American Winter – what poverty looks like (a reprise from 2013)

The following post was written eight years ago, but unfortunately still applies today. Our situation has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, where too many small employers had to close their doors. Some of the observations come from my volunteer work to help homeless working families. If you only have a minute, read the next to last two paragraphs, which speak volumes of why we should help.

There is an excellent documentary on HBO called “American Winter” by Joe Gantz which tracks eight Portland families who are struggling in this economy. Please check it out at This documentary puts a face on poverty and shows what these families are dealing with during the economic crisis. Since I volunteer with an agency that helps homeless families, I can assure you the problems portrayed in Portland are in evidence in North Carolina and elsewhere in the United States. For example, the median family income of the homeless families we help at the agency is $9 per hour. With a living wage in NC of $17.68 for a one adult/ one child family, you can see how people are having a hard time.

These people are living paycheck to paycheck and it takes only one thing to cause them to lose their house. It could be the loss of one job or the cutback on hours worked. Or, it could be a healthcare crisis.  We have people in America who are struggling and even dying because of lack of healthcare. According to The American Journal of Medicine in 2009: 62% of bankruptcies in the US are due to medical costs and 75% of the people whose illnesses caused bankruptcy were not insured or were under insured. This is the key reason we need the Affordable Care Act and for states to permit the expansion of Medicaid to cover them.

Yet, rather than make this about healthcare, I want to focus on why we have people in such crisis. I addressed many of these issues in two companion posts last fall based on Tavis Smiley and Cornel West’s book “The Rich and the Rest of Us.” The first post was written on October 20, 2012 and the second on October 29, 2012. We are not talking enough about our poverty problem in the US. The middle class problem is referenced often, but where did they go? Only a few moved up in ranks, where as the significant majority fell into poverty or near poverty.

As organizations have taken efforts to improve their profit margins dating back to the 1980s, we have seen a continuous downsizing and outsourcing of jobs. Since the early 1980s, the disparity between haves and have-nots became even more pronounced with the trickle down economics which has been proven to be unsuccessful, unless you were viewing it from the higher vantage point. As a result, there were multiple pressures on the middle class, which has led to its decline.  It only got worse when the economy went south. While there has been some repatriation of outsourced manufacturing jobs to the US, they have remained overseas for the most part.

So, if the worker did not stay up to speed with new technologies and, even if he did, there are fewer jobs for those without a college education. And, with the economic crisis, we have seen even having a college education is not enough these days. These unemployed did what they must, so where they could, started getting service jobs in retail, restaurant and hospitality industries. These jobs are near or at minimum wage and make you beholden to the number of hours you are permitted to work. Unfortunately, these jobs perpetuate poverty. You cannot afford healthcare and better food options and can barely afford rent. So, if something happens to your hours or job, you may lose your home.

The homeless families I have worked with work their fannies off. There are some I speak with in churches , who believe these families are homeless because they are less moral or virtuous and that is not it at all. Per Smiley and West’s book, poverty is the absence of money. Nothing more, nothing less. A few national stats to chew on:

– 40% of all homeless families in the US are mothers with children, the fastest growing segment;

– 75% of homeless children never graduate which perpetuates an ongoing cycle of homelessness; and

– 90% of homeless children suffer extreme stress; some worse than PTSD that former military face.

I mention these last two items, as even with all I say to the contrary, some people do not want to help the adults, who these obstinate people feel are totally responsible for their plight or are lazy. They see a chronic homeless panhandler on the street and paint all homeless people with that brush. That is a small, small subset of our homeless problem and, while we should help the chronic homeless people, there is a significant majority of homeless people who work hard, but cannot make it. Yet, I try to sell the concept of helping the kids. They did not sign up for being homeless and if we can help them, we can break the cycle of homelessness, the cost of caretaking is less, we gain a taxpaying citizen and we may be untapping a huge potential. The second place Intel Science Award winner in 2012 was a homeless girl, e.g.

We need to help these folks climb a ladder out of the hole they are in. It will be more beneficial to them and our society. And, we must provide educational paths forward, whether it be getting a GED, community or tech college schooling to learn new or improved skills. There have been some amazing things going in community colleges which can provide some paths forward. And, we need to pay people more. We have to improve the minimum wage to get at least to a living wage for an individual. It needs to be more, but if we can make that statement (making the minimum wage = a living wage) it speaks volumes and will help.

One of our dilemmas as a society is we must have a vibrant middle class to flourish. Unfortunately, the American Dream is a myth for many. We have one of the least upwardly mobile countries in the world. So, unless we make changes to our societal investments, we are destined to have only two economic classes of people. If you do not believe me, please check out my blogging friend Amaya’s website at and check out the short video on economic disparity in our country. It is atrocious and unforgivable that this can happen in the US.

