December 2012, Week 3


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Mon, 17 Dec 2012 22:12:21 -0500
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Could You Survive on $2 a Day? 

Nearly 1.4 million American households live on that
much per person. Gabriel Thompson reports from one of
the nation's poorest areas.

Dec 13 2012 

by Gabriel Thompson

[This story was originally posted on Mother Jones 
and produced by the independent Economic Hardship Reporting
Project, http://economichardship.org/ ]

Two years ago, Harvard professor Kathryn Edin was in
Baltimore interviewing public housing residents about
how they got by. As a sociologist who had spent a
quarter century studying poverty, she was no stranger
to the trappings of life on the edge: families doubling
or tripling up in apartments, relying on handouts from
friends and relatives, selling blood plasma for cash.
But as her fieldwork progressed, Edin began to notice a
disturbing pattern. "Nobody was working and nobody was
getting welfare," she says. Her research subjects were
always pretty strapped, but "this was different. These
people had nothing coming in." 

Edin shared her observations with H. Luke Shaefer, a
colleague from the University of Michigan. While the
income numbers weren't literally nothing, they were
pretty darn close. Families were subsisting on just a
few thousand bucks a year. "We pretty much assumed that
incomes this low are really, really rare," Shaefer told
me. "It hadn't occurred to us to even look."

Curious, they began pulling together detailed household
Census data for the past 15 years. There was reason for
pessimism. Welfare reform had placed strict time limits
on general assistance and America's ongoing economic
woes were demonstrating just how far the jobless could
fall in the absence of a strong safety net. The
researchers were already aware of a rise in "deep
poverty," a term used to describe households living at
less than half of the federal poverty threshold, or
$11,000 a year for a family of four. Since 2000, the
number of people in that category has grown to more
than 20 million--a whopping 60 percent increase. And the
rate has grown from 4.5 percent of the population to
6.6 percent in 2011, the highest in recent memory save
2010, which was just a tad worse (6.7 percent). The
number of US households facing "extreme" poverty (less
than $2 a day per person) has increased by nearly 130
percent since 1996.

But Edin and Shaefer wanted to see just how deep that
poverty went. In doing so, they relied on a World Bank
marker used to study the poor in developing nations:
This designation, which they dubbed "extreme" poverty,
makes deep poverty look like a cakewalk. It means
scraping by on less than $2 per person per day, or
$2,920 per year for a family of four.

In a report published earlier this year by the
University of Michigan's National Poverty Center, Edin
and Shaefer estimated that nearly 1 in 5 low-income
American households has been living in extreme povery;
since 1996, the number of households in that category
had increased by about 130 percent. Among the truly
destitute were 2.8 million children. Even if you
counted food stamps as cash, half of those kids were
still being raised in homes whose weekly take wasn't
enough to cover a trip to Applebee's. 

[Chart: Households with children in extreme poverty From
data provided by Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer;
dates are approximate, as data were collected over
several months.]

In the researchers' eyes, it was a bombshell. But the
media barely noticed. "Nobody's talking about it," Edin
gripes. Even during a presidential campaign focusing on
the economy, only a few local and regional news outlets
took note of their report on the plight of America's
poorest families. Mitt Romney told CNN that he wasn't
concerned about the "very poor," who, after all, could
rely on the nation's "very ample safety net." Even
President Obama was reticent to champion any
constituent worse off than the middle class. As
journalist Paul Tough noted in the New York Times
Magazine this past August, the politician who cut his
teeth as an organizer in inner-city Chicago hasn't made
a single speech devoted to poverty as president of the
United States. (Although Paul Ryan has.)

IF YOU WANT to explore the dire new landscape of
American poverty, there's perhaps no better place to
visit than Fresno, a sprawling, smoggy city in
California's fertile Central Valley. Heading south on
Highway 99, I pass acres of grapevines and newly
constructed subdivisions before reaching the city
limit, where a sign welcomes me to California's
Frontier City. Ahead, no doubt, is a city, but all I
see is brown haze. It's as if a giant dirt clod had
been dropped from space. The frontier looks bleak.

