At a food pantry in a Chicago suburb, a 38-year-old mother of two breaks into tears.
She and her husband have been out of work for nearly two years. Their house and car are gone. So is their foothold in the middle class and, at times, their self-esteem.
“It’s like there is no way out,” says Kris Fallon.
She is trapped like so many others, destitute in the midst of America’s abundance. Last week, the Census Bureau released new figures showing that nearly one in six Americans lives in poverty — a record 46.2 million people. The poverty rate, pegged at 15.1 percent, is the highest of any major industrialized nation, and many experts believe it could get worse before it abates.
The numbers are daunting — but they also can seem abstract and numbing without names and faces.
Associated Press reporters around the country went looking for the people behind the numbers. They were not hard to find.
There’s Tim Cordova, laid off from his job as a manager at a McDonald’s in New Mexico, and now living with his wife at a homeless shelter after a stretch where they slept in their Ford Focus.
There’s Bill Ricker, a 74-year-old former repairman and pastor whose home is a dilapidated trailer in rural Maine. He scrapes by with a monthly $1,003 Social Security check. His ex-wife also is hard up; he lets her live in the other end of his trailer.
There’s Brandi Wells, a single mom in West Virginia, struggling to find a job and care for her 10-month-old son. “I didn’t realize that it could go so bad so fast,” she says.
Some were outraged by the statistics. Marian Wright Edelman of the Children’s Defense Fund called the surging child poverty rate “a national disgrace.” Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., cited evidence that poverty shortens life spans, calling it “a death sentence for tens and tens of thousands of our people.”
Overall, though, the figures seemed to be greeted with resignation, and political leaders in Washington pressed ahead with efforts to cut federal spending. The Pew Research Center said its recent polling shows that a majority of Americans — for the first time in 15 years of being surveyed on the question — oppose more government spending to help the poor.
“The news of rising poverty makes headlines one day. And the next it is forgotten,” said Los Angeles community activist and political commentator Earl Ofari Hutchinson.
Such is life in the Illinois town of Pembroke, one of the poorest in the Midwest, where schools and stores have closed. Keith Bobo, a resident trying to launch revitalization programs, likened conditions to the Third World.
“A lot of the people here just feel like they are on an island, like no one even knows that they exist,” he said.
Struggling on $18,000 a year
It’s hard to find some of the poorest residents in Pembroke. They live in places like the tree-shaded gravel road where the Bargy family’s dust-smudged trailer is wedged in the soil, flanked by overgrown grass.
By the official numbers, Pembroke’s 3,000 residents are among the poorest in the region, but the problem may be worse. The mayor believes as many as 2,000 people were uncounted, living far off the paths that census workers trod.
The staples that make up the town square are gone: No post office, no supermarket, no pharmacy, no barber shop or gas station. School doors are shuttered. The police officers were all laid off, a meat processing plant closed. In many places, light switches don’t work, and water faucets run dry. Residents let their garbage smolder on their lawn because there’s no truck to take it away; many homes are burned out.
Ken Bargy, 58, had to stop working five years ago because of his health and is now on disability. His wife drives a school bus in a neighboring town. He sends his children, 15 and 10, to school 20 miles away. In the back of the trailer, he offers shelter to his elderly mother, who is bedridden and dying of cancer.
The $18,000 the family pieces together from disability payments and paychecks must go to many things: food, lights, water, medical bills. There are choices to make.
“With the cost of everything going up, I have to skip a light bill to get food or skip a phone bill to get food,” he says. “My checking account is about 20 bucks in the hole.”
About 75 miles away, in the Chicago suburb of Hoffman Estates, dozens of families lined up patiently outside the Willow Creek Care Center as truckloads of food for the poor were unloaded.
Among those waiting was Kris Fallon of nearby Palatine, mother of a teen and an infant, who hitched a ride with a friend.
She recounted how she and her husband — once earning nearly $100,000 a year between the two of them— lost their jobs, forcing them to move from their rented home into an apartment and give up their car.
