For America's Least Fortunate, The Grip Of Poverty
Tom Zeller Jr.
Posted: 03/01/12 Updated: 03/02/12
PITTSBURGH -- In the basement of Hill House, a community
center just outside of this city's bustling downtown,
Brooklyn Davis clutches a plastic fork and stabs eagerly
at a styrofoam plate piled high with waffles and syrup.
He keeps a broad-billed, oversized New York Yankees
baseball cap pulled low over his ears, and has a NASCAR
jacket -- festooned with the "Army Strong" trademark and
corporate logos from Office Depot and Chevrolet and Old
Spice -- wrapped around his thin frame.
"I found out I was poor in middle school," Davis says
between bites, as he recalls intermittent forays into
the drug trade. "I had holes in my shoes and I started
getting ripped on. So I just started hitting the block,
and I was like 'Man, nobody's going to be bothering me
now. I've got money in my pocket.' But I realized that
can't go on too long."
Davis is now a Hill House regular, keen to have a chance
at breakfast, access to computers and the use of a
telephone. The facility is anchored in the historic Hill
District, a predominantly black and widely impoverished
neighborhood that begins in the shadow of the recently
completed Consol Energy Center arena -- the $320 million
home to the Pittsburgh Penguins professional hockey team
-- and rises eastward along several of the city's steep
Being six months unemployed and behind on his child
support payments, Davis also comes here by a court order
mandating that he be trained in skills that will lead to
work, like creating a resume, preparing for interviews
and hunting for jobs online.
For many young people born into the cyclic deprivations
of urban poverty -- failing schools, broken families,
lack of jobs, violence, crime and drugs -- such lessons
come far too late in life. While Davis aspires to become
a barber one day (he cuts his friends' hair, he says),
at 23, he is already locked hard onto a path that will
make that dream extremely difficult to realize.
Statistically speaking, Davis, like his parents, faces
surprisingly high odds against ever escaping from
poverty -- regardless of what happens in the wider
Even in the best of economic times, America has long
maintained pockets of deep and persistent poverty. From
blighted urban neighborhoods like this one, hollowed out
by the collapse of the steel industry more than a
generation ago, to long-impoverished communities in the
Mississippi Delta, or the San Joaquin Valley of
California, or the uniquely dismal privations on tribal
lands in South Dakota and elsewhere -- poverty has
defined life for multiple generations. Like many pockets
of poverty in America, Pittsburgh's historic Hill
District has been struggling economically for decades.
Above, the boyhood home of the playwright August Wilson,
boarded up. (Photo by Tom Zeller Jr.)
For policymakers of all stripes, it has often proved
remarkably easy to characterize chronic poverty as a
failure of character, a product of dependence on
government largesse, or both. Such thinking defined the
wholesale reformation of welfare under the
administration of President Bill Clinton 15 years ago,
and it continues to inform the rhetoric of Republican
candidates now vying for the White House.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, for example, has
suggested that poor children want only for a work ethic,
and that child labor laws ought to be adjusted
accordingly. Mitt Romney, former governor of
Massachusetts, has said the nation's "safety-net" is
sound, and as such he is unconcerned with the very poor.
Herman Cain, prior to his departure from the race,
famously said: "If you don't have a job and you're not
rich, blame yourself."
Given epidemics of what can appear to be inexplicable
choices by those mired in hard times -- multiple teen
pregnancies, dropping out of high school -- such
unsympathetic viewpoints can resonate. On the ground,
though, social workers, activists, poverty researchers
and struggling Americans like Davis describe a situation
that is infinitely more complex. From their view, the
so-called safety-net, while effective in preventing
atrocities of hunger familiar to other continents, can
also act like a web, trapping its poorest patrons in a
tangle of conditional services, conflicting requirements
and punishing penalties that conspire to keep them poor
-- often very poor.
The numbers underscore the problem. Federal data suggest
that the share of Americans who are not just poor, but
subsisting on incomes of less than half the official
poverty threshold, has fluctuated between four and six
percent -- well over 10 million people -- for most of
the last 30 years. In September, the U.S. Census Bureau
recorded the highest level of extreme poverty since it
began tracking the metric in the mid-1970's.
