asked.

But the girl carried no identification. The only phone number she could produce for someone who could verify her age was disconnected. And after noticing that the last name she gave was different from the one on her bags, the officer took her upstairs to the police station.

When she arrived, she burst into tears.

“Please, I’m begging you not to send me home,” she pleaded as she sobbed into her hands. While listening, Officer Jaycard and the social worker on duty began contacting city officials to investigate her situation, and found her a place at a city shelter. “You have no idea what my father will do to me for having tried to run away,” she said, describing severe beatings at home and threats to kill her if she ever tried to leave.

The girl turned out to be 14 years old, from Queens. Shaking her head in frustration, she added, “I should have just waited outside the terminal and no one would have known I was missing.”

In all likelihood, she was right.


Invisible Names

Lacking the training or the expertise to spot runaways, most police officers would not have stopped the girl waiting for the bus. Even if they had, her name probably would not have been listed in the federal database called the National Crime Information Center, or N.C.I.C., which among other things tracks missing people.

Federal statistics indicate that in more than three-quarters of runaway cases, parents or caretakers have not reported the child missing, often because they are angry about a fight or would simply prefer to see a problem child leave the house. Experts say some parents fear that involving the police will get them or their children into trouble or put their custody at risk.

And in 16 percent of cases, the local police failed to enter the information into the federal database, as required under federal law, according to a review of federal data by The New York Times.

Among the 61,452 names that were reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children from January 2004 to January 2009, there were about 9,625 instances involving children whose missing-persons reports were not entered into the N.C.I.C., according to the review by The Times. If the names are not in the national database, then only local police agencies know whom to look for.

Police officials give various reasons for not entering the data. The software is old and cumbersome, they say, or they have limited resources and need to prioritize their time. In many cases, the police said, they do not take runaway reports as seriously as abductions, in part because runaways are often fleeing family problems. The police also say that entering every report into the federal database could make a city’s situation appear to be more of a problem than it is.

But in 267 of the cases around the nation for which the police did not enter a report into the database, the children remain missing. In 58, they were found dead.

“If no one knows they’re gone, who is going to look for them?” said Tray Williams, a spokesman for the Louisiana Office of Child Services, whose job it was to take care of 17-year-old Cleveland Randall.

On Feb. 6, Cleveland ran away from his foster care center in New Orleans and took a bus to Mississippi. His social workers reported him missing, but the New Orleans police failed to enter the report into the N.C.I.C. Ten days later, Cleveland was found shot to death in Avondale, La.

“These kids might as well be invisible if they aren’t in N.C.I.C.,” said Ernie Allen, the director of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.


Paradise by Interstate 5

Invisibility, many of the runaways in Medford say, is just what they want.

By midnight, the group decided it was late enough for them to leave the pool hall and to move around the city discreetly. So they went their separate ways.

Alex Molnar, 18, took the back alleys to a 24-hour laundry to sleep under the folding tables. If people were still using the machines, he planned on locking himself in the restroom, placing a sign on the front saying “Out of Service.”

On the other side of the city, Alex Hughes, 16, took side streets to a secret clearing along Interstate 5.

On colder nights, he and Clinton Anchors have built a fire in a long shallow trench, eventually covering it with dirt to create a heated mound where they could put their blankets.

Building a lean-to with a tarp and sticks, Clinton lifted his voice above the roar of the tractor-trailers barreling by just feet away. He said they called the spot “paradise” because the police rarely checked for them there.

“Even if they do, Betty is not with us, so that’s good,” he added, explaining that she had found a friend willing to lend her couch for the night. “One less thing to worry about.”

    Recession Drives Surge in Youth Runaways, NYT, 26.10.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/26/us/26runaway.html






Homeless Deaths Rise,

and Anchorage Copes


October 25, 2009
The New York Times


ANCHORAGE — A man was down, immobile at the edge of one of this city’s busiest intersections. No sirens sounded, no ambulance rushed to the scene. Dealing with the scourge that has consumed Alaska’s biggest city is often delegated to two men in a white van, the Community Service Patrol.

“We have about 50 to 100 regulars that we pick up on a daily basis,” said Josh Wilson, one of the patrol workers.

The man down was homeless and had passed out, drunk, like he often does. Mr. Wilson knew him by name. The Community Service Patrol would soon take him to the city sleep-off center, where by the next morning, if he was sober enough, he would be free to go.

Mr. Wilson said odds were good that he would once again drink and pass out, putting himself and possibly others at risk and demanding intervention from this city’s frayed social safety net.

“Worse,” Mr. Wilson said when asked how things had changed in his two years with the patrol. “Absolutely tenfold worse.”

The police and social service providers say Anchorage has as many as 400 people they call “chronic public inebriates,” with up to 25 percent of them regarded as the most difficult cases. This year, after the deaths of at least 13 homeless people since the spring, there has been a widespread sense that the city’s response has been inadequate and must change.

The new mayor, Dan Sullivan, a Republican, has created a staff position and a task force devoted to addressing homelessness. The police recently gained the authority to dismantle homeless encampments with just 12 hours’ notice. Citizen groups are patrolling parks where homeless camps have been the site of rapes and other violence. But in perhaps the biggest and most controversial break from how the city has handled the problem in the past, a Salvation Army detoxification and alcohol abuse treatment center has begun accepting chronic inebriates who have been taken there essentially by force.

With $1.2 million in new state financing pushed through by one of Alaska’s more liberal Democrats, State Senator Johnny Ellis of Anchorage, the facility, the Clitheroe Center, is accepting people committed under a state law, Title 47. Under the law, a judge can order people into secure treatment for 30 days, and potentially for months, if the police, a doctor or family members convince the judge that the person’s abuse of alcohol has made them a threat to themselves and others. The person does not need to have committed a crime.

“Ten years ago, there would have been a community outcry that Johnny Ellis is locking up people with the disease of addiction,” Mr. Ellis said. “ ‘How can he do that and say he’s still a progressive?’ ”

Now, Mr. Ellis said, the problem has increased so much “that for various motivations people are saying let’s try something new.” He added, “The people dropping dead during the summertime really got this community paying attention.”

One homeless person drowned. Another was hit by a car. One died from hypothermia. Most had been drinking, and several had four or even five times the blood-alcohol level above which a person is considered too drunk to drive. Experts say the problem of public drunkenness is part of a larger homeless problem that disproportionately affects Native Alaskans, particularly men who have moved in from rural parts of Alaska and lost their way in the city. The recession has also played a role.

