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Stuck In Poverty Amid Signs Of Recovery

Sep 21, 2013
Originally published on September 21, 2013 5:45 pm

For the third year in a row, the poverty rate has remained stuck at about 15 percent. Nearly one in six Americans was living in poverty in 2012, according to a new report by the Census Bureau. Despite a slow-moving economic recovery, these latest numbers show that for poor Americans, there are few signs of any recovery.

Fatima Goss Graves, who tracks poverty and employment stats at the National Women's Law Center, called the poverty numbers a "disaster." She's seen the same dynamics facing the most vulnerable group in the American economy since the end of the recession.

That group, according to the Census Bureau, includes more than 46 million people living at or below the poverty line, which the federal government defines as a family of four making $23,283 a year or less, not including government benefits like food stamps.

While there have been signs of a recovery, Graves says their benefits have not yet reached the bottom of the economic ladder.

"The recovery for many people has looked very different. The jobs that are coming back are some of the lowest paying jobs," she says.

Many jobs created since the end of the recession are in retail and food services and often do not pay enough to support families. Middle-income jobs that were once lifelines out of poverty have become more scarce, making it even more difficult for groups with some of the highest rates of poverty, including Latinos, African-Americans and single mothers.

Graves says in today's economy, having a job doesn't necessarily mean you're not scraping by.

"Even when women are working full-time, they may still be in poverty," she explains. "Even as the economy is doing better, women are not doing better."

Waiting In Line

In a suburban industrial park in Gaithersburg, Md., just outside the nation's capital, workers push a stacked cart full of snacks and produce through the Manna Food Center, a local distribution site for food donations where Yelba Mojica meets daily with struggling families.

"People that have never needed the food are coming to [Manna Food Center] and [asking], 'What do I have to do to qualify?' " Mojica says. "You see a lot of different people. You know, you see all walks of life who have never needed it in the past and all of a sudden, they do."

Judith Prado, a bus driver and single mother of three, never imagined waiting in line at a food pantry — until nine months ago, when her hours at work were cut and she had to choose between gas for her car or food for her family.

In between driving shifts, she stands in line for more than a hour at the food pantry to collect her monthly supply of food.

"I came early [to wait in line] because I have to go back to work. If I came late, I'm not going to be able to go to work," Prado explains.

Prado falls below her county's self-sufficiency standard, an alternative to the federal poverty line that Manna Food Center uses to determine income eligibility. She says she's grateful for the help from the food pantry — two cardboard boxes stuffed with bananas, frozen waffles, and other food items that "maybe" will last her family two weeks.

Then she'll have to wait another two weeks before she can be in line again next month.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

New numbers from the Census Bureau this week show that for the third year in a row, the poverty rate remain stuck at about 15 percent of the population.

As NPR's Hansi Lo Wang reports, despite a slow-moving economic recovery, these latest numbers show that for poor Americans, there are few signs of any recovery.

FATIMA GOSS GRAVES: No change is disaster.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Fatima Goss Graves tracks poverty and employment stats at the National Women's Law Center. And she's seen the same dynamics facing the most vulnerable group in the American economy since the end of the recession. It's a group that now includes more than 46 million people living at or below the poverty line, defined by the federal government as a family of four making around $23,000 a year or less, not including government benefits like food stamps.

Graves says yes, there have been signs of a recovery, but their benefits haven't yet reached the bottom of the economic ladder.

GRAVES: The recovery for many people has looked very different. The jobs that are coming back are some of the lowest paying jobs.

WANG: Jobs that are often in retail and food services and don't pay enough to support families. Middle-income jobs that were once lifelines out of poverty have become more scarce, making it even more difficult for groups with some of the highest rates of poverty, including Latinos, African-Americans and single mothers. Graves says in today's economy, having a job doesn't necessarily mean you're not scraping by.

GRAVES: Even when women are working full-time, they may still be in poverty. Even as the economy is doing better, women are not doing better.

WANG: In a suburban industrial park in Gaithersburg, Maryland, workers push a stacked cart full of snacks and produce through the Manna Food Center, a local distribution site for food donations. That's where Yelba Mojica meets daily with struggling families.

YELBA MOJICA: People that have never needed the food are coming to Manna and say: What do I have to do to qualify? And you see a lot of different people. You know, you see all walks of life who have never needed it in the past, and all of a sudden, they do.

WANG: Like Judith Prado, a bus driver and single mother of three. She never imagined waiting in line here until nine months ago, when her hours at work were cut and she had to choose between gas for her car or food for her family. This morning, she's planning to wait in line for more than an hour in between her shifts.

JUDITH PRADO: But I came early because I have to go back to work. If I come late, I'm not going to be able to go to work.

WANG: Prado falls below her county's poverty line. She says she's grateful for the help from the food pantry.

PRADO: I'm getting bananas, waffle for the kids, some ground meat.

WANG: Two big boxes of food that she loads into her silver Honda Civic.

So this will last you for how long?

PRADO: This maybe for two weeks for me and my two sons, maybe.

WANG: Maybe until she's in line again next month. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.