Video: America Now: Friends and Neighbors

By Ann Curry
NBC News
updated 7/25/2010 7:00:16 PM ET 2010-07-25T23:00:16
TRANSCRIPT

All across America, it is happening. People are hurting.

For some, this economy may be turning around. But millions of families are at risk of going hungry in one of the richest nations on earth. The number of Americans visiting local food pantries has jumped 30 percent in the past two years alone. And here, in this rural region of Ohio, the very heart of America, the need is especially urgent...the stories poignant.

Tonight, a very personal look inside the lives of families who’ve had it all vanish – jobs, homes, and dreams. How do you choose between paying your bills and feeding your kids?

PART 1

WOMAN: I’m 87 and I’m standing here for food to help out with the household.

LISA ROBERTS: Before they came to us, they went to their church, to their family, to their friends.

WOMAN: Here we’re in 2010, and it feels like we’re back to the Great Depression.

MAN: And there’s no jobs here.

LISA ROBERTS: They tried everything before they had to come to a food pantry and say, ‘I don’t have enough to feed my family.’

Among the wizened valleys and rolling slopes of southeast Ohio’s Appalachian foothills, pride and quiet desperation are breaking into a cry for help.

WOMAN: You know I have a family to feed.

Here, a resilient people with deep traditions in mining, manufacturing, and military service are bitter and frustrated, waiting in food lines – an increasingly common feature of the American landscape.

JEFF KEEBAUGH: Come on, let’s not turn our back on Americans.

Some 40 million Americans – including one in five children – are now living in poverty. For a family of three, that means living on less than about $18,000 a year.

LISA ROBERTS: Every time you turn around, you’re making a choice. It keeps coming down to food versus other things that you have to have to live by.

On any day of the year you can find Lisa Roberts in the tiny Southeast Ohio village of Lottridge, handing out cans, boxes and fresh produce at the Friends and Neighbors food pantry, where she is director.

In the past nine months, she has taken Dateline on a journey into a hidden America, an America where families are living on the edge, where many feel invisible and believe they have been forgotten.

ANN CURRY: this region then, as far as you can remember, has had a large number of very poor people who needed help. Has it gotten worse?

LISA ROBERTS: Oh yeah, way worse.

Born into a poor farming family, Lisa has seen it firsthand. She was just a few months old when, in 1964, President Lyndon Johnson came here to promote his newly-declared war on poverty because people in this region have been chronically poor.

PRESIDENT JOHNSON, AT UNIVERSITY OF OHIO, MAY 7TH, 1964: ...where no child will go unfed, no youngster will go unschooled...

But Lisa never saw that vision realized here. 

LISA ROBERTS: You grow up, and you’re gonna have kids, and you’re gonna raise them, and you’re gonna live on the farm and it’s gonna be great, you know?

Dreaming of marriage and children, she left school in tenth grade. But after the marriage didn’t work out, as a single mother, she was often unable to feed her two boys – much less herself.

LISA ROBERTS: There just was nothing left, so I popped up the whole bag of popcorn and tried to convince my kids that we were having a popcorn party – and that’s what we had for dinner that night.

She says being hungry herself propelled her towards a new calling. She re-married and began helping her father-in-law gather food for people in need.

LISA ROBERTS: He was really, really good at this job. [crying] It became a ministry, and then, when he died, the people were already dependent on that food.

So Lisa picked up the reins and, with support and donations from friends and neighbors, her food pantry was born.

LISA ROBERTS: It was an emergency thing there. It’s not an emergency thing anymore, it’s an everyday thing now.

Over 13 years, she has built a non-profit that punches well above its weight. With two trucks, this small donated space and a dozen regular volunteers, Lisa feeds as many as 3,000 people every month – a number that has risen sharply since the great recession began nearly three years ago.

Lisa lets people choose from whatever she has – a mark of respect because people often feel uncomfortable asking for food – like Anita Hayes and her partner Jim Skipper.

ANITA HAYES: The pantry probably helps us out a good 75 percent.
  
ANN CURRY: 75 percent comes—
  
ANITA HAYES: —Yes.
  
ANN CURRY: —from the pantry?
  
ANITA HAYES: Yes. 

ANN CURRY: Is that hard?
  
ANITA HAYES: The first few times I had to swallow my pride. But I wasn’t doing it for myself. I have to feed my children. They come first. 

