"The Poverty Tour" traveled to 18 American cities to see and hear first-hand from the nation's poor. Many of the "new" poor were formerly middle class, but had lost their jobs, homes and possessions in the economic downturn. A homeless camp near Ann Arbor, Michigan, offers a glimpse into that world. CNN's Don Lemon talks with the men behind the tour, Princeton University's Dr. Cornel West and Tavis Smiley, host of "Tavis Smiley" on PBS.
Criminal defense attorney and former prosecutor Holly Hughes provides expert analysis of the involuntary manslaughter case against Dr. Conrad Murray, who is blamed for the death of pop superstar Michael Jackson.
CNN's Don Lemon talks with Spencer Elden on the 20th anniversary of Nirvana's "Nevermind" album. Elden was the baby on the cover.
CNN Senior National Editor
I recently toured an exhibit of photographs that included Depression-era works by Walker Evans and Margaret Bourke-White. Their photographs – including a family standing on the porch of a shack and African-Americans flood victims lined up to receive food and clothing in front of a billboard promising prosperity – present a visual image of how decades later many Americans still define poverty.
As Congress and the White House engaged in heated debate over the cost of government, the Heritage Foundation, a D.C. think tank with a perspective favored by political conservatives, threw a log on the fire with a report provocatively titled: “Air Conditioning, Cable TV, and an Xbox: What is Poverty in the United States Today?” that could be interpreted as suggesting that certain items in their homes should disqualify them from being considered as living in poverty.
“As Congress struggles to find a way to cut spending as part of raising the $14 trillion debt ceiling, they should take a close look at the more than $1 trillion spent every year on welfare. You’ll be surprised to learn that many of the 30 million Americans defined as “poor” and in need of government assistance aren’t quite what you’d expect — rather than homeless and on the streets, the average poor American household has luxuries like air conditioning, cable TV, and Xbox video game consoles,” a summary of the Heritage Foundation report reads.
The Heritage report states: “Poor families certainly struggle to make ends meet, but in most cases, they are struggling to pay for air conditioning and the cable TV bill as well as to put food on the table. Their living standards are far different from the images of dire deprivation promoted by activists and the mainstream media.”
Needless to say, not everyone concurs with the Heritage Foundation’s conclusions. “The implicit assumption is that they’re spending money on the wrong things. . . . The implicit assumption is that the poor shouldn’t have those things,” said Marybeth J. Mattingly, who directs research on vulnerable families at The Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire. Mattingly credits the Heritage Foundation for acknowledging that America’s poor today live better than their predecessors in earlier generations and better than the poor in other nations, but suggests that different conclusions can be drawn from the same data.
Mattingly worries about how inferences drawn from the Heritage Foundation report might play into policy debates about government assistance for the poor. “It is clear that people are relying on these programs,” she said, noting the recent report detailing a growing gap between the income of the wealthiest and the poorest Americans.
How the U.S. government determines what constitutes poverty is controversial. I’ve written before about the need to update a formula that was created using data from 1955.
Back in 1995 a panel of the National Research Council concluded that “The official poverty measure in the United States is flawed and does not adequately inform policy-makers or the public about who is poor and who is not poor.” Alternatives using more up-to-date criteria have been proposed but not adopted for official use, so touchy are the political ramifications of a change in defining who is poor.
The existing formula determined that in 2009 14.3 percent of the population - 1-in-7 Americans - lived below the line that made them eligible for federal assistance. For 2011, the federal poverty guideline for a family of four in the continental United States is a household income of $22,350 (slightly higher in Alaska and Hawaii).
Using 2005 data from the Department of Energy on residential energy consumption (the most recent available), the Heritage Foundation compared the percentage of all U.S. households with “various amenities” with the percentage of poor U.S. households with those same items.
The online version of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines an amenity as “something that conduces to comfort, convenience, or enjoyment.” The same online dictionary defines poverty as “the state of one who lacks a usual or socially acceptable amount of money or material possessions,” which certainly leaves plenty of room for discussion.
