September 16th, 2010
10:41 AM ET

A family's first time at the poverty line

"Maria, " who was too embarrassed to give her true name, sits with one of her sons as she finds herself living below the poverty threshold.

The Census Bureau has released its annual poverty report showing more people are living at or below the poverty threshold. This means many are finding themselves there for the first time.

“Maria,” who was too embarrassed to give us her true name or allow us to photograph her face, says she and her husband have had to sell their most cherished possessions.

“We sold our wedding rings, our furniture, everything,” said Maria.

Trying to get help from government agencies is presenting problems too she said because their house, the mortgage for which is more than the its value, is considered an asset. She has two sons, the younger one suffers from Autism. During the interview she begins to break down and her older son, only 12-years-old, has to take on the very adult role as comforter.

CNN’s Jim Roope says it’s one of the hardest interviews he’s had to do. Filled with emotion and sometimes despair, but “Maria” does have hope.

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Filed under: Economy
soundoff (616 Responses)
  1. Chris m

    First of all, if we were not in a recession I doubt there would be as many Americans bad mouthing the government about what it's doing about the economy. An example : when it's good , it's good and when it's bad it's really bad.
    The U.S has always tried to play "Hero"  because essentially every time some one needs help we are usually there. Everyone looks to us .." What is the U.S. going to do?".. We likely won't ever stop doing so because it is a bargaining tool for us later down the line and it brings better light to our country. So simply trying to stop aiding other countries will not do the job nor is it easy to do.
    Think about every bill that is written has provisions in it that enact something else to happen or even money to be put some where that isn't related to the bill being passed ..just so it is Passed...if I support this bill them you do this for me. That won't end either that's politics. In the sports world it's called "what have you done for me lately". 
    For the people that are insensitive to all the people who are having economic hardship, I question you. You might have a great job/ career that your happy with and are relatively unscathed by the recession, but grow a heart. 
       If your an extremist thar thinks top many people are dipping into government help and upset because you think your left holding the bag at the end of the day- get over yourself. When people get back on their week and the quicker we try and get things on track the sooner everyone can be going back to their own normalcy. That means paying taxes, funding SSI and other government programs. 
     Basically, be happy you live were you live, in a country where you have decisions YOU make, the freedoms YOU, have, and the freedom to express what YOU think. Your a fool to think the government doesn't want to drastically improve everything about the economy. Keep in mind that the U.S. Is like that Mom & Dad that want you to suceed in life and would do virtually anything they could to get you on your feet- you have to love knowing that.

    September 16, 2010 at 6:24 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Average American

    Thank oBAMA and the democRATS. Are you going to vote for them again?

    September 16, 2010 at 6:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • tim

      Absolutely. Mr. Obama is the best thing to happen to this country in several generations, while the Republicans have been the principal architects of our economic demise for thirty years. The S&L crisis, the bond crisis of the late 80's, and the multiple derivatives crises, the current debacle being only the latest of which. If you think this was about mortgages and Fannie and Freddie, you're sadly misinformed. Luckily, the Tea Party cretins are doing their best to undermine any hopes of stopping a long overdue correction in U.S. fiscal policies with their comical sideshows like Sarah Palin, Sharon Angle and Christine O'Donnell.

      The choice is clear to anyone with eyes.

      September 16, 2010 at 6:55 pm | Report abuse |

    Reading this article and the comments that follow make me very sad. I grew up in poverty and my family received no assistance from the government. Friends and neighbors helped each other and we got by. I got a degree and make a substantial living. But my son and daughter struggle to live. They don't understand that you start from the bottom, build a foundation and move on from there. They expected to start their lives at the level they were when living in my home. I have bailed them out of over drawn bank accounts, credit cards, rent they could not meet. I did it because there were small children involved that I did not want to see homeless. I was wrong and should have let them hit rock bottom. I am not being cold, but now I am facing retirement with nothing to show for it. You see, when you keep giving - whether it be a parent or government - people get weak and forget how to fight for themselves. What started as assistance became an obligation. And the more I helped, the less they tried. I did not do them a favor - I crippled them. Amazingly, when I stopped helping they figured out a way to help themselves.

    I believe food stamps and other programs have their place - but there should be time limits to prevent dependency. I also believe that not one red cent of tax payers money should be given in aid to another country until this country is in better shape.

    I am very sad because, as much as I feel for this family, they, like most people in this country, bought it on themselves. We are consumers - and the latest thing we seem to be consuming is our future. WE - individuals - not the president, the congress or anyone else. This is self-inflicted and if we don't wake up it will ruin us all.

    September 16, 2010 at 6:33 pm | Report abuse |
  4. CenterOfLeft

    "Keep in mind that the U.S. Is like that Mom & Dad that want you to suceed in life and would do virtually anything they could to get you on your feet- you have to love knowing that."