“We fight a lot because of the situation,” she said. “We wonder where we are going to come up with money to pay rent, where we are going to get food, formula for the baby.”
She began to cry.
“I never understood why there were so many food pantries and why people couldn’t just get on their feet and get going, but now that I’m in it, I fully understand,” she said. “I sometimes feel like I am a loser … I have never been unemployed and I never thought I would be going through this, ever.”
Her husband, Jim, 43, said he’s looked for jobs all over the country in the past two years, and just accepted an offer of a three-month stint in Paducah, Ky., on a hotel reconstruction project.
“Leaving for a job out of state for three months is what I have to do,” he said. “It’s terrible but it’s our reality … I guess this is the new America.”
By Robert Ray
Sharing poverty with a former spouse
Bill Ricker’s woes date back to the 1980s, when he injured himself falling through rotten floorboards while doing carpentry at an inn. He hasn’t worked since.
He now lives in one end of a cluttered old trailer in Hartford, Maine, 60 miles north of Portland.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Ricker has two college degrees. As a younger man he worked as an electronics repairman, a pastor and a TV cameraman. He and his first wife had seven children.
Now he receives food stamps, gets donations from a local food pantry and drives an 18-year-old car with 198,000 miles.
For a treat, he goes out to lunch at a cafe in a nearby town — about once every two months.
“I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I don’t chew and I don’t go with girls that do,” Ricker said. “In other words, on that income you don’t do very much outside the home.”
After finishing high school in 1956, Ricker earned an associate degree in electronics engineering and went to work selling and repairing marine electronics.
He later earned a theology degree and served as a pastor at churches in New Hampshire and Vermont. But times were hard on a pastor’s salary, so he returned to Maine, eventually becoming a cameraman and studio engineer for a TV station.
After being laid off in the 1980s, he was hired to do some carpentry for an inn. His first day on the job, the floorboards gave way.
With his injuries, he could no longer tend to the three-unit apartment house he and his wife owned. They sold it, bought a used trailer for $7,000 and settled on a lot in Hartford, a town of about 1,000 people.
Ricker and his second wife, Judith Odyssey, divorced around 1995 and she moved out. But he offered to let her move back in nine years ago when she was going through a rough time, and she now lives in the other end of the trailer. She gets $674 a month in Social Security.
Besides his back and shoulder injuries, Ricker has diabetes, eye and breathing problems, and his hands shake. Odyssey has congestive heart problems, asthma and arthritis.
It’s hard to make ends meet. Rent for the lot is $150 a month; Ricker has to buy insurance and gas for his minivan and pay bills for electricity and a phone.
He shops at a discount grocery store, gets canned goods from a food pantry, scours garage sales for clothes.
It cost $3,200 last winter to heat the poorly insulated trailer with kerosene, which was partially offset with about $1,000 in heating assistance funds.
Inside the trailer, ceiling tiles are coming loose and electrical wires dangle in the bathroom where a light fixture once hung. An old dryer, a mattress, a snow blower, discarded chairs and other junk are strewn about outside.
Still, Ricker keeps his sense of humor.
“I’m sorry I make jokes at everything,” Ricker said. “But it’s the only way to keep going.”
By Clarke Canfield
Broke — and facing the unexpected
Until a few months ago, Brandi Wells lived paycheck to paycheck. She was poor, but she got by. Now, the 22-year-old lives “penny to penny.”
Wells started working as a waitress at 17 and continued when she got pregnant last year. She worked until the day she delivered 10-month-old son Logan, she says, and came back a week later. But finding child care was a challenge, and about three months ago, after one too many missed shifts, she was fired.
In no time, she was homeless. The subsidized apartment in Kingwood, W.Va., that had cost her only $36 a month came with a catch: She had to have a job. Without one — and with no way to pay her utilities — she was evicted.
Logan went to live with his grandmother in another town while Wells stayed with a friend for three weeks in a filthy house with no running water.