Involuntary commitment of homeless alcoholics has been used elsewhere in the country. Some homeless advocates say it infringes on civil rights, and they question its effectiveness. Here in Anchorage, several longtime advocates said the severity of the situation had made them open to giving it a chance.

“If the access to services and treatment and supportive resources are there, perhaps this Title 47 will be a good thing for people,” said Michael Burke, an Episcopal priest who has worked with homeless alcoholics for two decades. “But if those latter pieces are not present, then you simply have a complex issue for which the only solution is let’s lock up the people who are disturbing us. That’s not an effective solution, and in the end it won’t work.”

Mr. Burke was among several people who said that cuts to longer-term treatment programs in the past had made detoxification efforts ineffective and could render the Clitheroe program irrelevant if they happen again. Mr. Ellis blamed “the Republican budget-cutting era” that took hold in the state capital, Juneau, in the 1990s. “We lost a lot of our treatment capacity,” he said.

He said the new program was deliberately small, paying for just 10 beds at the center.

Several homeless advocates say that new Republican interest in the issue, as well as the comfort level liberals have with Mr. Ellis, is helping to build a coalition of business owners who want to keep streets clean and safe and homeless advocates who are willing to experiment with more assertive tactics. Jeff Jessee, the chief executive of the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority, which provides a wide variety of social services and financing for them, said that while Mayor Sullivan often says, “We can’t continue to allow these people to take over our public spaces,” he also says, “These chronic inebriates are also citizens, and we owe them better.”

Robert Heffle, the director of the Clitheroe Center, said that political motives were irrelevant to him, and that he was simply glad to get the resources to try something new.

“If we keep doing what we been doing,” Mr. Heffle said, “we’re going to keep getting what we’ve been getting.”

    Homeless Deaths Rise, and Anchorage Copes, NYT, 25.10.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/25/us/25detox.html






N.Y. Poverty Data Paint Mixed Picture


September 29, 2009
The New York Times


In a departure from the national picture, family income rose slightly in New York City in 2008 from 2007, and the proportion of poor people was virtually unchanged, according to census figures released Tuesday.

Still, the city and surrounding region had its share of grim news: The Bronx remained the country’s poorest urban county; the income gap in Manhattan was still higher than in any other county; and the poverty rate in Connecticut rose faster than in any other state.

And the relatively positive part of the local economic picture was tempered by the fact that the latest census figures from the rolling American Community Survey captured only the start of the recession.

In New York City, the poverty rate in 2008 was 18.2 percent — the lowest this decade — compared with 18.5 percent in 2007. Median household income was unchanged, at $51,116, but median family income rose to $56,552 from $54,846.

Those figures masked vast disparities, though, based on race, ethnicity and geography.

In the Bronx, the median household income was $35,033, and nearly 28 percent of the borough’s residents — and 47 percent of its households headed by women with children — were living in poverty.

Citywide, the poverty rate for racial and ethnic groups stayed relatively unchanged in 2008 compared with the previous year: 11 percent for non-Hispanic whites, 17 percent for Asians, 21 percent for blacks and 26 percent for Hispanics.

The proportion of people receiving food stamps increased in New York State by about a percentage point, to 10.6 percent.

In Connecticut, the poverty rate climbed to 24.2 percent from 21.3 percent. In largely suburban Fairfield County, it jumped to 20 percent from 15 percent.

Until recently, New York City trailed the national economic downturn, but the city’s unemployment rate is now higher than the national average, which makes finding jobs more difficult.

“I suspect we’ll see some worsening of poverty statistics, too,” said Steve Malanga, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, a conservative group.

“However,” Mr. Malanga added, “I also think we should credit the Bloomberg administration for a continuing strong emphasis on welfare to work, which I think continues getting people back into the work force and out of poverty.”

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who declared that reducing poverty would be a priority of his second term, commissioned experts to devise a more accurate measure of poverty. Under that measure, the rate was 23 percent in 2006, compared with the official poverty measure that year of 19 percent. The city’s formula has not been updated.

“Since the existing poverty measure doesn’t consider regional cost-of-living variations on the expense side, or government aid to households on the income side, it doesn’t tell the whole story and doesn’t help us in our fight,” said Linda I. Gibbs, the deputy mayor for health and human services.

Mark K. Levitan, the director of poverty research for the city’s Center for Economic Opportunity, said the city’s anti-poverty efforts were bearing fruit. Mr. Levitan pointed to a declining poverty rate among blacks and Hispanics from 2006 and 2008.

He also said that programs that encouraged people to apply for food stamps or tax credits that provided cash assistance were not reflected in the government’s official poverty rate.

But Joel Berg, executive director of the Coalition Against Hunger, said that a growing number of poor homeless people were not counted, and he predicted that the overall poverty rate would rise next year. Besides, he said, “I don’t think a million and a half people in poverty is a great victory.”

David R. Jones, president of the Community Service Society, which serves as an advocate for low-income New Yorkers, said his research found that “people are having increased hardship, and it’s Latinos who are taking the brunt, because they tend to cluster in manufacturing and construction.”

An analysis by Andrew A. Beveridge, a demographer at Queens College, found that the share of income in Manhattan going to the wealthiest declined slightly in 2008, signaling an end to the boom.

The median income among those in the top 5 percent was $857,000, and that group collected nearly twice the total income of those in the bottom 60 percent. The top 20 percent made about 42 times as much as the bottom 20 percent. Income disparities were higher in New York than in any other state.

    N.Y. Poverty Data Paint Mixed Picture, NYT, 29.9.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/29/nyregion/29poverty.html







A Long Way Down


September 16, 2009
The New York Times

It is sadly predictable that in a recession, the poor get poorer and the middle class loses ground. But even a downturn as deep and prolonged as this one cannot fully account for the desperate straits of so many Americans.

The Census Bureau reported last week that the nation’s poverty rate rose to 13.2 percent in 2008, the highest level since 1997 and a significant increase from 12.5 percent in 2007. That means that some 40 million people in this country are living below the poverty line, defined as an income of $22,205 for a family of four.

The middle class also took a major hit. Median household income fell in 2008 to $50,300 from $52,200 in 2007. That is the steepest year-to-year drop since the government began keeping track four decades ago; adjusted for inflation, median income was lower in 2008 than in 1998 and every year since then.

Clearly, the recession has been brutal. But even before the recession, far too many Americans were already living far too close to the edge.

