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Lack of jobs, welfare system blamed for rise in poverty

| Monday, Sept. 19, 2011

Steven Jones says that during the past year, he has earned nowhere near $10,890, the federal government's cutoff for a single person living in what it calls poverty.

His last gainful job, which ended more than a year ago, paid him $8 an hour to serve meals and clean the cafeteria at an Oakland nursing home. He since teamed with a neighbor to do odd jobs such as mowing grass, helping people move and cleaning basements, he said.

"I wasn't making a whole lot of money, but it was more than I am making now," said Jones, 29, who grew up in a Hill District housing project.

He now lives rent-free with an aunt in North Point Breeze because he cannot afford the $450-a-month rent, though he vows to start paying again when he can. The bedroom and living room are one in his efficiency apartment, which has a color television and is decorated with Steelers memorabilia, including at least seven Terrible Towels. A photo of the Obama family hangs to the right of the front window and a framed photo of Martin Luther King Jr. at the March on Washington is on the left. Pictures of his family hang nearby.

He has a cell phone but has to use the computer at the library in East Liberty for job searches.

Just Harvest, a South Side nonprofit, helped him secure $200 a month in food stamps last month. The only other government assistance he said he has ever received was a free bus pass in 2009. He used it to find the nursing home job.

"My family and friends, that's basically what got me by for the past year," said the soft-spoken Jones, whose two young sons live with their mothers. "That and help from Just Harvest. If it wasn't for that, things would be a lot worse."

TV, car, Xbox games

A growing number of Americans are encountering such misfortunes, according to U.S. Census Bureau data released last week. The number of people who fall below the poverty line rose in 2010 to 46.2 million from 43.6 million in 2009.

As the figures grow, the face of poverty is changing to include more suburbanites and young, able-bodied people such as Jones who want to work but are having trouble finding jobs as unemployment hovers nationally at 9.1 percent.

Views of poverty also are being challenged.

The Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank, riled poverty advocates with a July report from researcher Robert Rector that said most poor people are not huddling in shacks or waiting in soup kitchen lines.

Instead, Rector wrote, 80 percent of poor people have air conditioning; 92 percent have a microwave; almost 66 percent have satellite TV; nearly 75 percent have a car; and more than half have Xbox or PlayStation game consoles in their homes.

The report said 96 percent of poor parents said their children did not go hungry in 2009 despite the recession.

"It's meant to remind people how really well-off the people in the bottom quintile are," said Edwin Feulner, president of the foundation.

The point of noting the amenities some of the poor have in their homes is to highlight a "lack of incentives" in the welfare system to get out of it, he said.

"Too many people, I think, are willing to take advantage of the system," Feulner said. "It's also a sign that parts of the system are bent all out of shape."

Ken Regal, co-director of Just Harvest, noted that air conditioners are just as much a necessity for many people in the country as having heat is for people in Pittsburgh. And televisions are not all that expensive anymore, he said.

"Some people who are poor who have air conditioners and Xboxes bought them when they weren't poor," Regal said. "Should we tell them to hock their air conditioners before they are seen as sympathetic• That's ridiculous."

Trudi Renwick, chief of poverty statistics for the Census Bureau, said the households that dropped below the poverty line in 2010 included 1 million children.

"Those people who didn't work and kids explain the growth of poverty," Renwick said.

Not enough to eat

The number of people in Western Pennsylvania who fell below the poverty line in 2010 is expected to increase when the census releases figures this week. Advocates believe that trend is likely to continue at least through next year.

"I can't predict what the numbers will look like, but I dare say they won't look good," said Dennis McManus, government relations and advocacy manager for the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank.

About 323,000 people in the 11-county region the food bank serves worry about getting enough to eat, including more than 105,000 children, McManus said.

During the fiscal year that ended June 30, an average of 3,500 new households a month sought help from the food bank, McManus said. That includes people below the poverty line and the "working poor," those who make less than 160 percent of the poverty line, or $35,292 a year for a family of four.