At a human level, that data can prove suffocating.
"This ain't a healthy life," says Davis. "I feel like
I'm stuck, like I can't breathe, like I'm in quicksand."
A cleaning job has recently become available at a hotel
near the airport, and Davis is hopeful that it will work
out. But the commute to and fro will take six buses, two
hours, and $5.50 out of his pocket each day -- money
that he doesn't have at the moment.
Hill House will help with the fare until he gets his
first paycheck, but the minimum-wage job won't be enough
to cover his bills, and the area transit authority has
targeted one of the bus routes for a service reduction.
Without a car, he'll likely lose the job in a few
"I don't want anyone to feel sorry for me. I'm not
blaming the world for my problems," Davis says. "I'm
just saying it's not easy."
POOR AND STUCK
Last fall, the Census Bureau revealed a troubling
statistic: A full 6.7 percent of Americans, or roughly
20.5 million people, were earning less than half the
official poverty rate -- a category generally known as
"extreme poverty." For a family of four, including two
dependent children, that would amount to an annual
income of about $11,000 or less.
Nearly half of all Americans who are considered poor at
all fall into this category.
While non-Hispanic whites comprise the largest
population considered to be extremely poor -- more than
13 million people -- the rate of such impoverishment
does not fall evenly along racial or ethnic lines. More
than 13.5 percent of the black population are now
considered extremely poor, according to the Census data
-- a rate three times higher than that for whites. For
Hispanics of any race, the rate is 10.9 percent.
Across all races, roughly one American child in every 10
is now extremely poor.
To be sure, the Census Bureau's poverty figures have
long been criticized by advocates on both sides of the
political spectrum. Conservatives have argued,
accurately, that the figure fails to capture the value
of a variety of benefits that many poor Americans
receive, including food stamps and other government
subsidies. Liberals have countered that the statistic
ignores significant household expenses, including out-
of-pocket medical costs, money for housing and even
In November, the bureau published supplementary poverty
data that incorporated some of these factors for the
first time. The new figures painted a somewhat mixed
picture -- increasing the portion of all Americans
considered nominally poor to 16 percent, up from 15.2
percent under the traditional measure, but reducing the
percentage of people considered to be in extreme poverty
from 6.7 percent to 5.4 percent.
Even by this supplemental measure, however, some 17
million Americans would be considered extremely poor,
and multiple studies have suggested that a rebounding
economy -- should one eventually take hold -- will not
necessarily impact these stubborn statistics.
Lack of economic mobility is one reason. Americans by
and large like to believe that the nation provides ample
opportunity for the truly motivated to rise -- pulling
oneself up by the bootstraps, as the saying goes.
Research suggests that's simply not the case. In fact,
American children born either rich, or poor, are more
likely than children in other developed countries to
maintain that station into adulthood.
Poverty, in other words, is often a trap.
A 2010 study by the Organization for Economic Co-
Operation and Development, for example, examined the
degree to which a son's earnings reflected those of his
father in nine European countries, Australia, Canada and
the United States. The U.S. displayed the third-highest
correlation -- just behind Great Britain and Italy. A
2006 analysis from the Bonn, Germany-based Institute for
the Study of Labor, comparing earnings mobility in the
Nordic countries, Great Britain and the United States,
arrived at a similar conclusion. While all countries had
some measure of income stickiness, whereby offspring
tend to end up in earnings brackets similar to those of
their parents, the phenomenon was most pronounced in the
The study also found that such earnings "persistence"
was highest at the very upper and lower reaches of the
income scales -- that is, the rich tend to stay rich and
the poor tend to stay poor. In the United States, the
researchers found a particularly high likelihood that
the sons of the poorest fathers will remain in the
lowest earnings bracket.
Such findings are unsurprising to researchers like
Margaret Simms, director of the Low Income Working
Families Project at the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan
social policy think tank in Washington that has examined
poverty persistence in the United States.
