Signs of the Times

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Poverty

 

The American Dream: Out of Reach?

Jon Proctor knows the road to self-sufficiency is a long one. It is even longer when the weekly paycheck totals a little more than $200.

“We’re trying to get back on our feet,” the 55-year-old divorced father of six said, explaining he has managed to schedule only about 30 hours a week stocking shelves at a Safeway supermarket on the overnight shift. Proctor, a Vietnam-era Army veteran, has moved among several Safeway stores in the Maryland suburbs of Washington and now in Alexandria, Va., where he stays in Christ House, a transitional housing residence for single men. Life, he admits, is far different now than when he worked for 15 years as an electrician and later as a bouncer at a bar, earning as much as $500 a night.

Proctor landed at the residence run by Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Arlington, Va., 18 months ago when his 25-year marriage dissolved. He moved out of a comfortable Bethesda, Md., home with little more than his clothing. He said he has been “on top” and is “now at the bottom.”

“So if anybody’s out there who has the same feeling of ‘Hey, I’ve got it made,’ don’t count on it,” he said, “because you could be in my situation in a heartbeat.”

Proctor is among the growing number of America’s poor. The Census Bureau reported on Sept. 13 that in 2010, 15.1 percent of Americans—46.2 million people, an all-time high—were living in poverty, the third straight annual increase in poverty.

Mentesnot Tejeji, resident manager at Christ House, said the number of people at its evening meal has doubled since he joined the staff in 2007. “We’re starting to see new faces,” he said. Tejeji suspects many of the newcomers face the difficult choice between paying for rent and utilities or for food.

The growing poverty points to serious challenges facing Congress and President Obama. Bishop Stephen E. Blaire of Stockton, Calif., chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, said on Sept. 14: “If people don’t go back to work, there’s not going to be money out there in the community.... To me it’s a very simple matter.” He called upon Congress and the White House to “set aside the political stalemate that keeps people from working together.”

“We have to keep people first,” Bishop Blaire said. “I don’t have the answers for what government can do and I don’t think that’s even our role as a church. Our role is to say the government needs to accept its responsibility. But it’s not just the government; businesses, various entities, everybody has a responsibility.”

Charles A. Gallagher, chairman of the sociology and criminal justice department at LaSalle University in Philadelphia, sees worsening poverty ahead unless any new jobs created offer a living wage and good benefits. He fears that the American dream will be unreachable for millions of Americans faced with the prospect of working permanently in low-wage jobs.

“If people at the bottom of the economic ladder can get a job at all, they’re going to be stuck in a job that pays minimum wage with no benefits. They will be assimilated into America, but they will be assimilated into the underclass,” he said.

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