As is now painfully evident, the economic growth of the Bush era was largely an illusion. Poverty worsened during most of the boom years and middle-class pay stagnated, as most gains flowed to the top. In a recent update of their groundbreaking series on income trends, the economists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez found that from 2002 to 2007, the top 1 percent of households — those making more than $400,000 a year — received two-thirds of the nation’s total income gains, their largest share of the spoils since the 1920s.

Because many if not most Americans gained little to nothing from the Bush “growth” years, they have found themselves especially vulnerable to the recession.

Federal stimulus spending has helped cushion the blow. The question going forward is whether an economic recovery, when it comes, will help the poor and middle class or whether the top-heavy favoritism of the previous expansion will reassert itself.

The answer depends on how policy makers foster and manage a recovery. Economic growth alone does not guarantee job growth. Congress and the Obama administration must extend certain components of the stimulus package until employment does revive, including unemployment benefits, food stamps, tax breaks for working families with children and fiscal aid to states.

Policy makers must also resist the reassuring but false notion that renewed economic growth can, by itself, raise living standards broadly. Government policies are needed to ensure that growth is shared. Reforming health care so that illness is not bankrupting — for families or for the federal budget — would be a major step in the right direction.

The administration has also said that it would let the Bush-era tax cuts for the rich expire as scheduled at the end of 2010. More progressive taxation needs to be accompanied by more progressive spending, on public education and on job training and job creation. Support for unions and enforcement of labor standards would also help to ensure that in the next economic expansion, a fair share of profits would find its way into wages.

As the Bush era showed, the economy can grow without any of that happening. But it also showed that such growth is neither defensible nor sustainable. With half the population falling behind or struggling to keep up, the economy cannot generate secure and adequate spending, investing or upward mobility for the country to truly prosper.

    A Long Way Down, NYT, 16.9.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/16/opinion/16wed1.html






Op-Ed Contributors

The Recession’s Racial Divide


September 13, 2009
The New York Times


WHAT do you get when you combine the worst economic downturn since the Depression with the first black president? A surge of white racial resentment, loosely disguised as a populist revolt. An article on the Fox News Web site has put forth the theory that health reform is a stealth version of reparations for slavery: whites will foot the bill and, by some undisclosed mechanism, blacks will get all the care. President Obama, in such fantasies, is a dictator and, in one image circulated among the anti-tax, anti-health reform “tea parties,” he is depicted as a befeathered African witch doctor with little tusks coming out of his nostrils. When you’re going down, as the white middle class has been doing for several years now, it’s all too easy to imagine that it’s because someone else is climbing up over your back.

Despite the sense of white grievance, though, blacks are the ones who are taking the brunt of the recession, with disproportionately high levels of foreclosures and unemployment. And they weren’t doing so well to begin with. At the start of the recession, 33 percent of the black middle class was already in danger of falling to a lower economic level, according to a study by the Institute on Assets and Social Policy at Brandeis University and Demos, a nonpartisan public policy research organization.

In fact, you could say that for African-Americans the recession is over. It occurred from 2000 to 2007, as black employment decreased by 2.4 percent and incomes declined by 2.9 percent. During those seven years, one-third of black children lived in poverty, and black unemployment — even among college graduates — consistently ran at about twice the level of white unemployment.

That was the black recession. What’s happening now is more like a depression. Nauvata and James, a middle-aged African American couple living in Prince Georges County, Md., who asked that their last name not be published, had never recovered from the first recession of the ’00s when the second one came along. In 2003 Nauvata was laid off from a $25-an-hour administrative job at Aetna, and in 2007 she wound up in $10.50-an-hour job at a car rental company. James has had a steady union job as a building equipment operator, but the two couldn’t earn enough to save themselves from predatory lending schemes.

They were paying off a $524 dining set bought on credit from the furniture store Levitz when it went out of business, and their debt swelled inexplicably as it was sold from one creditor to another. The couple ultimately spent a total of $3,800 to both pay it off and hire a lawyer to clear their credit rating. But to do this they had to refinance their home — not once, but with a series of mortgage lenders. Now they face foreclosure.

Nauvata, who is 47, has since seen her blood pressure soar, and James, 56, has developed heart palpitations. “There is no middle class anymore,” he told us, “just a top and a bottom.”

Plenty of formerly middle- or working-class whites have followed similar paths to ruin: the layoff or reduced hours, the credit traps and ever-rising debts, the lost home. But one thing distinguishes hard-pressed African-Americans as a group: Thanks to a legacy of a discrimination in both hiring and lending, they’re less likely than whites to be cushioned against the blows by wealthy relatives or well-stocked savings accounts. In 2008, on the cusp of the recession, the typical African-American family had only a dime for every dollar of wealth possessed by the typical white family. Only 18 percent of blacks and Latinos had retirement accounts, compared with 43.4 percent of whites.

Racial asymmetry was stamped on this recession from the beginning. Wall Street’s reckless infatuation with subprime mortgages led to the global financial crash of 2007, which depleted home values and 401(k)’s across the racial spectrum. People of all races got sucked into subprime and adjustable-rate mortgages, but even high-income blacks were almost twice as likely to end up with subprime home-purchase loans as low-income whites — even when they qualified for prime mortgages, even when they offered down payments.

According to a 2008 report by United for a Fair Economy, a research and advocacy group, from 1998 to 2006 (before the subprime crisis), blacks lost $71 billion to $93 billion in home-value wealth from subprime loans. The researchers called this family net-worth catastrophe the “greatest loss of wealth in recent history for people of color.” And the worst was yet to come.

In a new documentary film about the subprime crisis, “American Casino,” solid black citizens — a high school social studies teacher, a psychotherapist, a minister — relate how they lost their homes when their monthly mortgage payments exploded. Watching the parts of the film set in Baltimore is a little like watching the TV series “The Wire,” except that the bad guys don’t live in the projects; they hover over computer screens on Wall Street.

It’s not easy to get people to talk about their subprime experiences. There’s the humiliation of having been “played” by distant, mysterious forces. “I don’t feel very good about myself,” says the teacher in “American Casino.” “I kind of feel like a failure.”

Even people who know better tend to blame themselves — like Melonie Griffith, a 40-year-old African-American who works with the Boston group City Life/La Vida Urbana helping other people avoid foreclosure and eviction. She criticizes herself for having been “naïve” enough to trust the mortgage lender who, in 2004, told her not to worry about the high monthly payments she was signing on for because the mortgage would be refinanced in “a couple of months.” The lender then disappeared, leaving Ms. Griffith in foreclosure, with “nowhere for my kids and me to go.” Only when she went public with her story did she find that she wasn’t the only one. “There is a consistent pattern here,” she told us.

