History > 2009 > USA > Economy > Poverty (I)
Heads of State
Too Poor to Make the News
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
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.
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
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.
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.
Boston, Dec. 1, 2009
The writer is a student at Harvard Medical School and the Harvard School of
Food Stamps and the
Tough Economy, NYT, 6.12.2009,
The Safety Net
Food Stamp Use Soars
and Stigma Fades
November 29, 2009
The New York Times
By JASON DePARLE
and ROBERT GEBELOFF
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
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
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
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
“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.”
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
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.
“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,
Hunger in U.S. at a 14-Year High
November 17, 2009
The New York Times
By JASON DePARLE
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
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
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
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
“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,
Running in the Shadows
Recession Drives Surge
in Youth Runaways
October 26, 2009
The New York Times
By IAN URBINA
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
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
“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
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
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
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
“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
But Betty and another 14-year-old, seeming not to notice, went off to play on a
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.
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
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
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
“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,
Homeless Deaths Rise,
and Anchorage Copes
October 25, 2009
The New York Times
By WILLIAM YARDLEY
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
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
“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,
N.Y. Poverty Data Paint Mixed Picture
September 29, 2009
The New York Times
By SAM ROBERTS
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
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
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
“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,
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
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
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
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,
The Recession’s Racial Divide
September 13, 2009
The New York Times
By BARBARA EHRENREICH
and DEDRICK MUHAMMAD
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
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
The Recession’s Racial
Divide, NYT, 13.9.2009,
Is It Now a Crime to Be Poor?
August 9, 2009
The New York Times
By BARBARA EHRENREICH
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
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
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
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
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
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,
A Homespun Safety Net
July 12, 2009
The New York Times
By BARBARA EHRENREICH
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
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
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
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
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
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,
Too Poor to Make the News
June 14, 2009
The New York Times
By BARBARA EHRENREICH
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
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
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
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
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,