"We aren't as great an opportunity society as we think
we are," Simms says. "The assumption is that anybody can
pull themselves up by their bootstraps, but we don't
always make it feasible for people to do that. If you
live in a poor neighborhood, you're probably going to a
school that is not as well stocked, that doesn't have as
experienced teachers, and you're going to school with a
lot of other poor kids who have the same disadvantages
you do. People who are better off, they either live in a
neighborhood that has better schools, or they can make
those schools better, or they send their kids to private
These sorts of challenges are particularly acute in
areas where extreme poverty has metastasized into a
chronic and common condition among residents. The
Brookings Institution calls it "concentrated poverty" --
areas where at least 40 percent of the residents are at
or below the national poverty level. Over the last
decade, the rate of concentrated poverty nearly doubled
in Rust Belt areas.
"Very poor neighborhoods face a whole host of challenges
that come from concentrated disadvantage -- from higher
crime rates and poorer health outcomes to lower-quality
educational opportunities and weaker job networks,"
writes Brookings researcher Elizabeth Kneebone and her
co-authors in a report issued last fall. "A poor person
or family in a very poor neighborhood must then deal not
only with the challenges of individual poverty, but also
with the added burdens that stem from the place in which
These are not mere academic conjectures. The Panel Study
of Income Dynamics constitutes the longest-running
household survey on the planet, according to the
University of Michigan, where it is maintained. Its
dataset contains a nationally representative sample of
18,000 individuals in 5,000 families who have been
tracked and surveyed on their employment, health,
marital status, education and childbearing, among other
topics, since 1968.
Caroline Ratcliffe and Signe-Mary McKernan, researchers
at the Urban Institute, decided to mine that dataset and
last year co-authored an analysis of poverty outcomes.
Looking at data for 1,795 Americans born between 1967
and 1974, including 972 whites, 734 blacks, and 89
categorized as another race, the researchers concluded,
among other things, that 10 percent of American children
spend at least half of their childhoods living in
poverty. They call this category "persistently poor."
Black children are seven times more likely than whites
to experience persistent poverty, the analysis found
(though for both blacks and whites, multiple years of
exposure to poverty made it significantly harder to
escape hard times, saddled as they often become with
such things as teen pregnancy, high school dropouts, and
inconsistent employment as young adults).
Ratcliffe said she and other researchers are busy
looking into the specific characteristics of the
neighborhoods in which poor children are raised to
determine their impact on childhood development,
including stress factors that might make poverty
"You can hypothesize a lot about what's happening --
from bad schools and impoverished neighborhoods and the
presence of crime," Ratcliffe says. "That stress can
change the way kids' brains develop, and part of the
solution is really focusing resources on kids."
Margaret Simms sums up the problem. "It's a much harder
climb for people to get out of poverty and into
opportunity than it is for people who've got opportunity
already," she says. "That's not to say that everyone is
in that situation, but the odds of advancing
economically are not in your favor if you start out life
with few resources."
NO ONE EVER OFFERED US STEAK
On a recent Thursday morning, Brooklyn Davis is among a
half-dozen young men, ranging in age from 18 to 33,
plucking away at keyboards in a computer room at Hill
House. Mike Rogers and Leroy Hayes, co-directors of the
Young Fathers Program here, are coaching them on how to
construct their resumes ahead of an afternoon job fair
at a downtown hotel, where they would compete for a few
openings on the cleaning staff.
On the wall of his office, Hayes keeps a series of
images of President Obama alongside trappings of the
executive office. Each image is superimposed with
sartorial advice aimed at Hayes' youthful clientele.
One offers an image of a neck-tied Obama with Air Force
One in the background. "To fly on this," the poster
reads, "you have to look better than this --" and an
image of a young man with his pants sagging completes
A similar placard shows the White House. "To live in
this crib, you have to look the part," it reads.
Davis and a few others have already acquired suits for
the job fair, typically with help from a second-hand
distribution center with ties to Hill House and other
nonprofit organizations in the city. One young man
sports a grey tuxedo. The collective display of ill-
fitting, oversized blazers and hiked-up trousers, for
all its aspiration to manhood, only reinforces how young
all of them are.
With resumes printed out, the young men gather in a
small classroom to talk about their lives. All of them
were born into poverty, and most never knew their
fathers growing up. All of them now have children of
their own, often multiple children with different
mothers. They are not married, and in most cases, the
relationships are strained. A few, like Brooklyn Davis,
finished high school. The youngest of the group notes
that he is a second-generation attendee of the program,
following in the footsteps of his father.
