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How Millions in America Get Entrenched in Poverty

An inside look at the system that's producing America's growing underclass.

Photo Credit: Nation Books


The following are excerpts from Sasha Abramsky's new book The American Way of Poverty: How the Other Half Still Lives ( Nation Books, 2013): 

In the fall of 2011, with hunger rearing up across America, the large freezer bins at the Port Carbon Food Pantry (PCFP), in the small, gritty, Appalachian town of Pottsville, Pennsylvania, were empty. The shelves next to the freezers were also largely barren. A few boxes of egg noodles provided about the only sign that this was a place in the business of giving out food to those who could no longer afford to buy it. An adjacent room was doing slightly better, displaying stacks of canned fruit, canned corn, beans, and bags of pasta. But, taken as a whole, these were slim pickings. Clients who walked or drove up the hill, the remnants of an unseasonably early snow storm still on the ground, from the center of town to the two-story building were eligible for six to ten days of food, but that food was all they’d be able to get from the pantry for the next two months.

Three years earlier, explained PCFP’s coordinator, Ginny Wallace, the rooms were filled to bursting with food. Then the economy tanked; demand for the free food soared; and at the same time, locals’ ability to donate to the pantry crumbled.

Pottsville, and neighboring communities such as Mechanicsville and Schuylkill, made up a bleak region even in the good times. A onetime coal mining hub, it was a center of labor militancy in the early years of the twentieth century. But in recent decades most of the mines had closed down; many of the jobs that replaced the unionized mine work were low-paying, service-sector ones that provided few benefits. Add into the mix rising unemployment and home foreclosures, and an already precarious situation suddenly got a whole lot worse. “The need has increased and the surplus food given has decreased,” Wallace explained, holding open the lids of the large freezers to emphasize their emptiness. “The only thing in here is frost building up. Three years ago, we used to have to turn down deliveries.”

Many of the men and women who were helped by food pantries such as this were elderly people on fixed incomes who increasingly found they couldn’t stretch meager monthly checks to pay all their bills, buy all their medicines, and also feed themselves. People such as 86-year-old widow Mary, a onetime factory worker and bookkeeper of Polish immigrant stock, whose $592 Social Security check didn’t come close to covering all her costs. “I manage,” she said flintily. “You’ve got to know how to manage. And if you’re a boozer and a smoker, then you don’t manage. I live according to my means. That’s what life is all about.” Yet despite her pride, Mary, who picked up some additional money helping to care for a 102-year-old woman nearby, recently had had to turn to the pantry for help. “Every time you go to the store or turn around,” she explained, “the bills are higher.”

Other pantry clients were younger, families whose breadwinners lost their jobs during the recession that followed the financial collapse of 2008. Take 53-year-old Luann Prokop, an accountant who was laid off when the local manufacturing company she worked for could no longer stay afloat as an independent business and was taken over, and restructured, by a multinational corporation. “I had to apply for food stamps. Money was really tight. By the grace of God I was able to hold onto my house, but I did have to apply for two deferments during the two years I was on unemployment. I became more introverted, especially after getting rejected [from jobs she’d applied for] over and over and over again. I had a good, solid background; I have fabulous references. I couldn’t understand why. It was a difficult, dark period.”

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