The Gritty, Hard Climb Out Of Poverty

The face of the American poor is changing. Journalist Anne Hull recently wrote about one teenager's struggle to break the cycle of poverty in a small rust belt town. Host Michel Martin discusses the story with Hull, youth pastor Shawn Galla, and the Brookings Institution's Ron Haskins.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. As political leaders in Washington continue to search for a solution to the nation's financial problems, we don't want to lose sight of the most economically vulnerable Americans, the more than 40 million people living in poverty.

On this program, we've often talked about how the face of the country is changing, and we've often reported on the challenges of newcomers, but we don't want to forget that there are millions of people who don't fit the stereotypes many people have about poverty, people who don't live in cities, who live in parts of the country that don't make the headlines.

That's part of what Tabitha Rouzzo faces. She is a white teenager growing up poor in the small city of New Castle, Pennsylvania. Writer Anne Hull recently wrote about Tabitha, her family and other teens in her town for the Washington Post. She's with us now. Also with us, Pastor Shawn Galla. He is the student ministry pastor of the First Assembly of God in New Castle, Pennsylvania. He was also featured in the piece.

And joining us to talk about the broader issues of poverty in places like New Castle is Ron Haskins. He's a senior fellow of economic studies at the Brookings Institution, and that's a think tank here in Washington. Welcome to you all. Thank you all so much for joining us.

ANNE HULL: Thank you.

RON HASKINS: Nice to be here.

PASTOR SHAWN GALLA: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Anne Hull, can I just start by asking: What lead you to this story and to Tabitha?

HULL: Well, there's been a lot of attention on the decline of the white working class in the last few years. Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill have done some of the best work on this. And I was interested in this sort of economy-versus-morality question: Why has the working class suffered so much, and why have they lost such standing?

So I wanted to, using census figures, I wanted to go into a part of the country that is very short on opportunity and then - you know, picking a place and then lucked into finding Pastor Shawn, who is on the boots with this kind of work in New Castle.

MARTIN: You know, Ron Haskins, I want to pick up something that Anne said, which is that there's been a lot of attention paid to the white working class in recent years. Do you think that that's true? Not that I want to start out by arguing, but do you really think that that's true? I think that oftentimes - I can just tell you as a journalist, sometimes when you feature a white person who is poor, people don't believe you.

You know, they think that the face of poverty is a brown or black face. That's been my experience. Do you think that that's true, that there is that attention on the white working class?

HASKINS: I see two questions here. The first one: Have we paid enough attention to it? The answer to that I think is no. I think the - we've been undergoing profound changes in economy for a couple of decades now. International competition has wiped out entire American industries. And when that happens, especially if you think of North Carolina and some of the places in Pennsylvania and indeed all over the country, the jobs go away, and people face deep, deep hardship.

And then the second issue is: Is the face of poverty in America black or Hispanic? And the answer to that also - it depends on how you look at it. If you look at rates, then blacks and Hispanics have much higher rates. But if you look at the number, there are twice as many poor whites as there are poor blacks and almost that number as compared with Hispanics.

So poverty is not a stranger in any group.

HULL: One different factor here, add-on factor, is how the upper-middle class and upper reaches of the economy have done so much better. So there is this wider gap now than before.

MARTIN: Anne, tell me a little bit about Tabitha. Tell me just a little bit about what makes her tick and why you were drawn to her for this piece.

HULL: She is probably one of the hardest working teenagers I've ever had the honor of meeting. She is just relentless in getting ahead. She is a good assessor of her own talent and her own chances. And she wasn't the easiest person to hang out with, get to know. Shawn knows this better. But she's a little bit reserved, pulled back, watching.

And I just did everything with her: church, school, hanging out at home, work, everything a teenager does. But she's always, always working.

MARTIN: Well, one of the points that your piece makes is that she really wants better. She's the youngest of five. She wants out. She wants a better life. And even if she hasn't seen it, she wants that. And so Pastor Shawn, this is where I'd like to turn to you. Tell me about Tabitha and kind of where she fits in in your town.

GALLA: Tabitha is - she's a student in our town. She's a kid who has a drive to get out of here, a drive to overcome circumstances of her family. But what I see as a difference in Tabitha as compared to other students, maybe, that we have is that she's really working and pushing towards that goal and actually achieving this goal of getting out of New Castle.

