The Changing Picture Of Poverty: Hard Work Is ‘Just Not Enough’


Pam Fessler/NPR

poverty photo/npr

There are 46 million poor people in the U.S., and millions more hover right above the poverty line — but go into many of their homes, and you might find a flat-screen TV, a computer or the latest sneakers.

And that raises a question: What does it mean to be poor in America today?

Take Victoria Houser, a 22-year-old single mother who lives in Painted Post, a small town in western New York.

At first glance, her life doesn’t look all that bad. She lives in a cozy two-bedroom apartment. She has food, furniture and toys for her almost 2-year-old son, Brayden. He even likes playing a game called Fruit Ninja on her electronic tablet.

Desiree Metcalf, here with one of her three daughters, is one of many poor Americans who find themselves trapped in a system meant to help.

“He just likes touching it because he always sees me on my computer, my iPad or something,” Houser says.

Brayden’s father is out of the picture, and Houser knows she could be a lot worse off. At least she has a job earning $10 an hour preparing food in a company cafeteria.

Still, you don’t have to look too far to see that her life is teetering on the edge. Her nice-looking apartment? “It’s kind of not a very safe place to live,” she says. “There’ve been quite a few drug busts here.”

Houser says she’s scared to let her son play outside. Her next-door neighbor was recently arrested for allegedly murdering someone and stuffing the body in a cupboard.

Victoria Houser and her son, Brayden, may have food to eat and toys to play with, but she says she feels like she’s teetering on the edge.

But this subsidized housing is all she can afford. Most of Houser’s paycheck goes for things like food, diapers and gas. And she says what look like luxuries are necessities for her. They’re also mostly gifts from family or friends. She says she has a car to get to work, a computer to take online college courses, a cellphone to check up on her son.

But there’s one thing Houser doesn’t have, and that’s a lot of hope for the future.

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