Anita, who works in a bakery, and Jim, who is unemployed, are raising Anita’s two children — Lydia, 14, and Lyle, 9 – in an old 30-foot camper.

ANN CURRY: Tell me about this space now. Do you—you and Jim sleep back there?

ANITA HAYES: Yeah. Our bed’s back there.

ANN CURRY: Uh-huh.

ANITA HAYES: The table folds out to a bed for Lydia and Lyle sleeps on the love seat.

ANN CURRY: But storage has got to be an issue. Where do you put all your clothes?

LYDIA HAYES: Cadillac.

ANN CURRY: You mean in the car?

ANITA HAYES: We keep winter clothes— in the summer we—we’re keeping those out there. And the summer clothes, we keep in here and—

ANN CURRY: That’s actually pretty smart. You use it as storage, not to drive.

A power cable strung from a neighbor’s trailer gives them electricity. But something much more valuable is lacking: running water. Every time they need to take a shower, use the bathroom or do their laundry, they walk 40 yards across the dirt to their neighbor’s trailer.

LYDIA HAYES: I walk over here every day, and having to take my shower and having to walk all the way across the yard, and sometimes my feet get dirty again and then I have to wash them off when I get over there.

Though the children get a break most weekends when they stay with their father, the camper is home during Ohio’s unforgiving winters.

ANITA HAYES: There was nowhere to escape unless you wanted to go outside in the cold. [laughing] Yup, you just kind of put up with each other and deal with it.

ANN CURRY: How frustrating is it, you guys, living in such a small space?

LYDIA HAYES:  Ho, ho, hoh.

ANN CURRY: Ho, ho, hoh.  What does that mean?

LYLE HAYES: Right here, right here [points at mom] She’s always mad at the camper.

It all weighs heavily on Anita and Jim.

ANITA HAYES:  I’m feeling guilty because I’m not giving my kids what they would like to have. My daughter just wants a room, you know. My son wants room to play – that’s my sacrifice is that I can’t get my kids what they really need.

And sometimes that means a bowl of cereal for dinner in a household where the children are growing up fast.

ANITA HAYES: They’ve said it before: ‘It—it’s better than nothing, Mom.’

ANN CURRY: They’re trying to make you feel better.
  
ANITA HAYES: Yes.

JIM SKIPPER: You know, they’re like little grownups.

ANN CURRY: What would you do without the food pantry?
  
ANITA HAYES: [silence] Wow. That’s a hard one.
  
JIM SKIPPER: Hope we never have to find out.

Lisa Roberts is trying to make sure they never have to.

LISA ROBERTS: Most of the people that come to us don’t just need food today, they’re gonna need it next week, and the month after that and after that.

ANN CURRY: You have a sense of outrage that this is happening in america.
  
LISA ROBERTS: I do. The America that my—my parents raised me up was, you know, this is the promised land.

Lisa’s outrage has grown in the last three years, as unemployment has skyrocketed in the Great Recession, bringing more people to her pantry.

Early this year, convinced that the state of Ohio wasn’t doing enough to help, Lisa and her colleagues in Ohio’s emergency food system decided to go right to the top. If President Obama could see just how bad things were, they reasoned, maybe he would do something.

First there were daily emails to the White House. Then they came up with a creative scheme.

They would invite people in food lines to write on empty paper plates – a symbol for hunger becoming letters about what hardships people were facing and what was getting them down. Then they would send the paper plates en masse to the White House.

ANN CURRY: So you’re talking about sending thousands of plates to the president of the United States.
  
LISA ROBERTS: Yeah, some of them got people’s phone numbers on, he can call back if he wants.

ANN CURRY: And you have a little bit of a rebellious snicker there going on.

LISA ROBERTS: Oh I just think that he’s awful busy and he’s probably not going to call back – but I hope that he’ll read them and I hope that he’ll understand that that plate that he’s holding is a person.

As Lisa kept handing out paper plates and food she was alarmed by the increasing number of people showing up for help – and she wondered if her pantry would survive the strain in the brutal months ahead.

PART 2

As winter gripped the tiny village of Lottridge in southeast Ohio, food pantry director Lisa Roberts was also facing a blizzard of new bills and paperwork.

