Americans tread water in gulf between rich, poor

By JIM FITZGERALD and VICKI SMITH
The Associated Press
Friday, October 1, 2010; 4:29 PM

MOUNT VERNON, N.Y. -- A Wall Street adviser leaves early for work to avoid panhandlers at his suburban train station. In coal country, a suddenly homeless man watches from a bench as wealthy women shop for dresses. A down-and-out waitress sits glumly on her stoop across the street from a gleaming suburb. A freshly elected politician loses his day job.

They're the faces of a census report released this week showing that the gap between the richest and poorest Americans is wider than ever.

The recession technically ended in the middle of last year, but the numbers can't tell the whole story. The census report translates to stories of impatience, resignation and hopelessness for those who are living it across the country.

It's the story of Roy Houseman, who, having barely finished celebrating his election to the City Council in Missoula, Mont., was laid off. It's the story of Ashleigh Dorner, an unemployed Detroiter who has a car but no money for gas or insurance. It's the story of John Morgan, a financial adviser who avoids interaction with the poor in the gritty New York suburb of Mount Vernon.

And it's the story of Charles Fox.

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Fox, 68, has claimed a bench on High Street in Morgantown, W.Va. It's tucked between a pizza shop and a gelato stand he can't afford to visit. Beside him are two black trash bags stuffed with his belongings.

He had a home until last month, when a fire burned down one of the last cheap motels in town. Now he sits in the morning sunshine, worrying about the approach of winter.

"I ain't found no place to live yet," he says, staring down at the sidewalk.

Morgantown's metro area has the largest gap between rich and poor in the 50 states, the new census figures say. That's partly because it's a college town, and the number of students is growing rapidly, along with the low-paying jobs that support them.

College towns also have highly paid professors, researchers and doctors. And they're a landlord's market: Fox, who was spending $450 a month on rent - three-quarters of his monthly disability check - says he can't find a room for under $1,000 a month.

He used to work in a coal mine, but a blocked artery in his leg makes walking and standing - and holding a job - difficult. At night, he finds a bunk at a packed homeless shelter.


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