We see this situation time and time again of a student who is raised up in circumstances such as Tabitha's. But I rarely see a student like Tabitha, whose drive and determination is so forward-moving that she's gotten to that point where she's getting ready to actually get out of here.

MARTIN: Is that something that the kids talk about a lot, getting out? I mean is getting out kind of the key to having a better life?

GALLA: I believe a lot of students do see it that way. You know, there's very little job growth taking place in New Castle. And so for those that even have the opportunity to go away to college or to learn a specified trade there's very little opportunity and there's very little room for growth here in this region. And so for a lot of them it is getting out and it's, you know, we have a lot of students who will go on to be teaching majors at colleges and universities. But there's very little opportunity here in Lawrence County, and so you'll see a lot of people who will either choose to stay in New Castle and find a job that's not in their field or there's very few who will actually move away to achieve careers and careers that they want and that are related to their degree. And so a lot of people do have that goal of getting out and that's the opportunity for growth is getting out.

MARTIN: Do you think that that's true?

HULL: For rare individuals who have that drive. I mean there aren't very many white-collar role models in town. Thirteen percent of adults over 25 have college, four-year college degrees. That's pretty low. So there aren't a lot of models for these kids to emulate.

I looked at the old yearbooks at her high school and it's just astonishing to see what awaits the graduates today versus, you know, 1950, 1960. The 1950 yearbook is two inches thick with ads wishing the senior class on well Standard Steel, United Engineering and Foundry, Johnson Bronze, you know, on and on of industrial giants who would become the graduates' employer, you know, after high school.

The 2009 yearbooks sponsors are Pizza Joe's, a local teachers union and a window manufacturer. So that sort of sums...

MARTIN: That's it?

HULL: ...what waits for them if they don't go to college.

MARTIN: But Pastor Shawn's saying if they do go to college then there's not a lot there.

HULL: Right.

MARTIN: Is that...

HULL: It's true. I mean the employers are, you know, telemarketing, state, municipal government and the hospital.

MARTIN: You know Pastor, go ahead Pastor Shawn. Go ahead. Mm-hmm.

GALLA: There's such close ties to family here in the area. We have a predominant Italian background and so people are really tied to their families. And so you see a large portion of students who even if they go a distance away to college or to university, they'll move back even with very little job opportunity just to be closer to family.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

GALLA: And very few actually have a desire to move away. There's a strong pull on them to come back to New Castle and to work here. And so you see a lot of people with college degrees even who aren't in their field and so...

MARTIN: Do you feel though that is it some of the parents reluctant to push the kids to succeed out of fear that they'll leave?

GALLA: Yeah. Yeah. I think parents want to keep their kids close. And so, you know, you will see, you'll encounter parents who want their kids to be successful and say that's not going to happen in New Castle and so you got to get out. But there's a large portion that want their kids here, and even if there's no opportunities for what they've studied, you know, their parents want them here because there's that close-knit family unit in a way.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking about what you might call the invisible poor. We're talking about a piece written by Anne Hull of The Washington Post about a young woman. It focused on her as a young white teenager and her struggle to rise above her circumstances and to seek more opportunity.

Our guests are that writer, Anne Hull. Also with us, Pastor Shawn Galla of New Castle, Pennsylvania, he knows the young woman profiled in the piece. And Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution, who has been writing about opportunity for many years now.

You know, Ron Haskins, that's interesting. We were talking earlier about this whole question of often the public conversation around poverty and opportunity, people are - they're really talking about black and brown people, even if they don't claim that they are. And one of the ongoing debates it seems to me is is it culture or is it the circumstances, right? And there are those who argue that it's really - it's the culture, that people aren't embracing marriage before having children, that they're not embracing, you know, education. It's their choices. And other people say no, it's actually these - the circumstances they find themselves in. When you read this piece, Ron Haskins, what's true for you?

HASKINS: There's no reason to make a choice between those two things. They're both extremely important and they're both present in varying degrees depending on a person's circumstances. You take Tabitha's case, somehow, even at age 13 when she was working so hard in violation of our laws and everything else because she wants to have a good record and get ahead, she's made all the right decisions. She's determined that she's not going to make it in her hometown and she needs to go away. She was thinking of going to college but then the opportunity to go in the service came and she's going to go into the service first. The service has programs where they pay for college. So there are alternatives and she's made the right choices - that's the thing to emphasize.