LISA ROBERTS: The biggest worry that I have on this day is that there won’t be enough food in the kitchen to feed all the people that are here.

The new numbers were serious. In February, they showed a 20 percent surge in clients, and Lisa’s pantry budget was creaking under the strain.

A grant from a Catholic charity would carry her perhaps through the next four months, but, with no more financial support in sight, she faced stark choices.

LISA ROBERTS: You can choose to feed less people more food, or more people less food. And when more people are showing up on your door, I can’t turn them away.

ANN CURRY: You’re where the buck stops?

LISA ROBERTS: Yeah.

By now, Lisa’s paper plate campaign to President Obama was underway... and she wasn’t surprised that so many letters were pleas for jobs. For Lisa, the need for jobs was personal. The recession has made it tougher for her husband to find construction work and, since his last steady job was 10 years ago, just getting by is a constant struggle.

Though there are patches of wealth and prosperity here – Ohio University, textiles and medical businesses – the area has suffered generations of job losses. Once-thriving coal mines closed decades ago. Manufacturing jobs have drifted to other states or overseas since the 1980’s. And now, with the recent economic collapse, smaller businesses have folded, pushing unemployment to an estimated 20 percent in some cases.

Today, only the luckiest have jobs.

ANITA HAYES: I’ve always wanted to give my kids more than what I had.

Lisa’s client Anita, who’s been living in a camper for nearly two years with Jim and her children, considers herself lucky.

It’s nearly 10:00PM and she is starting the night shift on the counter at McHappy’s, a donut store ten miles from home. On $7.30 an hour, in a good week she takes home just over $200. Other weeks, she’s making just $130.

ANN CURRY: How do you make ends meet on your salary?

ANITA HAYES: It’s paycheck by paycheck. Buying groceries, putting gas in the car, putting money back for the following week for gas to get to work – I have approximately $20 to my name.

She wants to work more and needs to make more. $30 a week in food stamps and about $130 a week in child support helps – but it is not enough.

LYDIA HAYES: All our extra change we always save just in case we need it, and, like, there’s a place we can go to and cash it in for money, and it helps us out sometimes if we go up there and cash it.

A year ago Jim, now 50, had steady work at a printing shop making about $320 a week; now he often brings home just $100 week doing odd jobs.

JIM SKIPPER: i haul junk down the road to the—to the crusher, cut grass… Just doin’ whatever until I can find something, you know, full-time again. But it’s hard with all the people gettin’ laid off. You know, that’s what makes me feel bad – I can’t support my family better.

ANN CURRY: He said something very poignant. He said it makes him feel bad to not be able to...

ANITA HAYES: Yeah, he says that a lot, I know. It makes him feel like less of a man and it hurts me because I know it hurts him. You try and try and try, and when you don’t get anywhere for so long, I guess it’s hard to make that next step to try to make things better cause I’m so exhausted.

LISA ROBERTS: They’re not asking to be rich – they’re asking to not be hungry, to be able to pay their bills and buy their medicine. That’s not too much. It’s not their fault. It’s not the people’s fault. 
  
ANN CURRY: Why do you say that so much? 

LISA ROBERTS: Because I see how hard they work. Sometimes you’ll hear, ‘Oh, you know, they’re just layin’ back, waitin’ for a handout. They could go to work if they wanted to go to work. They’d rather be on welfare, they’d rather have 100 kids.’  It’s not true.

It’s a sentiment we heard all over Southeast Ohio.


When we first met Air Force veteran Daniel Zimmerman, he was driving a truck for the state-funded food bank, which supplies food to pantries in Lisa’s area. He was happy for the work – but also a little frustrated too. 

His minimum wage salary was a far cry from what he made 25 years ago when he operated a crane at a steel plant. 

DANIEL ZIMMERMAN: They said I was the best crane operator they’d had in 30 years. And that—you don’t have to worry about gettin’ laid off.
  
ANN CURRY: What happened to that job?

DANIEL ZIMMERMAN: 5,000 of us got laid off. It’s probably more than ten companies that I’ve worked for that have gone under.
  
ANN CURRY: You’ve worked for 10 companies that have gone under?
  
DANIEL ZIMMERMAN: Yeah. Three pizza businesses have gone under while I’ve worked there. I’ve tried trash collecting. I’ve tried septic cleaning. I’ve had a lotta jobs.

