Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Tapped Out: An intimate look at hardship

You might have heard about a war on poverty. Well, Philly's losing it.

IT WAS dusk, growing dark quickly, so when a man suddenly appeared at my car window in the parking lot of Home Depot, I instinctively moved to lock the door. But he wasn't acting like a predator. For one thing, he was elderly, and he was gesturing urgently, so I opened the door and got out.

"Miss, please," he said, pointing to his mouth, which was twisted in grimace. "I'm sorry. I need help."

He spoke in halting English, so it took a while to understand what he was saying. Something like, "I need help, my family has no food. I need money to feed them." He was also hard to understand because he was crying.

He was crying.

I gave him far more money than I would have a year ago, or five years ago, or whenever it was that I learned to say "I'm sorry" to people begging for money on the street without breaking my pace.

For the last year, I've been talking to lots of hungry people, hearing their stories about living without: without food, money, housing, jobs. Unfortunately, they've been easy to find. Philadelphia is no stranger to poverty, but the situation has become more dire in the last few years, mirroring the country in rising rates.

For the past 18 months, thanks to a fellowship, I've been studying the subject. One truth I've learned: The last thing we need is more studies of poverty.

Every year, dozens of books on poverty accumulate in a large library's worth of thinking and research and analysis. But for all the considerable brainpower and respected work behind them, they are, by their nature, limited. They capture a moment in time, a snapshot of current conditions and the forces shaping them. Delving into a book on poverty from five or 10 years ago is a little like reading old newspapers for clues to today's crossword puzzle.

The thing is, there are clues and answers in the work of the past. But we must not know how to read them. Because poverty is not only still with us, but it has reached a level in this country not seen for at least 20 years.

This special report is an attempt to capture a picture of poverty in Philadelphia today. It is unusual in a few respects: It represents a rare collaboration among media and universities, and it features the voices of people we rarely hear from: those who live with scarcity. Because just as poverty is particular to the times, the stories of those who are struggling are unique; there is no simple monolithic profile of "the poor."

Those who live with little do so because they are old, or disabled, or unemployed, or working for substandard wages. But as their stories throughout this four-day series illustrate, their economic situation is just one aspect of their lives. As it is with anyone.

About 42.7 million people in this country are poor - that's 15 percent of the population. Today, that means a $23,850 annual income for a family of four. Twenty-seven percent of children, and 15 percent of the elderly, are poor.

In Philadelphia the numbers are far worse. Nearly a third live below the poverty line. And our city leads all other big cities in the rate of deep poverty, which means 200,000 people living at half the poverty line - $5,700 a year in income.

"In my lifetime, the devastation of poverty has never been worse. It is dramatically and systemically worse, in a variety of ways," says Sister Mary Scullion, who many consider Philadelphia's own patron saint of the poor.

How we got here

Some of the country's poverty is the permafrost, which has burrowed into society for generations, and some of it is thinner, newer ice, formed by current conditions, shaped by factors particular to the times.

Today's poverty story is one that worsened with the 2008 recession, but has been decades in the making, the result of a tangle of conspiring forces:

New global economy: In 1962, 28 percent of jobs were in manufacturing. In 2011, that number was at 9 percent. Disappearing manufacturing jobs were replaced by lower-wage jobs in the service sector. That means more people have lower-paying jobs with fewer benefits. A recent report says that the typical American worker is twice as productive as in 1979, for essentially the same wages as 1979.

Welfare reform: In 1996, cash benefits that went to more than 5 million families were virtually eliminated. "Welfare" became Temporary Aid for Needy Families (TANF), received by 1.8 million families with children; 75 percent of those benefits go to children. That's about the same number of families that were receiving aid in 1964.

Political shifts: A turn in political climate, starting with the Reagan administration, began reversing the belief that government should play a role in improving people's lives, and earnestly began transferring powers back to the states, unwinding the direction of FDR's New Deal and other social-welfare programs. This "New Federalism" meant a steep cut to direct aid to cities for mass transit, public-service jobs, public works and economic development help.

