Jay Shaft: Voices of the Lost and Forgotten- Pt. 4
Voices of the Lost and Forgotten- Pt. 4: Families In Poverty
Part four in a five part series on the alarming increases of homelessness, poverty, and hunger in America.
By Jay Shaft - Coalition For Free Thought In Media
For Further Details of
Family Homelessness and Poverty in the United States
- Voices Of The Lost And Forgotten - Part One
- Voices of the Lost and Forgotten - Part Two
The Invisible People: The Precariously Housed and Doubled Up Families
- Voices of the Lost and Forgotten- Part Three
Concrete Is Cold And Hard At Night: The Children’s Voices
This series of articles is an outlet for the people who are living through an overwhelming crisis. They want to tell everyone how bad it really is, and how terrible their day-to-day living conditions have become. Their voices will reveal the true depth of despair that many working class and low-income people are living with on a daily basis.
Often one missed paycheck, or one unpaid bill, results in a family going out on the streets. For far too many families the threat of a permanent loss of shelter is now an ominous presence in their day-to-day existence.
The National Low Income Housing Coalition states that sixty five million low-income workers are experiencing housing problems. Currently fifty six million low-income workers are paying more than thirty percent of their income for housing costs. An average minimum wage earner would have to work ninety hours a week to afford a two-bedroom unit at thirty percent of their income.
What is really eye opening is that ninety five million people have one or more housing problem, such as being behind on the bills, or having an eviction notice or utility shutoff notice. That accounts for fully one-third of the U.S. population.
In no state does a full-time minimum wage job enable a family to pay fair market rent for a two-bedroom apartment. Welfare or disability assistance does not provide enough income for an individual to afford an apartment at the fair market rent anywhere in the United States.
A growing gap between wage earnings and cost of housing leaves millions of families unable to make ends meet. Adjusting for inflation, the current minimum wage is worth twenty seven percent less than it was in 1968. Many families are being forced to choose between rent or mortgage payments, and the basic necessities like utilities, food, and medical care.
Today more than twenty eight million people, about a quarter of the workforce between the ages of 18 and 64, earn less than $9.04 an hour, which translates into a full-time salary of $18,800 a year, the income that marks the federal poverty line for a family of four. Overall, sixty three percent of U.S. families below the federal poverty line have one or more full time workers, according to the US Census Bureau.
Jerry, 37, is a single father supporting five children between the ages of 4 and 14. His wife died two years ago after a prolonged battle with pancreatic cancer. He is still trying to pay off the hospital bills, and has been forced to the brink of bankruptcy.
“I worked for over ten years as a design engineer and made well over $60,000 a year. I got laid off three years ago and it took me almost fourteen months to find a new job. My unemployment ran out and then the bills just started piling up,” he explains. “I got so behind on the mortgage that they filed foreclosure papers twice, and then finally took the house after the third notice went over due. I rent the house we’re in now for $1000 a month plus all the utilities.”
“I took a new job that pays less than a half of what my old one did. I make about $22,000 a year now, and I have to work a second job when things get really tight. Our electric has been shut off four times in the last two years, and we just got a second notice this month,” he says with a tired sigh. “I went and spent about $200 on groceries, but we might lose them all if they shut the power off tomorrow. I am trying to get a church to help pay part of this months bill, but I don’t know if they can help.”
“I have to choose between buying food and paying the bills on time. That is a real hard choice, but my kids got to eat,” he states. “I never thought I would have to make choices like this. To have doubts about whether my kids will get enough to eat is terrifying. I can’t tell if we’re going to make it, we might not be able to make the rent next month, then what?”
“I’m so scared that we won’t be able to stay together as a family. I’ve tried so hard, but it just doesn’t get any better. Every time I check the mail there’s another bill or an overdue notice, or something that’s going to cost me more money,” he says angrily. “I just feel like giving up, and then I look at the kids and find some way to struggle through it. If it wasn’t for food banks and soup kitchens we would go hungry about half the time, that’s how bad it is, no lie, it’s that bad.”