In January, he beat out 70 other applicants to get the food bank job. The work was steady – but the $7.25 an hour just wasn’t enough to support his two sons, 14-year-old Adam and 12-year-old Matthew. So he spent hours at the library scouring the internet for a better job. In March, after weeks of searching, he found a plum $600-a-week trucking job, and immediately resigned from the food bank.

But after just three weeks, the new job folded because the company went under, and Daniel was again laid off. As for the food bank job, it was already gone, snapped up as soon as he left.

ANN CURRY: You said you get beyond desperation. Describe that.

DANIEL ZIMMERMAN: You’re numb. You don’t have any feeling about—the loss or the—the—opportunities that—went down.

Daniel, who only a month before was delivering food to those in need, now needed a food pantry to feed his own family.

ANN CURRY: What gives you hope now?
  
DANIEL ZIMMERMAN: [sigh] I don’t know if I got too much hope left. You go from $800 one week to nothin’ and you have to sell everything you own and you still have nothin’.

With nothing in his pocket, Daniel took his boys to get free clothes, and then he started having desperate thoughts. He started thinking they might be better off without him, living on supplemental security income.

DANIEL ZIMMERMAN: If I wasn’t here, they’d get SSI from me.

ANN CURRY: So what are you saying?

DANIEL ZIMMERMAN: That I’m worth more dead than alive.

At around the same time in March, Lisa Roberts was hitting rock bottom too. Without any warning, the electricity to Friends and Neighbors was cut off. An accounting mix-up meant the electricity bill had not been paid for three months. The refrigerated food would spoil if Lisa didn’t get it turned back on. But that meant she suddenly had to pay $1400 dollars – an entire month of her budget. She now had maybe 2 months of funding left.

LISA ROBERTS: Now we’re in the same boat as our clients are in, now we’re one disaster away from going under. That’s not comfortable. You just can’t get ahead no matter how hard you try. Every time that you think, ok we’re doing pretty good, well, now that’s been shortened now by another month, and a month is a whole bunch of people.

PART 3

In March, Friends and Neighbors food pantry was running out of funds fast – and Lisa Roberts was exasperated.

LISA ROBERTS: We are struggling, really struggling. 
 
The paper plates kept coming, people pleading for food and for jobs – and as the cold weather continued, they asked for a warm place to sleep.

Daniel Zimmerman, who had been in and out of work, was also struggling to keep a roof over his head. His housing troubles began two years ago, when his landlord sold the plot of land where Daniel lived with his sons in a trailer.

DANIEL ZIMMERMAN: So I lost the house and i had to keep on struggling.

A friend intervened, and let Daniel and his boys live in his tumbledown house, as long as Daniel paid the utilities.

But in the winter, as Ohio’s bitter chill gnawed the region, the gas heater blew up and a fallen tree took out the power line.

DANIEL ZIMMERMAN: So, I put a wood burner in. It was the only thing we could do for heat.

ANN CURRY: But you have to keep feeding a wood burner. It doesn’t last all night.

DANIEL ZIMMERMAN: Best you could do is about five hours. If you wait till five hours, it’s down to where you can’t get it back goin’ again.

So for weeks Daniel slept in squalor here in his basement in freezing temperatures, stoking the wood fire every three hours to keep his boys warm, in a scene reminiscent of the Great Depression.

JACK FRECH: I’ve been doing this for over 30 years, and I don’t ever remember a time when things have been as hard for poor people as they are right now.

Jack Frech is Director of Job and Family Services for Ohio’s Athens County.

ANN CURRY: It doesn’t seem like what we expect in America. It’s what I expect in Africa.

JACK FRECH: It may not be what we expect, but it’s what we accept. You know, all kind of arrangements are being made out there because people can’t afford decent housing on their own. What’s happening is families are doubling and tripling up in their housing, bringing their children and their grandchildren in.

He might be describing Sunny Mash’s family in Nelsonville. When we met them earlier this year, 14 family members were living in a four-bedroom house.

ANN CURRY: Most people have no idea what it’s like to live in a house of 14 people and being one of those people.

SUNNY MASH: It was kind of crazy, really, I mean with all the limited space.

ANN CURRY: Where did you sleep?

SUNNY MASH: I slept in the bedroom on the floor with my husband, and three of our kids slept on the beds. We just pushed ‘em together to make, like, one big bed.

