ATLANTA — In Gwinnett County, just 20 minutes outside of Atlanta, the small town of Norcross proudly displays comfortable homes that suggest economic comfort and success. But close to the center of town, a railway track separates two worlds. On one side are multinational companies and their well-paid employees. On the other are those who fight every day to eat and keep a roof above their heads. 

The expression “wrong side of the tracks” seems more than appropriate.

In the November darkness, dozens of people are waiting for the doors to open at the Norcross Cooperative Ministry Greg Ellis Center, a non-profit organization offering assistance to the poor.

Falisha Lucas, who bears a tattoo on her neck, was just released from jail, where she was held for 10 days. That’s all she’ll say about it. “Because of my criminal record, I can’t find a job,” she says. “It’s as if I were the worst person in the world. I’ve made mistakes, but they have to give me a chance.”

The 34-year-old African-American was born on Chicago’s South Side and is now alone with her two children, ages 17 and 15. After a quarrel with her landlord, she was left homeless. So she has come to ask for emergency assistance. Although she lives beneath the poverty line, she keeps faith. “These difficult times make me stronger. Not like rich people. I know the survival techniques.”

In the Greg Ellis Center offices, where a sculpture titled “Que pasa?” hangs from the wall, several volunteers are dealing with the most urgent cases. Shirley Cabe is juggling cases. A family has just arrived. Because none of their beds are available, the center’s director makes an emergency call to different hotels, using vouchers given as donations.

“There are many single mothers,” Cabe says. “They have suffered domestic violence or lost their homes. Most residents don’t have health insurance. Proof that their situations are unstable? In a nearby elementary school, 90% of the pupils benefit from a free meal program.”

Atlanta is symbolic

All of the U.S. is affected. Atlanta’s metropolitan area alone has seen its number of poor — defined by an income of $11,000 per year for an individual or $23,000 for a family of four — rise by 122% between 2000 and 2010, becoming the semi-urban area with the country’s highest poverty rate.

In one decade, poverty has increased by 5.9% in the suburbs and only by 1.7% in town, evidence that cities are gaining strength while outlying areas suffer. Midtown Atlanta is now a place for “hipsters.” At the same time, if Georgia’s population has grown by 1.48% between 2009 and 2011, its number of homeless has risen by 6.2%. One in four children in Georgia (28.8%) live in a household threatened by lack of food. In New York, half a million children are undernourished.

Mark Rank, professor at Washington University in St. Louis, says that than 40% of Americans between ages 25 and 60 live in poverty for at least one year during their life. “Even though poverty is still highly stigmatized, it has become a common occurrence,” the professor says. “Our poverty rate is almost twice the European rate.”

There are many interlocked reasons for this. Job loss, health problems and no medical coverage, seizure of property and, most of all, low wages. Tom Merkel, director of Impact Group, one of the hundreds of non-profit organizations fighting poverty in Gwinnett County, cautions against clichés. A former senior mortgage director at General Electric, he says the typical profile of a homeless person for a long time was a 40-something man with alcohol, drug or mental health problems.

Children are hardest hit

“It’s changed,” he says. “The homeless have become mostly young single mothers — who are often domestic abuse victims — with several children, sometimes from different fathers. The average age of the homeless here is 6 years old.”

Police officers serving a foreclosure in Gwinett Country — Photo: Erik Lesser/ZUMA

Though he is not a partisan, Merkel doesn’t believe benefits should be granted without recipients offering something in return. “We aim to make our ‘customers’ aware of their responsibilities,” he says. When people seek help from his organization, they must have a job or be looking for one and agree to a strict plan of living, including giving back 10% of their earnings and taking a course on how to manage their finances.

About 20% of Impact Group’s budget is financed by the government, and the other 80% comes from private donations. It delivers surprising results. “Ninety percent of our customers emerge from poverty,” Merkel says. Some behaviors do, however, surprise him. “Some of the people who come here lost their job, even though they were making $600,000 per year. They didn’t save anything and are now deep in debt. Because they paid taxes for a long time, they think the government should help them.”

The great challenge, Merkel says, is to make people aware of their responsibilities. “But our society has changed a lot. People want everything straight away. The United States wasn’t built on such principles.”

Kiara Tate, a 15-year-old student at the local Norcross High School, has never had the privilege to live comfortably. At a nearby Burger King, she puts the world to rights with her friends Tamia Banks and Tebrianne Jones. When she was seven, she spent two months in a homeless shelter.

“It was tough. We sometimes had to get up at 4 a.m.,” she recalls. She explains how jobless people in Norcross are called “Js”, for junkies. But she welcomes efforts by President Barack Obama to help the middle class. “He comes from there, and he knows what he’s talking about. When Mitt Romney talks about middle class, what does he know? We are right at the bottom.” Tamia, fired up, adds: “For him, we’re just scum.”

U.S. gets by on a culture of philanthropy

In Sandy Springs, the wealthy suburb of northeast Atlanta with 100,000 inhabitants, two elderly white women — Anne Morgan, 92, and Barbara Gretts, 82 — embody the monied middle class. They have come to make a donation to the Community Assistance Center (CAC) for the first time.

“I have been blessed,” Gretts says. “God has been generous with us. It’s time to share.” Nearby, Linda, a volunteer, is arriving with a bus full of elderly people who have been particularly hard hit by poverty. They will receive supplies for the rest of the month.

CAC director Tamara Carrera empathizes with the 800 families her organization serves and is particularly critical of the American economy. The federal minimum wage of $7.25 is not enough, she says. “It has to be between $16 and $20 to be able to live here. That’s why people have two or three different jobs. Some families, where parents and children already live in cramped conditions, end up being forced to rent a room.”

The paradox, she adds, is that these people work in essential but undervalued jobs in Atlanta but have been priced out of living close to where they work. “They have to live elsewhere,” she says. “Rents are at a minimum of $900 for a two-bedroom place. Unaffordable when you earn $1,200 per month.”

Worse still, the American social state is a lot less generous than in Europe. “What allows the country to survive is the Americans’ incredible culture of philanthropy,” notes Carrera, whose organization was created jointly action by a Christian church and a synagogue. “Non-profit organizations such as ours are often a lot more creative than the state. But they don’t make up for the absence of a social safety net in certain regions of the country.”