Poverty in America: Faces behind the figures

In this Sept. 16, 2011 photo, Kris Fallon holds her 4-month-old daughter Addison, in Palatine, Ill., as her 15-year-old son Gared Fallon looks on. AP

Kris Fallon holds her daughter Addison as her son Gared looks on
In this Sept. 16, 2011 photo, Kris Fallon holds her 4-month-old daughter Addison, in Palatine, Ill., as her 15-year-old son Gared Fallon looks on.
AP

At a food pantry in a Chicago suburb, a 38-year-old mother of two breaks into tears.

She and her husband have been out of work for nearly two years. Their house and car are gone. So is their foothold in the middle class and, at times, their self-esteem.

"It's like there is no way out," says Kris Fallon.

She is trapped like so many others, destitute in the midst of America's abundance. Last week, the Census Bureau released new figures showing that nearly one in six Americans lives in poverty — a record 46.2 million people. The poverty rate, pegged at 15.1 percent, is the highest of any major industrialized nation, and many experts believe it could get worse before it abates.

The numbers are daunting — but they also can seem abstract and numbing without names and faces.

Associated Press reporters around the country went looking for the people behind the numbers. They were not hard to find.

There's Tim Cordova, laid off from his job as a manager at a McDonald's in New Mexico, and now living with his wife at a homeless shelter after a stretch where they slept in their Ford Focus.

There's Bill Ricker, a 74-year-old former repairman and pastor whose home is a dilapidated trailer in rural Maine. He scrapes by with a monthly $1,003 Social Security check. His ex-wife also is hard up; he lets her live in the other end of his trailer.

There's Brandi Wells, a single mom in West Virginia, struggling to find a job and care for her 10-month-old son. "I didn't realize that it could go so bad so fast," she says.

Some were outraged by the statistics. Marian Wright Edelman of the Children's Defense Fund called the surging child poverty rate "a national disgrace." Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., cited evidence that poverty shortens life spans, calling it "a death sentence for tens and tens of thousands of our people."

Overall, though, the figures seemed to be greeted with resignation, and political leaders in Washington pressed ahead with efforts to cut federal spending. The Pew Research Center said its recent polling shows that a majority of Americans — for the first time in 15 years of being surveyed on the question — oppose more government spending to help the poor.

"The news of rising poverty makes headlines one day. And the next it is forgotten," said Los Angeles community activist and political commentator Earl Ofari Hutchinson.

Such is life in the Illinois town of Pembroke, one of the poorest in the Midwest, where schools and stores have closed. Keith Bobo, a resident trying to launch revitalization programs, likened conditions to the Third World.

"A lot of the people here just feel like they are on an island, like no one even knows that they exist," he said.

Struggling on $18,000 a year

It's hard to find some of the poorest residents in Pembroke. They live in places like the tree-shaded gravel road where the Bargy family's dust-smudged trailer is wedged in the soil, flanked by overgrown grass.

By the official numbers, Pembroke's 3,000 residents are among the poorest in the region, but the problem may be worse. The mayor believes as many as 2,000 people were uncounted, living far off the paths that census workers trod.

The staples that make up the town square are gone: No post office, no supermarket, no pharmacy, no barber shop or gas station. School doors are shuttered. The police officers were all laid off, a meat processing plant closed. In many places, light switches don't work, and water faucets run dry. Residents let their garbage smolder on their lawn because there's no truck to take it away; many homes are burned out.

Ken Bargy outside his trailer in Pembroke, Ill.
Ken Bargy outside his Pembroke, Ill., trailer.
AP

Ken Bargy, 58, had to stop working five years ago because of his health and is now on disability. His wife drives a school bus in a neighboring town. He sends his children, 15 and 10, to school 20 miles away. In the back of the trailer, he offers shelter to his elderly mother, who is bedridden and dying of cancer.

The $18,000 the family pieces together from disability payments and paychecks must go to many things: food, lights, water, medical bills. There are choices to make.

"With the cost of everything going up, I have to skip a light bill to get food or skip a phone bill to get food," he says. "My checking account is about 20 bucks in the hole."

About 75 miles away, in the Chicago suburb of Hoffman Estates, dozens of families lined up patiently outside the Willow Creek Care Center as truckloads of food for the poor were unloaded.

Among those waiting was Kris Fallon of nearby Palatine, mother of a teen and an infant, who hitched a ride with a friend.

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