Poverty Is Taking a New Toll for America’s Least Fortunate

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In the basement of Hill House, a community center just outside of this city’s bustling downtown, Brooklyn Davis clutches a plastic fork and stabs eagerly at a styrofoam plate piled high with waffles and syrup. He keeps a broad-billed, oversized New York Yankees baseball cap pulled low over his ears, and has a NASCAR jacket — festooned with the “Army Strong” trademark and corporate logos from Office Depot and Chevrolet and Old Spice — wrapped around his thin frame.

Brooklyn Davis, 24, says he knew he was poor in middle school, when he was teased for having holes in his shoes.
“I found out I was poor in middle school,” Davis says between bites, as he recalls intermittent forays into the drug trade. “I had holes in my shoes and I started getting ripped on. So I just started hitting the block, and I was like ‘Man, nobody’s going to be bothering me now. I’ve got money in my pocket.’ But I realized that can’t go on too long.”
Davis is now a Hill House regular, keen to have a chance at breakfast, access to computers and the use of a telephone. The facility is anchored in the historic Hill District, a predominantly black and widely impoverished neighborhood that begins in the shadow of the recently completed Consol Energy Center arena — the $320 million home to the Pittsburgh Penguins professional hockey team — and rises eastward along several of the city’s steep ridges.
Being six months unemployed and behind on his child support payments, Davis also comes here by a court order mandating that he be trained in skills that will lead to work, like creating a resume, preparing for interviews and hunting for jobs online.
For many young people born into the cyclic deprivations of urban poverty — failing schools, broken families, lack of jobs, violence, crime and drugs — such lessons come far too late in life. While Davis aspires to become a barber one day (he cuts his friends’ hair, he says), at 23, he is already locked hard onto a path that will make that dream extremely difficult to realize.
Statistically speaking, Davis, like his parents, faces surprisingly high odds against ever escaping from poverty — regardless of what happens in the wider economy.
Even in the best of economic times, America has long maintained pockets of deep and persistent poverty. From blighted urban neighborhoods like this one, hollowed out by the collapse of the steel industry more than a generation ago, to long-impoverished communities in the Mississippi Delta, or the San Joaquin Valley of California, or the uniquely dismal privations on tribal lands in South Dakota and elsewhere — poverty has defined life for multiple generations.

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