Tent cities don't tell poverty's full story

In February, Oprah Winfrey's show visited Sacramento, California, and cast a media spotlight on the "tent city" of homeless residents that has grown up in recent years on derelict land behind an almond-processing facility. In the weeks that followed, the media focus has been unrelenting. The New York Times ran a front-page photo of the city – an irresistible image intended to conjure up Hooverville photographs from the Great Depression. Replace black and white with colour, wooden and cardboard shacks with Gore-Tex tents, and the metamorphosis is complete. The Guardian picked up on the issue with its own article.

The story is compelling precisely because it is so visual. The poverty doesn't need to be explained. Instead it can be shown, along with a caption explaining that this is the new face of homelessness and poverty in post-boom, recession-era America. A gleaming city skyline as a backdrop to immiseration. Rio, or Mumbai, on the American river.

And yet, in its simplicity, the tent city story is actually misleading. While it is true that these modern-day shanty towns have either sprouted or grown in many American cities in the past year, their residents remain the exceptional face of poverty rather than the more mundane, everyday face. Homelessness advocates in Sacramento believe that most, though by no means all, of those living in the tent city are part of a long-term homeless population – many of whom suffer from serious mental illnesses – that existed prior to the housing bubble burst and the cascading unemployment of recent months. They also believe that, absent long-term (and costly) social service investments, this population will continue to exist after the current economic crisis has played itself out.

Nationally, the numbers living in tent cities remain relatively small. By contrast, the numbers living in dire poverty in homes, residential hotels or relatives' living rooms now number in the many millions. They are a less visual, but in many ways more representative, face of severe recession-related poverty.

South of Sacramento, several Central Valley towns and farming communities now have unemployment rates fast approaching 20%. These are the communities where housing prices have plummeted the fastest and from where investment dollars have fled most completely. Their tax base has collapsed and their job market has dried up. Many of their residents lack legal documents. Many others have the documents, but lack transferrable job skills when construction and agricultural work vanishes. These towns have been not just in a recession, but in a localised depression, for a couple of years now.

Last year, as the economic crisis in these communities intensified, I interviewed men, women and children about their experiences for my upcoming book, Breadline USA. In towns like Tonyville and Plainview, I found people who, even during the good times, could only find seasonal work – work that paid perhaps $300 per week for six to eight months out of the year. I talked with families – four generations of whom lived jammed together in small, broken down old trailers. I spoke with mothers who fed their children bowls of dry cereal after school and then sent them to bed hungry because they had run out of money to buy even the most basic of food items. I met children who lined up at school at 7:30 in the morning for free breakfasts because their parents couldn't afford milk and bread, let alone meat and eggs.

"Sometimes we eat one time a day," a young woman – originally from Mexico, now living in a tumbledown trailer with her grandmother, mother, husband and three children – explained. "Beans, [nopales] cactus, water. Sometimes we ask friends for money. We go to food pantries. We get beans, rice, some cookies and some vegetables. No milk. Pasta. No bread. Sometimes Jell-O. Sometimes frozen food – taquitos, enchiladas."

A nine year old boy in the town of Fresno told me that in the evenings he ate "frosted flakes, with milk. At four o'clock. When I come to school, I come to the cafeteria. They give me breakfast. Burritos. Cereal. On weekends, I eat fruit. For dinner, cereal."

Northeast of California, in the state of Idaho, I met families whose children stood in line every day throughout the long summer months for free meals given out in city parks by church groups. In some parks at dinnertime, dozens of old cars would drive up, the kids would be disgorged to pick up their food bags and then the parents would drive them home to eat. Some of the families had lost their homes to foreclosures. Others had gone horribly into debt – on credit cards, on high-interest payday loans – trying to hang onto their homes. As they fell further behind on their payments, they could afford less and less food.

Hunger advocates in Idaho saw the number of children accessing these free meals almost double from the summer of 2007 to the summer of 2008. The odds are pretty good that this coming summer will see even more kids in need of free food.

Around the country, I interviewed service workers whose hours had been cut because of the economic downturn, and who were struggling to stay afloat on 25 to 30 hours per week of near-minimum wage work.

That kind of poverty is inherently less visually spectacular than a tent city. It's less likely to get Oprah's TV audience up in arms. But when the damage from the economic collapse is finally accounted, it is these millions of little stories that will likely leave the most enduring imprint on America's social landscape.

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