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

Posted:   |  Updated: 01/25/2013 1:58 pm EST

Brooklyn Davis
Brooklyn Davis, 23, would like one day to become a barber. But he is already locked hard onto a path of poverty that will make that dream extremely difficult to realize.

"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?"


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 state support.

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 line.

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 disappeared."

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 table.”

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 information."

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."