Brandy Burkhead, 28, says she lost her $13-an-hour job as a medical assistant in April and hasn’t been able to find work since.
“It’s a battle,” said Burkhead, standing in a line of people waiting yesterday to apply for jobs at a Tanger Outlet Center that will open in Mebane, North Carolina, in November.
Burkhead said her family of five subsists on $600 a month in unemployment benefits plus help from relatives, putting them below the threshold of poverty. The proportion of Americans living in poverty, defined as $21,954 in income for a family of four, climbed to a 15-year high last year, according to a Census Bureau report released yesterday.
The number of poor rose to 43.6 million, the most in the 51 years for which the figures have been published, underscoring the toll exacted by the deepest recession since the 1930s. The poverty rate climbed to 14.3 percent from 13.2 percent.
“There are a lot of people hurting out there,” said Wade Horn, a former assistant secretary for Children and Families at the Department of Health and Human Services. “The only way to lift people out of poverty is to have a robust economy so that that people who are at the bottom can work their way up.”
The Census Bureau report comes as Congress debates the effectiveness of more spending to reduce unemployment, and it may add fuel to an election-year debate over the Obama administration’s economic policies.
President Barack Obama last week urged approval of a package of $180 billion in business tax breaks and infrastructure spending to boost the economy, a proposed supplement to the $814 billion stimulus measure enacted last year.
The Census figures “make it clear that our work is just beginning,” Obama said yesterday in a statement. He urged policies “to improve our schools, build the skills of our workers, and invest in our nation’s critical infrastructure.”
Rising poverty, along with unemployment near a 26-year high and a wave of home foreclosures, are symptoms of the economic distress that will help Republicans capture more seats in the House and Senate in November, said Jeffrey Berry, a politics professor at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts.
“This report is part of a long-term trend, which is an economy that can’t quite lift itself out of mediocre growth rates,” Berry said. “The Democrats own this recession. They didn’t cause it, but it was on their desk when Barack Obama was elected.”
The median household income fell to $49,777 last year from $50,112 in 2008, a change the Census Bureau report said wasn’t statistically significant.
The 1.1 percentage point increase in the poverty rate was the biggest since 1980, Census Bureau officials said on a conference call with reporters. The number of poor increased from 39.8 million in 2008.
The unemployment rate in the U.S. has risen to 9.6 percent in August from 5 percent in December 2007, when the recession began. While the rate has dropped from 10.1 percent last October, sluggish private job creation following the loss of 8.4 million jobs has weighed on incomes and consumer spending, slowing the pace of recovery.
Barbara Hood, 52, has been out of work since August, 2008, when she lost her job as an educational assistant in the Washington, D.C., public school system. She said she has applied for 15 positions and couldn’t even land a temporary job at a clothing store.
“Lord knows I’ve tried to get a job,” she said.
Line of Job Seekers
In Mebane, a town of 9,851 people located midway between Durham and Greensboro, North Carolina, the line of job seekers circled three sides of the Mebane Arts & Community Center before veering across an adjacent lawn and running alongside a football field.
Even before the doors opened, about 500 people had applied online for jobs at Bass, Izod and Van Heusen stores, said Lu Ann Austin, a Philips-Van Heusen Corp. district sales manager.
“It’s nothing like I’ve ever seen,” said Austin, who expects to hire as many as 45 for the three stores. “People need work.”
Tanger Factory Outlets Inc., a Greensboro, North Carolina- based real estate investment trust that operates outlet shopping centers and stores that will occupy the new center plan to hire about 800 people, according to Kathy Hackshaw, the center’s general manager.
Traffic Backed Up
The community center’s parking lot was full by late morning, prompting police to close the street leading to the center, where traffic was backed up for more than a mile. Some people parked on side streets and walked to the fair.
Timothy Masho, 43, lost his cleaning job of 11 years at a local hospital a year ago. “I’m looking for anything, stocking or helping customers,” he said.
Burkhead, the mother of three who lost her nursing job, said her $722 monthly rent exceeds her unemployment benefits, and she has turned to her mother and grandmother to help pay the bills. Her husband, Stevie, last worked installing car windshields about six years ago. “We’re living off of nothing,” she said.
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