GUY RAZ, HOST:
It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.
This election, like most presidential elections, really, is framed as a battle for the middle class. It's where both campaigns are aiming most of their rhetorical firepower.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: And what we should do right now is give middle-class families and small business owners a guarantee that their taxes will not go up next year.
MITT ROMNEY: Of course, today, we just got a new number from the unemployment report, and it's another hammer blow to the struggling middle-class families of America.
RAZ: The middle class is hard to define. In some cities, it may mean a combined household income of $40,000; in other cities, 150,000 or more. It's a group of earners that makes up the majority of the American population. But there's another huge swath of Americans that are largely ignored: the poor. And their ranks are growing.
According to a recent survey by the Associated Press, the number of Americans living at or below the poverty line will soon reach its highest point since President Johnson made his famous declaration in 1964.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVAL RECORDING)
PRESIDENT LYNDON B. JOHNSON: And this administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America.
RAZ: Close to 16 percent of Americans now live at or below the poverty line, and for a family of four, that's $23,000 a year. And 100 million of us, one out of three Americans, manage to survive on a household income barely twice that amount. Our cover story today: the poverty crisis and why it's happening.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: From West Virginia to Wyoming to right here in Washington, D.C., food banks are reporting giant spikes in demand. In Webster Springs, West Virginia, a town we visited recently, the food pantry used to serve 30 families a month just three years ago, and today, 150 families in that county, and that's a county of just 9,000 people - 150 families depend on that food pantry run by Catholic charities.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: We're going to pick four different items, and it's going to be from the green beans over to the corn.
RAZ: The food pantry is basically a small closet-sized room inside of a thrift shop, and it is a lifeline here. The shelves are lined with cans of vegetables and boxes of macaroni and cheese. On a recent afternoon, a young out-of-work father, late 20s, Josh Hickman(ph), and his 3-year-old daughter come for provisions.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: OK, how about five potatoes?
JOSH HICKMAN: Yeah.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Peas?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Spaghetti sauce?
RAZ: Josh told us later that without that food pantry, they wouldn't be able to survive. Now, Webster Springs is a hard-hit area. Two coal mines have closed down there in the past year. The median income is around $20,000, but the crisis is also taking place right here in our nation's capital.
This is the Capital Area Food Bank where forklifts are moving huge pallets of food around a giant warehouse. This year, that food bank expects to give out 33 million pounds of food - a record. Close to 700,000 people in this region are now at risk of going hungry.
Lynn Brantley runs this facility. She's been working with food pantries for four decades, and she told us that what's been happening today is a hunger crisis.
LYNN BRANTLEY: In my lifetime, I've never seen anything as bad as now. I've never seen it - it's growing into the middle class.
RAZ: The face of poverty is changing. There's increasing overlap between those who used to be firmly in the middle class and those who are poor. We spoke with Angela Blackwell about the growing crisis. She runs PolicyLink. That's a research and advocacy organization that focuses on poverty. Most Americans who are poor, she says, are white, but that's also changing.
ANGELA BLACKWELL: The face of poverty for the nation has changed from being white to being black and Latino. That's made a difference, too, because when people thought of poverty as being white and elderly, there was more general sympathy in the country and more commitment to do something about it. If poverty has become more racialized in the eyes of the American people, I have been very disheartened by absence of political will to be able to really make sure that we help people get out of poverty and stay out.
RAZ: It's estimated that the percentage of Americans living in poverty will increase to 15.7 percent this year, the highest in 50 years. Give us a sense of the gravity of this situation now.
BLACKWELL: Well, it really is terrible because that shocking statistic really only represents the people who live below the official poverty level. It hovers around 21,000, I think, for a family of four. But you have twice that number of people who are living near poverty. Almost 100 million Americans who are living in or near poverty. And one of the really distressing things is among the people who are living in poverty, a good number of them are living extreme poverty, below half the poverty level.
And so what this means in terms of the vastness of the numbers of people who need support in terms of food and housing and money to be able to keep their heads at least a little bit above water, it suggests that we're doing something wrong as a nation, and we need to get on the right track.
RAZ: Angela, many economists say when the economy does recover, a lot of the jobs that have been lost won't come back, that there is a possibility that there will be significantly high unemployment for a long time. Could that lead to a permanent and large class of Americans who will live in poverty?