Mortgage lenders like Countrywide and Wells Fargo sought out minority homebuyers for the heartbreakingly simple reason that, for decades, blacks had been denied mortgages on racial grounds, and were thus a ready-made market for the gonzo mortgage products of the mid-’00s. Banks replaced the old racist practice of redlining with “reverse redlining” — intensive marketing aimed at black neighborhoods in the name of extending home ownership to the historically excluded. Countrywide, which prided itself on being a dream factory for previously disadvantaged homebuyers, rolled out commercials showing canny black women talking their husbands into signing mortgages.

At Wells Fargo, Elizabeth Jacobson, a former loan officer at the company, recently revealed — in an affidavit in a lawsuit by the City of Baltimore — that salesmen were encouraged to try to persuade black preachers to hold “wealth-building seminars” in their churches. For every loan that resulted from these seminars, whether to buy a new home or refinance one, Wells Fargo promised to donate $350 to the customer’s favorite charity, usually the church. (Wells Fargo denied any effort to market subprime loans specifically to blacks.) Another former loan officer, Tony Paschal, reported that at the same time cynicism was rampant within Wells Fargo, with some employees referring to subprimes as “ghetto loans” and to minority customers as “mud people.”

If any cultural factor predisposed blacks to fall for risky loans, it was one widely shared with whites — a penchant for “positive thinking” and unwarranted optimism, which takes the theological form of the “prosperity gospel.” Since “God wants to prosper you,” all you have to do to get something is “name it and claim it.” A 2000 DVD from the black evangelist Creflo Dollar featured African-American parishioners shouting, “I want my stuff — right now!”

Joel Osteen, the white megachurch pastor who draws 40,000 worshippers each Sunday, about two-thirds of them black and Latino, likes to relate how he himself succumbed to God’s urgings — conveyed by his wife — to upgrade to a larger house. According to Jonathan Walton, a religion professor at the University of California at Riverside, pastors like Mr. Osteen reassured people about subprime mortgages by getting them to believe that “God caused the bank to ignore my credit score and bless me with my first house.” If African-Americans made any collective mistake in the mid-’00s, it was to embrace white culture too enthusiastically, and substitute the individual wish-fulfillment promoted by Norman Vincent Peale for the collective-action message of Martin Luther King.

But you didn’t need a dodgy mortgage to be wiped out by the subprime crisis and ensuing recession. Black unemployment is now at 15.1 percent, compared with 8.9 percent for whites. In New York City, black unemployment has been rising four times as fast as that of whites. By 2010, according to Lawrence Mishel of the Economic Policy Institute, 40 percent of African-Americans nationwide will have endured patches of unemployment or underemployment.

One result is that blacks are being hit by a second wave of foreclosures caused by unemployment. Willett Thomas, a neat, wiry 47-year-old in Washington who describes herself as a “fiscal conservative,” told us that until a year ago she thought she’d “figured out a way to live my dream.” Not only did she have a job and a house, but she had a rental property in Gainesville, Fla., leaving her with the flexibility to pursue a part-time writing career.

Then she became ill, lost her job and fell behind on the fixed-rate mortgage on her home. The tenants in Florida had financial problems of their own and stopped paying rent. Now, although she manages to have an interview a week and regularly upgrades her résumé, Ms. Thomas cannot find a new job. The house she lives in is in foreclosure.

Mulugeta Yimer of Alexandria, Va., still has his taxi-driving job, but it no longer pays enough to live on. A thin, tall man with worry written all over his face, Mr. Yimer came to this country in 1981 as a refugee from Ethiopia, firmly believing in the American dream. In 2003, when Wells Fargo offered him an adjustable-rate mortgage, he calculated that he’d be able to deal with the higher interest rate when it kicked in. But the recession delivered a near-mortal blow to the taxi industry, even in the still relatively affluent Washington suburbs. He’s now putting in 19-hour days, with occasional naps in his taxi, while his wife works 32 hours a week at a convenience store, but they still don’t earn enough to cover expenses: $400 a month for health insurance, $800 for child care and $1,700 for the mortgage. What will Mr. Yimer do if he ends up losing his house? “We’ll go to a shelter, I guess,” he said, throwing open his hands, “if we can find one.”

So despite the right-wing perception of black power grabs, this recession is on track to leave blacks even more economically disadvantaged than they were. Does a black president who is inclined toward bipartisanship dare address this destruction of the black middle class? Probably not. But if Americans of all races don’t get some economic relief soon, the pain will only increase and with it, perversely, the unfounded sense of white racial grievance.


Barbara Ehrenreich is the author of the forthcoming “Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America.” Dedrick Muhammad is a senior organizer and research associate at the Institute for Policy Studies.

    The Recession’s Racial Divide, NYT, 13.9.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/13/opinion/13ehrenreich.html






Op-Ed Contributor

Is It Now a Crime to Be Poor?


August 9, 2009
The New York Times


IT’S too bad so many people are falling into poverty at a time when it’s almost illegal to be poor. You won’t be arrested for shopping in a Dollar Store, but if you are truly, deeply, in-the-streets poor, you’re well advised not to engage in any of the biological necessities of life — like sitting, sleeping, lying down or loitering. City officials boast that there is nothing discriminatory about the ordinances that afflict the destitute, most of which go back to the dawn of gentrification in the ’80s and ’90s. “If you’re lying on a sidewalk, whether you’re homeless or a millionaire, you’re in violation of the ordinance,” a city attorney in St. Petersburg, Fla., said in June, echoing Anatole France’s immortal observation that “the law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges.”

In defiance of all reason and compassion, the criminalization of poverty has actually been intensifying as the recession generates ever more poverty. So concludes a new study from the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, which found that the number of ordinances against the publicly poor has been rising since 2006, along with ticketing and arrests for more “neutral” infractions like jaywalking, littering or carrying an open container of alcohol.

The report lists America’s 10 “meanest” cities — the largest of which are Honolulu, Los Angeles and San Francisco — but new contestants are springing up every day. The City Council in Grand Junction, Colo., has been considering a ban on begging, and at the end of June, Tempe, Ariz., carried out a four-day crackdown on the indigent. How do you know when someone is indigent? As a Las Vegas statute puts it, “An indigent person is a person whom a reasonable ordinary person would believe to be entitled to apply for or receive” public assistance.