The home belongs to Sunny’s parents. Sunny, her husband and four children moved in two years ago when her father got sick.

ANN CURRY: And you tried to be a good daughter and help your mom—

SUNNY MASH: Right.

ANN CURRY: —and that created a situation in which you were stuck.

SUNNY MASH: Right.

Stuck because she quit a good job packing produce to take care of her sick father and couldn’t find other work.

ANN CURRY: And there was no job to be had. Did you work at all during that entire time?

SUNNY MASH: NO, I DIDN’T.

And neither did her husband, who had experience in construction, but couldn’t find a job.

SUNNY MASH: I mean, you could apply at the same place ten times and never hear anything, no matter what your qualifications are or anything. It just didn’t matter.

Soon, Sunny’s brother Todd lost his home and moved his family in, too. But no matter how many beds the family pushed together, or floor space they cleared, there just wasn’t room for everyone inside.

SUNNY MASH: Now, Todd, he wouldn’t go in for a while until he got really sick. He was coughing up blood and everything. And that’s what finally got him to move into the house from the tent.

ANN CURRY: People were sleeping in the tents during the winter—
  
SUNNY MASH: Yes.
  
ANN CURRY: How cold was it in those tents?

SUNNY MASH: Just as cold as it is outside. Sometimes single digits.

Inside the house, the hallway was stacked with bags filled with clothes – makeshift closets. Reclining chairs doubled as beds. Small children live in the same spaces as grandparents, aunts and uncles.

ANN: That must have been very stressful.

SUNNY MASH: Yeah.

Another of Sunny’s brothers managed to find work at Wendy’s. But, for the most part, this family of 14 was living on Sunny’s mother’s social security checks – $563 a month. Sunny bought food in bulk at a discount grocery store, and chose generic brands to save pennies.

She prepared hearty meals, but food was often scarce as her food stamps ran out well before the end of the month.

SUNNY MASH: The kids, I always make theirs first, so they always get plenty. It’s just the adults that usually end up going without.

Sick of feeling poor, vulnerable and powerless, the stress was often too much for Sunny.

SUNNY MASH: You know, I don’t like to see my kids hungry, I hate asking other people to do stuff for my kids, but, you know, when you’re so poor, it really makes [crying] you feel like crap. You can’t do anything for your own kids, you feel really, really bad. You feel like everybody else is doing everything for your kids and you just can’t do anything. If they need something and you don’t, you just don’t have the money. There’s no jobs, you can’t get a job to be able to have the money to get what they want or need. And you have to beg everybody you know to take care of your kids. It makes you feel really crappy.

What does it take to lift a family from this kind of pain? Soon Sunny would find out as her life was about to change.

And so was Lisa Roberts,’ as she was wondering whether friends and neighbors would have to close its doors.


PART 4

By April, the snow was gone and so was Lisa Robert’s confidence that Friends and Neighbors would survive, with as many as 3000 people depending on her for food.

LISA ROBERTS:  Next month, I’m really going to be getting out on a limb there. Something has to happen between now and next month.

As much as she was helping others, Lisa frequently found herself torn.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              
During our nine months with her, we often saw her leave the pantry to help her 16-year-old son Christopher, who was recently diagnosed with diabetes. Christopher’s doctor does not know what caused the diabetes. Lisa believes his illness developed because of a bad diet when he was younger. She made emergency trips to take insulin to his school. 

ANN CURRY: When he was younger, were you not feeding him more or differently because of money?

LISA ROBERTS: Mm-hmm. Yeah, macaroni and cheese is cheap. And I thought, as long as they go to bed with their tummies full, that’s okay. It’s not.

ANN CURRY: It sounds like you’re blaming yourself for his diabetes—

LISA ROBERTS: You do, because i can’t take care of him.

ANN CURRY: Have you cried over this one?
  
LISA ROBERTS: Yeah, constantly.

Lisa’s own struggle with poverty inspired her to help other mothers and their children.

Single moms and their children make up 60% of all American families living in poverty. And, in the past nine months, we saw Lisa working all hours to reach some of them. As Lisa collected more paper plates, she was especially moved by the children’s letters.

LISA ROBERTS: It’s hard to wonder why the children don’t do good in school if they’re not getting what they need at home. Then the rest is not gonna come together. That’s our future.

