TMCNet:  The new face of poverty: families [News & Record, Greensboro, N.C.]

[June 05, 2011]

The new face of poverty: families [News & Record, Greensboro, N.C.]

(News & Record (Greensboro, NC) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) June 05--JULIAN -- They don't look poor.

Until they show you.

There's the refrigerator dotted with family pictures. Open it. It's empty.

The pantry: empty.

Cupboards: empty.

Under the sink: watered-down dishwasher detergent.

In the bathroom: McDonald's napkins for toilet paper.

The walls are bare, not by design but by choice, in case they need to leave quickly.

Meet the Struble family: father Todd, mother Diane and their five kids, ages 6 to 17.

Pull up a chair. You're welcome to stay for dinner.

As long as you like soup.

--* Poverty has a new face: families.

In May, 13.9 million people were unemployed -- more than at any other time on record -- according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Textiles. Manufacturing. Call centers. In North Carolina, their continual collapse has led to a state unemployment rate of 9.7 percent as of April -- the nation's 10th worst.

That's left 433,969 people without jobs, the state Employment Security Commission estimates.

Pastor/paralegal Todd Struble is among them.

And with unemployment so high for so long, most economists predict it will take years before the country will fully recover.

To say nothing of the American family.

Since the recession hit in December 2007, they've been dropping out of the middle class in droves. And falling deeper into poverty.

The government considers a family of four to be impoverished if it makes less than $22,350.

Of the 2.2 million children who live in the state, 504,937 -- roughly 22 percent -- live in poverty.

The Strubles' middle son, Ben, wishes he wasn't one of them.

"It's tough trying to deal with all this," the 13-year-old says. "I'm just trying to take all this in. Some days are easier than others.

"I want to change it, but I can't." --* A job isn't necessarily protection from poverty.

Consider $7.25 -- the state's minimum hourly wage. Studies have shown it's not enough to pay rent for a two-bedroom apartment, much less food.

Then there's $30,000 -- the median income for all occupations in the state in 2009, according to an AFL-CIO report in April.

Finally, according to The National Center on Family Homelessness, there is 18,597 -- the number of children statewide who are homeless each year, with 1,717 in Guilford County.

School officials were so alarmed by that figure -- up from 1,194 in 2006-07 -- that they created a job this year to deal with it.

Enter Susan Eubanks, supervisor of homeless and transitional services for the school system.

"As these numbers kept growing," Eubanks says, "we realized this was not going away." Impoverished students share some traits: Wearing the same clothes day after day. Looking disheveled. Being inattentive in class.

And being hungry.

Identifying them is easy.

Keeping tabs on them is harder. With money scarce, families become nomadic.

"They could be living in a shelter one day and a car the next," says Eubanks, 60, a veteran educator.

Once at school, they are fed, given clothes and supplies, if needed, and sent to class.

For a few hours at least, school provides an escape. But eventually, it ends.

Home, wherever that may be on a given day, awaits. And, most likely, hunger.

"I don't want to think about that. I can drive myself crazy thinking about that," Eubanks says. "We have our limits. ... We can't do enough." --* Wednesday. 3:18 p.m. Alamance Church Road.

Diane Struble is making the monthly panic-filled pilgrimage to pay the power bill.

"I used to pay bills by mail, but not anymore -- I bounce checks," says the 45-year-old Head Start teacher as her gold Honda goes hard into a curve. "Plus, it's the last day. I need to get this in by 5 or they'll cut off the power." Again.

Gas. Phones. They've been cut off before, too.

Their two-story home is a rental, and they're months behind on payments.

But one crisis at a time.

She stops at a church to pick up a check.

"I don't want sympathy, pity or charity," Struble says, "but I'm taking it because I have to." --* A national disgrace.

That's what the Rev. Mike Aiken calls it.

"We're the wealthiest country in the world, and we have kids who are going to bed hungry through no fault of their own," says Aiken, the longtime executive director of Greensboro Urban Ministry. "It's basic human rights. They shouldn't have to go through that." For some in this generation of children, their lives are reminiscent of how their great-grandparents described growing up during the Great Depression.

No food.

No money.

Little hope.

Their future was set in motion when the area's textile companies, furniture manufacturers and call centers began eliminating jobs. It's a list that's as daunting as it is distinguished.

--January-December 2007: Cone Denim, 400 jobs.

--February-March 2009: RF Micro Devices, 195 jobs.

--August 2010: Thomas Built Buses, 219 jobs.

--January-May 2011: American Express, 1,764 jobs.

When the plant where she worked closed, Marci Stutts wasn't worried.

But that was then.

Now, she's in a Greensboro homeless shelter.

"I took working for granted," says Stutts, 37, who has a 6-month-old daughter. "I never knew finding a job would be as hard as it's been." And it has been hard for many people.

One morning, Mike Aiken walked into his emergency shelter and witnessed the fallout.

"What I saw," he says, "was a lobby full of people." --* Back in Struble's car, she's having a nuclear-family meltdown.

"Every time we pay a bill this large, I think, 'We need to get this budget under control,' but we don't have a budget.

"It's stressful. Anything can happen. If I had a flat tire, I'd have a heart attack, and not because of the tire.

"In times like this, I think that I can't keep doing this. I can't.