“I’m one step from having my family out on the street. One more bill might do it; we’re living day to day now. Our future is so uncertain, and my kids know it,” he forces out between clenched teeth. “That’s what’s really hard, to have the kids be in such uncertainty, it hurts me as a parent. A father should be able to keep his family fed and safe. I feel like I’m not doing that, because we are in such extreme danger of being homeless.”
He finishes with a final statement on his desperate situation.
“My kids have no insurance, none at all. If they get really sick, or if I do, well we’re finished. Tat will be it for us the bills will drown us. I am still taking care of bills from when my wife was sick and the bill collectors have me at the edge of bankruptcy. Filing for it won’t really help me; it will just make it that much harder to get out of this hole. I just feel like I’m being buried alive by all this debt. I can’t get any insurance on my kids because of all the money I already owe to the doctor and hospitals.”
The following facts have been excerpted from US Department of Labor survey figures from various locations across the country.
Over sixty percent of people who have been laid off or lost a job since 2000 have had to take a new job with at least a twenty five percent salary cut. Overall forty two percent of laid off workers have taken a new job that pays less than half of their old salary. Fifty three percent have taken a new position that offers little or no health care and insurance benefits. Sixty eight percent had to take a position that offers little or no retirement benefits or any type of profit sharing plans.
According to 2004 Labor Department figures and information from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the number of uninsured workers is growing alarmingly. In 2004 it was estimated that approximately forty nine million American workers did not have any type of insurance coverage. Another twenty three million reported that the level of insurance they carried was not significant enough to cover a major illness or injury.
Mark, 33, and Catrin, 31, live in a two bedroom trailer with their four children. Mark now works construction, after being laid off from an automobile assembly plant. He says in a good year, working full time, he can earn about $25,000. His old job paid him over $45,000, plus full benefits and health coverage.
“Well $25,000, huh, that’s if I work six days a week and stay on the same project for most of the year. If I work a couple of different jobs, or switch companies, forget it. I might be lucky to pull in $18-20,000. I mean come on, this is Florida, I’m doing good to get $10-$12 an hour. If I get $15 an hour or more then it’s usually a state of federally contracted job.”
Catrin works as a billing clerk for an accounting firm. She says that the lack of a college degree keeps here in low paying positions.
“I almost got my A.A. degree in bookkeeping and accounting, but I had my fourth kid and couldn’t go back to school. I had to go back to work because we couldn’t make it on Mark’s pay. I can only work 20-25 hours a week because of the kids,” she explains with exhaustion in her voice. “I have to be home in time for the bus, for when my two oldest kids get home from school. Ain’t no way we can afford child care, un uh, now way. My mom keeps the little ones till I get home, so we don’t have worry about paying a babysitter.”
Mark breaks in with a troubled look on his face. His pain, frustration and anger come off him in palpable emotional waves.
“Let me tell you about not being able to afford stuff for my kids. I can’t even pay for their insurance payments most of the time. My job doesn’t give me any kind of insurance except for workman’s comp. Cat’s got to pay for all of it on her plan at work. I pay for all the household bills and stuff, and she covers the insurance. We had to let some of the coverage go last year; drop our amount down because we were hurting after I didn’t get work for a few months. Yeah, that really makes you feel like a man, makes you feel like the worst daddy on earth.”
“We just barely get by most of the time. It’s a constant race against the late notices and the over due bills”, Catrin says. “We go to food banks and churches, we go anywhere we can get food or some kind of help. It hurts to have to go begging for handouts, I’m very proud; I don’t like to take anyone’s charity.”
“Yeah, I hate having to make the rounds of all the churches and other places,” Mark says with increasing frustration. “I really have to scrape to pay the bills every month. There’s no extra money now and we’re always late on three or four payments every month. I owe so much on my credit cards I’ll never pay it off. That was how we got breathing room for almost a year when I was having trouble finding a steady job. I owe so much money to my parents; they won’t even talk to me right now.”
For most of the 1990’s the number of children in poverty was declining. Then between 2000 and 2002, there were an additional 546,000 children who slipped into poverty. An additional 387,000 children were included in the poverty figures for 2003. The official Census report for 2004 does not come out until September, but many private groups have released 2004 poverty reports and survey figures. It appears that an estimated 350,000 more children will be counted among the poor when official figures are released.
