Oprah and Jon Dyson, Mayor of Pembroke, Illinois

When Hurricane Katrina blew across the Gulf Coast, it also blew the lid off America's dirty little secret. For years, the poor people in the United States have been virtually invisible. But now there is no denying the truth—37 million Americans live in poverty. In 2005, Oprah drove 70 miles from her home in Chicago to the township of Pembroke, Illinois, to see the reality firsthand.

In the township of Pembroke, the state's most impoverished community, 55 percent of the residents were living beneath the poverty level and 40 percent were living without running water. At the time, the average income was $9,700 a year.

With no opportunity for jobs in the near future, Pembroke had no bank, no drug store, no real medical facility and very few paved roads. The mayor, the Reverend Jon Dyson, says every day is a struggle for survival.

"The people here live in those kind of conditions that the people from the great city of New Orleans have just got faced with," says the Reverend Jon Dyson. "What's really amazing is these people have survived here all this time with little or nothing—third-world conditions in some areas."
Vanessa and her husband

In 1998, Vanessa and her family moved from Chicago to Pembroke with hopes of a better life. Vanessa, her husband and four of her children are now struggling to survive on just $579 a month.

They make money by selling duck eggs, and Vanessa grows her own vegetables and raises goats for food. But, the meager income isn't enough to cover the $2,500 to $5,000 it would cost to hook up running water to their home. Every day, Vanessa pumps water into the house to wash dishes, bathe and flush the toilets.

Vanessa says she once dreamed of a big white house with a picket fence, but life in Pembroke is a harsh reality check. However, hope is still alive—Vanessa has a job interview coming up and believes things will improve with a steady paycheck.
Larry Gibbs, township supervisor of Pembroke, Illinois

Pembroke's extreme poverty breeds a series of problems for the entire community. When Oprah met with the township supervisor, Larry Gibbs, he told her that unsanitary water is the most pressing issue.

"We need at least $20 million to fix the sewer system and the water system," Larry says. "The water is not clean. People come into my office every day complaining: 'This water smells. This water tastes bad. This water…we don't know what's going on with the water.'"

The problem? Pembroke doesn't have its own zip code, so very few tax dollars get funneled into the community. With no money, the town can't afford basic needs like emergency services, trash pickup, tornado warning systems and animal control. Larry says stray animals roam Pembroke in packs.
Kendell and Oprah

Pembroke resident Laura Ann gets a $319 Social Security check each month, but it doesn't even begin to cover her expenses. Her 30-year-old son, Kendell, has a degree in law enforcement and could get a job in a larger city, but he refuses to leave his sick mother.

"You just don't leave the people that love you," Kendell says. "You don't do that."

The Harrison family has a car—but no money for gas. They also have a dried-up well, which has forced them to tap into the water line of a neighbor. Kendell carries buckets back and forth throughout the day. He also helps save precious pennies by being resourceful.

"I take two-ply toilet tissue, and take an empty roll, and roll it off on one to make two rolls out of the toilet tissue so it will last longer," Kendell says.

"I understand poor," Oprah says. "I grew up poor. I grew up poor with no running water. It's just shocking that in 2005 there are people that don't have running water. You're still here."
Anderson Cooper

Hurricane Katrina coverage brought images of the Gulf Coast's poorest residents into every home in America. Desperate, impoverished and "invisible" before this disaster struck, many of New Orleans' poor were left behind…stranded at the Superdome.

Oprah visited the Superdome days after Hurricane Katrina hit, but CNN's Anderson Cooper has been reporting from the Gulf Coast since the day before disaster struck—and he says there's still more to say.

"I didn't want to leave," Anderson says. "It felt like the place to be, and I felt privileged to be there among the people who were standing up and surviving—despite being abandoned and despite all that happened to them."

Oprah says Anderson's honest and heartfelt reports from the Gulf Coast inspired her to travel there with the Angel Network team . "You, Anderson, were one of the people that motivated me," Oprah says. "I was watching CNN all the time, and you were saying, 'Nothing is happening here. These people need help. These people need help.'"

What does Anderson think went wrong in New Orleans? "I think [on] the state, the federal [and] the local level there's plenty of blame to go around," Anderson says. "Look, this whole show is about the invisible poor. And I think we're seeing in New Orleans the price of not seeing and not understanding our fellow countrymen and the way they live.

"When the mayor of New Orleans knows that there are 100,000 people in that city who don't have access to a car or can't pay for a gasoline, and yet, he doesn't provide buses or bus drivers to get them out, that is the consequence when you're invisible…you don't get evacuated because no one knows you're there."
Anderson Cooper and Oprah

Oprah: So what has haunted you most about your experiences [in New Orleans]?