Prison rates: By the end of the 20th century, the United States had locked up more of its people than any democracy in history. The number of people in the corrections system rose from 4.3 million in 1990 to 5.5 million in 1996. High rates of incarceration have created a large new class of the hard to employ - and many ex-offenders are banned from any kind of government help.

Reduce the number of jobs, pay less for the ones that are left, and decrease the help the government gives: You couldn't design a better set of forces to drive more and more people into poverty if you tried. Layer a brutal recession on top of this, with rising foreclosures and bankruptcies, and you end up with a country falling behind - not just in fully employed workers, but in the number of Americans who don't have enough to survive in one of the world's richest nations.

If you like, you can choose an easier way to understand poverty. It's a view favored, unfortunately, by many conservatives in Congress and elsewhere who believe that once upon a time, Americans had a strong work ethic that has since eroded into a nation of lazy spongers, indulged by an ever-growing government that provide benefits that discourage people from honest hard work. The more we give people, the more we discourage them from getting a job and pulling their weight. The jobs are there; you just have to get out there and get one.

As maddening as that view can be in the face of the facts, it's easy to see why someone would choose this easy set of assumptions. The reality is complex, daunting and frightening. It speaks to a world that has grown out of our control, with little hope of fixing it.

Who cares?

"A measure of the greatness of a powerful nation is the character of the life it creates for those who are powerless to make ends meet."

That's not Obama talking. It's not Clinton, or Carter or Johnson. It's Richard Nixon, in a message in 1969 on reforming welfare. He proposed a series of reforms including a set of guaranteed benefits for the working poor, like negative income tax, a guaranteed basic allowance for poor families, work incentives. The proposal failed.

That battle over government's role in alleviating poverty has been going on almost from the time the country was founded. The War on Poverty in 1964 was a singular exception, leading to the creation of food stamps, cash assistance, job training and other programs, and it resulted in alleviating poverty for a time, but it lasted less than three years before support began faltering.

One thing has remained constant: The worse the economy, the less appetite there is to help those who are hurt by it.

Amid our current troubles, Congress has cut food stamps more than once, eliminated the extension to unemployment benefits, attempted to kill Obamacare. Pennsylvania's governor has refused millions of dollars for expanding Medicaid, and established new barriers to benefits like food stamps. These are often actions of lawmakers who quote scriptures to justify their actions.

Blaming the poor

The poor have never been popular - people have been blaming the poor for their plight for centuries. In our modern, supposedly evolved and educated society, we still have a crabbed and punishing view of those who are struggling that seems to rise in direct proportion to the poverty rates.

And there is not even agreement about the actual rates. While the accepted number of people in poverty is about 46 million, that number is based on a flawed system for measuring poverty. The current measure was created in the 1960s, based on food costs, which at that time comprised about a quarter of people's incomes. Today, food costs are about 6 percent, while housing and health-care costs have grown much larger. And those costs can vary widely from city to city.

One mystery, though, is not so much how many people live in poverty, but why the response for so many is one word: "Tough."

Wisconsin U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan is a reliable spokesman for this attitude. He has called the safety net a "hammock which lulls able-bodied people into lives of complacency and dependency," and in March, he referred to a culture in the inner cities of "men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work."

In this country, and in this city especially, attitudes toward poverty are often screens for attitudes about race. If you frequent comment sections of this and other news websites, it's clear that for many, "poverty" is often synonymous with a black woman having too many kids and expecting to live off the government teat.

In realty, that teat is a flimsy thing: In Pennsylvania, the maximum benefit to an adult with two children is $403 a month.

That comes with work/job-seeking requirements, and a lifetime limit of 60 months. (In most states, if you have a drug felony record, you are banned from any benefits.) That family of three's maximum food-stamp allocation is $497 a month. That all adds up to $10 a day per person, for food, shelter, clothing, health care and transportation.

And if you still want to hold onto your misconceptions, here's very disturbing news: TANF recipients are fairly evenly divided between black, white and Hispanic.

The high cost of poverty

Talk to 10 people who live in poverty and you will hear 10 different stories of how they got there: lost jobs, disability and sickness, lack of opportunity, of education, of luck. They all share a disturbing truth about poverty: It's not for the weak. Being poor is hard work.