That could be me before the blow-drying and eyeliner, and it’s definitely Al Szekely at any time of day. A grizzled 62-year-old, he inhabits a wheelchair and is often found on G Street in Washington — the city that is ultimately responsible for the bullet he took in the spine in Fu Bai, Vietnam, in 1972. He had been enjoying the luxury of an indoor bed until last December, when the police swept through the shelter in the middle of the night looking for men with outstanding warrants.

It turned out that Mr. Szekely, who is an ordained minister and does not drink, do drugs or curse in front of ladies, did indeed have a warrant — for not appearing in court to face a charge of “criminal trespassing” (for sleeping on a sidewalk in a Washington suburb). So he was dragged out of the shelter and put in jail. “Can you imagine?” asked Eric Sheptock, the homeless advocate (himself a shelter resident) who introduced me to Mr. Szekely. “They arrested a homeless man in a shelter for being homeless.”

The viciousness of the official animus toward the indigent can be breathtaking. A few years ago, a group called Food Not Bombs started handing out free vegan food to hungry people in public parks around the nation. A number of cities, led by Las Vegas, passed ordinances forbidding the sharing of food with the indigent in public places, and several members of the group were arrested. A federal judge just overturned the anti-sharing law in Orlando, Fla., but the city is appealing. And now Middletown, Conn., is cracking down on food sharing.

If poverty tends to criminalize people, it is also true that criminalization inexorably impoverishes them. Scott Lovell, another homeless man I interviewed in Washington, earned his record by committing a significant crime — by participating in the armed robbery of a steakhouse when he was 15. Although Mr. Lovell dresses and speaks more like a summer tourist from Ohio than a felon, his criminal record has made it extremely difficult for him to find a job.

For Al Szekely, the arrest for trespassing meant a further descent down the circles of hell. While in jail, he lost his slot in the shelter and now sleeps outside the Verizon Center sports arena, where the big problem, in addition to the security guards, is mosquitoes. His stick-thin arms are covered with pink crusty sores, which he treats with a regimen of frantic scratching.

For the not-yet-homeless, there are two main paths to criminalization — one involving debt, and the other skin color. Anyone of any color or pre-recession financial status can fall into debt, and although we pride ourselves on the abolition of debtors’ prison, in at least one state, Texas, people who can’t afford to pay their traffic fines may be made to “sit out their tickets” in jail.

Often the path to legal trouble begins when one of your creditors has a court issue a summons for you, which you fail to honor for one reason or another. (Maybe your address has changed or you never received it.) Now you’re in contempt of court. Or suppose you miss a payment and, before you realize it, your car insurance lapses; then you’re stopped for something like a broken headlight. Depending on the state, you may have your car impounded or face a steep fine — again, exposing you to a possible summons. “There’s just no end to it once the cycle starts,” said Robert Solomon of Yale Law School. “It just keeps accelerating.”

By far the most reliable way to be criminalized by poverty is to have the wrong-color skin. Indignation runs high when a celebrity professor encounters racial profiling, but for decades whole communities have been effectively “profiled” for the suspicious combination of being both dark-skinned and poor, thanks to the “broken windows” or “zero tolerance” theory of policing popularized by Rudy Giuliani, when he was mayor of New York City, and his police chief William Bratton.

Flick a cigarette in a heavily patrolled community of color and you’re littering; wear the wrong color T-shirt and you’re displaying gang allegiance. Just strolling around in a dodgy neighborhood can mark you as a potential suspect, according to “Let’s Get Free: A Hip-Hop Theory of Justice,” an eye-opening new book by Paul Butler, a former federal prosecutor in Washington. If you seem at all evasive, which I suppose is like looking “overly anxious” in an airport, Mr. Butler writes, the police “can force you to stop just to investigate why you don’t want to talk to them.” And don’t get grumpy about it or you could be “resisting arrest.”

There’s no minimum age for being sucked into what the Children’s Defense Fund calls “the cradle-to-prison pipeline.” In New York City, a teenager caught in public housing without an ID — say, while visiting a friend or relative — can be charged with criminal trespassing and wind up in juvenile detention, Mishi Faruqee, the director of youth justice programs for the Children’s Defense Fund of New York, told me. In just the past few months, a growing number of cities have taken to ticketing and sometimes handcuffing teenagers found on the streets during school hours.

In Los Angeles, the fine for truancy is $250; in Dallas, it can be as much as $500 — crushing amounts for people living near the poverty level. According to the Los Angeles Bus Riders Union, an advocacy group, 12,000 students were ticketed for truancy in 2008.

Why does the Bus Riders Union care? Because it estimates that 80 percent of the “truants,” especially those who are black or Latino, are merely late for school, thanks to the way that over-filled buses whiz by them without stopping. I met people in Los Angeles who told me they keep their children home if there’s the slightest chance of their being late. It’s an ingenious anti-truancy policy that discourages parents from sending their youngsters to school.

The pattern is to curtail financing for services that might help the poor while ramping up law enforcement: starve school and public transportation budgets, then make truancy illegal. Shut down public housing, then make it a crime to be homeless. Be sure to harass street vendors when there are few other opportunities for employment. The experience of the poor, and especially poor minorities, comes to resemble that of a rat in a cage scrambling to avoid erratically administered electric shocks.

And if you should make the mistake of trying to escape via a brief marijuana-induced high, it’s “gotcha” all over again, because that of course is illegal too. One result is our staggering level of incarceration, the highest in the world. Today the same number of Americans — 2.3 million — reside in prison as in public housing.

Meanwhile, the public housing that remains has become ever more prisonlike, with residents subjected to drug testing and random police sweeps. The safety net, or what’s left of it, has been transformed into a dragnet.

Some of the community organizers I’ve talked to around the country think they know why “zero tolerance” policing has ratcheted up since the recession began. Leonardo Vilchis of the Union de Vecinos, a community organization in Los Angeles, suspects that “poor people have become a source of revenue” for recession-starved cities, and that the police can always find a violation leading to a fine. If so, this is a singularly demented fund-raising strategy. At a Congressional hearing in June, the president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers testified about the pervasive “overcriminalization of crimes that are not a risk to public safety,” like sleeping in a cardboard box or jumping turnstiles, which leads to expensively clogged courts and prisons.

A Pew Center study released in March found states spending a record $51.7 billion on corrections, an amount that the center judged, with an excess of moderation, to be “too much.”