Anderson: The people who died—our countrymen, our neighbors, who were left for weeks and weeks and weeks to rot in the streets. I can't get over the people I saw who drowned in their living rooms and who were left there for days and days because there weren't refrigerated trucks to pick them up in. … I saw a woman floating in her backyard a few feet away from a box of MREs (meals ready to eat) and around a corner there was a man laying on top of a car for two weeks at least.

I've worked in Rwanda on the genocide. I've worked elsewhere in Africa, and I've seen people die and left and dissolve into nothingness into the ground. I never thought I would see it in the streets of the United States of America.
Anderson Cooper

In 2005, Detroit earned the dubious distinction of being America's poorest big city. One in three people live below the poverty line, and with the rapid decline of the auto industry, the unemployment rate has reached 15 percent.

When Oprah sent Anderson to Detroit on assignment, he says he saw the failures of the city all around—in abandoned buildings and long unemployment lines. Even beneath the busy highways, there were hidden signs of decline.

Communities of homeless people sleep underneath the highways every night. Anderson spoke to one woman who had been living there for two years. Her two children, who live in Detroit, didn't want her to live on the streets, but she insisted on staying right where she is.

"My family does not like for me to live like this," she says. "But you know what? I don't want to ruin my kids' lives because my life is ruined."
Anderson Cooper, Steve, Luwana and their children

Anderson's next stop in Detroit was the Doorstep Shelter where he met Steve, Luwana and their three children. They moved into the shelter in August of 2005, and this is the first time they've ever been homeless. Luwana, who used to work for the city government, admits that she and Steve mismanaged money in the past, but now they spend each day searching for jobs and have learned from their mistakes.

In order to take his children to school each morning, Steve sells his blood plasma, which gives him enough money to gas up the family car. He gets plasma taken twice every week—they'll pay him $20 for the first donation and $25 for the second.
Steve and Luwana's daughter

When Anderson asks Steve and Luwana's daughter about their old home, she recalls many fond memories. "We used to have a big old Christmas tree with candy canes, but we really don't get to have that right now," she says.

She also believes in her heart that things will eventually get better. "Every night I pray," she says. "I pray that God will help me and my family."
Alexandria Steel and Anderson Cooper

In the summer of 2005, Alexandria and her three children were living out of their van in Detroit's Belle Isle Park. After Alexandria's husband of 16 years abandoned the family, Alexandria spiraled into depression, lost her job and got evicted from her home. She thought the park was the safest place she could go.

Alexandria: I couldn't even believe I was there, but having the kids with me just kind of made it seem unreal. How could this have happened? I didn't see an end in sight.

Anderson: Did you feel guilty at times?

Alexandria: Every single day. Sometimes I found it hard to even look at them. … These are people I brought into the world, and I'm responsible for them. To feed them, to clothe them, to house them…and I couldn't do that. Now, that's being a failure to me.

Thanks to Mom's Place, a community organization that helps single mothers get back on their feet, Alexandria now lives in her own home. She's working part-time and is back in school.
Anderson Cooper and Candace, president of Detroit's Homeless Action Network

Candace, the president of Detroit's Homeless Action Network, says that there are more than 10,000 people living on the streets of Detroit every night—the majority of whom are single moms.

"Most of them are not addicted to any substance," Candace says. "They are not mentally ill. They lost the house because they lost their job."

For many poor families, all it takes is one missed paycheck or one bad day to send them over the edge.

"You know, lots of people make mistakes in their lives," Oprah says. "They get a break, and you get another chance, and you get another chance. But when you're poor, one strike, and you're out."

"When you don't have money in the bank, and when you don't have a family who loves you or who can care for you, the only place to fall back on is the street," Anderson says. "And the street is pretty damn hard."
Candy Lumpkin and her daughter

Atop a steep and rocky hill in Hindman, Kentucky, another of Oprah's special correspondents, Maria Shriver, met Candy, whose family has lived in Appalachia for three generations. For years, coal mining was the region's lifeline until the entire industry began to die out. As a result of the dwindling local economy, 65 percent of the people in Appalachia now live in poverty.

Since Candy's husband lost his job as a coal truck mechanic a year ago, the family has been living on food stamps and welfare. "It's hard not being able to buy the kids what they want," says Candy. "They won't even have [new] school clothes and shoes this year because I couldn't buy them. I've got no phone now. I barely can pay the electric [bill] and I'm behind on rent."