But on the other hand, her choices are much more restricted than a person from a booming community with lots of opportunity, you can go to a local community college or a college and move not far away from home, stay near your family and they're jobs available. So it varies all across the country, but always it's a matter of people making the right decision, and especially young people make the right decision and finish their education, get a job, get married, have a baby in that order. And if you violate those rules the chances you'll be in poverty and have low income are immensely increased.

MARTIN: Pastor Shawn, what's your thought about this?

GALLA: I would have to completely agree. You know, you see students over and over again who they wind up dealing with teen pregnancy and that becomes their life. And I think you've seen that with a lot of the parents of students that we have but also a lot of the students themselves. I've been in New Castle for five years now and we've seen that. And I think it's the cycle that's never ending here in New Castle. And, you know, there's people who do have hope and that they're able to get out. But I see a cycle that continues to just happen over and over again and it's leading to almost a deterioration of, you know, what made this city such a success, in that people - as Ron said - they're not getting married, they're not waiting to have children. And so it's leading to these problems and leading to poverty.

MARTIN: What's the one thing you would want people to know about the kids that you work with in New Castle, Pastor Shawn?

GALLA: That these kids are the hope for the future. They're being raised in situations that aren't always the best. And, you know, I can testify to that because I was one of those kids and I know that there's hope in each and every one of these students and there's hope for each and every student that's out there as long as they start to make the right decisions and as long as they persevere through difficult circumstances. I think the students of today are going to be stronger than ever.

MARTIN: Anne Hull, I'm interested to know what response you're getting to this story. And is there something you would particularly want, now that it's been out for a couple of days, for people to draw from it?

HULL: Well, the story has gotten a tremendous response and from a variety of groups of people, people who come from towns like New Castle, people who are from New Castle and work in D.C. now, other well-off people who it's made him reflect on how much opportunity and ease they had as young people.

I did the story in part because of some of the studies that Ron and Isabel were doing, and this notion of you have to do things in order to reduce your chances of poverty, you know, wait to get married, finish school. You know, but, my overall reaction to a lot of people who write in, because they are praising Tabitha and questioning some of the decisions her family made, it's important to remember that her mom left a home that was very financially strapped, so - and she left at the age of 13 when she got pregnant. She wanted to get pregnant to leave home. It's like a lot of girls, teenagers who get pregnant, I want to escape home. So Tabby is now in the third generation really, of poverty. And it is, like Shawn says, it seems like a never-ending process sometimes. And Tabitha was born poor. You know, it's, you can watch the generations since the '50s just in this one family go down.

MARTIN: Ron Haskins, we'll give you the final word here because there are, one of the things you've been talking about and writing a lot about with your colleagues at Brookings is what can we do? Do you want to just - and I understand because you spent a lot of time thinking and writing about this, this could be its own conversation, but do you want to just leave us with some thoughts about - what do you want people to think about when they think about Tabitha and other young folks like her?

HASKINS: I want to emphasize the rules, the norms that she's following and has followed well so far that immensely increase the opportunity that she will face and the chances that she's going to have a good outcome. She's preparing for education. She's not only going to graduate from high school but she has quite good grades. I wish she had a better guidance counselor to help her pick the right college and to help her get financing. There are $200 billion in loans and so forth available to students, especially to low income students. Now if she goes in the service and gets to college that way, that's another alternative. And then if she gets a job and then gets married and has children, after she has a stable marriage, she'll be on her way. And that applies to kids all across the country.

For some kids it's much harder. I don't want to appear to say oh, well, all you do is follow these rules. For a girl like Tabitha, it's kind of a little miracle that she has the drive and the vision that she has. And you can understand that a lot of kids in her situation would not have it, but if they did they'd greatly increase their chances of success.

MARTIN: To be continued. Ron Haskins is a senior fellow of economic studies at the Brookings Institution. He joined us from their studios there. With me in Washington, D.C., Anne Hull, she's a writer for The Washington Post. And Pastor Shawn Galla is the student ministry pastor at the First Assembly of God in New Castle, Pennsylvania, and he joined us from his office there.

Thank you all so much for speaking with us.

HULL: Thank you.

GALLA: Thank you.

HASKINS: Thank you.

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