“People think that if they’re not living in poverty then they’re middle class. But the official poverty level is such an unrealistic indicator of economic status. Most of the people who use the food bank are working people. These used to be referred to as ‘emergency food pantries.’ But now it’s like people are having an emergency every day. It’s really just a way to exist,” she says.
Last year the census bureau released a new measurement of poverty, which takes regional cost of living, medical payments and other expenses into account and found a third of Americans are either in poverty or desperately close to it. Half are married, almost half are suburban.
“These numbers are higher than we anticipated,” said the bureau’s head poverty statistician, Trudi Renwick. “There are more people struggling than the official numbers show.”
This is the fragile economic terrain on which the US election is being fought: the needs and aspirations of the ever-expanding numbers of the US’ working poor and the far larger ranks of those anxious about joining them.
These are the people most likely to be offended by Romney’s suggestion that 47 percent of the country see themselves as victims, who most needed the kind of change Obama promised four years ago, and who have been least impressed by the apparent lack of it. These are the people at whom the ads attacking Romney’s record of outsourcing and asset-stripping at Bain Capital were aimed.
They are also the ones the Tea Party sought to galvanize through their populist message against the bailout and in defense of small business. A 2010 poll by the New York Times revealed that more than half of those who identified themselves as Tea Party supporters were concerned that someone in their household would be out of a job in the next year, while more than two-thirds said the recession had been difficult or caused hardship and major life changes.
A slim majority of Americans now define getting ahead as “not falling behind.” That describes life for many here in Larimer County, where between 2006 and 2010 median family income (adjusted for inflation) shrank by 9 percent, leaving around a third of homeowners spending 30 percent or more of their income on housing.
The number of people using food stamps, and applying for heating assistance over the past six years has rocketed. Over the past 10 years the number of children getting free and reduced cost lunches doubled, while in-state tuition fees at Colorado State University, which has a huge campus in town, increased 138 percent.
The Fort Collins Homelessness Prevention Initiative (HPI), which provides one-time grants for emergency rent assistance, has seen a 50 percent increase in the number of people they are helping every year.
“We mainly serve two kinds of people,” executive director Sue Beck-Ferkiss explains. “One are the pay-check surfers who are used to skating by on very little. But we also see more people who are falling out of the middle class. It could be a couple who both worked on contract. The work dries up. But the world doesn’t stop just because your income stops. They wipe out their savings and maybe they end up here.”
Larimer County is a swing county in a swing state. It voted for Bush twice, but went for Obama in 2008. Now Colorado is on the fence and Mark Weaver is right there with it.