For generations, Brenda Teets's family has wrestled a living out of the changing economy of Western Maryland.
No strangers to hard times, family members have worked low-paying jobs, hunted in the woods for meat to put on their tables and raised children alone when spouses died or left.
Teets's grandfather, Edgar Skidmore, worked in the Midlothian Coal Co. mine until it shut down. Her father, Irvin Morgan, worked at the Celanese Corp. synthetic-fiber plant near Cumberland until he was laid off. Teets and her grown sons work in what's known as the service sector, preparing taxes, pumping gas, answering telephones at a call center, but never getting ahead.
Forty years ago, President Lyndon B. Johnson went to the remote panhandle of Maryland, some 100 miles from the White House, on a tour to launch his War on Poverty.
"I know what poverty means to people," he told the crowd, as he stood on the steps of Cumberland City Hall in May 1964. "It means waiting in a surplus food line rather than in a supermarket checkout."
Yet this spring, a few miles away in Lonaconing, beyond the strip mine and the landfill, along Georges Creek, amid the hills, the food line stretches from the social hall of the Assembly of God church to the railroad tracks. There are lean, weathered men, little girls in pink jackets, and young mothers and grandmothers with empty laundry baskets, waiting to get in and collect their cereal and canned peas and apple sauce.
The hard times endure, especially in Allegany County and other rural and Rust Belt places where people find themselves swimming against economic tides -- from disappearing jobs to diminishing returns for work -- that the planners of the War on Poverty did not predict in those optimistic days between the boom years of the 1950s and Johnson's escalation of the Vietnam War.
Inside the food bank, volunteers Teets, 41, and her mother Wanda Binnix, 61, work steadily, hefting boxes, stocking the tables for the rush. These women, too, are struggling. They, too, qualify for the monthly, $5 hampers of food.
When Teets finishes, she will hurry back home to Cumberland, change from her jeans to a skirt and hose and head to her job preparing taxes.
"Two weeks pays the rent. Two weeks pays the gas bill," she says. "Then you've got to figure out where the rest comes from."
Teets may need surgery, her doctor has told her. But she can't stop now, not until work at the office slows down. "If you don't work," she says, "you don't get paid."
She has worked through injury and illness many times. Like nearly one-quarter of the working-age adults in Allegany County, she has no health insurance.
"Two, four, six, eight," Teets says, counting out cans of tuna.
Today, 20 million working Americans and family members are living below the poverty line, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. An additional 40 million are managing to stay above the poverty line but have serious trouble paying their rent, buying health insurance or providing food for their families.
Since Johnson launched the War on Poverty, poor families have benefited from programs started during his presidency, such as Head Start for preschool children and grants for college students, and from later programs that grew out of the initiative, such as the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women Infants and Children and the earned-income tax credit.
Johnson's initiatives have helped bring about a dramatic reduction of the poverty rate among the elderly. The childhood poverty rate also has declined but has proved more intractable. Since the 1970s, the number of poor families with at least one person working full time has doubled.
For Johnson to win the war, real earnings needed to double from generation to generation, and the economy needed to remain healthy, his planners said. Instead, the nation entered a period of high inflation, followed by industrial restructuring and soaring unemployment, says Sheldon Danziger, a poverty researcher at the University of Michigan.
Today, average wages for production workers are lower in real dollars than they were 40 years ago, Danziger's research shows.
"The War on Poverty hasn't let people down so much as the economy," Danziger says.
Brenda Teets was a year old when Johnson visited Cumberland. Her mother didn't bring her to City Hall to hear the president speak of improving poor schools and retraining workers whose skills were obsolete. Wanda Binnix already knew the kind of wearying poverty he described, the kind Johnson's planners had just begun tomeasure.
Binnix was raised in the western part of Allegany County, one of a coal miner's 14 children. When she was growing up, the mines that had driven the railroads, which in turn had transformed Cumberland into a commercial hub, were closing.
When she was 6, her mother died. Then the Midlothian mine where her father, Edgar Skidmore, worked shut down. Her father had to adapt. "He drove a school bus," she says. "He raised us.
"If you have had a hard raising-up, it sticks in your craw, in your mind," Binnix says. Her grandchildren, she says, have had it easy.
They will never know the feeling of crawling two miles into the ground to work the mine. They haven't had to sleep six to a bed like she and her siblings did. They don't know the taste of groundhog or squirrel.
Binnix found a measure of prosperity during her marriage to Brenda's father, Irvin Morgan. In the 1960s, he worked full time at Celanese, the big synthetic-fiber mill south of the city. He came home with holes burned in his clothes from the vats of chemicals he tended. He also came home with benefits and enough money to support her and their three children.
In Cumberland, many people look back at the '60s, at Johnson's visit, as a time of prosperity.
"This was a wealthy town back then," says the Rev. Daniel G. Taylor Jr., who was among the thousand who greeted Johnson. The factories were running, and unions were strong. Cumberland's Kelly-Springfield Tire Co. plant made tires, and the local Pittsburgh Plate Glass Co. plant manufactured windshield glass. More than one-third of the working-age men in the county had manufacturing jobs, and many brought in more than $4,000 a year. Some blue-collar workers -- railroad and paper mill employees, for instance -- were making the county's median income: $5,100.
