x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

America's new poor forgotten by the 'me' generation

Nearly 50 million Americans, or about one in every six people, have been living on less than $10,500 a year. Tamir Khan reports from Cincinnati, Ohio

President Obama has been working to paint an optimistic economic picture and avoid the ‘food stamp president’ label among middle-income voters.
President Obama has been working to paint an optimistic economic picture and avoid the ‘food stamp president’ label among middle-income voters.

CINCINNATI, OHIO // In their small house east of Cincinnati, Freddie and Betty Huff described their descent into poverty as they sat on a pink sofa surrounded by cardboard boxes filled with belongings, just in case the bank finally forecloses on them.

"They let him work out the night shift and then, in the morning, they laid him off," Ms Huff said.

Her husband had worked at a nearby manufacturing company for 32 years making air-powered nail and staple guns. Ten years ago, the company began downsizing in Ohio and in 2006 offered to send Mr Huff to China for 10 months to train workers there on the machines he had operated for decades.

"I refused because I knew I'd be training people to take our jobs," he said.

His stand made little difference: he was made redundant less than two years later. Mr Huff looked for work for three years before recently landing a temporary job making US$9 (Dh33) an hour, less than half of what he had made before, and without the benefits.

The Huffs are among the millions in the United States who fell into poverty over the past five years as the country underwent its most severe economic crisis in decades. Census data released in July found that nearly 50 million Americans, or about one in every six people, were living on less than $10,500 a year.

White voters who do not have college degrees, such as the Huffs, are a crucial demographic for a presidential candidate winning Ohio, and Hamilton County, the largest city of which is Cincinnati, has become the focus of both Barack Obama, the US president, and Mitt Romney, his Republican challenger in their final campaign push. With a population of about 11.5 million and 18 electoral votes, Ohio is seen as one of the biggest prizes still in play.

Mr Romney has been the only candidate to use the word "poverty", even though his proposed budget is premised on massive cuts to programmes for the poor. Barack Obama, the Democratic candidate, working to paint an optimistic economic picture and avoid the "food stamp president" label among middle-income voters, has avoided the issue, despite his policies being seen as having helped poor Americans.

Last year, Cincinnati had the seventh-highest poverty rate of any city in the country. Since then, unemployment has fallen but those figures mask the devastating effects the recession is still wreaking on the lives of the poor and working class.

As Mr Obama and Mr Romney court voters in Hamilton County over the weekend with unending television adverts, door-to-door canvassing and rallies, neither has addressed the gnawing issue of poverty in substantive ways, with both calling on the poor to be more self-sufficient.

Working hard and paying his bills on time was never an issue until about year ago for David Mund, 56, who now cleans up at Cincinnati's largest homeless shelter in exchange for a small cot with a blanket in one of the shelter's communal dorms.

Balding and soft-spoken, Mr Mund was laid off from his job working at the reception desk of a hotel and, after looking for full-time work for months and burning through his savings, he found himself unable to pay rent.

"I used to laugh at the homeless," he said. "I thought, 'why aren't they doing something for themselves?'. But now I know that, sometimes, there's nothing you can do."

Arlene Nolan, the director of the shelter, said she has up to 10 new residents each day. More than half of the residents are newly homeless.

"What we're seeing now are educated people with pretty good work history," she said.

"They're showing up with their last possessions - a car, [mobile] phones, laptops - that's the new homeless." Those with cars have even started renting them out as storage space for other residents at the shelter.

In Cincinnati's Lower Price Hill, America's new brand of poverty has devastated the community.

On a recent afternoon, young men openly sold heroin in front of abandoned buildings. Donna Jones, a church leader who was born and raised in the neighbourhood, said she had seen an explosion of heroin and opiate use over the past three years.

"We just had a girl, 20 years old, die of a heroin overdose," she said. "Nobody would claim the body so we raised the money … we weren't going to leave her laying there, not one of our own."

With unemployment in the area at nearly 50 per cent, she also said many young women had turned to prostitution. On a walk through the neighbourhood, she pointed to a grey camping tent in a small empty lot between two buildings. "A mother and daughter, both prostitutes hooked on heroin, live there," she said.

"It's like we're not human anymore," she added. "It's become a society all about 'me'. But one of these days, the rich are going to have to deal with the poor."

She hopes whoever wins tomorrow's election will hear her plea.

tkhan@thenational.ae