The True Face of Poverty


From nearly every front, many Americans report that the economy was good during the nineties. Statistics indicate that unemployment was down, salaries went up and the stock market was booming. However, now studies are beginning to trickle in showing that for those already living at the extreme end of the economic income range, their situation actually worsened, leaving many Americans dangerously exposed when the economy stalled in the past couple years.

In late September, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that 1.7 million people slid into poverty in the last decade. The report also showed that the Midwest was hit the hardest of any region due mostly to loss of manufacturing companies in the area.

Worsening conditions is an escalating affordable housing shortage, an ailing job market and ever increasing budget deficit, right now it is being estimated at around $500 billion. This figure may increase dramatically, as a result of the war in Iraq with annual projected costs of about $400 billion or more for each year.

These are the numbers that point to the specter of poverty in the United States; to better understand the impact of the present state of our economy, Residents’ Journal interviewed a number of people in shelters, transitional living situations as well as a few in public housing. Here are a couple of examples of the living situations that were reported.

Reginald Muse says he came from a nurturing family which included a doting father. Not very long ago Muse began to experience financial and employment difficulties due primarily to medical setbacks or health problems. Muse is an African American male who is widely traveled and who graduated from the University of Chicago, yet he is only marginally aware of resources that would be available to someone as down on his luck as he is. According to Muse, “I have been struggling for what seems like forever. Living at home or with other relatives suddenly was not an option. In some cases grown children had already returned home–other siblings of mine, in my mother’s case. This was also true with other relatives I turned to. Somehow, a relative knew someone and managed to find housing for me.

Reginald Muse: "I struggle every day because of health issues. Yet I am striving for financial independence." Photo by Michael Ibrahem

“Finding employment has become my sole focus in a way of speaking. I have this urgent need to be doing something, anything. Not being able to find any job which would allow me to become self-sufficient and independent of subsidies of any kind is causing me nothing but anxiety and depression. The longer the situation exists the darker things seem to me.

“I struggle every day because of health issues. Yet, I am striving for financial independence. My parents made it crystal clear that we are put on this earth to progress. Not to stagnate, merely existing from day to day in our attempts to overcome obstacles that would prevent us from being the best person we could be. Life is always about growing by means of those activities contributing to our self-esteem. Of course, I understand that temporary set-backs often generate mild forms of depression; but the longer my situation continues the worst off I feel about myself. Programs for the disabled and a thriving economy would go along way to improve my case at least.” Muse presently resides in a subsidized living space.

Robert Dillard is a man who says that he has been struggling over a very long period of time. Since he left his wife Myrtle in 1993 due to circumstances seemingly beyond his control, he has had a series of jobs, and continues to make every effort to better himself each day. Here’s what Robert has to say: “I have gone from shelter to shelter and yes, I am one of those often referred to as the working poor, since I continued to try on my own to make ends meet without going over to the welfare offices or anything like that. My wife and family continue to live in Wisconsin. That’s where they went after we lost our home. However, with accelerating rents and landlords becoming more persistent in their demands for higher and higher security deposits, I just don’t seem to be able to better my situation.

Robert Dillard: "I just don't seem to be able to better my situation." Photo by Michael Ibrahem

“I am older now too. I have medical issues, such as high blood pressure, which in my case is serious or so my doctor tells me. For one thing, I seldom get the opportunity to eat better food. Eventually, I managed to stop staying at shelters and started staying at cheap hotels where many of Chicago’s so-called working poor go, rather than staying at the Mission– one of the shelters most familiar to homeless people, and, also, absolutely the most notorious.

“Soon, in order to supplement my income, I began to sell Streetwise on weekends and at other times I had free from my regular jobs. Trying to make it on minimum-wage jobs in Chicago just doesn’t seem to cut it. True, I need to seek out places to get more education for myself, but it is really hard to do anything like that when, for one thing, you are not used to doing it or looking for such places, and two, when you do locate places that are willing to help you, the necessity for paying those high weekly rents at those “by-the-day” hotels, keeps you busy just trying to make ends meet. Those hotels are all over the North Side and a few are downtown and they’re expensive.

“Then there’s food which I mostly get from restaurants and some shelters or food pantries, not too many of which serve food that is nutritional for people. It is not that they don’t intend to; it’s that, I think as a society people have gotten so conditioned to whatever they can get as fast as they can get it until nobody really pays attention any more to how healthy the food is. And, that’s true for people regardless of their economic level or educational background.

“The people who are really out there who are able to help people like me, what I say is that it seems to me like they are many times overworked and short-staffed. So when I come along I am just treated like a piece of paper, routinely pushed and shoved along as quickly as possible so that they can try and get services, as much as they can, for the next person. Believe me, as long as I’ve been here, I’ve truly come to understand why most people don’t get the help they really need. It is because of the fact that most of these places simply try to keep you surviving which only forces you to remain at the level you are on.”

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