Most, unlike Davis, have criminal records that typically
stem from any number of drug or assault convictions.
Paris Payne, the oldest of the group, has spent much of
the last 11 years in prison.
"I grew up in a foster family, and I'm watching the
people I call my uncles sell drugs and be with multiple
women," Payne says. "So when I turned 18 -- I did
excellent in school, I graduated and everything, on time
-- but it's just like, this is all I thought that I --
this is what I seen, so this is what I did."
Like many young men in his position -- unemployed,
criminal record, dependent children -- Payne has seen
his driver's license revoked, a common punishment for
falling behind on child support. The penalty, while
well-intended, often has the counter-effect of further
limiting employment options. He was recently told that
he would be eligible to re-acquire his driver's license
"If I ever got to have my own business, I'd want to
start a program just to let kids be aware of their
choices and the consequences of the stuff they do,"
Payne says. "Something for kids like, from the ages of
like 14 to probably 23. You're young and naive then and
no one told me stuff like that."
"Nobody ever offered us steak," says 23-year-old Jahvan
Baskin. "We always got offered McDonald's." Paris Payne,
33, works on his resume at Hill House. Having spent much
of the last 11 years in prison, he says he wishes
someone had talked to him about life choices. "No one
told me stuff like that," he says.(Photo by Tom Zeller
Hayes, the program co-director, drives the point home.
"A lot of times it's just passed on," he says. "There
was a time when me and a few of my older brothers, we
were working with our dad. Where else could we go and
get the kind of bread he was putting out to us? How can
you open up a drawer and you see nothing but bundles of
cash, or open another drawer and see bundles of pot?
You'd think, 'Hey I can make in one day all I need for a
couple of months, so I'll take a chance.'"
The recession, Hayes says, has made finding honest work
for the legion of young men at similar crossroads
increasingly difficult -- not least because more highly-
educated and more experienced workers from a few rungs
up the ladder are now tumbling down and creating
competition for the entry-level, minimum-wage jobs that
were once the best bet for his clients. Without those,
the choices are stark.
Mike Rogers, who came through the program himself before
being hired to help administer it, leaves the room
briefly and returns with pizzas. As the scent of
pepperoni fills the room, the conversation turns to
blame, and the group offers a refrain of personal
ownership and assertions that society and circumstance
must be held faultless.
"You can't blame no one but yourself," Baskin says.
But Davis is indignant. "I know I can't blame no one,"
he says. "But I can't better myself so I also can't
blame myself. I'm pinned in this situation. Having a kid
shouldn't mean it's the end of your life. I can't move."
Davis has had some advantages over his cohorts. When he
was a child and his mother was struggling with an
addiction to crack cocaine, he was raised ably by his
grandmother in Trenton, N.J. As a teenager, he re-
located to Pittsburgh, where he reunited with his mother
and finished high school. Despite chronic
underemployment -- he's held jobs as an usher at a movie
theater and as an office cleaner, as a server at a deli
and at McDonald's -- and occasionally dealing drugs,
Davis has managed to avoid arrest as an adult.
Before a medical condition forced his discharge, Davis
also spent a few brief months in the Army, where he
learned discipline and what he calls the pride to be
found in work.
"I'm a perfectionist," he says. "Like, cleaning is
something that you can actually do and see that you've
done something -- you can make it look like perfection."
But Davis has spent more than six months hunting for a
job that will help him cover his required child support
payment, as well as the back-payments he owes and his
monthly utility and rent bills. As the other young men
assess his story against their own, they grow gloomy.
"If he can't make it," Payne says, "what hope is there
Hayes shakes his head.
"I laugh a little now," he says, "because I look back at
it and I'm almost 70 years old and I was doing the very
same thing these guys are doing and there's a lot of
years between. So these issues that we're facing today,
they're not new. They're old. It should have been
THE BLAME GAME
Tricia Gadsen, the executive director of the Macedonia
Family and Community Enrichment Center, a faith-based
nonprofit tied to the Macedonia Baptist Church in the
Hill District, shares the story of a family that came to
her organization in search of financial help.
