STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Here we are, the richest nation on Earth and according to the U.S. census, 46 million Americans live in poverty. Millions more are close to that official definition of poverty.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
It's a reminder that not quite everything has changed since President Lyndon Johnson's war on poverty began 50 years ago.
INSKEEP: One thing that has changed is that the percentage of people in poverty went down.
MONTAGNE: Here's another thing. Poverty looks different. Visit the homes of people living below the poverty line and you might find a flat screen TV, a computer, the latest sneakers.
INSKEEP: That raises questions about what it means to be poor in America today. NPR's Pam Fessler reports.
PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: At first glance, Victoria Houser's life doesn't look all that bad. She lives in a cozy two-bedroom apartment in Painted Post, a small town in Western New York. She has food, furniture and toys for her almost two-year-old son, Brayden. Right now he's playing a game called Fruit Ninja on her electronic tablet.
VICTORIA HOUSER: He just likes touching it because he always sees me on my computer, my iPad, or something.
FESSLER: Brayden's father is out of the picture, and Houser knows, as a 22-year-old single mother, she could be a lot worse off. At least she has a job, $10 an hour preparing food at a company cafeteria. Still, you don't have to look too far to see her life is teetering on the edge. This nice-looking apartment?
HOUSER: It's kind of not a very safe place to live. There've been quite a few drug busts here.
FESSLER: Not to mention a next-door neighbor arrested for allegedly murdering someone and stuffing the body in a cupboard.
HOUSER: I don't even let him play outside because I'm scared of the people that are here.
FESSLER: But this subsidized housing is all that Houser can afford. Most of her paycheck goes for things like food and diapers and gas. And she says what look like luxuries are mostly gifts from family or friends. And for her they're necessities - a car to get to work, a computer to take online college courses, a cell phone to check up on her son.
HOUSER: What's a lion say? What's a doggie say? What's a doggie say?
FESSLER: But there's one thing Houser doesn't have, and that's a lot of hope for the future.
HOUSER: Basically, I'm stuck here.
FESSLER: In what she sees as a never-ending cycle, with a constant fear that one emergency will send everything tumbling down.
HOUSER: Poor to me is the fact that I'm working my butt off. I'm trying to go to school. I'm trying to take care of my son and that's just not enough.
FESSLER: And it's this frustration and despair that those who work with struggling families say is the true face of poverty today, that it's not just a lack of material things. Kelly Wells says she sees it all the time.
KELLY WELLS: It used to be that if you were poor, you just didn't have the basic things, like maybe you didn't have a washer and dryer and you were able to get by.
FESSLER: She's with Pro Action, a local nonprofit that tries to help people like Victoria Houser. Wells says today things are very different.
WELLS: Now what I see with families is if you're poor, you're poor in every avenue: emotionally, support-wise, family-wise.
FESSLER: Another sign of poverty today? Many families ripped apart by drug abuse, domestic violence, mental illness. At the Family Resource Center in the town of Bath, a young mother plays with her giggling nine-month-old son. The mother is petite with long curly brown hair and a huge black eye.
She gets to visit her son here once a week. She lost custody because of suspected drug abuse and violence in the home. The father is in jail. The father's stepmother now cares for the boy. She's just come here to pick him up.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: He was in a lot of danger remaining there and CPS basically told me either I take custody or he has to go to foster care, so and I wasn't going to let that happen, so.
FESSLER: The stepmother says that she and her husband now care for three of their grandchildren.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: You know, we want them to have a good work ethic, morals, values. We don't want them learning the kind of things that they would learn at home.
FESSLER: Social workers here say they're seeing it more and more - stressed out families, kids paying the price. Marsha Patrick runs the local Head Start program. She said she had to hire nine extra classroom workers this year to deal with increasingly unruly kids.
MARSHA PATRICK: Everything will be fine and then all of a sudden they are literally off the wall. They might be walking on the tables. They might run up and down on the radiators. Or, you know, they just cannot control whatever it is that's making them go off like that.
FESSLER: She suspects that it's the strain of living with adults who are overwhelmed or who don't have the skills they need to raise children because they themselves came from troubled homes. Her program is trying to break the cycle. But Patrick says it's difficult, with factory jobs that used to support a middle class here disappearing in droves.
PATRICK: Unless we have those jobs to offer those folks, then, you know, they're going to feel good about it and want to go to work for and do - the kids are going to be the ones who are suffering and we're seeing it.
FESSLER: Of course poverty is about more than a lack of jobs. It can also mean isolation. The yard around Frank and Amber Adams' trailer home in rural Hammondsport is filled with chickens and ducks, cats and dogs. Frank, who's 41, has been poor his entire life. He says it's been a lot of ups and downs, mostly downs. He survives by selling scrap and doing odd jobs and masonry work.
He built most of his trailer home himself.
FRANK ADAMS: We have children. This is our boys' room. This is my other boy's room, and then we have our laundry room.
FESSLER: Frank and Amber have seven children between them from other relationships, but the children are scattered about. One is in a juvenile detention center. Right now Amber's goal is to regain custody of her youngest three. But first she has to clean up her act. She's a recovering crack addict. So is Frank. He says it's pretty common around here.
F ADAMS: There's lots of people that just aren't happy with themselves or what have you. And the more readily available...
AMBER ADAMS: The economy...
F ADAMS: Right. The economy, maybe they don't have a job so they gotta sell some of the drugs to make money, and then they get addicted to the drug themselves.
FESSLER: But a year ago...
F ADAMS: We just finally looked at each and - what the hell are we doing?
FESSLER: Now he's helping Amber through counseling, although Frank says sometimes he has to redeem empty soda cans just to buy gas to take her to class. I ask him if it's harder being poor today than when he was young.
F ADAMS: I believe it is because people aren't as outgoing and gracious as they were back in the day. Back in the day your neighbors helped each other.
FESSLER: And that's another big difference for poor families today. They might have TVs and cell phones, but researchers say they can be more disconnected than ever, from neighbors, work, family, all those social networks that help people through life. When we finished talking, Amber takes a picture off the wall. It shows six of their seven children dressed up for their wedding last summer. And she reads the words written on the side.
A ADAMS: Family, together we have it all.
FESSLER: At least for now it's something they can hope for. Pam Fessler, NPR News.
INSKEEP: Pam continues her reporting on families living in poverty this afternoon on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.