In 2005, after Hurricane Katrina briefly focused the
nation's attention on the plight of the poor, the
Brookings Institution published a study looking at
concentrated poverty. Only one city fared worse than
New Orleans: You guessed it, Fresno. Earlier this year,
the US Census identified Fresno County as the nation's
second-poorest large metropolitan area. Its population
has nearly doubled over the past three decades, which
means more competition for minimum-wage farm and
service-sector jobs, and a quarter of the county's
residents fall below the federal poverty threshold.
With fewer than 20 percent of adults 25 and up holding
bachelors degrees, there's little prospect of
better-paying industries flocking here. Crossing the
tracks, I find myself in a virtual shantytown, with
structures of pallets, plywood, and upended shopping

For those living on the margins here, daily life can be
a long string of emergencies. "There's this whole
roiling of folks," says Edie Jessup, a longtime local
anti-poverty activist. "They are homeless, move in
someplace else, lose their jobs and are evicted, maybe
end up in motels."

If I want to see how bad things are, Jessup advises, I
should check out the area southwest of downtown. She
gives me directions, and after crossing some train
tracks near a pristine minor-league baseball stadium, I
find myself in a virtual shantytown. Amid boarded up
warehouses and vacant lots, the streets begin to
narrow. They are filled with structures made of
pallets, plywood, and upended shopping carts. A truck
pulls up filled with bottles of water, and a long line
of thirsty people forms.

Amid the makeshift shelters, one section of pavement
has been cleaned up, fenced off, and filled with more
than 60 Tuff Sheds--prefab tool sheds brought in to
provide emergency housing for Fresno's growing street
population. "It's not ideal," concedes Kathryn Weakland
of the Poverello House, the nonprofit that oversees the
encampment and doles out 1,200 hot meals a day. "But
like one of the homeless told me, it beats sleeping in
a cardboard box."

The collection of sheds even has a name: "Village of

IN THE WEE HOURS of the following morning, I pay a
visit to Josefa, a 37-year-old single mother from
Mexico who lives in a low-slung apartment complex just
north of downtown. She's awake and ready by 3 a.m. when
the first family knocks on her door. A Latino couple
hands off two children and a sleeping baby and then
disappears into the dark, heading for fields outside of
town. Over the next half hour, two more farmworker
families do the same. The small living room is soon
filled with kids in various states of somnolence. Some
nestle together on couches; others spread out on
blankets on the floor. Josefa heads down the hallway to
her bedroom, cradling the baby girl and walking quietly
to avoid waking her 10-year-old daughter in the next
room. Lowell is among the poorest stretches of real
estate in America. Nearly two-thirds of its children
live in poverty.

Four hours later, she has accomplished the morning's
major chores: Five of the six kids are awake, fed, and
dressed. The only holdout is a feisty toddler who is
waging a mighty fuss over the prospect of wearing a
t-shirt. Josefa gives the edges of the boy's shirt a
sharp downward tug and smiles, winning a small but
important battle. After pulling her curly black hair
into a ponytail she looks at her watch. "Let's go!" she
calls, waving her hands toward the door. "We're going
to be late."

The group heads down a dirt alleyway, led by a tiny
girl wearing a pink Dora the Explorer backpack that
looks big enough to double as a pup tent. The school is
three blocks away. Along the way, we pass modest but
tidy single-family homes, a few shoddy apartment
complexes, and two boarded-up buildings. On the
surface, there's little to distinguish this
neighborhood--known as Lowell--from other hardscrabble
sections of Fresno. But Lowell is, in fact, the poorest
tract in the city and among the poorest stretches of
real estate in America. More than half of its
residents, including nearly two-thirds of its children,
live in poverty. One in four families earns less than
$10,000 a year.

In a county where unemployment now hovers around 14
percent, Josefa is lucky to have work. Even better, she
loves her job, and 10 minutes in her company is enough
to realize she's got a gift with children. "They run up
on the street and hug me," she says, beaming. "What
could be better?" "How can I charge more" for
childcare, Josefa asks, "when no one has any more to

What she lacks is money. Her farmworker clients are
barely scraping by, so she only charges them $10 a day
per child. At the moment it's late September, the heart
of the grape season, so she's got a full house. But at
times when there's less demand for farm work, or the
weather is wet, she gets by largely on her monthly $200
allotment of food stamps. "I don't even have enough to
pay for a childcare license," Josefa says. (Because of
this, I've agreed to change her name for this story.)

Josefa estimates that her childcare business brings in
$7,000 a year. She visits local churches for donated
food and clothes, and has taken in relatives to help
cover her $600 rent. Until earlier this year, Josefa
and her daughter shared their small apartment with her
niece's family. It was hardly ideal--some days, there
were 12 people sardined in there. "Of course I need
more money," Josefa tells me, pushing a stroller and
holding the toddler's hand as we arrive back at her
place. "But how can I charge more when no one has any
more to give?"