"They told us 'I wanted to buy my child a birthday gift
so I didn't pay the utility bill.' And what do you say
to that?" Gadsen asks. "Well, technically you're
supposed to say you should have paid the bill. But the
reality is, I'm a parent. I have a 20 year old and a 16
year old. I know there's times when I should have paid a
bill and I looked at my husband and said 'OK, we're
going to buy them something, they're good kids.' That's
what parents do. But there's a different level of
expectation for the poor," she says. "And what's
particularly hurtful for the people who are receiving
support is that there's this implied belief that they
don't want to do better. That there's this generation of
people saying, 'OK, I'm just going to live off the
"Now let's recognize that there's humanity here," Gadsen
adds, "and so there are people who will take advantage
of it, just as much as people in the corporate world
will take advantage of cutting corners and bypassing
certain laws and certain contractual procedures in order
to get that leg up. That's humanity. But somehow or
another, we've bought into the belief that this kind of
behavior is reserved for the poor, and that all they
want is a handout. No. All they want is to be able to
make a decent living, and to be able to provide for
The riddle of persistent poverty has been a near-
constant source of social and political debate for the
last 60 years -- not least because of the deep veins of
racial and ethnic variation that run through it. Almost
all observers agree that the rise in single-parent
households is a key factor in persistent poverty. Yet,
the question of whether that rise in single-parent
households -- or policy, or culture -- is a cause or a
symptom of poverty is hotly contested. Does public
policy cause or perpetuate impoverished communities? Or
do poor communities stay poor due to some inherent
characteristic that makes them different from the
Beginning in the 1960's, multi-generational
impoverishment was widely chalked up to what became
known as a "culture of poverty," a monolithic view of
poor communities arising principally from the work of
anthropologist Oscar Lewis.
The central idea was that poverty, while perhaps set in
motion by structural factors like unemployment and
disinvestment, eventually created a distinct set of
values and mores within poor communities -- wherever
they happened to be -- that were self-perpetuating. Poor
people were unable to delay gratification, for example,
or had short-term orientations that made it difficult to
lay ground for future betterment. And so, they stayed
The thinking partly influenced the work of Daniel
Patrick Moynihan's contentious 1965 report "The Negro
Family: The Case for National Action," which raised
alarms about the rising rate of single-motherhood in
black communities, which at the time was approaching 30
percent. Moynihan did not attribute the phenomenon
directly to a lack of jobs, or even discrimination,
though he described their historic role in establishing
higher rates of black impoverishment. Rather, he tied
the fracturing of African American families to a
patchwork of "pathologies" that grew out of long-term
black impoverishment itself.
Charges of racism and "blaming the victim" soon
followed, polarizing policymakers and poverty
researchers for the next several decades.
Mario Luis Small, a professor of sociology at the
University of Chicago, explains that the notion of
culture here was simply too deterministic, and he points
to recent data and numerous subsequent studies that
undermine the suggestion that poor communities develop
value systems or "pathologies" that set them apart from
the wider economy. These include, for example, Census
data that show single motherhood on the rise across all
groups, not just blacks. Currently, the rate is 36
percent for whites -- higher than the 1965 rate for
blacks that set off alarms for Moynihan.
"Across the board, everybody is going up," Small says.
"It's not as if African Americans are somehow doing
something that other racial groups are not doing."
The 1980's and '90s gave way to a more policy-driven
concept of poverty that boiled down to incentives.
"If the amount of money you give in welfare is more than
minimum wage, and it's only for women who are not
married, than any rational woman is going to take the
welfare check instead of being employed or marrying the
guy -- that's how the thinking goes," Small explains.
"It's the rational-choice perspective, in that any
rational person in the same position would do the same
thing." Lee Hayes, co-director of the Young Fathers
Program at Hill House, coaches a client preparing for a
job fair. Hayes says it has taken too long to solve the
problem of persistent poverty. (Photo by Tom Zeller Jr.)
This thinking, along with long-held beliefs that welfare
breeds sloth and unhealthy dependence, gave rise to the
wholesale reform of the welfare system under Clinton.
Assistance became largely tied to work, or efforts to
find work, and while the reformation moved significant
numbers of people off the government dole and out of
poverty, analysts now attribute much of the improvement
to the concurrent booming economy of the 1990's. That is
to say, fewer people were poor because there were more
jobs to be had.
