Home Retail Action Project Queens Center Mall Campaign Kingsbridge Armory Redevelopment Alliance Living Wage NYC Please Watch Our TV Ad
Featured Video
Take Action!
Step 1: Find your City Council Member.
Step 2: Fill in the following information
First Name:*
Last Name:*
Email Subject:*
*Required Field
Poverty affects 46 million Americans
USA Today
Marisol Bello

September 30, 2011

LEESBURG, Va. – Billy Schlegel plunged from middle class into poverty in the time it took his daughter to play a soccer season.

In January 2010, he was making $50,000 a year as a surveyor, meeting the mortgage payments on his three-bedroom home in the nation's wealthiest county and paying for his children to play hockey and soccer.

Then came February. Schlegel, 45, was laid off. During the next 18 months, the divorced father of three almost lost his house, had to stop paying child support and turned to the local food bank for basic necessities.

PHOTOS: The new faces of poverty

"You've got to swallow your pride," Schlegel says. "Especially around here, people lose their status and they feel they don't fit in."

This is the face of poverty after the Great Recession. Millions of Americans such as Schlegel now find themselves among the suddenly poor.

The recession that led to an explosion in poverty began in December 2007 and ended — officially, anyway — in June 2009. It not only made the poor poorer, it snagged those who thought they had worked themselves out of poverty and blindsided those who never thought they would be caught in its net.

Today, 15% of the USA— one in six Americans — are considered poor, the highest rate of poverty since 1993. Now among the poor are the college-educated, the former middle-class worker, the suburbanite and the homeowner.

They've been hit by layoffs, cuts in work hours, health problems and other crises. They've gone through savings and 401(k)s. They live off food stamps or other government benefits and rely on help from family members and friends.

Numbers released this month by the Census Bureau show staggering trends:

•A record number of Americans are living in poverty — 46 million. That's more than at any time since the Census Bureau began tracking poverty data in 1959.

•The number of families below the poverty line rose 18%, from 7.3 million in 2006 to 8.6 million in 2010. The poverty line last year was a household income of $22,314 or less for a family of four.

•More people living in the nation's suburbs are poor. The number of poor people living in the suburbs of metropolitan areas rose 24%, from 14.4 million in 2006 to 17.8 million last year. By comparison, the number of poor living in central cities rose by 20%.

•Those who have not worked during the previous 12 months make up an increasing share of the poor. The number of poor people 16 and older who had not worked during the previous year increased by 28% from 2006 to 2010.

"It's all about joblessness," says Timothy Smeeding, director of the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "There's just not enough work."

The solution to poverty is simple, Smeeding says: It's a job.

'It was the only thing I had left'

Schlegel had always had a job.

He started after high school as a chainman, making $4.25 an hour holding the chains that helped surveyors measure land distances. He worked his way up to lead a crew and earned enough that he and his wife could buy a $125,000 duplex in 1991 in Leesburg, the county seat of Loudoun County in Northern Virginia.

The couple divorced in 2004 and now share custody of their three children. "I had a good job, so everything was OK," Schlegel says.

In 2007 he was laid off for two months, but quickly found work. That was the job he lost in 2010, when the construction industry took a dive.

He sent résumés online to construction companies across Northern Virginia, but none were hiring. He found himself with $2,500 in monthly bills that included his mortgage, car payments, utilities and food. The only money coming in was $378 a week he received in unemployment benefits.

So he stopped paying almost $1,000 in child support. Thankfully, he says, his ex-wife was still working. He also didn't pay his $1,000 mortgage for nine months. When the bank started to foreclose on the house, he filed for bankruptcy to keep from losing the property.

"It was the only thing I had left," he says. "I've been there 20 years. It's where the kids grew up."

He turned to his parents, who helped him pay bills. He applied for food stamps and went once or twice a month to Loudoun Interfaith Relief, the local food pantry that gave him and his children enough fruits, vegetables, bread and canned food to last at least a week.

"It was depressing," he says. "The kids would go in the house and there was no food in the cupboard. When I saw all the food and bread, I was so happy. It was like a gift from God."

Food pantries a savior for many

Relying on food pantries has become the new normal for families such as the Schlegels, says Ross Fraser of Feeding America, which serves 61,000 food pantries. A study by the organization found that more than one-third of its clients have used a pantry every month during the last year.

Schlegel's family is one of 21,000 the Loudoun pantry helped in the last year. The demand has increased markedly since 2007, when the pantry helped 9,000 families, says Wanda Moloney, the pantry's client relations manager.

Loudoun County, about 40 miles west of the nation's capital, is known for rolling hills, farms, horses and wineries. In Loudoun, where the median annual income is $120,000, the number of poor people rose from 7,680 in 2006 to 11,000 in 2010.

The increase in poverty there is following a national trend in the rise of the suburban poor that began in 2000 and accelerated during the recession, says Elizabeth Kneebone, a senior research associate at the Brookings Institution.

During the early 2000s, the increase occurred in metropolitan areas in the Midwest that were hit hard by the loss of manufacturing jobs. During the recession, the trend shifted to communities in the West and South that were hurt by the real estate bust, she says.

