MICHAEL Washington has lived virtually his entire life in a classic rowhouse in Mantua. Inside boasts large rooms and period woodwork, and outside, thanks to a grant from the city, a new roof and a colorfully painted bay window. He'll soon be working on his prizewinning flower garden that won a recent honor from the Pennsylvania Horticulture Society.

"My connection to this house is unbelievable. I draw strength from this house," he says. He shares it with his partner of 17 years, Tony Hill.

When they met, they both had good jobs, making a comfortable living. Then within a year of one another, they both got cancer.

Tony "lost my job as an insurance broker, lost my health coverage and went on disability, about $13,000 a year." The sharp decline in income, he says, threw him for a loop.

Michael worked in academic advising. Soon after he got laid off, he found he had cancer. He gets slightly less disability than Tony. He also gets $16 a month in food stamps. That puts them at a little more than 150 percent of the federal poverty line.

But, insists Michael, "I don't want to be defined as poor. I may have not gotten everything I wanted, but I got everything I needed. No one that the government says is poor considers themselves poor. No one wants to be considered poor. There's such a negative connotation."

They also echo others in how they feel about their lives . . . even when, toward the end of the month, food and supplies start to dwindle.

"Other people are doing far worse. You're glad for what you have," Tony says. "You get creative. Might not be what you want to have for dinner, if you have a bag of potatoes or onions, you have something to put in your stomach. Sometimes that has to be good enough."

Michael adds, "We're pretty fortunate compared to other people. I think we're still kind of blessed.

"Last night, a neighbor came to us for food. We only had a little bit, but we gave her some chicken, two potatoes, canned goods. We had that, but she had nothing. She's out of a job, ran out of unemployment. She's praying that they pass the extension ."

When things get tight, they take advantage of a food pantry up the street at Second Antioch Baptist Church, where Michael was baptized. It requires prayer, a gospel song and a scripture from the Bible, but they enjoy it.

Tony is a self-described political junkie, and pays close attention to Congress and the White House.

"Last night they voted on the farm bill, which was essentially to give subsidies to megacorporations. On the condition they cut food stamps." He shakes his head. "This is the America we live in."