    Do you mean the make-believe Mom and Dad on tv that many people have never ever known in life?

    September 16, 2010 at 6:35 pm | Report abuse |
  5. CenterOfLeft


    Are you a baby boomer?

    If so, your parents' generation was one of survivors and fighters (Depression/WWII) and yours was/is a generation that softened up a lot (for most of the right reasons).

    There are a few like that in my generation and beyond (X/Y) but unfortunately it sounds like you indulged your child(ren) a bit much along the way.

    Don't be sad, you can still impress some of these hard lessons on those grandkids of yours. They're going to need the help; this is going to be a rough century.

    September 16, 2010 at 6:43 pm | Report abuse |
  6. David

    All sob stories. I don't begrudge the poor some help. They definitely should fix the system and allow her to get some TEMPORARY assistance as she asks for it. Boxes of canned food, a one time check for expenses to catch up and of course, what about unemployment benefits? Those things she should get as everyone else should get when they're down on their luck.

    I don't favor anything systemic long term assistance though (which Maria is not asking for in the interview). The poor should be able to make their own way. And 21K is really enough for a family to live on. First of all, how did it become a family of 4? That's two kids, 2 pregnancies, 2 decisions to get pregnant and have the kids (unless you had twins, but that's a 1 in 300 chance or something... and still one decision), nine months of not getting an abortion (well okay like 4), where you know how it'll affect your finances. It is not our fault that you are a family of 4 mouths and not 2. Meanwhile, 21K could last you if you made the right decisions. I live alone on about 8K one year, and there are some things you don't have to pay for multiple times when the number of people increases.

    September 16, 2010 at 6:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • AthensGuy

      buddy, lucky it aint you in that story, right?

      September 16, 2010 at 6:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • David

      Because my decision to get a degree in a field that has consistently high demand... rather than no degree or conversely a degree in a field that results in jobs that anyone with any degree could do... because I save money in good times, because I hedge my bet with jobs that pay less and won't go out of style, because I didn't have 2 kids that I ultimately can't afford... that's all luck.

      Again, not that I don't think they should get SOME help. In fact, all of the help that she seems to be requesting is reasonable. But at the end of the day, its another sob story that stirs liberals like you.

      And don't even start with the bs about being lucky enough to be able to get the education... even without it you can still get a job that is more secure, work at a level that prevents you from being the one that gets the ax, you can still save tons of money in good times. They had a 5 bedroom house... could've lived in 2. And filling up a 5 bedroom house with a lot of things. They sold their things because they bought a lot of stuff in the first place and sold it for pennies on the dollar. I don't have enough stuff to fill up 2 rooms (its almost an embarrassment) but I do have savings to last for years.

      Ultimately, they're in the situation for their own poor decisions... not just luck.

      September 16, 2010 at 9:35 pm | Report abuse |
  7. AthensGuy

    Tea Party to the rescue.. after all who needs unemployment benefits, health insurance, and free public schools, right?

    September 16, 2010 at 6:51 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Bob Ramos

    There should be no national poverty yardstick. I live in South Texas and while $21K annually for a family of 4 does not mean living high off the hog, it is very possible to live comfortably on $21K. However, if the same family lives in SF or DC or NYC, then $21K is realy a hardship case and the same family is then living in poverty.

    Personally, I would like to see our foreign aid limitted to the relatively new micro lenders now spreading in the 3rd world countries. These loans are administered by local church groups who see to it that the aid gets to worthy folks and not for corruption and waste.

    September 16, 2010 at 6:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • CenterOfLeft

      To Jen et al who "want to help"...

      Are you really *that fortunate* that there are *no* families (or single people for that matter) like this in your neighborhood/town/city/county/state, etc.?

      This reporter picked a struggling family almost at random to feature in his story.

      I'm sure you can volunteer at (or donate to) local shelters, food pantries, etc. in *your* area.

      Man oh man. Use your imagination, folks!

      September 16, 2010 at 7:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • CenterOfLeft

      Sorry, I bleeped up.

      Bob Ramos, I totally agree that these poverty measures should be indexed by locality. Also, I think (and fervently hope) that other (non-religious)groups are heavily involved in microlending. Do they extend much development aid microcredit in the USA? I hope so.

      September 16, 2010 at 7:19 pm | Report abuse |
  9. CenterOfLeft


    As an exile from the left, many of your points make sense to me.

    But the comment about abortion is a bridge to far for me, even though I'm pro-choice.

    These kids were born during the late '90s (dot-com bubble) and beyond. The (dare I say) zeitgeist and expectations were very different; people were optimistic - irrationally exuberant even.

