New York Times  [Printer-friendly version]
May 8, 2006

AMERICA'S 'NEAR POOR' ARE INCREASINGLY AT ECONOMIC RISK

[Rachel's introduction: During the 1980's, around 13 percent of
Americans in their 40's spent at least one year below the poverty
line; in the 1990's, 36 percent of people in their 40's did. About 37
million Americans lived below the federal poverty line in 2004, set
at $19,157 a year for a family of four. But far more people, another
54 million, were in households earning between the poverty line and
double the poverty line.]

By Erik Eckholm

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- The Abbotts date their tailspin to a collapse in
demand for the aviation-related electronic parts that Stephen sold in
better times, when he earned about $40,000 a year.

He lost his job in late 2001, unemployment benefits ran out over the
next year and he and his wife, Laurie, along with their teenage son,
were evicted from their apartment.

They spent a year in a borrowed motor home here in the working-class
interior of Orange County, followed by eight months in a motel room
with a kitchenette. During that time, Ms. Abbott, a diabetic who is
now 51, lost all her teeth and could not afford to replace them.

"Since I didn't have a smile," she recalled, "I couldn't even work at
a checkout counter."

Americans on the lower rungs of the economic ladder have always been
exposed to sudden ruin. But in recent years, with the soaring costs of
housing and medical care and a decline in low-end wages and benefits,
tens of millions are living on even shakier ground than before,
according to studies of what some scholars call the "near poor."

"There's strong evidence that over the past five years, record numbers
of lower-income Americans find themselves in a more precarious
economic position than at any time in recent memory," said Mark R.
Rank, a sociologist at Washington University in St. Louis and the
author of "One Nation, Underprivileged: Why American Poverty Affects
Us All."

In a rare study of vulnerability to poverty, Mr. Rank and his
colleagues found that the risk of a plummet of at least a year below
the official poverty line rose sharply in the 1990's, compared with
the two previous decades. By all signs, he said, such insecurity has
continued to worsen.

For all age groups except those 70 and older, the odds of a temporary
spell of poverty doubled in the 1990's, Mr. Rank reported in a 2004
paper titled, "The Increase of Poverty Risk and Income Insecurity in
the U.S. Since the 1970's," written with Daniel A. Sandoval and Thomas
A. Hirschl, both of Cornell University.

For example, during the 1980's, around 13 percent of Americans in
their 40's spent at least one year below the poverty line; in the
1990's, 36 percent of people in their 40's did, according to the
analysis.

Comparable figures for this decade will not be available for several
years, but other indicators -- a climbing poverty rate and rising
levels of family debt -- suggest a deepening insecurity, poverty
experts and economists say.

More people work in jobs without health coverage, including temporary
or contract jobs that may offer no benefits or even access to
unemployment insurance. Medicaid is offered to fewer adults (though to
more children). Cash welfare benefits are harder to secure, and their
real value has eroded.

About 37 million Americans lived below the federal poverty line in
2004, set at $19,157 a year for a family of four. But far more people,
another 54 million, were in households earning between the poverty
line and double the poverty line.

"We don't track this group of people, and they are very vulnerable,"
said Katherine S. Newman, a sociologist at Princeton University who
studies low-end workers.

Those suffering a nose-dive say the statistics do not begin to convey
their fears and anguish.

Only a year ago, Machele Sauer thought she was entering the middle
class. She and her husband, a licensed electrician, owned a large
mobile home. He was starting his own business and Ms. Sauer, after
bearing their fourth child, hoped to stop waitressing and be a stay-
at-home mom.

"We were the ideal family, the envy of others," she said recently as
she collected free food and diapers at the Hope Family Support Center,
a small charity in Garden Grove, Calif., in Orange County. "And then,
boom, everything flipped upside down."

Life fell apart last spring when her husband was arrested on theft
charges, linked to a recent drug addiction she says she did not know
about. Because of a prior record, he received a long prison sentence.

Now Ms. Sauer, 34, draws on the charity for goods and its director,
Gayle Knight, for advice and emotional support, part of a grueling
scramble to provide for her four daughters, ages 16 months, 8, 9 and
15. Many days over recent weeks, she dropped them at the baby sitter
after school, worked the night shift as a waitress, picked up the
sleeping children after midnight then woke up with the baby at 6:30
a.m. before preparing the older three for school.

At first she went on welfare, receiving $600 a month along with paid
child care and counseling for herself and the children. As she resumed
waitress work -- four night shifts and two day shifts a week -- she earned
about $1,300 a month, which led her welfare payment to be cut to $300.

She receives $200 worth of food stamps that cover bills for just the
first two weeks of each month, she said.

"Now the van is breaking down," she said. "With four kids it's really
hard to hold a full-time job, and I need to make sure they do well in
school." Her goal is to find a way to prepare for nursing school.

The Abbotts, too, sought aid from food banks and other charities,
collecting weekly boxes of food and toiletries.

In Orange County, about 220,000 people received food from 400 local
charities last year, according to the Second Harvest Food Bank, which
distributes donations. Recipients include many families, often
Hispanic, with several children and both parents working minimum-wage
jobs. Over all, half the families seeking food had at least one
working adult, according to a recent study by the food bank.

In the center of Orange County, a world away from its polished coastal
towns, borderline poverty is common but seldom visible. On small
streets behind strip malls and fast food restaurants, families,
sometimes two of them, cram into small, aging bungalows.

What look like tourist motels along Beach Boulevard are mostly filled
by working families or single people who stay for months or years,
paying high weekly fees but unable to muster up-front money for an
apartment rental.

Mr. Abbott, now 58, eventually found a lower-paying sales job. With
help from church members, the couple amassed the three months' rent of
$2,700 required to rent a one-bedroom apartment in Anaheim.

Describing their last several years, Mr. Abbott kept circling back to
the emotional toll. Motels, like the one they lived in for eight
months for $281 a week, are "dives," he said, "with lots of screaming
and fighting and cops being called."

"It was really stressful," he said, "and still you pay a lot of
money."

In a new setback, Mr. Abbott has developed chronic obstructive
pulmonary disease. He recently had to stop working and go on state
disability, which pays $1,436 a month and gives him health coverage.

Ms. Abbott has no health insurance -- if she gets sick, she says, she
will go to a medical van that serves the homeless. But a generous
dentist from church helped her get new teeth, and now she plans to
hunt for work.

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company