ANN CURRY: You’re saying that this level of poverty is damaging the children of this region—
 
LISA ROBERTS: I feel like it is.

It’s a situation 21-year-old Crystal McCoy knows all too well… By the time we met her, she was homeless and had spent the entire month of November in frigid temperatures living in her van with her three children, ages three, two and one.

CRYSTAL MCCOY: I’d drive around and I would find, like, a dark secluded spot to go to sleep.

ANN CURRY: Was it cold?

CRYSTAL MCCOY: Yes, it was cold. But you know, when you have nowhere else to go or nowhere else to stay, it’s the only place you can go.

ANN CURRY: You must have been desperate…

CRYSTAL MCCOY: Yeah, just a bit.

Unable to afford even the basics, Crystal was hand-making diapers for her youngest, Davy, stuffing kitchen towels into a pair of underpants. 

ANN CURRY: Are you ever afraid that you can’t feed them?

CRYSTAL MCCOY: Yeah, sometimes.

It was just a few years ago that Crystal herself was a child – her dad, a mechanic, and her mom, a caregiver. Her parents struggled to get by. Even so, Crystal became a straight A honor student and dreamed of a life in music.

CRYSTAL MCCOY: I just seriously wanted to become a singer. I love singing.

Crystal had academic ambitions too, inspired by her biology teacher.

CRYSTAL MCCOY: I like dinosaurs. I think they’re fascinating. I said, if I couldn’t become a singer, then I could become a paleontologist.

Crystal clung to her dreams, even though in her junior year of high school she got pregnant.

CRYSTAL MCCOY: And then I got pregnant with my first son Robby. And I was like, ‘Okay, I can still do it,’ you know, but then, I ended up pregnant with Mary Beth and I ended up dropping out my senior year. That’s when the reality kind of set in and it went down the drain.

ANN CURRY: So, all these years in high school, did anybody teach you about birth control?

CRYSTAL MCCOY: Yeah, they did. It’s just, one thing leads to another, and you do have accidents, you know…

Crystal got about $800 each month in food stamps from the federal government. And, since the fathers of her children didn’t help Crystal financially, she was eligible for a three-year cash-assistance program from the state of Ohio. In April, that three year period ran out.

ANN CURRY: So, before, you had how much money coming in?

CRYSTAL MCCOY: $536 a month.

ANN CURRY: And now how much money do you have coming in?

CRYSTAL MCCOY: None.

ANN CURRY: Zero.

CRYSTAL MCCOY: None. I have nothing.

ANN CURRY: So you’re getting by hour by hour, not just day by day?

CRYSTAL MCCOY: I’m trying to. Right now my goal is to try at least make my life a little bit better.

Crystal can occasionally stay with her grandmother, where her children sleep on the floor. But relations are fractious and they often all end up back on the streets.

JACK FRECH: There are always gonna be people who can’t work. There are always gonna be people who make rotten decisions. You know, let’s face it. People who make bad decisions are likely to end up poor. And most of those folks, you know, are—are families with children.

Athens County welfare director Jack Frech sees many young mothers like Crystal, and says state and federal programs just don’t help them enough.

JACK FRECH: Our staff works their butts off to get these people every dime they can. But, at the end of the day, when we’ve done everything we can do, we send them out of here knowing that it’s very likely that the last couple weeks of the month they’re gonna have to go to a food pantry to get enough food to eat.

ANN CURRY: You sound a bit angry about this.
   
JACK FRECH: I’m very angry about this.

GOVERNOR TED STRICKLAND: Poor people are the first to suffer the consequences of an economic recession, and they tend to be the last to get the benefit of any recovery.

Ted Strickland is the Governor of Ohio.

ANN CURRY: Have you done enough?

GOVERNOR TED STRICKLAND: I would never say that I’ve done enough. What I’ve tried to do is maintain the essential social services for our people, but they are wholly inadequate.

Strickland may be governor now, but he himself grew up in poverty, not far from Lisa Roberts.

GOVERNOR TED STRICKLAND: We got indoor plumbing in my house when I was in high school. We took our—our baths in the creek in the summertime, but that’s the way life was for most people in this region.

A chance to go to college was his path out of poverty, which is why he’s focused on education as the solution – increasing funding to schools and colleges and encouraging new initiatives like this mobile technology education unit for kids K though 6.