This is our collective crisis. Please watch “American Winter” or check out the above posts or Amaya’s. While “American Winter” highlights eight families, let me add a couple of more for you. One of our new Board members who works for a large bank was touring the homeless shelter and she came upon a colleague who was employed by the bank who was homeless. This stunned her that someone who worked at reasonable pay could end up homeless. Many live paycheck to paycheck in our country and it only takes a nudge for some to lose their home.

The other person I want to mention was living in a tent with her parents and younger siblings. Her dad was a construction worker and got some handy man jobs, but neither he nor his wife made enough to prevent losing their home. I highlight this teenager, as she would volunteer at a food bank to help others in need. Let me repeat this for emphasis. This homeless girl would volunteer to help people in poverty working at a food bank. We have helped this family get housed and they are climbing the ladder out of poverty. And, this young lady is now in college.

Let me shout this from the rooftops. Please help me become more vocal. We have a poverty problem in the US. We have a homeless problem in the US. We must help our neighbors and by helping them, we will help ourselves and country. Let’s help them climb these ladders. Let’s give them opportunities to succeed. If we don’t then we all will suffer.


10 thoughts on “American Winter – what poverty looks like (a reprise from 2013)

  1. Keith this is a sound and solid summary of the problems we face. It too is compounded with mental health issues. It breaks my heart to watch the young kids be thrown into this situation and used as pawns often. I have had extensive experience with family members who refuse to get the help they need and avail themselves to work and housing which is also very frustrating. This is a huge conversation. Being penalized for working by money being taken away is fruitless and they should be insentivised for working. Our system needs a huge revamp. I have had to personally walk away from the drama
    but their are many ready and willing to work but when you can get it for free, why bother is the attitude of some.

    I applaud you for the work you do with the homeless and kuddos to this young lady. Living in Calif is easy to get squeezed out and stay afloat and as odd as this will sound, we have stuggled being born and raised to stay here our whole life. Hard work has only made it possible and retirement is not a word of the future but THANK GOD medicare has arrrived and I’m jumping for joy as that was a killer. I hate seeing some of the founders of companies moving out of here because of the extrodinary taxes imposed on them and they are the ones employing others. I so agree we need to have community college and layman/ tech education is so important.
    Have a great weekend and thanks for sharing your insights and expertise!

    • Cindy, thanks for your well worded thoughts. Weaved throughout your points is a need to have better conversations on what needs to change and keep it away from politics, but that seems harder to do with the 24x7campaigning. The model we have had great success is incent folks to climb the ladder, but they must climb it. Hence, once they get out on their own, they are better prepared to stay there.

      Medicare and Social Security are essentials, but we also need better long term care solutions. In our country, you need either a lot of money or no money in make LTC work. If you have some, it is not enough, but too much for Medicaid help. As you note, there are similar threshholds for food stamp and other services, that cause weird outcomes. Then there is the cost thing, which is key. Keith

      • You’re so welcome Keith and thanks for your wisdom always. Yes, this is the challenge for sure and teaching someone to fish is vital with the hope to pay for it which so important.

      • Cindy, thanks. I agree. There is a line from Bob Lupton’s book called “Toxic Charity” in that we need to not do for people what they can do for themselves. Our model follows that where we provide a subsidy for housing based on their ability to pay a portion of the bill, provided they accept our licensed clinical social worker help for guidance on budgeting, needs vs. wants, counseling, etc. Based on severity of need, we have 1, 2 and 3 year programs. Once out, we measure success by their ability to remain housed on their own for a period of two years. A key to our model is measuring outcomes, not widgets. Keith

  2. Far too many people are able to turn a blind eye to the plight of the poor and the homeless, or else believe that they are responsible for their own condition, too lazy to work, etc. As you say, none of the above are true and poverty means a lack of money, nothing more should be read into it. Your post is an excellent reminder, my friend, and I applaud you for the volunteer work you are doing. This is a timely reminder that needs to be heard by all, so I shall add my small voice with a re-blog.

  3. Reblogged this on Filosofa's Word and commented:

    Please take 5 minutes to read Keith’s timely reminder about those less fortunate than many of us. We cannot simply ignore the fact that there are many working poor and homeless people who only need a helping hand from us. Thank you, Keith!

  4. Thanks, Keith.

    We’ve been doing okay. So we increased our charitable donations this year, with the increase going partly to the local hospital (for dealing with the pandemic) and partly to the local family services organization which tries help with issues such as poverty and mental health.

    But of course, the people who are having problems are just the welfare queens who are stealing from us. This is the unfortunate and false message that conservative politicians have been pushing for too long. I agree with you that there is real need out there, and all the more so because of this pandemic.

    • Thanks Neil. You are a credit to the community. Thanks for that. You are so right about those who try to paint those in need in a poor light to say they are undeserving. Are there malingers – yes, but they are a very small percentage blown way out of proportion. Keith

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