More low-income families moved to the suburbs looking for better jobs, cheaper housing and better schools for their children, she says.

They were families like that of Mirna Ventura, 30, who came to the United States from El Salvador in 2001 and moved to Loudoun County four years ago with her husband, Josue Zelaya, 27, his mother and his younger siblings.

The family speaks little English. Zelaya worked in construction, making $17 an hour with health care benefits; Ventura was a fast-food cashier earning $9 an hour, and her mother-in-law made more than $10 an hour cleaning rooms for a hotel. They lived in a $400,000 townhouse with a mortgage that Ventura now acknowledges was too expensive for people with their income.

"We almost had the American dream," she says in Spanish. "We had a house. We had jobs. We were helping our families back home."

But suddenly everything changed. In April 2008, an electrical fire ruined the house. They had no fire insurance because Ventura says the family didn't realize they were supposed to renew it after two years in the house, so it expired. They did not have money to fix the house, so they walked away from it. The mortgage company is still looking for payment on what they owe on the house, but Ventura says they don't have the money.

Two months after the fire, Ventura's husband was laid off. He was called back but his hours and benefits were cut. Then last year, her mother-in-law developed a brain tumor and lost her job, and because she couldn't take Ventura to work anymore, Ventura lost her job, too.

The family found a house in Great Falls that would accommodate the nine members of their family. The owner gave them a break on the rent, but it's still $2,500 a month. The family made do with Zelaya's part-time work and the income from part-time landscaping jobs of two of his teenage brothers. Ventura's mother-in-law started making tamales and other El Salvadoran treats and selling them to friends and family.

In August, Zelaya got full-time work again, making $14 an hour with no benefits. Ventura is looking for work at the fast-food restaurants and retail stores near their house, but so far no one is hiring, she says.

They, too, have turned to the food pantry to help make ends meet.

"We're starting new again," Ventura says.

Hispanics, blacks are hit hard

Hispanics and blacks living in poverty remain disproportionate to their population. So do people in families headed by single women, where more than one-third live below the poverty line.

As a black woman and a single mother of three, Dwanna Myree, 38, worked hard not to become a poverty statistic. Born and reared in Detroit, she graduated from Marygrove College in 1995 with a degree in business administration.

She worked in payroll departments in architectural firms and nursing homes, making upward of $18 an hour and earning health care benefits.

Eleven years ago, she bought her three-bedroom, ranch-style home in a middle-class section of Detroit where city workers, teachers and other professionals live.

In 2003, she was fired after a disagreement with her boss, and since then she's been working full-time temporary jobs that lasted up to a year at a time.

But as the recession bore down on Detroit and its unemployment rate rose to 13%, fewer temp jobs were available.

Her job outlook is complicated because she has multiple sclerosis, an unpredictable chronic disease that can cause extreme fatigue and loss of vision and use of limbs.

So here she is, suddenly poor.

It's been almost two months since Myree had a temp job. She tracks her bills using a spreadsheet that shows the $2,246.93 she owes every month and the $1,732 she receives in unemployment and child support to pay the bills.

"I don't have dreams; I have numbers," she says.

Myree makes up the $587 difference by juggling when she pays the bills, keeping an eye out for the best grocery sales, returning soda bottles for cash and turning to her father, a retired General Motors worker. She says she wouldn't be able to make ends meet without him.

Myree has filed for bankruptcy, exhausted the $2,000 she had left in her 401(k) and almost lost the house three years ago when she couldn't pay the mortgage. She ended up working out a deal to lower her monthly bill from $1,500 to $600.

"You talk about the whole American dream thing," she says. "It's very overrated."

'We are barely getting by'

For some, success was barely within reach before it was snatched away.

Sandra Jackson's family had managed to hover above the poverty line.

Jackson, 34, lives in Columbia, S.C., with her husband of 12 years, Michael, 37, and their five sons.

She has been disabled since 1998, when a chunk of her spine was removed because of a tumor. She had been attending a technical college at the time and had to quit, and she has been unable to work since. Jackson has 10-year-old triplets with cognitive problems — they weighed only 2 pounds each when they were born.

Still, the family was managing, living off $2,642 in disability checks and her husband's $1,800 monthly paycheck from the construction job he had for 16 years.

"We were making it," Sandra Jackson says. "We didn't have everything we wanted, but we had everything we needed."

That changed quickly when Michael Jackson lost his job five months ago. "Now, we are barely getting by," she says.

They've cut cable, the Internet and the house phone. He has applied for jobs with the city, at the recycling plant and nursing homes. So far, no luck.

It has caused tremendous stress on the family, Sandra Jackson says. "I'm trying to hold it together."

Like those in many struggling families, she is hopeful. "We're going to work it out," she says.

In Virginia, Schlegel was one of the lucky ones. This summer, he finally found a full-time job as a surveyor. He's making $42,000 a year now.

But the last 18 months have left their mark. He says he's budgeting to live off only $1,500 a month — the amount he received in unemployment.

Just in case.

"I'm afraid I'm going to lose my job again," he says. "I guess that comes with what we're all going through now."

Contributing: Paul Overberg and Barbara Hansen in McLean, Va., and John Wisely, Detroit Free Press.