“I didn’t realize that it could go so bad so fast,” she says now. “I was working. I was trying. I felt like I was doing everything I could. But everyone was saying I needed to do more.
“They say, ‘It’s your fault. You don’t need to live off the government,’” Wells says. “For some people, yes, it is their fault. … I didn’t deserve to lose my job. I worked as hard as I could.”
Wells filed for assistance from the state human resource department and got three free nights at a low-budget motel and $50 for gas to hunt for a new job. It didn’t last long.
“The way it is now, you can’t hardly find a job,” she says. “I’ve applied here, there, everywhere.”
Eventually, Wells and her fiance, Thomas McDaniel, found a two-bedroom apartment. After a few weeks, its walls and floors remain bare. The only furniture is in the living room — an old green sofa, a foam twin mattress, a play pen stuffed with toys.
Rent is $400 a month, and Wells is hoping that since McDaniel has just landed a job at Subway, they’ll be able to afford it.
For now, her income consists of the $300 a month the state pays her to attend a daily self-sufficiency class, the $30 or so she earns at a bar once or twice a week, food stamps, and the $96 a month in child support she gets from Logan’s father — “barely enough for diapers and wipes.”
She gets help from the Raymond Wolfe Center, where she can pick up a week’s worth of food once a month. And she’s grateful for her class, which is teaching her how to manage her money and distinguish wants from needs.
She knew the difference before, she says. As a new mom, she just didn’t care.
“I was in the stage where I wanted to give Logan everything … and I couldn’t afford it,” she says. “And it caused me to be broke.”
Wells says she’s motivated to get back on track: “I want to get out of these low-income apartments. I want an actual house for my son. I want a car that’s not on the verge of breaking down.”
She’s hoping her typing skills will lead to a secretarial job. Long term, she wants to go to college and eventually work as a mortician.
“It’s a job you can’t lose, she says with a grin. “They don’t run out of business, generally.”
But as if the odds weren’t already stacked against her, Wells has two more challenges.
She needs to answer for speeding tickets she couldn’t afford to pay. That resulted in a suspended license, further limiting her ability to look for work.
And, unexpectedly, she’s pregnant.
“I’ve never been into the idea of abortion …,” she says, her voice trailing off. “Me and my fiance are talking about it. I don’t know what we’re going to do.”
By Vicki Smith
A growing boy has to eat, but how?
Wearing a navy blue pea coat, her eyelids dusted with shimmery shadow, Pamela Gray looked as though she was headed into work. Instead, she was standing in line at a Manhattan food pantry, where hundreds of people waited patiently to fill suitcases with groceries or meet with a social worker.
Going on a year without a job, Gray likes to rise early and ride the subway down from the Bronx to visit the West Side Campaign Against Hunger, New York’s largest food pantry, which is tucked inside a church basement.
“When I was working as a home attendant, I had a check every week. So you know, the food thing wasn’t a problem,” said Gray, a single mother of three teens who was injured while caring for an elderly woman last year and had to quit her job. “But when you don’t work like you used to every day — you don’t know that you have the money — you have to go pick up food where you can.”
Gray, 47, was meeting with the center’s social workers about paying off $12,000 in student loans from Bronx Community College, where she earned a bachelor’s degree. Her only source of income for now is occasional money from selling Mary Kay makeup and a couple of paychecks a year when she pulls shifts as an elections worker.
It’s been hard on her 14-year-old son, who is growing fast and likes to eat. A lot.
“He likes Chinese food, chicken with broccoli, and then he likes his pizza,” she said, laughing. “Yesterday I give him his $3.50 for lunch and tell him next week, you know, see what happens.”
Gray made a follow-up appointment with a counselor — promising to bring the necessary paperwork next time — and then headed back onto the street. She walked to another church a few blocks away, where a woman was handing out free coffee and sandwiches.
She put the sandwich in her purse and settled down on the church steps to enjoy her coffee before heading to a public library. That’s where she spends most of her time — using the computer, applying for jobs, devouring books.
