TROY, Ohio -- The rise in poverty here is evident in the mass
of people who crowd the waiting room of the free health clinic every
Thursday night - so many that the volunteer staff turns away about half
It is marked by the bare shelves of the food pantry at
Richards Chapel United Methodist Church, a one-story sanctuary where
dozens of laid-off factory workers, retirees and young parents with
children fill the dining hall daily for a free lunch.
And it is
lived by Nancy Scott, a former stay-at-home mom working a temporary
minimum-wage job, who says she had to choose between exhausting her
paycheck on rent and utilities or living in her 1990 pickup.
She chose the truck.
rural community, 22 miles north of Dayton, has seen an explosion of
poverty in the past four years that is among the highest increases in
the nation. Last year, 16,000 people lived in poverty in Miami County -
one of every six residents, the Census says. Four years ago, just as the
Great Recession was taking its grip on the nation, one in 16, or 6,000
people, suffered in poverty here.
The recession hit the Miami
Valley hard, squeezing the lifeblood of the local economy: the auto
industry and manufacturers that shed thousands of jobs. Families living
on the margins of poverty found themselves catapulted into its misery.
pain has festered even as the circumstances for many Americans have
improved. Although the U.S. poverty rate hovers at a daunting 15%,
economists agree a slow recovery is afoot. Housing prices are
stabilizing, manufacturing is rebounding and last week's consumer
confidence index reached the highest level in five years.
people in Troy - and the tens of millions of Americans like them - the
daily hardships of poverty aren't captured in statistics or healed by
political promises. As lawmakers in Washington grapple with the "fiscal
cliff" and Americans do their holiday shopping, thousands of people in
Miami County are managing on little or no income.
Living on about $8 an hour
a population of 103,000, Miami County has seen a particularly sharp
increase in poverty among children and the unemployed. The number of
poor children in the county increased from 1,900 in 2008 to 6,000 in
2011, according to the Census, which estimates a quarter of the county's
children live in poverty. The number of unemployed who were poor
increased from 711 in 2008 to 2,200 in 2011.
"Minimum wage stays
the same, but the price of food goes up, the price of gas goes up and
the electric goes up," says Scott, 51. "How do you pay all your bills
with 40 hours a week at $8 an hour?"
The federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour. Ohio sets it at $7.70.
County lost 2,234 jobs since 2008, according to the Census. The
11-county area of the Miami Valley lost thousands more in the past four
years as major companies including GM, DHL Express, Kodak and NCR closed
plants or shrank their workforce.
"There's an inability of
workers to find new jobs, and those that do are not making as much as
before," says Janice Kinghorn, an economics professor at Miami
University. "They face one incident - an illness, job loss - and it's
harder to recover."
In Troy, empty storefronts blot the main
street and shopping centers, but there are signs of recovery. At least
eight companies are building or expanding, which is expected to create
more than 500 jobs, says J.C. Wallace, president of the Troy Area
Chamber of Commerce.
The county's most recent unemployment rate
was 5.8% in October, down from its 2011 average of 8.7%. Indeed, the
county rate is lower than the state of Ohio's 6.9% unemployment and the
national rate of 7.9%. But that's done little to lift those who live
below the poverty line.
Dennis Sullivan, an economics professor at
Miami University, says older workers and those with little education
have been hit hardest by the recession. He says they "will be the last,
not the first, to feel the effect of an economic recovery."
The politics of poverty
poverty remains high and the gap between the highest- and lowest-income
earners continues to grow, the issue doesn't gain traction politically,
says Jason Reece, director of research at the Kirwan Institute for the
Study of Race and Ethnicity at The Ohio State University. One reason, he
says, is that the poor do not vote in large numbers. The other is that
poverty's causes and solutions are complicated.
"We are dancing
around the topic of poverty when we talk about health care or
unemployment," he says. "A conversation about poverty does not fit into
30-second television commercials or a quick statement."
the last time poverty was at the top of the national agenda was 1964,
when the poverty rate hovered at about 19% and President Johnson
introduced his "War on Poverty." In the short term, that campaign raised
awareness of the needs of the poor. In the long term, Reece says, it
created and expanded programs that still exist, such as Head Start,
which provides early education, health and nutrition services to
low-income children and their families.
