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One family's plunge from the middle class into poverty

The Census Bureau recently reported that the poverty rate in the United States rose to 14.3 percent last year, the highest level in more than 50 years. Texas and Florida saw the most people fall below the line.

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By Wil Haygood
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 19, 2010; 12:31 AM

FORT MYERS, FLA. -- Chrissanda Walker's bourbon-glazed chicken is just out of the oven. The bread pudding is finished. The collard greens worry her, though; she doesn't want to overcook them. Walker looks at the clock. It's 10 a.m. She's been on her feet since 6.

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Walker used to make $100,000 a year as a nursing home executive until she lost her job a year and a half ago. Unable to find a new one, she shed her business suits and high heels and put on an apron and soft-soled shoes. This year, she and her daughter are living on $11,000: her unemployment benefits plus whatever she can earn selling home-cooked dinners for $10 apiece.

Her American Dream has taken a punch to the gut. "I never thought I'd be in a situation like this," she says, smoke from the cooking swirling about her. "My friends say to me: 'Listen to the Lord, Chris.' I say, 'No, I have to have a paycheck.' "

The Census Bureau recently reported that the poverty rate in the United States rose to 14.3 percent last year, the highest level in more than 50 years.

Texas and Florida saw the most people fall below the line. In Florida alone, 323,000 people became newly poor last year, bringing the state's poverty total to 2.7 million.

The numbers tell another tale as well: Nationwide, in black households such as Walker's, income plunged an average of 4.4 percent in 2009, almost three times the drop among whites. The number of blacks living below the official poverty line - $21,756 for a family of four - increased by 7 percent in just one year.

"The whole idea in an improving economy is that everyone will benefit," says Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League. "When the train speeds up, everything does improve, but blacks are still in the caboose. When it slows down - in a bad economy - blacks fall out of the caboose."

Now Walker, 50, feels a part of her future has been snatched. Gone like an old breeze. This year, the last dime of her savings vanished. Her health insurance is a thing of the past.

She has had some kind of job - from babysitter to server at a fast-food restaurant - since she was 12 years old. She has always believed in the work ethic. She retains the ethic, but the work is gone.

"My parents had always worked," she says. "They always provided for us. It was never a 'no.' It's what they always instilled in us: Do your best, strive for excellence. That's why all of this is so hard for me," she says, her words struggling to emerge through the sobs.

Sabrina Goodwin Monday, a college classmate, has held some long, late-night phone conversations with Walker. "It's hard for her to believe in the American Dream anymore because there's nothing dreamy about her life anymore."

'Tired in the fight'

Walker's mother, Betty, was a nurse and her father, Louis, worked for the power company. Their only safety net was their own industriousness. Betty Walker died 11 years ago of Lou Gehrig's disease. Louis Walker, now 70, retired after her death. But lately he has gone back to work, driving a tractor-trailer between Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas. He has bills to pay.


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