In this country, almost twenty eight million children are growing up in low-income families, and almost thirteen million children are living in families with poverty level incomes. More than eighty four percent of them have at least one working parent whose current income is not sufficient to pay for affordable housing. Only sixteen percent of the children in low-income families had unemployed parent(s).
Clarence, 43, is taking care of his two daughters on unemployment and by working odd jobs. He was employed as a machinist/metal fabricator for almost twenty years with a major manufacturing firm. His job was outsourced to China last year with almost no warning beforehand.
“Right now I have my unemployment, but that gets cut off in two more months. Then I’ll really be up sh.t creek, we will probably lose the house and all our stuff. I’m not even making all the mortgage payments on time, there’s always a late notice or foreclosure letter in the mail. I have managed to barely keep up with it till now, but what am I supposed to do when the unemployment runs out?”
“I was making real good money before they laid us all off, 17,000 people, gone just like that. I made about $50,000 a year, not bad for someone who never finished high school. I have a bunch of trade school certification and all sorts of job skills, but the market is really sh.tty for skilled machinists right now. I found a few jobs, but they were all temp stuff, nothing long term.”
“I don’t know what to do; I’ll just take whatever pays the most when I have to go back to work. I am way overqualified for most jobs, they won’t even think about paying me what I want to earn. I will settle for anything paying more than $10 an hour, but even those jobs are almost impossible to find.”
“We haven’t really gone hungry, but it has been pretty tight sometimes. There have been a few times when I went without food so my girls could eat. Not too often, but it really scared me when the food got low. Man that really wakes you up, looking in the fridge and realizing you only got a few days food left. I had to put in for food stamps a few months ago, that was a real kick in the balls. Man that hurt my pride so bad, I almost cried when I was filling out the paperwork.”
He is really pained and distraught over his situation as he makes one last impassioned statement.
“I always was able to take care of my family; I never had to worry about it. Now I wake up in the middle of the night because I have nightmares about us being out on the street. I wake up having nightmares about my girls being taken away by the state. That’s what scares me the most, losing my girls. I can take care of myself, but who’s gonna take care of them? They need me and I might not be able to take care of them for much longer. How will they understand if I can’t get a job and keep our house? How will they still love me if I can’t be a dad and take care of them?”
To really understand how many families in the US are now food insecure or simply unable to pay the bills and feed their families, just look at the massive increase in people receiving food stamps benefits.
In March 2005 there were 25,443,097 people receiving food stamp benefits. In March of 2000 there were 17,290,581 people receiving food stamps. The number of people participating in the Food Stamp Program in March 2005 was 8.56 million more than in July of 2000, when program participation nationally reached its lowest point in the last decade. (Data as of June 22, 2005 from FRAC)
An increasing number of families are relying on food banks and soup kitchens to provide food for their table. The US Conference of Mayors-Sodexho 2004 Hunger and Homelessness Survey of twenty seven cities shows a thirteen percent increase in requests for food assistance. In some cities there was as much as a thirty one percent increase in food assistance requests from families.
Many agencies were having difficulty keeping up with the increased demand for food from the previous three years and are being overwhelmed by even small increases in new demand for assistance. Between 2000-2004 the demand for food assistance increased by almost one hundred percent.
Sam Infanzon is the Director of The Dream Center, a faith based homeless outreach ministry in St. Petersburg, FL. The Dream Center has a food bank and does breakfast feedings to the poor and homeless every Saturday. They also provide services to poor and low income families and individuals who can’t make ends meet.
Sam goes into a passionate explanation about how many more families have been struggling to find food in the past few years. He says that agencies that help the poor and the homeless are facing the biggest crisis they have ever seen.
“You know every time I think it has gotten as bad as it can get it gets even worse. I have seen hundreds of families that just can’t feed their kids. This is the biggest crisis we’ve ever faced as service providers. I just don’t know how we are going to meet all the demand for our services. We keep seeing more and more families are still working but who can’t pay their bills.”