But will it be enough — the collision of rising prison populations that we can’t afford and the criminalization of poverty — to force us to break the mad cycle of poverty and punishment? With the number of people in poverty increasing (some estimates suggest it’s up to 45 million to 50 million, from 37 million in 2007) several states are beginning to ease up on the criminalization of poverty — for example, by sending drug offenders to treatment rather than jail, shortening probation and reducing the number of people locked up for technical violations like missed court appointments. But others are tightening the screws: not only increasing the number of “crimes” but also charging prisoners for their room and board — assuring that they’ll be released with potentially criminalizing levels of debt.

Maybe we can’t afford the measures that would begin to alleviate America’s growing poverty — affordable housing, good schools, reliable public transportation and so forth. I would argue otherwise, but for now I’d be content with a consensus that, if we can’t afford to truly help the poor, neither can we afford to go on tormenting them.


Barbara Ehrenreich is the author, most recently, of “This Land Is Their Land: Reports From a Divided Nation.”

    Is It Now a Crime to Be Poor?, NYT, 9.8.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/09/opinion/09ehrenreich.html






Op-Ed Contributor

A Homespun Safety Net


July 12, 2009
The New York Times


IF nothing else, the recession is serving as a stress test for the American safety net. How prepared have we been for sudden and violent economic dislocations of the kind that leave millions homeless and jobless? So far, despite some temporary expansions of food stamps and unemployment benefits by the Obama administration, the recession has done for the government safety net pretty much what Hurricane Katrina did for the Federal Emergency Management Agency: it’s demonstrated that you can be clinging to your roof with the water rising, and no one may come to helicopter you out.

Take the case of Kristen and Joe Parente, Delaware residents who had always imagined that people turned to government for help only if “they didn’t want to work.” Their troubles began well before the recession, when Joe, a fourth-generation pipe fitter, sustained a back injury that left him unfit for even light lifting. He fell into depression for several months, then rallied to ace a state-sponsored retraining course in computer repairs — only to find those skills no longer in demand. The obvious fallback was disability benefits, but — Catch-22 — when Joe applied he was told he could not qualify without presenting a recent M.R.I. scan. This would cost $800 to $900, which the Parentes do not have, nor has Joe, unlike the rest of the family, been able to qualify for Medicaid.

When Joe and Kristen married as teenagers, the plan had been for Kristen to stay home with the children. But with Joe out of action and three children to support by the middle of this decade, Kristen went to work as a waitress, ending up, in 2008, in a “pretty fancy place on the water.” Then the recession struck and in January she was laid off.

Kristen is bright, pretty and, to judge from her command of her own small kitchen, capable of holding down a dozen tables with precision and grace. In the past she’d always been able to land a new job within days; now there was nothing. Like most laid-off people, she failed to meet the fiendishly complex and sometimes arbitrary eligibility requirements for unemployment benefits. Their car started falling apart.

So in early February, the Parentes turned to the desperate citizen’s last resort — Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Still often called “welfare,” the program does not offer cash support to stay-at-home parents as did its predecessor, Aid to Families With Dependent Children. Rather, it provides supplemental income for working parents, based on the sunny assumption that there would always be plenty of jobs for those enterprising enough to get them.

After Kristen applied, nothing happened for six weeks — no money, no phone calls returned. At school, the Parentes’ 7-year-old’s class was asked to write out what wish they would ask of a genie, should one appear. Brianna’s wish was for her mother to find a job because there was nothing to eat in the house, an aspiration that her teacher deemed too disturbing to be posted on the wall with the other children’s.

Not until March did the Parentes begin to receive food stamps and some cash assistance. Meanwhile they were finding out why some recipients have taken to calling the assistance program “Torture and Abuse of Needy Families.” From the start, the experience has been “humiliating,” Kristen said. The caseworkers “treat you like a bum — they act like every dollar you get is coming out of their own paychecks.”

Nationally, according to Kaaryn Gustafson, an associate professor at the University of Connecticut Law School, “applying for welfare is a lot like being booked by the police.” There may be a mug shot, fingerprinting and long interrogations as to one’s children’s paternity. The ostensible goal is to prevent welfare fraud, but the psychological impact is to turn poverty itself into a kind of crime.

Delaware does not require fingerprints, but the Parentes discovered that they were each expected to apply for 40 jobs a week, even though no money was offered for gas, tolls or babysitting. In addition, Kristen had to drive 35 miles a day to attend “job readiness” classes, which she said were “a joke.”

With no jobs to be found, Kristen was required to work as a volunteer at a community agency. (God forbid anyone should use government money to stay home with her children!) In exchange for $475 a month plus food stamps, the family submits to various forms of “monitoring” to keep them on the straight and narrow. One result is that Kristen lives in constant terror of doing something that would cause the program to report her to Child Protective Services. She worries that the state will remove her children “automatically” if program workers discover that her 5-year-old son shares a bedroom with his sisters. No one, of course, is offering to subsidize a larger apartment in the name of child “protection.”

It’s no secret that the temporary assistance program was designed to repel potential applicants, and at this it has been stunningly successful. The theory is that government assistance encourages a debilitating “culture of poverty,” marked by laziness, promiscuity and addiction, and curable only by a swift cessation of benefits. In the years immediately after welfare “reform,” about one and a half million people disappeared from the welfare rolls — often because they’d been “sanctioned” for, say, failing to show up for an appointment with a caseworker. Stories of an erratic and punitive bureaucracy get around, so the recession of 2001 produced no uptick in enrollment, nor, until very recently, did the current recession. As Mark Greenberg, a welfare expert at the Georgetown School of Law, put it, the program has been “strikingly unresponsive” to rising need.

People far more readily turn to food stamps, which have seen a 19 percent surge in enrollment since the recession began. But even these can carry a presumption of guilt or criminal intent. Four states — Arizona, California, New York and Texas — require that applicants undergo fingerprinting. Furthermore, under a national program called Operation Talon, food stamp offices share applicants’ personal data with law enforcement agencies, making it hazardous for anyone who might have an outstanding warrant — for failing to show up for a court hearing on an unpaid debt, for example — to apply.

As in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the most reliable first responders are not government agencies, but family and friends. Kristen and Joe first moved in with her mother and four siblings, and in the weeks before the government came through with a check, she borrowed money from the elderly man whose house she cleans every week, who himself depends on Social Security.