    These parents were doing much better - dual incomes, professional careers, etc.

    Also, people with kids are pressured to do a lot more discretionary spending to sustain and nurture their precious little dears; single guys like you don't have all that pressure - you can keep things fairly simple (lucky you).

    I'd like to know how you survive(d) on 8K per annum, btw.

    September 16, 2010 at 6:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • David

      I will grant, its harder to blame them for having just 2 kids. It probably did seem reasonable at the time. And, yes I suppose that if we all believed that kids were an unacceptable risk to the level I made it look before, nobody except multi-millionaires would have kids. And their kids all turned out messed up anyways.

      Then again, my parents, who were never close to the poverty line, lived in complete austerity. We rented out all of the rooms of our house and for a while lived in a single room (5 of us), and thereafter, 2 rooms and finally 3 rooms. Once most of the tenants were gone, we never turned on the AC (that house to this day gets to 85 degrees in the summer... although they will turn on the AC sometimes now). We didn't have regular cable for a long time, and in the 11 years I can remember (7-18), I got a Christmas or birthday present from my parents exactly once.

      When you are raised to treat every single thing that isn't food or shelter as a luxury, its really not that hard to live cheap. On 8K, rent was 4K, food was 3K. I walked everywhere and didn't allow myself to spend on anything.

      September 16, 2010 at 9:45 pm | Report abuse |
  10. harley883

    first...get rid of the dog...second 2 parents can work 40 hrs a week on minimum wage and make more than 21,000.00 dollars a year...if where they are living is to expensive...pack up and move....we left my home state 10 years ago cuz it was getting to expensive and moved 1500 miles away to a place where my husband and I knew noone...we had 3 kids at the time (all teens now)...we got whatever jobs we could find and now are doing just one is going to hand you have to work for it..and even though I am a total liberal democrat...I am sick of the welfare,medicare and medical and foodstamp fraud that grips our nation...I see mothers with kids and 500.00 worth of groceries paying with their welfare should be a law that you cannot have more than 1 kid on welfare or you can only be on it for a couple of years...but come on...some people stay on it FOR LIFE!!!

    September 16, 2010 at 6:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • BC

      Packing up and moving in this market, is different then when you did it.... While it may seem like a smart idea, most people are paying mortgages that cost more than their homes... But if a person is in this situation and rents, and is laid off, I'd say that person is in much better shape to move. Most people just can't afford to carry two homes, leave a job, and potentially leave their health insurance behind. But in any other economy/state of the housing and job markets, it would be a logical move. (in my humble opinion)

      September 16, 2010 at 7:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • BC

      (I do agree that there should be a law about having kids when you are receiving welfare.... The way it is, right now, the more kids you have the more money and assets you can have and still qualify. Birth control or loss of benefits should another child be conceived and born when receiving food stamps or welfare. Of course, that would never happen here. Bummer.)

      September 16, 2010 at 7:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • annoyed by the ignorance

      You should do some research, you can't live on welfare for life. There are time restrictions. Also, food stamps amount to a little over $1 per meal. Again, some research might help you sound like less ignorant. While I'm at it, a lot of people who live in poverty don't have a vehicle they could theoretically pack up and move to a less expensive zip code. They ride the bus, walk or ride a bike. I can't help you sound less judgmental, that's your problem.

      September 16, 2010 at 7:24 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Jen

    This story would be better if someone would let us know how to contact someone so we can help them!

    I hear a story like this and I would like to help... but who can I reach out to?

    September 16, 2010 at 7:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • CenterOfLeft

      [repost; erroneously placed under another post]

      To Jen et al who "want to help"...

      Are you really *that fortunate* that there are *no* families (or single people for that matter) like this in your neighborhood/town/city/county/state, etc.?

      This reporter picked a struggling family almost at random to feature in his story.

      I'm sure you can volunteer at (or donate to) local shelters, food pantries, etc. in *your* area.

      Man oh man. Use your imagination, folks!

      September 16, 2010 at 7:22 pm | Report abuse |
  12. BC

    Here's the thing that I don't know if anyone has mentioned.... $21k for a family of 4 could be theoretically workable in a rural area- if you can still pull down $21/year as remember higher salaries tend to be in metropolitan areas...
    What about medical care? I know things are changing, but I calculated my annual medical care cost out of pocket and paying my COBRA premiums in full when my husband lost his job. My annual medical bills were $20'000 with COBRA/insurance (including premiums) or $24000 completely out of pocket. Even on Medicare, my annual medical bills tally up at around $14000.
    Yes, I know there are people who try to milk the various systems which provide help based on income/poverty level.
    However, I think that those who feel that $21000 is enough for a family of 4 are not considering that there are some variables in figuring what really is "enough" to just get by.
    I read a utility estimate of $50-100 above... If you live in a moderate climate. Here in Florida our utility bills run from $120/month (in the cooler months) to over $250/month during the summer and early fall.

