The Invisible Americans

As I listened to President Obama's State of the Union speech last week, I listened for the words I always listen for when politicians speak: I listened for a mention of poverty and what was going to be done about it.

It never came.

The president talked about the recovery and about families still struggling and about the need for jobs. He spoke about women still only making 77 cents for every dollar a man makes in the job market. (A wage gap that amounts to $11,000 per year.) He talked about how important it was for women to be made equal in the workplace. He talked about the middle class.

But he did not talk about poverty.

I wrote about the issues Obama raised about women and work for SheWired.

But I did not talk about poverty.

Because it's hard. Because it's close. Because I live in the poorest of the top 10 most populous cities in America. Because I grew up poor and my parents and grandparents grew up poor and because despite a number of years of living a middle-class life, I am poor again.

There is so much shame attached to being poor in America that no one wants to admit to it. Yet the lines at local food pantries all over the country are longer and longer, food insecurity --hunger -- is more and more prevalent and the economic recovery is benefitting the people who never really suffered in the 2008 recession, not the people most damaged by it.

I was one of those people. I was already walking a very fine line between lower middle-class and poor prior to the recession, due to living with multiple sclerosis. But when the recession hit, writers got hit hard. The newspaper for which I had been writing for 17 years filed for bankruptcy. Another newspaper chain for which I wrote a syndicated column also filed for bankruptcy and shut down many of its papers -- including the one where my column originated. My income was literally cut in half a week before Christmas 2008.

I'm one of the people who never recovered financially from the recession -- and I am far from alone. Women over 40, like myself, were hardest hit. Single women hit harder still. Those "shovel ready" jobs the stimulus package provided went to men -- not that I was shovel ready in any case. But according to the Dept of Labor statistics, for every thousand jobs recovered since the recession hit, only one has gone to women. And the middle and lower-middle class jobs traditionally held by women, like secretarial, teaching and health care, all suffered serious cut-backs.

Mid-level white-collar jobs for women were among those that disappeared due to the recession and they have not come back after the recovery began.

Poverty is worse in America than at any other time since the Depression. One in six Americans -- 16 percent or nearly 47 million -- lives at or below the government-defined poverty level. More children live in poverty in the U.S. than in any other developed country except Romania, with one in two being eligible for WIC (Women Infant Children) program benefits. Child poverty increased 35 percent between 2007 and 2012. Nearly half of all American children will receive SNAP (food stamp) benefits before they are 20. By the age of 20 a full 90 percent of African-American children will have participated in the SNAP program. Women are disproportionately affected by poverty, according to the Dept. of Agriculture statistics on hunger, with 79 percent of all working poor being female.

That percentage of Americans living in poverty -- 16 percent as of January 2013 -- is up from 14.3 percent in 2008. Federal government statistics show the percentage of people living in poverty is significantly higher in rural and inner city areas than elsewhere in America.

Philadelphia, where I live, is the poorest of the 10 largest cities. Nearly 30 percent of Philadelphians live at or below the poverty level with about 5 percent living in what is called "extreme" poverty -- less than half the government-defined poverty level. The percentage of children living in poverty in Philadelphia is staggering -- 36.8 percent; higher than anywhere but Appalachia.

And as is true throughout the U.S., the majority of Philadelphians living in poverty are like me: not on welfare or other government benefits, but the working poor.

The federal poverty guideline is $11,490 for an individual. But a person working full-time at a minimum wage job makes just over $14,000 -- before taxes -- meaning most minimum wage workers are living at or below the poverty level. The poverty level for one adult and two children -- the standard single-mother household -- is $17,000. Higher than the amount a minimum-wage mother of two makes.

Those of us who have walked the line for years between poverty and not-quite-poverty know that poverty guidelines are arbitrary. A few dollars more a month income can make the difference between being eligible for food stamps or not, eligible for a heating subsidy or not, eligible for Section 8 housing and not.

The poor are invisible in America. Yet according to the Dept. of Health and Human Services (HHS) more than half of all Americans (58.5 percent) will spend at least one year living below the poverty level at some point between the ages of 25 and 65.

The numbers are staggering and yet get no notice. There is no Lyndon Johnson to institute another War on Poverty like there was in the 1960s. And while President Obama invokes his mother's status as a single mother often in speeches, he doesn't mention that over 41 percent of single mothers in America live in poverty -- as do their children.

People like me, the middle-aged working poor with educations but no corresponding jobs, are increasingly a face of poverty, especially if they are single women. According to U.S. Census data, the widening wage and income gaps in the U.S. have made people between 35 and 55 most at risk for poverty, due to job loss. The older a person is when she loses a job, the more likely she is to become long-term unemployed. More than two-thirds of the long-term unemployed are women.

Jobs that used to hold security -- college professorships, for example -- no longer do. More than three-quarters of college professors are now adjuncts, with no job security and no benefits. Pensions are also a thing of the past and as the recent disaster in Detroit made clear, many people who had pensions they thought would provide security for them in their senior years have had those pensions vitiated.

Suburban poor -- something virtually unheard of 20 years ago -- is now the fastest-growing sector of people living in poverty, with suburban foodbanks at record numbers.

The lifetime risk of economic insecurity keeps increasing -- now at 79 percent by the time Americans reach age 60. The peak age range for economic insecurity and concomitant poverty is between 45 and 55. Also, statistically the hardest ages to escape poverty.

A friend made a joke about my "money problems" recently that still rankles. "Why do these things happen to you?"

Poverty isn't a "money problem." It's not about having to wait to cash out your 401k or your IRA or some of your stocks. It's having nowhere to turn for money. It's wondering which bill can be paid and which bill can be put off. It's trying to figure out how hard you can push an employer for more work before they get irritated. It's cutting back until there is nothing left to cut back.

And "these things" happen to poor people because they don't have money in the bank or credit cards or lines of credit or other access to money. They live paycheck to paycheck and the money always runs out before the bills. Look at the teeth of poor people. They are missing because a root canal and crown costs upwards of $2,000 while getting a tooth pulled costs less than $200. Medicaid will pay for an extraction, but not a root canal.

The images of American poverty all seem to be from the Depression -- Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans and James Agee. Haunting photographs of grinding, filthy, ramshackle poverty.

Poverty looks different in most of America today. The poor aren't dirty, their clothes aren't torn. Unless you're in a poverty-stricken neighborhood like mine, you don't know for sure that someone actually is poor. Because one of the tenets of poverty is to try not to look poor, try not to act poor.

But why? Why are those of us living in poverty trying to hide it? Shouldn't the shame of poverty fall on those with too much, not those with too little? Shouldn't a president whose personal story invokes a single mother, a Speaker of the House who grew up poor and a vice president who was raised in Pennsylvania coal country where poverty has always been rampant be organizing to address the poverty that threatens more Americans than at any other time except when those haunting photos were taken in Depression Era America?

It's time to take some more photos -- of women like me, of my neighbors, of my city, of all the places where poverty hides it's face in America. The shame is not on us. No one wants to be poor. No one wants their children to be poor. But until those who have so much make those who have so little a priority, until a State of the Union address speaks directly to and about those 47 million -- MILLION -- Americans struggling every day just to survive America's poor will continue to walk among the rest of you, invisible as ever.