GOVERNOR TED STRICKLAND: We’ve gotta raise the aspirational level of our kids. We’ve got to help them in so many ways to envision a different life.

ANN CURRY: What you’re talking about is a squandering of America’s resources…that America could be greater if we didn’t squander these young people who just didn’t get a chance.

GOVERNOR TED STRICKLAND: Absolutely. The fact is these are not acceptable circumstances. We are a rich country. And so, I hope, as people see what you have shown that they do feel not just uncomfortable, but anger.

Critics do say Strickland, who is up for reelection, could have done more to help the state’s poor. And there’s concern about what he’ll cut, given the state’s looming $4 billion budget gap this year.

GOVERNOR TED STRICKLAND: It’s a big budget gap.

ANN CURRY: You’re gonna have to find the money somewhere, Governor.

GOVERNOR TED STRICKLAND: Well, let me tell you. I’m not cutting food programs. And—I will fight to the death to keep from cutting education.

On the other hand, he says, there is a lack of political will to help the poor, and he blames what he describes as a radical change in America’s attitude over the last 25 years.

GOVERNOR TED STRICKLAND: It became stylish to be selfish. It’s almost acceptable to be prejudiced against poor people.

ANN CURRY: Prejudiced?

GOVERNOR TED STRICKLAND: Prejudiced. In some ways, we’ve lost our way in terms of our moral compass.

The state of Ohio doesn’t directly fund pantries like Lisa’s. But, even as the outlook for Friends and Neighbors seemed so bleak, Lisa Roberts was unwavering in her mission.

And amid all the hardship – suddenly she had a reason to hope.

PART 5

During our nine months with Lisa Roberts, we witnessed men and women struggling to feed their families, children sleeping in basements and infants living in cars – conditions we’ve come to expect in other, less privileged nations. 

If you think these are rare, isolated parts of 21st century American life, consider this: Poverty in America increased by at least 2.5 million people in the Great Recession and is reaching its highest level in nearly two decades.

And a new Duke University study was commissioned and published by the Madison Ave based Foundation for Child Development. It projects that, by the end of this year, nearly 22 percent of American children will be living in poverty – that’s an increase of nearly five percent in the last four years.

Still, we were struck by the resilience of the people we met in southeast Ohio. Despite one setback after another, they would not give up.

When we last caught up with Daniel Zimmerman, he was still looking for work, selling anything he could to scrape by. His sons were pitching in, too.

ANN CURRY: You need this economy to change. Fast.
  
DANIEL ZIMMERMAN: [sigh] If I had an offer to go do somethin’ somewhere, I would go do somethin’ somewhere.

As for Anita and Jim – still relying on Lisa’s food pantry – they are determined to find a better home with more room for Lydia and Lyle to grow up and just be kids. They applied for a loan, which didn’t come through; they’ve asked friends for help; and even looked at derelict trailers.

ANN CURRY: That’s the trailer that you might want to move in, is—
  
ANITA HAYES: Yeah. It’s leaning pretty much.

ANN CURRY: Wait a minute—wait a minute—wait a minute. It says, ‘This building unfit for human habitation.’

ANITA HAYES: Yeah, that’s another closed door.

But, like so many here, Anita and Jim were stoic about their situation.

JIM SKIPPER: We try to be grateful for what we have and, you know, just look to the future. Because it could be worse.

ANITA HAYES: It could. It could be. He’s said it before: If we can make it in this camper we can make it. [laughing]

Crystal wasn’t giving up either, in spite of some emotional setbacks.

After she confronted one the fathers of her children, she was arrested for assault, went before a judge and served a weekend in jail – a weekend away from her kids.

Crystal says jail taught her a harsh lesson – not to let anything keep her away from her children. In June, she was preparing her kids in pre-school, while at the same time trying to get back on her feet.

And, re-discovering her singing ambitions, Crystal has now made it through to the final stages of a local talent competition. The winning prize? $50.

But, just this week, Crystal got a break she hardly dared hope for. She was approved for subsidized housing and moved into a new home with her children – all off the streets at last.

And Sunny Mash received amazing news too.

SUNNY MASH: So, we just got lucky.
  
After being unemployed for two years, her husband scored a full-time job in construction. And there was an impossible-to-imagine bonus – a new place for her family to live, the rent deducted from her husband’s paycheck.

