Photo Essay: Deep Poverty in America

A photo essay by Joakim Eskildsen

Fresno

Often called the breadbasket of the country, much of the nation's fruits and vegetables come from the Central Valley of California, where Fresno is located. Peaches, plums, grapes, cotton, almonds, tomatoes, cattle, and milk are among the region's products. But the wealth of the agriculture industry hasn't trickled down evenly in this abundant and fertile place; Fresno has one of the highest poverty rates in the country. Driving through Fresno, I was struck by the sprawling tent cities on the outskirts of town, where many of the city's more privileged residents rarely go. "It's a tale of two cities, the upper class lives in the north, and the poor in the south," said the director of a food bank. From migrant workers and small farmers to blue- and white-collar workers, who had been chewed up and spit out by the economic recession, the economic hardship this area faces runs deep. Though many people here struggle to buy the food that they need, the area is still plagued by an obesity problem. But the biggest problem is simply a lack of good jobs. To make matters worse, California's state budget plan has deep cuts to welfare and other social services, weakening the already fragile social safety net.

Eric Ramirez lives in a trailer park for migrant farm workers in Firebaugh, California, where he shares a narrow trailer with his two siblings and his grandparents. According to the US Census, 36 percent of children in Fresno County, where Firebaugh is located, are poor, and 43 percent of children in Firebaugh live below the poverty level. The land here is one of the most fertile in the country and the Ramirez family work in the fields picking fruits and vegetables. Still, Eric has to walk more than two miles with his grandmother to a community center where they wait in line for hours to receive free food.

 

South Dakota

 

The socioeconomic problems on the Native American reservations date back to when the reservations were created and are directly tied to land ownership. Few Native Americans own land as much of it is held in US trust. Because reservations are governed by their own set of rules, obtaining business contracts under tribal law is difficult and underdeveloped legal structures and codes minimize incentives for outside businesses and investors. Likewise, tribal leaders mistrust outside investors. Reservations are far from major cities, making it hard for residents to get stable jobs and educational opportunities outside the reservation.

Eagle Butte is the biggest town on the Cheyenne River Indian reservation in South Dakota. People who live in remote communities drive up to 90 miles to Eagle Butte—the only place to buy groceries or look for a job. To move closer to town is difficult for Native Americans because there is a shortage of housing and almost half of the population lives under the poverty level. The gas station that also has a convenience store and fast food restaurants serves as one of the only places where people can meet and socialize.

 

Athens

 

In many ways, Athens, Georgia, is a charming town with classic and Antebellum architecture, a restored downtown full of shops and restaurants, a vibrant independent music scene, and the University of Georgia, the oldest and largest college in the state. But life for most of its residents is a struggle. Athens-Clark County has a poverty rate of 40 percent, the highest in counties with a population of more than 100,000 across the United States, according to the 2011 American Community Survey. Homelessness is on the rise with local shelters at full capacity. Kerri Steele from the Athens Area Homeless Shelter said that she is getting more calls from people with college degrees and there is a wait-list to get into the shelter. "A lot of people aren't even trying to get a space in the shelter anymore," she said. Athens has many low-skilled, low-income workers, and no black middle class. Though the University of Georgia provides a large portion of the jobs in the county, many of those, once staffed by locals, are now being staffed by students. Quenton Scott, a 27-year-old local, said people from Athens either leave, stay and take a minimum wage job, or they are in the streets and in and out of jail. "There is no big business in Athens," he said, "no big opportunities."

Ruby Ann Smith lives under the North Avenue Bridge where it crosses the North Oconee River in Athens, Georgia. She shares the space with other homeless people who have made an outdoor encampment. A prostitute and a drug addict, Ruby Ann has been beaten, shot, and sexually assaulted. "I am so lucky I am still alive," said Smith, "I should have been dead ten times by now." 

John Moon, 64, lives a frugal life in Athens. The bare walls once used to be covered from floor to ceiling with his colorful collages and art creations that he sold to simplify his life and pursue what he calls "spiritual matters." In addition to his visual art, Moon has written and self-published several books that are now housed at the University of Georgia's Rare Books and Manuscript Library. Despite local recognition, he never made money from his art. He now scrapes by on Social Security income, food stamps, and help from one of his sisters when he falls short on the bills.