Candy says she does not feel poor, though her eyes fill with tears at the question. "I'm proud of my family…I'm proud of what I've got," Candy says. "I feel sad because people out here with money look down on us and talk about us like we're a bunch of dumb hillbillies. Well, we're not."
Barbara and her family

Barbara lost her home and all her belongings in a fire. In the short time it took for the house to burn to the ground, Barbara watched her entire future go up in flames. "When our home burned, we had no insurance," Barbara says, holding back tears. "My husband's really ill and we could not afford insurance. … He feels like he's not going to live to see us get another home."

Barbara and her family now live in a storage trailer without plumbing or electricity. She has to accept handouts for the first time in her life. "Before my husband got sick, we both worked," says Barbara. "We did all right." Now she feeds her family with donations from the local food bank that services more than 6,000 families each year.

Although Barbara has dreams for her children's future, she struggles to find hope for her own. "I always considered myself to be lucky. I had my kids and I had my husband. Truly, that's all I wanted. Now, I kind of feel like the world's beat me up…and I can't get up."
Brenda and her children

In Knott County, Kentucky, a staggering 42 percent of single moms that work are living at or below the federal poverty level.

Brenda, a single mom with two kids, says she was on the brink of poverty when her husband died tragically two years ago. Today, Brenda says nothing has changed, despite working two jobs and going to school.

Brenda earns $900 per month, but defines herself as the "working poor" because her income still falls below the official poverty level. "We're right above that level where you get assistance," says Brenda. "[I] don't have any savings account. I have a home but I could lose it very easily. 'Working poor' is me."

Each woman tells a different story of poverty. But they all share one common thread: Family. "I want my children to go to school and be somebody," Brenda says. She hugs her children and says, "We love each other an awful lot."
Merverlyn in Hartford, Connecticut

Gayle King went on assignment for Oprah's special report and met with Merverlyn in Hartford, Connecticut. Born and raised in the city's projects, Merverlyn worked 16 hours a day, seven days a week to buy her home. Yet she is still considered part of Hartford's poor population. In fact, 43 percent of the city's children live below the poverty line. The average weekly income for their families is $365.

Supporting herself and her three children on only $224 a week, Merverlyn says she must often make tough choices to survive. "This past Sunday, we didn't have dinner," she says. "We didn't have any food because my paycheck had to go to pay the car payment, which was past due. And I have to pay the car payment because that's the way I get to work."

With a house, job and car, Merverlyn appears to be making ends meet. But she says looks can be deceiving. "Looking at my house … people would think that everything is okay with us," says Merverlyn. "But it's really not. So I feel invisible because most people don't know how I live."
Gayle King and Alexandra

Gayle visited the home of Alexandra, a 21-year-old single mother of two. A high school dropout, Alexandra fits the profile of the typical poor in Hartford: she is uneducated, a minority, and had her first baby when she was a teenager. Sixty-three percent of children living in poverty are African-American or Hispanic.

If given the chance, Alexandra says she would have made different choices in her life. "I would finish school, have a job and prepare myself before even thinking of … having kids."

Finding a job has been difficult for Alexandra, but she says she is determined to improve her situation. "I'm going to look out for a job real hard and I'm going to find it," she says. "I love my children—they're my life—and I'm going to live for them and make them happy."
Linda and Gayle King

With a weekly income of only $60, 43-year-old Linda says she is not living the life she envisioned for herself. A high school dropout and former drug addict, Linda admits to making some bad choices. "It all had to do with drugs," she says. "Mom was an alcoholic. Daddy was an alcoholic. I smoke and drank at [age] nine."

Linda has been drug-free for three years and works as a Laundromat clerk. She still expresses hope for a better future. "[I'm] just trying to raise up and do the best I can," says Linda. "I still have hope to be able to say I'm going to achieve the goals that I want. Get my GED. Get a good job. Clean up my credit. It's not too late."
Anderson Cooper and Oprah

Anderson says caring for America's poor affects everyone. "We are all part of a community and this is what we do in a community: We care for our neighbors and we think about them," he says. "The line between us … is a very thin one. It's as thin as the walls of the human heart."

By "individuals helping individuals," Anderson suggests that the cycle of poverty can begin to be broken. "We think about what big government can do, but it boils down to individuals helping individuals and reaching out."

For Oprah, providing education and hope are critical keys to decreasing poverty. "The greater percentage of my money goes to education and educating kids, because I think education is enormous in opening the door to opportunity for people … We can help people hold on."
FROM: Oprah Special Report: Inside the Lives of America's Poor
Published on October 12, 2005


Next Story