More recently, critics have raised questions about the
effectiveness of the Clinton-era reforms when times turn
rough -- precisely when assistance is needed most.
"There is a consensus that welfare reform, to the extent
that it worked, worked because the economy presented the
right circumstances," says Margaret Simms of the Urban
Institute. "It was an expanding economy, there were a
lot of job opportunities for people who may not have had
the strongest work record or the highest skill level,
and that was coupled with programs that promoted work,
like the earned income tax credit [EITC] -- the more you
work up to a certain point the more money you got. Those
kinds of things -- child care subsidies -- all of that
package made it more economically feasible to work and
support your family if you were low skilled."
"But what we wound up with was a safety net that was
mostly geared toward work, and when work isn't
available, that safety net doesn't work very well," she
says. "So, if you're not working you don't get EITC, if
you're not working you don't get child care subsidies
and therefore your resources are somewhat limited,
they're either unemployment insurance or welfare, if you
can get back on."
An analysis in September from the Economic Policy
Institute, a nonpartisan think tank that focuses on low
and middle-income workers, notes that virtually all of
the decline in poverty achieved during the economic boom
of the 1990's has been wiped out in the last 10 years.
"The large increase in poverty suggests that as anti-
poverty policies have come to depend more on paid work
as the main pathway out of poverty," the researchers
note, "the safety net has become less effective in
reducing economic hardship when the economy and job
market are underperforming."
On the ground, stitching together meager employment
income and the contingent drip of government assistance
can become a humiliating game, according to Tara Marks,
a co-director of Just Harvest, a Pittsburgh-based
After her husband left her, Marks, who was raised
middle-class in Ohio, found herself a single mother
living in Pittsburgh housing projects. She qualified for
food stamps, but she ticks off the items that she was
forbidden to buy with them, including soap, shampoo,
household cleaning supplies, toothpaste, vitamins or
Also forbidden: diapers.
"There's no program for diapers," she says. "That's what
we went to the food bank for. So we would stand in line
at the diaper lady. We would run to that line, because
boy you needed them. And she would cut the bag in half
and she kept track of how old our children were, and she
would do the grandmotherly thing and say, 'Why is your
child still in diapers?' to encourage us to do potty
training. Not because she was the Grinch, but because
you only had so many diapers and there were mothers
coming up behind you whose children were not in that age
to start potty training."
Even for employed mothers, getting a leg up in the
welfare-to-work era can prove enormously vexing.
April Townsend, a 31-year-old mother of two children
living in the Hill, works as an administrative assistant
at a community center for the elderly up the road from
Hill House. Recalling a $40 per paycheck bump after
Obama increased the Earned Income Tax Credit for low-
income workers -- part of the 2009 stimulus package --
Townsend describes a frustrating game of one step
forward, two steps back, with her increase in income
triggering a revocation of assistance elsewhere.
"With me getting that extra 40 dollars, my rent went up
40 extra dollars and they took away some of my food
stamps," she says. "There are still times when I don't
have enough food that I have to skip a payment on a gas
bill, or pay a portion of it. I can't pay the full
amount because I have to get food. You have to do one
thing to make up for the other."
Townsend says it's this sort of experience that makes
"solutions" like Gingrich's notion to put poor kids to
work as school janitors, or Romney's declaration that
the poor are well-cared for, so infuriating.
"If you have never struggled, you cannot speak for
people," she says. "You cannot say 'I feel as though
poor people are comfortable.' Who is comfortable being
poor? Who is comfortable not having enough to pay for
food and skipping a bill?"
LET THEM WATCH TELEVISION
Davis manages to secure a hotel cleaning job, which will
help keep him out of jail for getting too far behind on
his child support payments. But he says he expects to
still fall short and will need to supplement his income
to stay on top of his bills.
"I've been to two staffing agencies already," Davis
says. "I have a good driving record. I don't understand
why it took me 6 months to find just this one job. I
have no criminal record. I never got arrested dealing
drugs. It shouldn't take that long to find a job."
The reality, however, is that the sort of jobs available
to people like Davis are few, and poverty in and around
the Hill District will likely continue.