BLACKWELL: It certainly could if we don't act to prevent it, and we can. And it's not rocket science. We know now that by 2018, 45 percent of all jobs in this nation will require at least an associate's degree. Only 27 percent of African-Americans, only 26 percent of Latinos have it. We know that by the end of this decade, the majority of young people in this country are going to be of color.
Therefore, we could invest in the system of training, particularly focusing on community colleges and preparing people to go to four-year institutions and improving our high school education so that people are starting to do college work while they're still in high school and getting more engaged, more job experiences. We could do something about that.
We actually have extraordinary infrastructure in this country from the manufacturing base that we once had. We need to retool it. We need to refit it. We need to make sure that it's ready for the kind of advance manufacturing that we're seeing develop in other countries.
RAZ: Well, let me ask you about economic mobility right now. If you are a child born into poverty, what is the likelihood that you will grow up out of poverty?
BLACKWELL: Hmm, it's not great. If you're black, 53 percent of black children who are born into poverty will stay there; 32 percent of white children will. And so it's not good for anybody. But let me tell you something that's even more distressing. Forty-five percent of all black children born into the black middle class will end up poor. The figure for white children is 16 percent. Economic mobility may still be alive for some in the United States, but it is not there if you're poor.
RAZ: That's Angela Blackwell. She runs the nonprofit PolicyLink based out of Oakland, California. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan delivered a State of the Union address in which he declared that the war on poverty had failed.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVAL RECORDING)
PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: My friends, some years ago, the federal government declared war on poverty, and poverty won. Today, the federal government...
RAZ: As we heard earlier, the percentage of Americans living at or below the poverty line is expected to reach its highest point since 1965. I asked Peter Edelman, a professor at Georgetown University and an expert on poverty, if Ronald Reagan was right.
PETER EDELMAN: No, but there's a lot to worry about.
RAZ: There is a common perception that somebody who is poor or living below the poverty level is lazy and is simply living off government handouts. What is the profile of the average poor person today?
EDELMAN: The average poor person is working and working as hard as she or he possible can, particularly in the recession, not able to get work or steady work. There certainly are people who make bad choices, but the fundamental question in our economy is the number of people who are doing absolutely everything they can to support their families and they just can't make it.
RAZ: Back in the 1960s when President Johnson launched his war on poverty, it looked very different than it does today. I mean, there was real hunger and malnutrition in the United States back then.
EDELMAN: There was, and the food stamp program is a tremendous success so we don't see the children who have bloated bellies and sores that won't heal on their arms and legs the way Robert Kennedy did and I did when I went with him to Mississippi in 1967. But since that time, it turns out that children are the poorest age group in our country because their families - typically single moms trying to make it - can't do so because of this flood of low-wage work that we have. So it's changed since the 1960s when the elderly were our poorest age group, and now children are our poorest age group.
RAZ: So, Peter, earlier, we spoke with Congressman Steve Southerland. He's a Republican from Florida. And he is working on legislation to tackle poverty. And we asked him about how it's working at the moment. Here's what he said. Take a listen to this.
REPRESENTATIVE STEVE SOUTHERLAND: And I would say that over five decades and $15 trillion and a rising poverty rate that many of the programs are worthless. And there's an old saying that says when the horse is dead, dismount. And there's a lot of poverty programs that we need to dismount from.
RAZ: So he says, you know, five decades since the war on poverty was launched, $15 trillion have been spent and there's nothing to show for. Does he have a point?
EDELMAN: That's an old refrain. We hear that over and over again. It's analyzing the problem wearing a complete blindfold. The problem is how the economy functions for low-income people. The public policy that we have is working - Social Security, the income effects of Medicare and Medicaid, food stamps, earned income tax credit. We're keeping 40 million people out of poverty. And we would have poverty at 86 million instead of the 46 million we have if we didn't have those programs.
RAZ: Peter Edelman, he's a professor of law at Georgetown University and the author, most recently, of "So Rich, So Poor: Why It's So Hard to End Poverty in America." One half of all jobs in the U.S. today now pay less than $35,000 a year. Adjusted for inflation? One of the lowest rates for American workers in five decades.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: And you're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.