“The number of families, the working poor, we’re seeing such an increase, it’s amazing there are thousands more, just right here in the local communities. You see so many more families in the soup kitchens and standing in the feeding lines, it’s so sad to see it. You see more and more of this, and what are we supposed to do? The families are coming in, the kids are coming in, but yet there’s not enough to help them. Our (local) food banks are being overwhelmed. People come in with a family and they only get one bag of food, what is that? How long is that really going to help them?”
“Funding is being cut from programs, there are a lot of factors affecting that, but overall there is less money all around for the agencies to help families and the homeless. The overall funding decrease has cut the budgets of the service providers. As a result they have not been able to fulfill the increased needs that are out there. The needs are growing and the budgets are shrinking, so it affects the people who need the help the most.”
“The number of people in desperate circumstances is increasing faster than we can meet them, but the services are decreasing and in some cases disappearing all together. A lot of government programs are showing all these great initiatives that are making themselves look good, that are supposed to show that all these people are getting help. Go out on the street and look at all the people that aren’t getting any help. The reality is that when people are trying to get help there is none available. No matter what kind of stuff is publicly they are not really helping the people who really need it.”
“We just do what we can with the resources we have. We can’t help everyone we see, and that hurt to have to tell a family that. We do the best we can to help take the sting out of homelessness and poverty for as many people as we can reach.”
Frank, 48, and Shirley, 42, have six children and have been unemployed since the beginning of 2004. They are both working out of a day labor and occasionally a temporary service, but they say that they are a few weeks from being evicted from their rented house.
“We don’t get out to work all the time, it’s hit or miss on any given day. There might be four hundred people trying to get out to work and only two hundred jobs that day. The men get out to work more than the women, so Shirley doesn’t get as many days as I do,” Frank explains. “Most of the jobs are construction or heavy labor, so it cuts down on how many women can get work.”
“Yeah, I get maybe two or three days a week, and some times I don’t get out to work for a whole week. I work a few days here and there for a temp service and if I get real lucky I can get on a job for a while. I had one last year that lasted over a month, but this year has been really bad for me,” Shirley says.
“I was in management with a customer marketing and survey service, but the company moved most of the jobs overseas. Most of the management was laid off and it’s almost impossible to find a new job in that field. I am college educated and now I do labor work and dig ditches,” Frank says with exasperation. “I have a master’s degree in business management and still can’t find a good job. I make $6.15 an hour now after making upwards of $75,000 for years. In the last year I haven’t had a job that paid over $9 an hour. How can I take care of my children on that pitiful bit of money?”
“I had a job as a marketing rep for the same company. They just decided one day to move the majority of the jobs to India and China. We got about two weeks notice before they closed down our offices,” Shirley syas angrily. “I never knew how bad things could get till it fell on me. I wish I could have been prepared for this, but it’s not something I think I could have ever planned for.”
Frank says he had not planned for this type of situation. “I was always expecting to be able to retire from my job. When it came down to it I was in shock for a few months. We had some savings and sold a lot of our things, and that kept us going for almost a year. We always rented our house but now I wish we had bought one. We got a thirty day eviction notice last week so we are going to be out on the streets if we don’t find somewhere else to move. We’ve been way behind on the rent for about six months now and the landlord finally had enough.”
Shirley relates the struggles they have had trying to get enough food to feed their large family. “We have been to so many food banks that they are turning us away now. Most of them have a rule about how many times you can go and how much they can give you. We would have gone hungry an awful lot if it wasn’t for the food banks and the help they gave us. Even with the food stamps we get now it is hard to buy enough food to feed us all. I just want to give up sometimes; it hurts me so bad when I see my food getting down to the last couple meals.”
Here is something shocking that should really give you an idea of how truly pervasive the poverty problem is in America. In 2002 about one in three people in the US was poor enough to be classified as living in poverty for at least two months of the year, according to recent data from the US Census Bureau. By 2004 one in three people in he US was poor enough to be classified as living in poverty for at least four months out of the year.