In the half-century since
LBJ's program, the nation's poverty rate has fluctuated but never dipped
below 10%. In sheer numbers, more people are poor today than in 1964.
says attention should focus on creating programs beyond basic needs and
offer families opportunities for better education and health. He says
existing government programs, such as those for affordable housing or
improving underperforming schools, should be better coordinated so they
work in tandem.
Tim Smeeding, director of the Institute for
Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says poverty
would be higher if not for programs such as food stamps, which the
Obama administration expanded during the economic downturn.
A record 46 million Americans receive food stamps.
'There are no jobs here'
the recovery has not trickled down to Nancy Scott, one of the working
poor who make up 28% of those living in poverty in Miami County.
gives a tour of the back of her rusted truck, climbing over the
tailgate and sitting on a padded sleeping bag to show the plastic bins
where she keeps toiletries, food, knickknacks and batteries for her
camping lights. Stacks of clothes and linens crowd another corner. The
truck has a camper top that leaks when it rains, so the sleeping bag
rests on raised wooden slats to stay dry.
This will be her second
winter in the truck, since she and her husband split up. The strain was
too much on the couple after he lost his auto factory job, his
unemployment benefits ran out and neither of them could find work, she
says. Their daughters, 16, 18 and 27, live with her husband's mother in
When she started looking for work two years ago, Scott says,
restaurants and stores told her they had so many applicants that they
didn't need to hire a high school dropout.
"I quit school in the
10th grade so I could go to work," she says, remembering her first job
in a sandwich store when she was 16. "And then, I'm older and I find out
I couldn't work until I went back to school." Her strawberry-blond hair
swishes and her crystal blue eyes crinkle as she laughs ruefully.
So she went back to school, earned a GED and still couldn't find work.
The lower unemployment rate here means little to people like Scott. "There are no jobs here," she says.
signed on with a temp agency that sent her to work in a factory,
packing washers and dryers. She worked there for a month, was laid off
for a week and was called back in early October. She makes $9.50 an hour
with no benefits.
"Without the churches, people would be starving in the street," she says.
no exaggeration to David Richey, pastor of Richards Chapel United
Methodist Church. He and his wife, Beverly, run a food pantry and a soup
kitchen where they dish out close to 1,000 meals a month.
people who walk through the door "don't make enough to have three
squares a day, so we have to supplement that for them," he says.
The biggest increase they see: families with children.
Simply getting by
growth in child poverty in Miami County tracks national trends: 21% of
all children - 15 million - live in poverty. The poverty line varies
depending on family size. A family of four is considered poor with an
annual income under $22,350.
Damian Hall, 35, and his wife, Franshel, 25, say they struggle daily to raise their four children, with a fifth on the way.
and the children lived in a women's shelter for a short time in 2011.
Hall slept in his car when the men's shelter was full. He found
minimum-wage jobs in warehouses and packing plants through a temp
Hall was laid off several months ago from a job that paid
$9 an hour cleaning vents and air ducts. He says he's had little luck
finding steady work until recently. In October, he started at a
department store as a cashier and stocker, making $7.70 an hour for 35
hours a week. Franshel earns $100 a week from a job at a discount store.
family has gotten by with food stamps and Medicaid. The shelter helped
them find a three-bedroom apartment for $750 a month. His mother sends
"We need to make sure people have homes and that people are not sleeping in cars," Hall says.
Even those with advanced training have difficulty finding work.
Long, 26, was out of work for more than a year after she was laid off
as a pharmacy technician in 2010. She applied for hundreds of jobs, she
"It was incredibly frustrating," she says. "I was trying to figure out how to pay rent and put food on the table."
boyfriend, who is two credits shy of a master's degree in information
technology, can't find a job in his field. He's working as a nanny for
one of Long's friends.
They ditched their cable TV and Internet
service. They have one cellphone between them. She turned for help to a
food pantry where she had been a volunteer. About six months ago, she
was hired full time as a medical biller.
Story after story in
Miami County reflects people struggling but not giving up, handling
hardship with strained smiles and gritty determination.
Nancy Scott hopes her new factory job will help her get on her feet.
She is saving money for a home - a used camper - and until she finds an affordable one, she plans to stay in her car.
"I'm better off the way I am," she says. "This way, I can get ahead."