Then there were the poor: One-fourth of the county's families were living on less than $3,000 a year, which in 1964, became the definition of poverty for a family of four. Nationwide, one-fifth of Americans were living below that line -- the "forgotten fifth," Johnson called them.
Johnson's War on Poverty, together with a growing economy, had a noticeable effect. By the 1970 Census, the national poverty rate had been cut by about one-third, with 12.6 percent of people deemed low-income. In Allegany County, it fell to 14 percent and declined even further by the next census.
For Brenda Teets's family, though, trouble lay ahead. Her mother left the family when Brenda was 3. Her father was laid off from the factory, and he would resort to hunting to put food on the table.
Yet her father told Brenda that she was smart and that she could reach beyond a life on the edge of poverty. She dreamed of going to college. Then in 1979, at age 16, Brenda had her first child.
For Allegany County it was the end of an era.
In the 1980s, the factories began shutting down. Celanese closed in 1983, a casualty of changing markets and a foreign buyout. The Kelly-Springfield and Pittsburgh Plate Glass plants followed when technology made their products obsolete.
By the end of the decade, poverty in the county would be back up to 16.5 percent
County leaders fought back hard. They attracted a vast state prison complex. There's a federal prison, too. Manufacturing still plays a role, though smaller. Then there are restaurant, hotel, health care and retail jobs, and jobs at call centers for $7 and $8 an hour.
At the time of the 2000 Census, the county's poverty rate was about 15 percent, far lower than when Johnson came. Yet in the food pantry, a sense of pessimism remains. More people with jobs, some with incomes nearly twice the poverty level, show up once a month to stretch their food budget.
National experts say the poverty rate no longer shows how many families are living below the subsistence level. As in 1964, the poverty line is still defined as three times the cost of a year's worth of food. But while the inflation-adjusted cost of food has fallen, the costs of other needs, such as housing, transportation and child care, have grown.
Now, at twice the poverty level, nearly three-quarters of American families have at least one serious financial hardship, such as worries about food, rent or mortgage payments or about inadequate medical or child care, according to the Washington-based Economic Policy Institute.
"The category you could call struggling has broadened to include families at twice the poverty rate," says Jared Bernstein, senior economist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan organization.
On Easter Sunday, Brenda Teets gathers her children and guests for a dinner of ham and macaroni salad, deviled eggs and green bean casserole.
Her first husband is dead of cancer, and two other marriages are over. Teets remains the gravitational center of the family, with four children still at home, including one who pays rent to live in the basement.
Teets supervises a tax service office in a strip shopping center in Cumberland. With her salary, supplemented by Social Security death benefits and child support, she manages to stay above the $18,400 annual poverty level for a family of four.
She and her three younger children live on about $1,600 in a good month. With rent, utilities, car payments and insurance and after-school child care, her monthly bills regularly top $2,000.
Each year, at tax time, she, like many of her clients, receives an earned-income tax credit. That brings her annual income to about $22,000 a year, but it's not enough to close her budget gap.
Because her work is seasonal, she receives no benefits, though her younger children are eligible for a state insurance program for children. When she is laid off during slow months, she collects unemployment. The arrangement works up to a point, allowing her to be home when school is out. But she is well aware that she walks a thin line.
On Easter, her three young daughters are helping in the kitchen of her rented bungalow, with the 5-year-old standing on a chair to reach the sink. Her three grown children are on hand.
There is Tom Spiker, 22, trained as a cable technician. Unable to find work in that field, he pumps gas for minimum wage. There is Matt Kirkpatrick, 20, the father of a 2-year-old girl. He is taking college classes and working at a call center, taking customer-service calls for $7 an hour. Both sons are frustrated about their prospects.
"Living around here," says Matt, "you don't have an example of what you want to be."
An example, though, sits across the living room.
Brenda's oldest child, Krista Spiker, 24, buoyed by scholarships, work-study jobs and her mother's dreams, is earning her second master's degree at Frostburg State University. Later in the summer, after her wedding, she will head to Marquette University in Milwaukee to work on a doctorate in educational policy and leadership.
She believes that her brothers could try harder to find their places in the world. But she acknowledges that they are at a disadvantage compared with people for whom college educations and job opportunities come easier. "We work for everything we have," she says, "but you can only make so much happen on your own."
Krista Spiker will leave Allegany County, where the population is falling and aging.
"It's a giant retirement home," says her brother Tom, angrily. "If you want to retire, come to Cumberland. If you want a good job, go somewhere else."
But Cumberland is where he stays, frustrated and stuck, sitting in his mother's living room.
His mother is working in the kitchen, tired and worried. She has been told that she has a large tumor on her left ovary. As she awaits test results, the tumor haunts her.
She thinks about her first husband's agonizing death to cancer, about her mother's decision to leave, about how those losses shook the family as deeply as the county's economic hardships did.
And she thinks of her children. She has worked hard to make them a place in the world better than hers. But all of it -- the rented bungalow, the full refrigerator, the windows curtained against the rain, her purchase on stability -- is, after generations of hard work, bad luck and resilience, still so very fragile.