One in eight Americans in 2003 (35.9 million people) had incomes below official poverty thresholds in 2003, an increase of 1.3 million over 2002. Ten percent of American families in 2003 (400,000 more than in the previous year) now fall below the poverty line. And over one-third of those in poverty in the United States are now under 18. Estimates from various social service and government agencies show that an additional 1.5 million people sunk below the poverty level in 2004.
Carl, 39, and Vicki, 36, have four children. Carl is currently unemployed and Vicki is working for a doctor’s office as a receptionist. Carl had a job as an assembly foreman of a large circuit board manufacturer, but due to outsourcing he was laid off in the end of 2003.
“I got the axe in the end of 2003, and have been semi-unemployed ever since. I have a few weeks of work here and there, but for the most part I can’t find full time work. I work a lot of temp service jobs, but they only last a few weeks to a couple months. I think the longest I was on one job was three months. They ended the temp contract and I didn’t work for another two months. Now I get a few days here and there, but there are over three hundred people that try to get work through the agency I use.”
Vicki says her job just barely pays the bills, with no room for luxuries. “We get the bills seen to, but we don’t have any room for the little things most people take for granted. No movies or going out for ice cream, none of that, we just can’t afford it. I have a hard time buying enough groceries to feed us all, but somehow I stretch the food out to get us through the month.”
“Yeah, that’s what it is now, month to month, sometimes week to week. I can’t remember when we were actually ahead on any of the bills, it’s a chore to pay them on time now,” Carl says. “School is starting and we can’t buy the kids new shoes, we had to go to the thrift stores and find whatever we could afford. That really hurt my pride as a parent, to not even be able to get my kids new shoes, not even from a discount store. My son wanted a bike but we can’t get him one because that is our grocery money, no kidding. That’s pretty scary when $25 or $30 stands between a family and going hungry.”
“We never had this trouble before; it just didn’t ever come up. We were doing great with both of us working, we had a lot of luxuries that we just took for granted,” Vicki says emphatically. “We were living the typical middle class life, with a boat and two cars, a jet ski, the big screen TV, all that stuff you just expect to get if you work hard. Now we have sold all the unnecessary items and we got a few months of bills paid when we did it. It’s amazing how much stuff people have that is just useless when it comes to real life. You take it for granted and then you don’t have it anymore.”
There was an alarming increase in the number of children in poverty by 33 percent between 2000 and 2003. Nationwide, there was an increase of more than one million children living in low-income households from 2000 to 2003.
Nearly forty percent of American children live in families with incomes below two hundred percent of the federal poverty level, the amount needed for most families to be economically self-sufficient. Low-income families face material hardships and financial pressures similar to families who are officially acknowledged as poor.
In most cases, it is not until a family of four reaches twice the federal poverty level ($37,700) that parents can adequately provide their children with basic necessities, like housing, food, clothes, and health care. After family income exceeds the poverty level, access to government assistance programs is cut off. At the same time expenses such as food and clothing, utilities, childcare and health insurance increase.
This means that parents may earn more without a family experiencing greater financial security. In many cases, because of income ineligibility for food stamps and emergency assistance programs, earning more actually leaves families with fewer resources after the bills are paid.
Kurdt, 38, and Rhonda, 32, have three children and share a house with Kurdt’s mother. Kurdt works as a factory supervisor and has limited healthcare benefits. Rhonda works as a secretary for a law firm and pays most of the family’s medical bills.
“Our son has been sick since he was born. He has asthma and chronic lung problems. I have real good benefits at my job, but the medical bills are killing us,” Rhonda explains. “Cody has to go in the hospital at least once a month, and that is really expensive. I almost lost my job last year, and I took a pay cut so I could hold onto my health insurance. Our deductible is pretty high so we end up paying a lot of the smaller bills out of pocket.”
“My pay is alright where I work, when we’re on full production, but it’s a small company so they don’t offer much healthcare benefits. I have some insurance coverage, but not for the family. I have tried to get another job, but the market is slow for factory work, at least the kind I’m skilled for,” Kurdt says. “I make supervisor pay, so I would have to take a big pay cut if I got another job. It’s taken me a long time to get my salary up to what it is, so I’ll just stick out this job until I can retire. I only have a few more years and then I can cash in my employee package and go to work for myself.”