Service agencies are scrambling to meet the need.

Each week, nine months out of the year when school is in session, the Westmoreland County Food Bank packs easy-to-make meals for 160 children primarily living in Derry, Vandergrift, New Kensington and Jeannette.

"Sometimes their last meal (of the week) is when they leave school on Friday after lunch," said Michelle Heller, program coordinator.

The number of people getting on food stamps for the first time in Allegheny County increased in each of the past 45 months, Regal said. In November 2007, there were about 113,000 county residents receiving food stamps. Last month, that number had grown to nearly 162,000.

"Our phone keeps ringing," Regal said.

It's a familiar sound at the Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Pittsburgh.

Catholic Charities, which serves six counties, first noticed an increase in the number of people seeking its assistance in summer 2008, executive director Susan Rauscher said.

Catholic Charities today helps 81,025 people in the region. That is 13,000 more than last year, Rauscher said.

Poor financial management

Bryan McCabe, a pastor at North Way Christian Community, lives in Homewood and mentors at-risk children in the neighborhood. He said generalizations about the poor and their living conditions leave out the concept of generational poverty.

"That's the narrative that has shaped their lives for generations. So they may not understand the need to do something different to better their lives," he said.

Some poor families have gaming consoles, but McCabe views that as a sign of poor financial management skills.

"A lot of times it comes down to 'Am I going to get a haircut and shoes for school• Or am I going to pay my rent?'" he said.

Single mother Neaka Johnson, 35, of Garfield is raising five sons ages 14-19 on a salary well below the poverty line of $29,530 a year for a family of six.

Johnson's top earning power is about $24,500 a year; she makes $11.80 an hour as a pharmacy technician,

"It's real tough with five boys," said Johnson, who hopes to attend business school so she can start a children's recreation center. "Sometimes I might have to not pay one bill in order to pay other bills."

That leaves little discretionary money after rent and electricity bills, but the family has much of what it needs, though she has canceled phone and Internet service to trim costs.

She relies on food stamps and welfare for medical assistance. Johnson said the government's numerical definition of poor means little to her, but she said the upward trend is alarming.

"I've never really thought about it, but when you say it, it is shocking," she said.

Shrinking middle class

Where poverty has long impacted people in cities and rural communities, it is moving into the suburbs, said Sharon Ward, executive director of The Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, a nonpartisan think tank in Harrisburg.

She expects this week's figures will reflect that.

"People who were living the American dream are being impacted by this recession," Ward said.

Another 3.2 million people nationwide would have fallen below the poverty line last year had it not been for unemployment benefits, she said.

"It kept them from falling out of the middle class," Ward said.

Government policies are needed to create jobs or put cash in people's pockets to reverse the trend of more people falling below the poverty line, she said.

"We're not going to get out of this recession without a shot in the arm," Ward said. "We need to get more people back to work."

Jones hopes to be among them.

He recently applied for a job at a Bakery Square sandwich shop but never got an interview. He plans to apply this week at a Target store that recently opened in East Liberty.

"Without having steady work, it's very hard (to get out of poverty). Just getting something steady is key," Jones said.

"Something is going to come along. It always does. You've got to keep your hopes up. Sometimes that's all you have."

By the numbers

The U.S. Census Bureau said the national poverty rate rose in 2010 for the fourth consecutive year and set a record for the most people living in poverty in the 52 years such records have been kept. The census will release state and local figures on Thursday.

15.1 percent: Nationwide poverty rate in 2010 (46.2 million people)

14.3 percent: Nationwide poverty rate in 2009 (43.6 million people)

$10,830: Annual household income for an individual to be classified as meeting federal poverty level in 2010

$22,050: Annual household income for a family of four to be classified as meeting federal poverty level in 2010

$49,445: Inflation-adjusted median household income in the United States in 2010

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

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