Going From Middle Class to Poverty

Joseph P. Williams

When I was in first grade, so the family legend goes, I was such a precocious little boy -- smart, friendly, able to work and play well with others -- that one smitten teacher told my mom I'd grow up to be president.

It was 1968, four years into President Lyndon B. Johnson's War on Poverty, an ambitious legislative agenda that changed the nation. Johnson wanted to guarantee that little black children like me, along with white ones in Appalachia and brown ones on Native American reservations, could grow old without ever experiencing the crushing effects of poverty.

[PHOTOS: Appalachian Communities Struggle to Overcome Poverty]

I almost made it, too.

In 2012, my long career as a journalist imploded, my unemployment ran out six months later and, unable to get even a menial job, I found myself homeless. After a lifetime of climbing the class ladder -- earning a college diploma, establishing a career, seizing opportunities to advance -- I became a middle-aged black man depending on others to get by.

[U.S. News Special Report: The War on Poverty]

To say this reversal of fortune was -- is -- a humbling, stressful, frustrating experience is like calling The Great Wall of China a nice little landscaping project.

Sadly, I'm not alone: Since mid-2007, the middle-class lives of millions of Americans have slid into the gaping maw of the Great Recession. Some of us couldn't recover from layoffs; others saw home values vanish under water. Then there are those who lost it all in a devastating combination: unemployment plus foreclosure, with a divorce or a catastrophic medical-bill chaser.

Though we "nouveau poor" have quiet desperation in common -- having to move in with friends or family, trading pride for meager government aid, anxiously waiting for the "you're hired" phone call that may not come -- my collapse was a lot more public.

I readily admit that the incident stemmed from my own lapse of judgement. During the 2012 presidential election, while I was a senior reporter covering politics and race for Politico, I said on cable TV that Republican nominee Mitt Romney preferred the company of "white folks" more than minorities. Conservative pundits howled, Romney complained and right-wing web activists like Andrew Breitbart's Big Media mined my personal Twitter account and pointed to a crude Romney joke they found as evidence I wasn't impartial.

Under pressure, my company let me go, a move that made headlines and still stings. Things went from bad to worse, however, when a case file from my toxic divorce appeared on a Washington gossip site.

By July 2013, I'd lost my home and large chunks of my self-esteem, the end result of a disorienting slide from upper-middle class into poverty. I'd landed in the very circumstances LBJ had sought to eliminate.

Things I used to take for granted -- transportation to a job interview, for example, or even buying lunch -- now cost more, take longer and sometimes aren't possible at all. I had to apply for government assistance, something I never imagined having to do ever, let alone just a few years after supervising the staff of a big-city newsroom.

Needless to say, going from middle-class to poor has been the toughest period of my incredibly charmed life. What cuts most deeply, though, is the sense that, as a proud black man -- a member of the first generation born when both the civil rights movement and the war on poverty were at full throttle -- my skid into poverty failed LBJ's legacy.

My parents, Depression-era babies, grew up on the border between working-class and poor in segregated rural Maryland. To them, Johnson's campaign to lift people out of poverty was a godsend: if their children made the effort, the future would be limitless.

For the most part, it worked. I earned a college diploma, turned pro as a journalist two weeks after graduation and started climbing. By age 45, I was a senior manager at the Star Tribune in Minneapolis; three years ago, I had White House access as a reporter and editor at Politico.

But when my career crashed and burned, my middle-class life went up in smoke.

Unable to pay my rent, I moved in with an extraordinarily generous family, friends of friends who were mere acquaintances at the time. Unable to find steady work, I held as many as five part-time jobs at once, including lawn mowing, selling sneakers at a sporting-goods store and coordinating funerals at my church. Unable to afford health insurance, I've leaned on my doctor, who gives me free medicine samples and treats me at a discount.

And I received food stamps -- something one could imagine would have LBJ turning in his grave.

I have to say at this point that my life is still pretty charmed compared to those I see on the streets of Washington, ragged people who sleep in doorways and can't predict when they'll get their next meal. Indeed, I'm down from five jobs to just two, I've managed to get work as a freelance journalist and as a PR consultant, I'm no longer on food stamps and Obamacare has my health needs covered for the moment.

But my life is still a microcosm of what the so-called "jobless recovery" looks like for middle-class professionals. Combined, my two jobs pay a fraction of what I used to make as a full-time journalist. I don't have benefits. I still don't earn quite enough to move into an apartment of my own.

Anyone who has had to rebuild will tell you that it's a long process, particularly in an economy that's recovering but still hospitalized. The only choice is to keep moving forward, fighting my own war on poverty, day by day.

More on the War on Poverty:

--Special Report: The 50th Anniversary of the War on Poverty

--Long-Term Unemployment Still Dire

--What Poverty Looks Like in Modern America