Her niece, Guillermina Ramirez, is sitting in the
apartment complex's small courtyard and overhears
Josefa's last comment. "The key is to learn English,"
she announces. Guillermina, like Josefa, is
undocumented, but she's married to a US citizen and
says she will be a legal resident soon. She recently
enrolled in English classes and anticipates securing "a
really good job" once she's done. "That's what you need
to get ahead." "You can't pay $800 in rent making $8 an
hour," says Gary Villa, 23, who had to move in with his
mother after he was evicted.

Gary Villa and Jim Harper speak English and both are
American citizens--as a member of the Northern Cheyenne
Nation, Harper's lineage goes way back--but neither
would say he's getting ahead. I run into the two men
outside a temp agency three miles from Josefa's
apartment. They've been waiting around since well
before sunrise in hopes of finding something.

Villa, a stocky 23-year-old with a shaved head and
goatee, tells me that he was pulling in a decent
paycheck installing phone boxes for an AT&T
subcontractor before he got laid off in 2008. He was
evicted from his apartment and now lives with his
mother--"It's kind of embarrassing," he mutters--while
his girlfriend and two kids moved in with a relative.
"You can't pay $800 in rent making $8 an hour."

Villa peers inside the job office, trying to discern
any movement.

"At least we have family to fall back on," says Harper,
33, who keeps his long brown hair tucked beneath a
red-and-blue Fresno State cap. After being let go from
his job delivering radiators, he tried starting a
handyman business called Jim's Everything Service. It
didn't work out, so now he now begins each day by
calling seven temp agencies. But Fresno was slammed
hard by the housing bust, and it remains a tough place
for unemployed blue-collar workers. Harper, who is
staying with his stepfather, says he's lucky to pull in
more than $200 a month. His monthly food stamp
allotment tacks on another $200, for an annual income
of $4,800.

By now the sun is well above the horizon and it's
shaping up to be yet another day without a paycheck.
"The working class isn't the working class if there's
no work, right?" says Harper, who is wearing
paint-stained Dickies and a faded t-shirt. "We're
getting pretty desperate out here."

"I like to joke that I'll take any job short of being a
male whore," he adds. Jim Harper could leave Fresno to
look for work elsewhere, but without his stepdad's
place to rely on, he could end up homeless.

True enough, when the temp office clerk announces that
there's a job available, Harper leaps at it even though
the gig starts at 2 a.m. and he knows he'll have to
arrive at the work site in the early evening, thanks to
Fresno's limited bus service. He shrugs off the six
hours he'll waste "twiddling his thumbs." What matters,
Harper says, is to keep knocking on doors and making
the calls, because "you never know when you might get
your foot in the door."

Fleeing Fresno's hostile job market might seem like the
logical solution, but it's never that simple. As
frequently happens with the very poor--especially in
light of the restrictions put in place with welfare
reform--the informal safety nets that help keep people
afloat also tend to keep them rooted in place. Losing
his delivery job left Harper homeless. For a few months
he lived out of his car or in a room in Fresno's "motel
row," notorious for drugs and prostitution. But since
moving into his stepfather's house, he's been able to
use food stamps in lieu of rent. Leaving town would
mean running the risk of being homeless again. And
given Harper's income, there's no room for error.

Neither is there a clear path out of deep poverty for
Josefa. She puts in twelve-hour days six days a week,
so there's not much room to increase her workload. By
allowing six other families to work, she plays a small
but key role in making Fresno an agriculture
powerhouse, but her cut is miniscule. "That's why it's
so important for my daughter to study," she says.

The last time I speak to Harper, he tells me he's
landed a stint working overnight at a series of grocery
stores that are overhauling their freezer compartments.
"It looks like it will be a 10-day job," he says,
excited. In Fresno, that counts as a big success. I ask
where he hopes to find himself in five years. He pauses
and takes a deep breath. "Best case scenario, as sad as
it sounds, is to be no worse off than I am right now,"
he says. "That's about all I can hope for." 

About the Author Gabriel Thompson is an Economic
Hardship Reporting Project writer and the author of
three books: Working in the Shadows, There's No Jose
Here, and Calling All Radicals. He has written for The
Nation, New York magazine, The New York Times, and
other publications. Thompson is the recipient of the
Richard J. Margolis Award, the Studs Terkel Media
Award, and a collective Sidney Hillman Award.


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