I’ve never encountered the kind of “culture of poverty” imagined by the framers of welfare reform, but there is a tradition among the American working class of mutual aid, no questions asked. My father, a former miner, advised me as a child that if I ever needed money to “go to a poor man.” He liked to tell the story of my great-grandfather, John Howes, who worked in the mines long enough to accumulate a small sum with which to purchase a plot of farmland. But as he was driving out of Butte, Mont., in a horse-drawn wagon, he picked up an Indian woman and her child, and their hard-luck story moved him to give her all his money, turn his horse around and go back to the darkness and danger of the mines.

In her classic study of an African-American community in the late ’60s, the anthropologist Carol Stack found rich networks of reciprocal giving and support, and when I worked at low-wage jobs in the 1990s, I was amazed by the generosity of my co-workers, who offered me food, help with my work and even once a place to stay. Such informal networks — and random acts of kindness — put the official welfare state, with its relentless suspicions and grudging outlays, to shame.

BUT there are limits to the generosity of relatives and friends. Tensions can arise, as they did between Kristen and her mother, which is what led the Parentes to move to their current apartment in Wilmington. Sandra Smith, a sociologist at the University of California at Berkeley, finds that poverty itself can deplete entire social networks, leaving no one to turn to. While the affluent suffer from “compassion fatigue,” the poor simply run out of resources.

At least one influential theory of poverty contends that the poor are too mutually dependent, and that this is one of their problems. This perspective is outlined in the book “Bridges Out of Poverty,” co-written by Ruby K. Payne, a motivational speaker who regularly addresses school teachers, social service workers and members of low-income communities. She argues that the poor need to abandon their dysfunctional culture and emulate the more goal-oriented middle class. Getting out of poverty, according to Ms. Payne, is much like overcoming drug addiction, and often requires cutting off contact with those who choose to remain behind: “In order to move from poverty to middle class ... an individual must give up relationships for achievement (at least for some period of time).” The message from the affluent to the down-and-out: Neither we nor the government is going to do much to help you — and you better not help one another either. It’s every man (or woman or child) for himself.

In the meantime, Kristen has discovered a radically different approach to dealing with poverty. The community agency she volunteered at is Acorn (the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now), the grass-roots organization of low-income people that achieved national notoriety during the 2008 presidential campaign when Republicans attacked it for voter registration fraud (committed by temporary Acorn canvassers and quickly corrected by staff members). Kristen made such a good impression that she was offered a paid job in May, and now, with only a small supplement from the government, she works full time for Acorn, organizing protests against Walgreens for deciding to stop filling Medicaid prescriptions in Delaware, and, in late June, helping turn out thousands of people for a march on Washington to demand universal health insurance.

So the recession tossed Kristen from routine poverty into destitution, and from there, willy-nilly, into a new life as a community organizer and a grass-roots leader. I wish I could end the story there, but the Parentes’ landlord has just informed them that they’ll have to go, because he’s decided to sell the building, and they don’t have money for a security deposit on a new apartment. “I thought we were good for six months here,” Kristen told me, “but every time I let down my guard I just get slammed again.”


Barbara Ehrenreich is the author, most recently, of “This Land Is Their Land: Reports From a Divided Nation.”

    A Homespun Safety Net, NYT, 12.7.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/12/opinion/12ehrenreich.html






Op-Ed Contributor

Too Poor to Make the News


June 14, 2009
The New York Times


THE human side of the recession, in the new media genre that’s been called “recession porn,” is the story of an incremental descent from excess to frugality, from ease to austerity. The super-rich give up their personal jets; the upper middle class cut back on private Pilates classes; the merely middle class forgo vacations and evenings at Applebee’s. In some accounts, the recession is even described as the “great leveler,” smudging the dizzying levels of inequality that characterized the last couple of decades and squeezing everyone into a single great class, the Nouveau Poor, in which we will all drive tiny fuel-efficient cars and grow tomatoes on our porches.

But the outlook is not so cozy when we look at the effects of the recession on a group generally omitted from all the vivid narratives of downward mobility — the already poor, the estimated 20 percent to 30 percent of the population who struggle to get by in the best of times. This demographic, the working poor, have already been living in an economic depression of their own. From their point of view “the economy,” as a shared condition, is a fiction.

This spring, I tracked down a couple of the people I had met while working on my 2001 book, “Nickel and Dimed,” in which I worked in low-wage jobs like waitressing and housecleaning, and I found them no more gripped by the recession than by “American Idol”; things were pretty much “same old.” The woman I called Melissa in the book was still working at Wal-Mart, though in nine years, her wages had risen to $10 an hour from $7. “Caroline,” who is increasingly disabled by diabetes and heart disease, now lives with a grown son and subsists on occasional cleaning and catering jobs. We chatted about grandchildren and church, without any mention of exceptional hardship.

As with Denise Smith, whom I recently met through the Virginia Organizing Project and whose bachelor’s degree in history qualifies her for seasonal $10-an-hour work at a tourist site, the recession is largely an abstraction. “We were poor,” Ms. Smith told me cheerfully, “and we’re still poor.”

But then, at least if you inhabit a large, multiclass extended family like my own, there comes that e-mail message with the subject line “Need your help,” and you realize that bad is often just the stage before worse. The note was from one of my nephews, and it reported that his mother-in-law, Peg, was, like several million other Americans, about to lose her home to foreclosure.

It was the back story that got to me: Peg, who is 55 and lives in rural Missouri, had been working three part-time jobs to support her disabled daughter and two grandchildren, who had moved in with her. Then, last winter, she had a heart attack, missed work and fell behind in her mortgage payments. If I couldn’t help, all four would have to move into the cramped apartment in Minneapolis already occupied by my nephew and his wife.

Only after I’d sent the money did I learn that the mortgage was not a subprime one and the home was not a house but a dilapidated single-wide trailer that, as a “used vehicle,” commands a 12-percent mortgage interest rate. You could argue, without any shortage of compassion, that “Low-Wage Worker Loses Job, Home” is nobody’s idea of news.

In late May I traveled to Los Angeles — where the real unemployment rate, including underemployed people and those who have given up on looking for a job, is estimated at 20 percent — to meet with a half-dozen community organizers. They are members of a profession, derided last summer by Sarah Palin, that helps low-income people renegotiate mortgages, deal with eviction when their landlords are foreclosed and, when necessary, organize to confront landlords and bosses.