ANN CURRY: So, he got a job and you got a home in one fell swoop.

SUNNY MASH: Yeah.

ANN CURRY: Wow.

SUNNY: Yeah. Finally.

No more sharing bedrooms and bathrooms with her parents, brothers, nieces and nephews – this four-bedroom house was all theirs.

ANN CURRY: So this is it?

Complete with Sunny’s dream kitchen…

ANN CURRY: Wow, look at that kitchen, that’s huge.

SUNNY MASH: This is my favorite part of our house.

ANN CURRY: Yeah. Look at that. That’s enormous.

And for Lisa Roberts, who has helped thousands of people during difficult times and whose pantry was teetering on the edge – suddenly, a lifeline.

Emergency federal funding was channeled to Lisa’s pantry and she received a check for $5,000.

LISA ROBERTS: Very, very cool. It’s going to go into the account today and it’s going to help so, so much. It’s going to pay the electric bill...

NICK: I’m just delivering.

LISA ROBERTS: I know you’re just delivering, I’m so happy enough to hug you anyways.

That and another donation from a local business would keep her pantry open for another seven months.

LISA ROBERTS: Winter is tough. Tough times. And yeah, I’m very glad we made it.

Friends and Neighbors had survived some of its most difficult months ever, but Lisa is going to need a lot more help in the months and years ahead.

By June of this year, Lisa had helped collect more than 1200 letters written on paper plates. She packed them up for mailing to Washington DC. A simple cardboard box containing all those wishes written by hungry people made its way to the White House and into President Obama’s mailroom.

LISA ROBERTS: It’s kind of like a pipe dream. But if he reads what they have to say, if he sees that there are so many of them, surely they’d make a difference.

ANN CURRY: You seem to waiver between hopefulness and helplessness.

LISA ROBERTS: You have to stay hopeful or you’re gonna cry, you know? How am I gonna face the people that are gonna come through here without hope? Without a smile?  Without – come on, you know, it’s gonna get better, we can pull it together.

ANN CURRY: What do you imagine for Ohio, this place you call home?
  
LISA ROBERTS: I want it to be strong again. I want that strong fighting spirit that exists to overcome. It’s beautiful here. It is our home, and it can be good. It can be.

© 2013 NBCNews.com  Reprints

Photos: Friends and Neighbors: The recession's unseen victims

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  1. Members of the Mash family, among 14 people who crammed into this 4 bedroom house in Nelsonville, Ohio because of a lack of jobs.
    -Inside Dateline: Ann Curry on the photographs (Ann Curry / NBC News) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. It is estimated that 6 of every 10 U.S. adults will be poor for one year or more by age 75. ~ State of Poverty in Ohio: 2010 study (Men eating a meal at the Lottridge Community Center)..
    -Inside Dateline: Ann Curry on the photographs (Ann Curry / NBC News) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Volunteers at the Friends & Neighbors Community Food Center in Coolville, OH. The food bank mostly serves the rural poor in "the forgotten areas" of three Ohio counties (Athens, Meigs, Washington), although no one in need is turned away. (Ann Curry / NBC News) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Lisa Roberts, Director of Friends and Neighbors Food Pantry. (Ann Curry  / NBC News) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Glouster, OH (Ann Curry / NBC News) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. The Ditty Box, Glouster, OH. (Ann Curry / NBC News) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Young people in Glouster, OH. (Ann Curry / NBC News) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Laid off crane operator Daniel Zimmerman, showing where his 14-year-old Adam sleeps in the basement. An Air Force veteran, Zimmerman has lost one job after another in recent years because of businesses keep closing (Ann Curry / NBC News) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Daniel Zimmerman in a second floor bedroom. (Ann Curry / NBC News) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. A pair of sneakers worn by a boy at Pine Aire Village, a trailer park near Athens, Ohio, where many people are living below the poverty line. (Ann Curry / NBC News) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. The Lottridge Community Center, where the Friends and Neighbors Soup Kitchen is held. (Ann Curry / NBC News) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. A man gets a meal at Lottridge Community Center. (Ann Curry / NBC News) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Many are embarrassed to stand in food lines, where nationwide the demand has grown 30 percent in the last two years. (Ann Curry / NBC News) Back to slideshow navigation
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