“I’m reading this one, they talking about sentencing in prison,” she said, tapping the cover. “I really like to read on child issues and stuff. But if they don’t have it, I get another book.”
And she waits for that long-awaited job offer to come through. She is optimistic about the latest one: a position working with children at a juvenile home. After all, she says, she has a certificate in child care from New York University.
“I think I’m gonna get it,” she said, a smile spreading across her face. “I’ve been trying. I don’t give up. I keep trying.”
By Meghan Barr
‘They didn’t have to sleep on the floor’
The walls in Monique Brown’s public-housing apartment have only a few decorations, sheets cover the windows and the cupboards are mostly empty. But it’s a big step up nonetheless.
Until a few weeks ago, the 30-year-old single mom and her four children, ages 2 to 9, were homeless and staying in a Salvation Army shelter in downtown Birmingham, Ala.
Brown was married, living in Florida and working two jobs — one in a hotel laundry, the other at a retail store — when the recession hit. Today, those seem like the good old days.
“I never really had to worry about food and the basic necessities because I knew there was always a paycheck coming in a week,” she said.
Brown lost both jobs in 2008 and split with her husband, forcing a move to Alabama to live with her brother and his family. An arrangement that was supposed to last for a couple months stretched to a year because Brown wasn’t able to find work, and the strain was soon showing on her brother’s household. Fearful for his marriage, Brown and her children took refuge in the shelter.
“It was the best option for us because they could have their own beds, they didn’t have to sleep on the floor,” she said. “I didn’t want them to get the full effect of being homeless.”
While her three boys went to elementary school, Brown cared for her 2-year-old daughter and sought work. She wasn’t picky, but nothing turned up.
Still jobless, Brown found out about a public housing unit last month in the Birmingham suburb or Fairfield. With the Salvation Army paying her deposits and purchasing furniture and some appliances for her, Brown was able to swing a place of her own using $573 a month in disability payments for one of her sons, food stamps and donations.
Brown has been able to save about $100 and she’s still looking for work. But finding a job is difficult because she has to balance potential work schedules against her children’s schedules and the high cost of day care.
“Right now I’m just taking small steps,” she said.
By Jay Reeves
There but for the grace of God …
Nearly two years ago, on the day after a vacation, Tim Cordova was laid off from his job as a manager at a McDonald’s. At the time, he and his wife, Sandra, an employee at a Subway restaurant, lived in a two-story house in the Albuquerque suburb of Ventana Ranch.
As the economy worsened in New Mexico, one of the nation’s poorest states, Cordova struggled to find work and his wife’s hours were slashed until she, too, was laid off.
They moved to a smaller house, then to a small apartment. By this June, unemployment benefits had run out and they resorted to living out of their Ford Focus.
“I was searching for jobs while I was collecting unemployment, and I could not get hired at all,” said Cordova, 41, who is now living with his wife at an emergency homeless shelter called Joy Junction.
Sandra Cordova said her job search also has been fruitless.
Jeremy Reynalds, founder and CEO of Joy Junction, said he’s never seen such high levels of homelessness and poverty in his 25 years of running the shelter, now New Mexico’s largest.
“Demand is going higher, and higher, and higher,” he said. “I mean, it really is scary.”
Just a few years ago, the shelter was averaging around 100 residents a night. Now, Reynolds says, it’s regularly filled with 300 every evening, and people are turned away every day.
The Cordovas said they see their situation as a “test from God” and are taking advantage of Joy Junction’s life-skills programs. Sandra Cordova is taking computer classes and Tim is helping with shelter security. Both said they are not ashamed of their situation; they’ve even invited their grandchildren to visit the shelter.
“I just want another house. I just want another job,” said Tim. “I want to prove that I can do it the right way.”
Reynalds said donations to the shelter are down, but more people are helping out in person.
“More people are opting to volunteer,” said Reynalds, “because I think they know that are a paycheck or two away from being homeless themselves.”
By Russell Contreras