Those who struggle don't spend their lives being poor - they spend their lives on the bus, on the job, on trying to buy enough food. They go to church, meet with friends, do volunteer work. They spend the day worrying about the heat, the landlord, the boss. Like the rest of us.

Except everything takes twice as long when you don't have enough. Life gets complicated when you have no car, or not enough money for the bus, or your child care fell through and you can't get to your job that pays minimum wage, and if you miss one more day you'll probably lose that job because there are hundreds of people who are waiting to get hired to replace you. And if you get a raise, or your work hours are increased, you can lose the little help you get from the government, such as health care or food stamps. That makes life harder - but also less complicated, because now you don't have to walk the 15 blocks to the Department of Public Welfare office.

Donna Cooper, who now heads Public Citizens for Children and Youth, has spent most of her career in the trenches.

She says: "Poor people in America are more highly functioning at a basic level than most people who have more means. They may not do the job the way we want, but with the resources they have, they do a lot better job than you and I."

Few people define themselves as poor. Of the many people we've profiled, no one classified himself as "living in poverty." None identify themselves as "poor." They are too busy trying to survive to identify themselves according to a set of government classifications. And many of them feel that no matter how hard they struggle, there are plenty of people worse off. As Angela Pote, a mother coming out on the other end of poverty put it, "Everyone measures poverty differently."

The way forward

There might always be poor people, but there will always be people working to help alleviate its effects. In Philadelphia, there are scores of people who have been working for decades - helping people get legal services, heat, jobs, food, medical care, housing. The city has just created a new initiative called Shared Prosperity to better coordinate those services.

Many of those who help are struggling themselves. While working on this report, we found strong networks and communities of low-income people helping each other. We found generosity and kindness where people could ill afford to be generous, and few reasons to be kind.

In the end, though, meaningful fixes to poverty must come from all of us: from government policies that acknowledge not just the structural underpinnings of poverty, but our collective responsibility to find solutions.

Some of these solutions are not complicated. I spent a week last year at the University of Wisconsin's Institute for Research on Poverty. During a week of lectures, I met with David Riemer, a fellow at the Public Policy Institute who has spent years developing policies to reduce poverty. His anti-poverty plan includes four steps: a tax credit for seniors and adults with disabilities; a transitional-jobs program for the unemployed; a higher minimum wage; and a reformed earned income tax credit. My first reaction to his plan was, "Raise the minimum wage? Never going to happen."

Fortunately, I was wrong. In the past year, the national conversation has shifted dramatically and quickly. Following President Obama's 2013 State of the Union address, seven states and the District of Columbia have raised their own minimum wages, and more than 30 states are debating the issue.

Just last week, Mayor Nutter raised the wage that companies doing business with the city must pay their workers, to $12 an hour.

Obama has recently proposed an expansion of the earned income tax credit that targets low-income workers. And nine states have introduced bills that would expand or create the earned income tax credit for their residents.

As encouraging as these developments are, though, only true optimists would consider this a new war on poverty. After a few months of purporting to study poverty, Rep. Paul Ryan introduced a Republican budget that essentially decimated the safety net: cutting food stamps, eliminating the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) and reducing Medicaid.

Even if you believe that government has no place in helping the poor, that a robust economy is the best solution and that encouraging individual drive is the only long-term fix, how do these beliefs so often preclude an equal amount of compassion?

Society's most vulnerable - the elderly, disabled and children, who constitute the majority of the poor - suffer, and we do little to alleviate that suffering. We let millions of children go hungry, or homeless, in our insistence on punishing their parents We think nothing of marginalizing millions of Americans, against all our democratic principles.

Why are we afraid of being compassionate? Most of us have enough, and many of us have more than enough. What would we lose by being more generous, as individuals and as a society?

Are we really so afraid of people without advantages taking advantage of us, or are we simply afraid to face some difficult truths: that America is not the land of opportunity that we believe is our birthright. That the American dream of the new generation doing better than the old one is a myth from another time. And that the only people who benefit from living in the richest country in the world are those few who already have plenty.