“According to the government’s own survey data, in 2005, the average household defined as poor by the government lived in a house or apartment equipped with air-conditioning and cable TV. The family had a car (a third of the poor have two or more cars). For entertainment, the household had two color televisions, a DVD player, and a VCR,” the Heritage Foundation report reads.
In order, the top five items for both the population and a whole and those classified as poor were: a refrigerator, television, stove and oven, microwave and air-conditioning.
What about a personal computer? The Energy Department data held that 68 percent of Americans in 2005 had a personal computer, but only 38 percent of those classified as poor. The data also held that 27.5 percent of all American households had a big screen television, but just shy of 18 percent those classified as poor did, as well. At the bottom of both lists, for those curious, was a jacuzzi, found in 6 percent of all households but only .6 percent of those classified as poor.
Given the brutal heat wave that afflicted much of the country in recent weeks, causing numerous deaths, defining air-conditioning as a luxury seems a sure way to start an argument. What about cable TV or an Xbox video game system?
Mattingly pointed out that, particularly in rural America, cars are necessary to reach a job and that having more than one car does not mean that all are in working order. An Xbox system or other entertainment options at home may ensure that a child plays at home rather than venturing out into neighborhoods that may not be safe. A computer with Internet access increasingly is critical for children and adults to take advantage of educational opportunities or to access social services. Appliances, such as a microwave or clothes washer, may be owned by a landlord and not by the resident of a house or apartment.
CNN speaks with the Wilfahrt family about their son, Cpl. Anthony Wilfahrt, who was killed in February in Afghanistan. Cpl. Wilfahrt was openly gay, a fact that seemed not to affect the other guys in his unit. CNN's Wayne Drash has written a poignant profile of Cpl. Wilfahrt and the effect his death had on his family.
Now Wilfahrt's parents have taken up the cause of same-sex marriage on his behalf. A proposed change to the state constitution in Minnesota, where the Wilfahrts are from, would outlaw gay marriage and define the union as one man and one woman. CNN also speaks with the man who authored the proposed amendment, State Sen. Warren Limmer.
A Walmart shopper takes matters into her own hands when no one tries to stop three young men from walking out of the store without paying for several cases of beer. Now that she's had a few days to think about what she did, CNN's Don Lemon asks her how she feels about it.
A neighbor's complaint leads to the Delaware Dept. of Transportation enforcing a rarely observed 2005 law, forcibly removing basketball goals from a neighborhood in Claymont, Del. CNN's Don Lemon talks about the controversy with one of the homeowners and his daughter.
From CNN Anchor Don Lemon:
I had barely made it in the door at work on Saturday when a CNN producer grabbed my arm and walked me to my desk. He kept saying, "You've got to see this video. You've got to see it."
"What is it?" I asked.
"It's a mom. She's in anguish," he said. "She screams at a judge who sentenced her son. Then he killed himself."
"The judge killed himself?"
"No," he said. "Just watch."
So I sat at my desk. He pulled up the video and my jaw nearly hit the floor.
The former judge had just exited the courthouse where he had been found guilty of racketeering and money laundering in a so-called "kids for cash" incarceration scheme. The woman exploded with rage. "Do you remember my son? Do you remember my son?" she screamed. "He was an all-star wrestler and he's gone! He shot himself in the heart!"
Her voice gave me chills. On her face was an odd mix of sadness, pain and pure rage.
"What happened to her?" I wanted to know. "Why is she so upset with that man?"
Then the entire wretched story rolled out. The mom was Sandy Fonzo. Her son took his own life after that man, Judge Mark Ciavarella, had sentenced Fonzo's 17-year-old son, Edward Kenzakowski, to six months in a Pennsylvania detention center for possession of drug paraphernalia.
The sentence seemed excessive to everyone because, according to Kenzakowski's mother, it was his first offense. And usually in such cases, especially teenagers, it is presumed the judge will be lenient in his ruling. But Judge Ciavarella was anything but lenient. And Fonzo says her son never recovered from the ordeal and eventually took his own life.
