BUSINESS
03/01/2012 09:33 am ET | Updated Jan 25, 2013

For America's Least Fortunate, The Grip Of Poverty Spans Generations

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 ridges.

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 economy.

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 months' time.

"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 taxes.

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 United States.

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 schools."

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 they live.”

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 persistent.

"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 the message.

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 in 2026.

"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 Jr.)