"I try to say, 'This is only temporary.' But I've been saying that for 16 months, and it's getting scary." The road ahead is closed for repairs.

"We'll make it." --* For those who work in the area's shelters and soup kitchens, bad news about the economy's toll on the poor has become routine.

But a March report contained something that shocked even them: Roughly 25 percent of area residents said they were too broke to feed themselves or their families.

That was from a survey conducted by Gallup for the Food Research and Action Center.

Nationally, the Greensboro-High Point metro area ranked fourth and Winston-Salem third in the number of people who said they couldn't afford food.

"I was stunned," says Clyde W. Fitzgerald Jr., executive director of Second Harvest Food Bank of Northwest North Carolina, which serves 18 counties, including Guilford.

"We knew the problem was severe, but hearing the rankings is numbing, in spite of all we've done. Nobody should be hungry, but certainly not a child." In 2008, Second Harvest served 130,000 people.

So far this year, it's been over 300,000.

The Winston-Salem-based operation even ran out of food once.

"We deal with folks who say today wasn't their turn to eat," says Fitzgerald, a former tobacco executive.

At Mary's House, a Greensboro shelter for women and children, staffers have heard something equally as heartbreaking: former donors asking for assistance.

"You have always had the chronically poor, but this is as bad as I've ever seen," says Craig Thomas, the passionate 62-year-old executive director. "These are people who never had to ask for help in their lives. Never. The adults I feel bad for ..." Thomas has to stop for a second.

"The children haunt me. They're innocent victims in all this." --* You would need a chain saw to cut through the tension in Struble's car.

She can't find the Duke Power payment outlet.

"I swear that's where it used to be. OK, now I'm gonna stress." Right then, her cellphone goes off like a switchboard. Her kids have gotten out of school and are checking in.

Struble works hard to sound calm over the phone. The facade falls away as soon as she hangs up with the last of them.

"We've had family meetings. You're torn between telling them these things or not. I don't want them to feel stressed out like I am ... having the fear that one day, we'll be on the streets.

"So I try not to tell them about today." --* Why? You used to ask that a lot.

Your name is Kevin Tucker. You're a blue-collar guy from Burlington with some bedrock beliefs. God. Hard work. The American Dream.

But those beliefs were tested as you pushed a stroller through the streets of Winston-Salem in the dead of January, snow on the ground, with nothing but the shirt on your back, searching for a place to stay warm.

Once, you were a surveyor. A proud member of the working class.

Then you got laid off in 2009 -- the second time in two years -- and now you're here. Another jobless American.

Why? You didn't deserve this.

As you looked around, neither did your family: Carol and the five kids you share.

Christmas had come and gone without presents.

"Was I a bad girl?" asked Chelsi, then 2.

"No, Santa was broke this year," her mother answered.

"The hardest thing to deal with was to hear them say, 'I'm hungry,' " recalls Kevin, a humble and husky man of 42.

Adds Carol, 46: "It really messed us up. I had no idea where we were going. The kids were crying, telling me they were hungry and cold. And there was nothing I could do.

"The thing that was hard to explain was not to worry." But that's what the parents were doing.

Kevin applied for jobs all over town but got nothing.

A can of peas and corn was all one pantry could give.

And when the Tuckers arrived 20 minutes after a local soup kitchen closed, one family member couldn't take it anymore.

"I just collapsed," says Carol, who was a welder before becoming a full-time parent. "My kids were hungry. I felt worthless. I couldn't even do my job as a mother." That's when she took it out on Kevin.

"I belittled him," she says. "I told him, 'You're no good to me now.' To this day, I'm sorry for what I said." So is he.

"There were quite a few times we were at each others' throats," he says. "Afterwards, we always came to our senses. It's no one's fault that (we were homeless). It just happened." That was the worst of times.

These days aren't the best, but they're better.

Kevin had been "busting my back" for a construction job that paid minimum wage, but he was recently hired as an electrician.

The family is living in a shelter run by Greensboro Urban Ministry, where they're practically on top of each other. But they'll be in an apartment soon.

On a recent Saturday, as their children played around them, Carol and Kevin stood outside the shelter, smoked cigarettes and wrapped themselves in the wonder of a spring day.

"You were in the middle," says Carol, her gaze distant. "Now, you're at the bottom -- a poor person -- trying to step back up." The family's fall -- and incremental rise -- has come at a price, she says.

Her children.

"They're sad. Their excitement is gone. It's like I've taken their hope away.

"You ask, 'What do you want for your birthday?' They say, 'Nothing. I know we don't have any money.' " --* Struble pays the power bill with minutes to spare. Crisis averted. Today's, at least.

She no sooner leaves for home when she has to pull over.

"I need to do some deep breathing," says Struble, her forehead coming to rest on the steering wheel. "There's a lot going through my mind right now.

"You really wanna know? How drained I'm going to be when I get home. I've got five kids who need this or that. And I'm tired. If I could go to bed, I would. My kids deserve to have someone who will be there for them." As if in agreement, her cellphone rings. But she doesn't answer.

"Sometimes, I don't want to be accessible." Contact Mike Kernels at 373-7120 or mike.kernels@news-record.com ___ To see more of the News & Record or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.news-record.com.

Copyright (c) 2011, News & Record, Greensboro, N.C.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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