 

South Bronx

 

A walk through the South Bronx reveals the one of nation's most ethnically diverse neighborhood. Latin music and hip hop blast from car radios, streets are lined with Hispanic bakeries and bodegas, buildings are sprayed with colorful graffiti, and Spanish is spoken on every corner. Gritty and lively, the South Bronx is also among the poorest congressional districts in the country with a significant number of adults and children living below the poverty level. Single females run half of the families here. Since the economic recession hit in 2007, unemployment has become a persistent problem. Contributing to its difficulties is the Cross-Bronx Expressway, which cuts through residential neighborhoods, causing property values to drop and remain low. By the late 1960s, the South Bronx became synonymous with crime, poverty, and arson. To offset losses in property value, landlords started setting fire to their buildings to collect insurance money. The vacant lots and derelict buildings only worsened the situation, attracting gangs, drug addicts, and squatters. While the area has seen resurgence since the 1970s thanks to affordable housing, new building construction, and an increase in population, it still faces extreme poverty, crime, and hunger. According to the City Harvest Program, more than 292,000 people are not getting the right food for an active, healthy lifestyle, and the South Bronx also has one of the highest obesity rates in the nation.

Lawanda Leary and her son, Reginald, live in a massive housing complex for low-income families. Leary, an unemployed single mom, is planning to join the military as a way to get benefits and offer financial stability to her son, even if it means going into a war zone and being away from him.

 

New Orleans and Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana

 

New Orleans is considered one of the most unique cities in the United States, with colorful French colonial architecture, musical heritage and festivals, Creole food, and historical mix of African American, Native American, and European cultures. However, this Southern city of color and revelry is also a place where income and opportunities are divided along racial lines, part of the legacy of segregation, and has the highest per capita murder rate in the country. Poverty and violence are concentrated in poor black neighborhoods, such as the Ninth Ward, that were also the hardest hit during Hurricane Katrina. As the city struggled to rebuild and get back on its feet, the recession and the BP oil spill in 2010 took an economic and environmental toll on the recovery process. The people of New Orleans have faced many challenges and made much-needed improvements since the storm and oil spill, building new charter schools, improving access to low-income health care, and reforming the criminal justice system. Much of the city has bounced back, but old black neighborhoods still have many vacant lots and homes. The local economy is still feeling the effect of lost jobs, and the need for affordable housing remains high on the list of priorities.

Plaquemines Parish, a thin stretch that follows the Mississippi River and juts into the Gulf of Mexico, is surrounded by water. For generations, fishing and farming have been a way of life for the rural communities of the region. Located 12 miles south of New Orleans, the region is frequently struck by storms and the residents who have settled here have developed a reputation for resilience and recovery. A series of recent disasters, however, have left the community reeling and wondering whether it is worth trying to rebuild once again. In 2005, the parish suffered catastrophic damage in Hurricane Katrina, with a storm surge of more than 20 feet and the subsequent failure of the levees. The area's seafood industry took a major hit and a large portion of the population was displaced. During the BP oil spill in 2010, roughly 200 million gallons of oil were leaked into the Gulf, causing damage to the area to an unseen extent. More recently, Hurricane Isaac wreaked havoc in the parish, washing up tar balls from the oil spill on the shores of Louisiana's Gulf Coast.

Eli Stockstill, 3, and his brother DJ often stay on their grandparents' shrimp boat that sits in a lot out of the water for maintenance. Their parents, Darla and Todd Rooks, longtime Louisiana fishermen, moved into the 40-square-foot cabin of their boat after the BP oil spill, because they were not sure they would be able to continue paying their lease. Before the BP oil spill, they used to make good living, eating healthy food from the sea. Now, the fresh seafood has been replaced by canned food, and they have developed a host of health problems, from muscle spasms to skin rashes and memory loss. The Rooks long to going back to their old ways. "I do not want to be the face of poverty," Darla said. "I do not want to live on food stamps—I just want to fish."

Ronald Major waits for free food handed out by a group of volunteers on weekends under the Claiborne Avenue Bridge. Because of the lack of affordable housing and lack of family safety nets, the number of homeless in New Orleans has more than doubled since Hurrican Katrina. Major has heavy limbs symptoms and pushes a wheelchair. Since he lost his home in the hurricane, he lives under a bridge and tries to "keep hope alive" as he says.

Jennifer Rhoden, 27, and her boyfriend and army reservist, Donald Monroe, have been living under a bridge, homeless since June. Donald was arrested and jailed for five months for collecting scrap metal. He had to plea or sit in jail for trespassing. Jennifer, who has experience working at fast food restaurants and hopes to become a chef, has had no luck landing a job. They are trying to get help through a nonprofit organization but say it's hard unless they are addicts or have mental disorders. "If you are healthy and don't have an addiction, they figure you should have a job," Donald said. "But what if something happens, what are you supposed to do? All my jobs are manual work." Donald broke his finger in a fight and is waiting for it to heal to try and find work as an automechanic. Meanwhile, bathing, finding a place to go to the bathroom, and finding food are daily struggles. "Once you are in poverty," said Jennifer, "it's extremely hard to get out."

This web site features photographs by Joakim Eskildsen, donated to the Urban Institute for the purposes of this project. The images are meant to highlight the current state of deep and persistent poverty within the United States. The Urban Institute would like to thank Mr. Eskildsen for his generosity.