The question I put to this rainbow group was: “Has the recession made a significant difference in the low-income communities where you work, or are things pretty much the same?” My informants — from Koreatown, South Central, Maywood, Artesia and the area around Skid Row — took pains to explain that things were already bad before the recession, and in ways that are disconnected from the larger economy. One of them told me, for example, that the boom of the ’90s and early 2000s had been “basically devastating” for the urban poor. Rents skyrocketed; public housing disappeared to make way for gentrification.

But yes, the recession has made things palpably worse, largely because of job losses. With no paychecks coming in, people fall behind on their rent and, since there can be as long as a six-year wait for federal housing subsidies, they often have no alternative but to move in with relatives. “People are calling me all the time,” said Preeti Sharma of the South Asian Network, “They think I have some sort of magic.”

The organizers even expressed a certain impatience with the Nouveau Poor, once I introduced the phrase. If there’s a symbol for the recession in Los Angeles, Davin Corona of Strategic Actions for a Just Economy said, it’s “the policeman facing foreclosure in the suburbs.” The already poor, he said — the undocumented immigrants, the sweatshop workers, the janitors, maids and security guards — had all but “disappeared” from both the news media and public policy discussions.

Disappearing with them is what may be the most distinctive and compelling story of this recession. When I got back home, I started calling up experts, like Sharon Parrott, a policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, who told me, “There’s rising unemployment among all demographic groups, but vastly more among the so-called unskilled.”

How much more? Larry Mishel, the president of the Economic Policy Institute, offers data showing that blue-collar unemployment is increasing three times as fast as white-collar unemployment. The last two recessions — in the early ’90s and in 2001 — produced mass white-collar layoffs, and while the current one has seen plenty of downsized real-estate agents and financial analysts, the brunt is being borne by the blue-collar working class, which has been sliding downward since deindustrialization began in the ’80s.

When I called food banks and homeless shelters around the country, most staff members and directors seemed poised to offer press-pleasing tales of formerly middle-class families brought low. But some, like Toni Muhammad at Gateway Homeless Services in St. Louis, admitted that mostly they see “the long-term poor,” who become even poorer when they lose the kind of low-wage jobs that had been so easy for me to find from 1998 to 2000. As Candy Hill, a vice president of Catholic Charities U.S.A., put it, “All the focus is on the middle class — on Wall Street and Main Street — but it’s the people on the back streets who are really suffering.”

What are the stations between poverty and destitution? Like the Nouveau Poor, the already poor descend through a series of deprivations, though these are less likely to involve forgone vacations than missed meals and medications. The Times reported earlier this month that one-third of Americans can no longer afford to comply with their prescriptions.

There are other, less life-threatening, ways to try to make ends meet. The Associated Press has reported that more women from all social classes are resorting to stripping, although “gentlemen’s clubs,” too, have been hard-hit by the recession. The rural poor are turning increasingly to “food auctions,” which offer items that may be past their sell-by dates.

And for those who like their meat fresh, there’s the option of urban hunting. In Racine, Wis., a 51-year-old laid-off mechanic told me he’s supplementing his diet by “shooting squirrels and rabbits and eating them stewed, baked and grilled.” In Detroit, where the wildlife population has mounted as the human population ebbs, a retired truck driver is doing a brisk business in raccoon carcasses, which he recommends marinating with vinegar and spices.

The most common coping strategy, though, is simply to increase the number of paying people per square foot of dwelling space — by doubling up or renting to couch-surfers. It’s hard to get firm numbers on overcrowding, because no one likes to acknowledge it to census-takers, journalists or anyone else who might be remotely connected to the authorities. At the legal level, this includes Peg taking in her daughter and two grandchildren in a trailer with barely room for two, or my nephew and his wife preparing to squeeze all four of them into what is essentially a one-bedroom apartment. But stories of Dickensian living arrangements abound.

In Los Angeles, Prof. Peter Dreier, a housing policy expert at Occidental College, says that “people who’ve lost their jobs, or at least their second jobs, cope by doubling or tripling up in overcrowded apartments, or by paying 50 or 60 or even 70 percent of their incomes in rent.” Thelmy Perez, an organizer with Strategic Actions for a Just Economy, is trying to help an elderly couple who could no longer afford the $600 a month rent on their two-bedroom apartment, so they took in six unrelated subtenants and are now facing eviction. According to a community organizer in my own city, Alexandria, Va., the standard apartment in a complex occupied largely by day laborers contains two bedrooms, each housing a family of up to five people, plus an additional person laying claim to the couch.

Overcrowding — rural, suburban and urban — renders the mounting numbers of the poor invisible, especially when the perpetrators have no telltale cars to park on the street. But if this is sometimes a crime against zoning laws, it’s not exactly a victimless one. At best, it leads to interrupted sleep and long waits for the bathroom; at worst, to explosions of violence. Catholic Charities is reporting a spike in domestic violence in many parts of the country, which Candy Hill attributes to the combination of unemployment and overcrowding.

And doubling up is seldom a stable solution. According to Toni Muhammad, about 70 percent of the people seeking emergency shelter in St. Louis report they had been living with relatives “but the place was too small.” When I asked Peg what it was like to share her trailer with her daughter’s family, she said bleakly, “I just stay in my bedroom.”

The deprivations of the formerly affluent Nouveau Poor are real enough, but the situation of the already poor suggests that they do not necessarily presage a greener, more harmonious future with a flatter distribution of wealth. There are no data yet on the effects of the recession on measures of inequality, but historically the effect of downturns is to increase, not decrease, class polarization.

The recession of the ’80s transformed the working class into the working poor, as manufacturing jobs fled to the third world, forcing American workers into the low-paying service and retail sector. The current recession is knocking the working poor down another notch — from low-wage employment and inadequate housing toward erratic employment and no housing at all. Comfortable people have long imagined that American poverty is far more luxurious than the third world variety, but the difference is rapidly narrowing.

Maybe “the economy,” as depicted on CNBC, will revive again, restoring the kinds of jobs that sustained the working poor, however inadequately, before the recession. Chances are, though, that they still won’t pay enough to live on, at least not at any level of safety and dignity. In fact, hourly wage growth, which had been running at about 4 percent a year, has undergone what the Economic Policy Institute calls a “dramatic collapse” in the last six months alone. In good times and grim ones, the misery at the bottom just keeps piling up, like a bad debt that will eventually come due.


Barbara Ehrenreich is the author, most recently,

of “This Land Is Their Land: Reports From a Divided Nation.”

Too Poor to Make the News, NYT, 13.6.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/14/opinion/14ehrenreich.html