As fate would have it, the feds in Pennsylvania became suspicious of similar rulings by Ciavarella and launched an investigation. Ciavarella was found guilty of accepting nearly $1 million in kickbacks for sending thousands of teens to a juvenile facility owned by some of his friends.
"Call this mom. Let's get her on tonight," I said.
"We've already making the calls," replied my executive producer.
So our entire team just sat there quietly, fingers crossed, praying that Sandy Fonzo would come on CNN to tell her story.
For hours, we heard nothing. But right in the middle of the show, as I was interviewing an attorney about Ciavarella's case, my producer spoke into my earpiece saying, "Tell the audience we have the mom. She'll be on live in the next hour."
I continued on with the show. And in the commercial break before the interview, I asked Fonzo how she was doing. She told me she didn't know how she was doing, and that she and her family were basically numb. She told me she was nervous.
"You have no need to be nervous," I told her. "I got you." I wanted her to feel that talking to me was no different than talking to a concerned friend or neighbor. I thought about all the women in my life with sons and what they would do if they lost one of them. I wanted Sandy Fonzo to get it off her chest. And I was going to give her the opportunity to tell the world.
The interview went well. And her answer to my final question brought it home for me and for anyone who saw the interview. I said, "Can you ever forgive this judge?"
And in her own sobering words, fighting back tears, Fonzo responded: "No never, never. There is no justice. [Ciavarella] will never receive my sentence. What I have to live with [is] every day of my life without my son. [Ciavarella] left on that beautiful day yesterday to go back with his family. I have nothing anymore. Nothing. It was all for nothing. It was all for greed and for more and more. He never had enough. He took everything from me. And I'll never, never forgive him, no!"
Mary Jo Buttafuoco, who survived a point-blank gunshot to the head, speaks tonight with CNN's Don Lemon about Giffords' survival and remarkable recovery. Watch the live interview tonight - Sunday, January 23 - at 6 p.m. ET.
By CNN Senior Producer Glenn Emery
Everyone is anxiously following the recovery of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, but perhaps no one is as keenly tuned in as Mary Jo Buttafuoco. She suffered her own traumatic head wound in 1992 when her then-husband’s teenager lover, Amy Fisher, shot her point-blank in the face on the steps of the Buttafuocos’ Long Island home. Today, more than 18 years later, she still bears the scars of that attack. She’s paralyzed on the right side of her face and is deaf in her right ear. She lives with constant pain that she describes as an impacted wisdom tooth. She gets dizzy if she turns around. She won’t answer the door without knowing who it is.
Buttafuoco was not shot in the brain as Giffords was. But her first-hand experience at surviving and recovering from a bullet to the head offers a rare glimpse into what Giffords may be going through now and may likely face in the future.
Based on her own experience, Buttafuoco says Giffords might not yet fully comprehend where she is or exactly what has happened. Buttafuoco says doctors told her she was responsive to them after her own injury, and they told her repeatedly that she had been shot. But she says she has no memory of it. Reality did not sink in until much later. According to Buttafuoco, Giffords could face a similar awakening in the future in which she learns the enormity of the tragedy. Buttafuoco worries that could pose a potential setback in Giffords’ recovery because the truth could be an overwhelming burden.
Buttafuoco also points out that Giffords is likely under heavy sedation. Addiction is always a risk when powerful pain medications are used. Medication creates a comfortable cocoon from the physical and emotional pain, Buttafuoco says. When the drugs are removed, the pain can be overwhelming. Buttafuoco became addicted to pain killers and eventually had to go to the Betty Ford Clinic to recover.
Even after the body has healed, Buttafuoco says there is a whole new adjustment to life. The wounded body will not be the same and may not function as before. Giffords may have to learn how to do many ordinary things all over again.
“It will be a long and arduous process,” Buttafuoco says of Giffords’ recovery.
Buttafuoco told her story in the 2009 book, “Getting it Through My Thick Skull.”