Pittsburgh as a whole has managed to turn itself around
after the steel industry tottered, in part by becoming a
hub for computer software and biotech development. The
city also doubled down on large and entrenched
industries in the area, chiefly health care and
education. It has fared far better than other cities
amid the most recent recession, earning a rank of number
4 on Forbes' list of fastest-recovering cities. Cheryl
Hall-Russell, president of Hill House, looks out over
greater Pittsburgh from a ridge along Bedford Ave. "We
are almost making it OK to look at the poor with
disdain," she says. (Photo by Tom Zeller Jr.)
But those metrics are harder to detect in places like
the Hill, which bear the brunt of statewide austerity
efforts aimed at addressing massive budget shortfalls.
Among these: $400 million in welfare cuts last year. The
city's Port Authority is also promising deep cuts in
service -- as much as 35 percent -- without an influx of
That will almost certainly make life more difficult for
Davis and other people served by Hill House, according
to Cheryl Hall Russell, the facility's president and
chief executive. After arriving last August from
Indiana, where she headed up the state's Commission on
Childhood Poverty, Russell asked Hill House staff to
compile the latest metrics for the historic
neighborhood, which was enshrined in the work of the
Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, August Wilson.
The metrics showed that while median household income
was $20,721 -- compared to the median household income
of $36,019 for the city as a whole -- 34 percent of Hill
District households earned less than $10,000 annually.
About 40 percent of the population is below the poverty
From her office, Russell can track progress on
construction of the new Shop 'n Save next door -- the
first full-service grocery store to appear in the
neighborhood in a generation and one reason for optimism
in what can often seem a grim tableau. A few blocks
north, August Wilson's boyhood home is, like many other
buildings in the area, boarded up.
When asked how she views the current political rhetoric
regarding American poverty, Russell smiles and then
folds her hands.
"I think they don't understand how difficult it is to
move from situations of long-term impoverishment to the
middle class," Russell says. "I think at one point it
was easier. I think there were many more roads to the
middle class. But as those roads began to close, the
detour signs were sending people lower and lower and
lower into the economic stream. They're still
remembering the old economic streams -- 'Go get a job at
a factory or a mill,' they'll say, but there's no place
like that anymore. And because they're not living in it,
they don't realize the barriers to it. Then the judgment
comes in and we create public policy that makes people's
lives even worse."
"We are almost making it OK to look at poor people with
disdain and say, 'Well, you could have done better.
There's something you could have done,'" Russell adds.
"But the heart that's involved in saying 'You know, this
guy has had it rough, and he's not going to make it
through this if we don't help' -- that seems to have
Robert Rector, a senior fellow at the Heritage
Foundation, a conservative think tank, recently conceded
that poor Americans "do not live in the lap of luxury."
The assertion was made as part of a background paper on
poverty and inequality published in September. "The poor
clearly struggle to make ends meet," Rector continued,
"but they are generally struggling to pay for cable TV,
air conditioning, and a car, as well as for food on the
The implication, of course, is that American poverty
needs to be taken in context, and that falling under the
Census Bureau's official poverty threshold -- currently
about $22,800 for a family of four that includes two
dependent children -- is still likely to yield a
standard of living far superior to the slums of
Bangladesh, or the barren plains of Sudan.
Ninety-two percent of poor households in America have a
microwave, the Heritage Foundation's analysis notes.
Nearly two-thirds manage to have cable or satellite TV.
Almost 75 percent have access to a vehicle.
"The poor man who has lost his home or suffers
intermittent hunger will find no consolation in the fact
that his condition occurs infrequently in American
society," Rector says. "His hardships are real and must
be an important concern for policymakers. Nonetheless,
anti-poverty policy needs to be based on accurate
Brooklyn Davis carries a phone, though at the moment
he's unable to use it to make calls, lacking funds for a
service plan. He has no phone at home. He does have a
microwave. He does not have a vehicle.
"They might think, 'Oh, poor is like the Great
Depression," he says when asked for his thoughts on the
Heritage data. "But there are other types of poor, other
than starving and being out in boxes and stuff like
that. I think that they think that just because people
are indoors, that they consider them middle class. They
think just being alive is a privilege."
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