Going From Middle Class to Poverty

One man shares his story about joining the ranks of the working poor.

A job loss as a divorce can be all it takes to go from middle class to working poor.

A job loss, a divorce, or a catastrophic illness can push you out of the middle class and into poverty.

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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.