Rhonda says making less money is really causing a strain on the family budget. “We are really struggling because of the economy. My firm is handling less business and they are cutting staff to part time or just letting them go. I make $16,000 less than I made two years ago. I had to take the cut or I would have lost my job entirely. Well it hurts real bad, $16,000 is a whole lot of money to have to give up, but at least I’m still working. I still have most of my benefits and that is the only reason I didn’t let them lay me off.”
Kurdt relates how his company is experiencing work shortages and cutbacks. “My company has not been doing to well recently. Our work orders are down and we are off the job for as much as a month at a time. Last year we had three months straight where I only put in six days total. Right now I’ve been off for over two weeks and there are no new job orders coming in. I have a little side work I do for a friend on his construction sites, but it’s real iffy. I will probably only work seven or eight full months this year, and last year we only got six and a half months of full time work.”
Rhonda says daycare eats up a major portion of her salary. “Kurdt’s mom is sick so we can’t just leave the kids with her. She can help out on the weekends and during the summer, but I just can’t expect her to help all the time. She’s got really bad Parkinson’s and it’s all she can do to take care of herself. Between the after school programs and the child care for our youngest most of my paycheck gets gobbled up. We have a little money left over to keep our heads above water, but it’s barely enough.”
“What’s funny is now we can get food stamps, we have big bills and pled a hardship case and got them,” Kurdt says with great irony. “That was a big step for me, you know, to have to ask for a handout burned my a.. so bad. But my family has to eat, my mom just told me that pride isn’t good when it hurts your family. I ate some of my pride, but I can keep food on the table and keep a roof over our heads.”
Rhonda has a final comment on the whole situation. “Three years ago we were doing great, it was the best we had ever had it. Then the job problems started, and between both of our jobs we now make about half of what we used to. We own our house so they can’t take it away but they can still shut off the utilities. We had a few months where we only paid the minimal amount, but we have been able to keep up recently. Every one who is doing good needs to keep this in mind, because it can happen to them, they aren’t protected from it anymore than we were. It is so easy to end up like us, we would have never thought we be in this situation. If you don’t think it can’t happen to you just look at how many people are going through really tough times. It only takes that one problem and you can lose it all.”
Millions of Americans could tell a very similar story of despair, poverty, hunger and a day to day existence with the fear of homelessness right around the corner.
As services to the poor are cut back and agencies are forced to decrease the amount of services they can provide, the crisis will only grow larger and more unmanageable. As it is now many agencies are reporting that it might already be too late to stop the ever rising tide of poverty and need.
For the full report on the scope of hunger and homelessness in the US see:
USCM-Sodexho 2004 Hunger and Homelessness Survey
To read more homeless/poverty articles by Jay Shaft see:
Homeless And Starving In The Land Of The Free: US Homelessness and Poverty Rates Skyrocket While Billions are Spent Overseas on Occupation
Living on the Edge of Disaster: Being a Poor Working Mother in America
The Real State of the Union: A Nation in Crisis, an Economy in Disaster, Soaring Poverty, Hunger and Homelessness
How Much Worse Can It Get? When Will America Wake Up?
Jay Shaft is a
freelance writer and the founding Editor for the independent
news group Coalition for Free Thought In Media .C.F.T.M.’s
public message board can be found at
He has covered numerous issues, including hunger, homelessness and poverty, human rights, the use of cluster bombs and depleted uranium, the ongoing grief and loss of military families, civilian and military deaths in the ongoing US-led wars and occupation, terrorism, the USA PATRIOT Act, civil liberties, free speech, anti-war protesting, dissent and freedom, government waste and corruption, police repression and abuses, corporate influence on the media, and many other issues.
Jay has conducted many interviews with poor and homeless people and families and he is the former director of a homeless outreach. He is a community outreach advocate for several grass roots groups working to end homelessness and poverty.
Contact Jay Shaft at firstname.lastname@example.org