    I also saw a post above where someone talked about her neighbor and her neighbor's child receiving disability payments but she "didn't see anything wrong with them" (or something to that effect). That doesn't mean that someone is sponging off the system- many disorders and disabilities that keep a person from working (and social security is pretty exacting when it comes to determining if a person can work- it has nothing to do with your previous job, it is what you are able to do now and considering protection from ADA) . I would hazard to guess that more people have what is called "invisible" disabilities (can't be seen by the naked eye- not obvious like a missing limb or using an assisstive device to get around) than visible disabilities. Just because something is not visible, doesn't mean it is not there. Also, someone who is missing a limb or in a wheelchair isn't necessarily unable to work. Whereas, you may look at me and think I am healthy but in reality I have two neurological disorder, a destructive and debilitating disorder of the immune system and skeletal system, a rare blood disorder, and an endocrine disorder -these things result in constant pain (I have been through labor, labor pain level pain is something I feel multiple times per week, I can dampen that with pain meds which turn me into a drooling and very confused lump, so I take tiny amounts to help cut the pain but still function a little bit), muscle spasms, and difficulty moving around when they are at their worst. At their best, making a cup of tea leaves me so exhausted and physically sore that I can barely get to a chair to rest. A trip outside our home (to the doctor's office, lab, or even the pharmacy or grocery store) usually means that I will be in bed for a few days recovering after the fact.
    So am I not disabled because if you saw me sitting in a waiting room or walking across a parking lot, you wouldn't know anything was wrong with me?
    Again, I'm not saying that people do not take advantage of the system. I just want people to be aware that just because you don't see a walker, wheelchair, crutches, or a cane doesn't mean that a person isn't disabled (and just because a person receives social security disability doesn't mean they automatically qualify for any other assistance-ie welfare, medicaid, foodstamps, SSI-which is different from SSDI-which is disability). Everyone in this world is dealt a different deck of cards, please don't judge only based on appearances or your perception. If you know someone who is disabled, or receiving disability (by the way, children often receive social security disability because they have a disabled or deceased parent, the child doesn't necessarily have to be disabled) whether you "believe" them, or not, why not ask if there is anything you can do to help them? Maybe you will learn something you did not know or even make a new friend. (with thanks to my husband, who transcribed this for me and my parents who have put off retirement to help support me, while I am sick, and my son...I do know, despite my crappy physical condition, how lucky we are... Peace everyone.)

    September 16, 2010 at 7:05 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Mary Anne

    I am one of the older generation, over 70, so I suppose my opinion is biased by how I lived when young. So, I cannot comment on whether 21$ is enough for a family of four. What I do kinow is that there is a definite difference between want and need. Times are definitely different regarding technology, so that people now think they need what might be a want actually. What we really need is food, shelter and safety. Beyond that, all is want. Anyone who had to bring water in a pail from a service station to their home to wash 60 years ago was probably poor. Now, no one would think of having to do that. All of lthis is just the perspective with which you view life depending on what your experience has been.

    September 16, 2010 at 7:48 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Pete

    see who suffers,Americans,while a Repub ex Pres sits on his ass in Texas on a nice fat pension we people let him have.Should have been paid on performance at work,he'd owe use if he did. He and other Repub Pres always like to create wars, recesions and other feats that tear our country apart,Dems as usual have the task of putting the country back together again,enough said from a sick & tired Dem . Dems never give up,also Americans are more resilient than most people of other countries.

    September 16, 2010 at 8:07 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Amber

    21K is poverty..period. Instead of all you idiots complaining about individuals getting $100-200 in government assistance (which is hardly enough to do anything with), lets complain about how greedy the rich people of this country are. 1% of the popluation owns like 99% of the wealth. Spread wealth. Seriously the CEO's of companies make 16-20 milllion a year. I hate the injustice!!! The other 99% of us are just slaves to the 1%.

    September 16, 2010 at 8:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • cdub

      Really? It's injustice that people got good grades in school and got into a good college and worked as opposed to many who didn't bother with school? Yeah, such an injustice. I'm not a CEO but between my wife and I we make very good money (not compared to CEO's but compared to the 21K people are throwing around here). But despite the fact we make very good money, we are very smart about our expenses. Our mortgage to debt to income ratio (and the only debt we have is mortgage) is under 15%, and we have a 15 year mortgage, not the typical 30. And we are in our mid 30's and bought our home two years ago. Stop whining and do something about it.

      September 16, 2010 at 9:48 pm | Report abuse |
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