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.
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.