A dizzying fall from middle-class grace

Petula Dvorak
Columnist September 24, 2012

Between the poor and the 1 percent lie millions of struggling Americans.

You can find them — along with bizarre purple sweaters and endless fondue sets — at places like Value Village, a thrift superstore in Hyattsville.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

“It’s how I can buy her a dress like this,” explains Yemmy Fashoto, pointing to the turquoise confection her 9-year-old daughter had slipped on over her clothes, and tearing up a little when she talks about her new shopping habits.

“We used to go to Macy’s, but that’s not for us anymore,” says Fashoto, who lives in Riverdale and whose husband recently lost his job as a security guard in downtown D.C.

Her family doesn’t qualify as “poor,” under the definition used by the federal government.

When we see headlines like “Poverty grows in high-income Washington suburbs,” we imagine people without shoes eating gruel, living in cardboard boxes. But the fact is the official poverty number (8.3 percent in the Washington region, 15 percent in the country) reveals such a tiny piece of America’s story.

We don’t envision people like Fashoto, in a nice, burgundy blazer and a chignon, a car and two kids, when we talk about hardship and the long debate in a store aisle about whether $4.99 is too much for a fancy church dress.

These are the folks hovering above the poverty line, just a few digits away from the cliff that drops them into the world of people we fret over and create government programs for.

Poverty, in most of the cases we hear it discussed, means a household income of less than $23,000 for a family of four. But what if you make $25,000, $30,000 or even $40,000? Is that easy street?

Hardly.

Rick Taylor is a neatly dressed, good-looking man of 51. He is a restaurant manager. And when I look at him, I don’t think “poverty.” Neither does the government.

“Christmas,” he says, shaking his head. “Christmas will never be the same again.”

At $34,000 a year, he makes about $10,000 too much to be considered poor.

Yet here he is, at Unique Thrift in Falls Church, deciding whether to spend $3.99 on a sweatshirt.

“Their prices are high, too high. There used to be a line out this door before they opened, so many people were here to shop,” Taylor says. “But their prices are just getting too high.”

Still, there are Volvos and Toyota minivans with DVD players in the parking lot. A whole herd of the pre-poor, the ones banished from Nordstrom’s, giddy over a pair of snowboarding boots for $19.95.

A Bethesda divorcee of 56 — blonde and fit — plies the aisles for things to support a middle-class life she can feel slipping away.

“I wanted to paddle board, so I bought the wet suit here,” she says, asking that I don’t name her. “I just, you know, don’t want my name out there on this.”

Her trendy purple tennis shoes? “Got ’em here,” she says.

Her cute hoodie? “Right here.”

“Whatever I have isn’t going to last. It isn’t going to carry me all the way,” she says. “I’ve gotta shop here if I want to make it.”

A government worker looking at purses tells me she couldn’t afford splurges like the Liz Claiborne bag she is eyeing on the rack on her pre-poor salary.

“I’m a government employee. I don’t get raises,” she says.

Most of them are quiet about the forced thrift.

Not Hannah Norman, 37, a military wife and mother of two. Her husband makes a steady paycheck, sure, but it’s a stretch for them to keep buying new clothes for both their kids.

“It makes the most sense to buy them here, they grow so fast,” Norman says.

Here’s where you see the forgotten America, in the retail valley that’s somewhere between a homeless shelter and a Target (and just as crowded as either). Over by a rack of Care Bears sheet sets are some of your disdained and dismissed 47 percent.

It’s no surprise that places like Unique Thrift — which isn’t tied to a charity — are growing nearly as quickly in the suburbs as $4 cupcake shops are growing in the city.

There are Salvation Army Superstores and Goodwill mega places thriving throughout the Washington area. The Association of Resale Professionals estimates that the resale market is growing at about 7 percent a year.

Poverty — and the lower-income world hovering just above it — is moving. It used to be that you could see it only in the city. But now it has crept out to the Beltway and beyond, taking root in a region that is home to seven of the nation’s 10 wealthiest counties.

From 2010 to 2011, poverty rates jumped in Loudoun, Fairfax, Arlington and Prince William counties, the land of McMansions, gated communities and shiny, big-box stores.

The suburbs were built to accommodate prosperity and consumption, a life of big lawns, big cars and big dreams. It is a precipice so high that the drop — a missed mortgage that turns into a foreclosure, a repossessed car that results in a lost job — is dizzying.

Step into any thrift store and the pain is on display, right along with the used cake platters, tea sets and cocktail dresses nobody needs anymore.

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.

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