TROY, Ohio -- The rise in poverty here is evident in the mass of people who crowd the waiting room of the free health clinic every Thursday night - so many that the volunteer staff turns away about half of them.
It is marked by the bare shelves of the food pantry at Richards Chapel United Methodist Church, a one-story sanctuary where dozens of laid-off factory workers, retirees and young parents with children fill the dining hall daily for a free lunch.
And it is lived by Nancy Scott, a former stay-at-home mom working a temporary minimum-wage job, who says she had to choose between exhausting her paycheck on rent and utilities or living in her 1990 pickup.
She chose the truck.
This rural community, 22 miles north of Dayton, has seen an explosion of poverty in the past four years that is among the highest increases in the nation. Last year, 16,000 people lived in poverty in Miami County - one of every six residents, the Census says. Four years ago, just as the Great Recession was taking its grip on the nation, one in 16, or 6,000 people, suffered in poverty here.
The recession hit the Miami Valley hard, squeezing the lifeblood of the local economy: the auto industry and manufacturers that shed thousands of jobs. Families living on the margins of poverty found themselves catapulted into its misery.
This pain has festered even as the circumstances for many Americans have improved. Although the U.S. poverty rate hovers at a daunting 15%, economists agree a slow recovery is afoot. Housing prices are stabilizing, manufacturing is rebounding and last week's consumer confidence index reached the highest level in five years.
But for people in Troy - and the tens of millions of Americans like them - the daily hardships of poverty aren't captured in statistics or healed by political promises. As lawmakers in Washington grapple with the "fiscal cliff" and Americans do their holiday shopping, thousands of people in Miami County are managing on little or no income.
Living on about $8 an hour
With a population of 103,000, Miami County has seen a particularly sharp increase in poverty among children and the unemployed. The number of poor children in the county increased from 1,900 in 2008 to 6,000 in 2011, according to the Census, which estimates a quarter of the county's children live in poverty. The number of unemployed who were poor increased from 711 in 2008 to 2,200 in 2011.
"Minimum wage stays the same, but the price of food goes up, the price of gas goes up and the electric goes up," says Scott, 51. "How do you pay all your bills with 40 hours a week at $8 an hour?"
The federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour. Ohio sets it at $7.70.
Miami County lost 2,234 jobs since 2008, according to the Census. The 11-county area of the Miami Valley lost thousands more in the past four years as major companies including GM, DHL Express, Kodak and NCR closed plants or shrank their workforce.
"There's an inability of workers to find new jobs, and those that do are not making as much as before," says Janice Kinghorn, an economics professor at Miami University. "They face one incident - an illness, job loss - and it's harder to recover."
In Troy, empty storefronts blot the main street and shopping centers, but there are signs of recovery. At least eight companies are building or expanding, which is expected to create more than 500 jobs, says J.C. Wallace, president of the Troy Area Chamber of Commerce.
The county's most recent unemployment rate was 5.8% in October, down from its 2011 average of 8.7%. Indeed, the county rate is lower than the state of Ohio's 6.9% unemployment and the national rate of 7.9%. But that's done little to lift those who live below the poverty line.
Dennis Sullivan, an economics professor at Miami University, says older workers and those with little education have been hit hardest by the recession. He says they "will be the last, not the first, to feel the effect of an economic recovery."
The politics of poverty
As poverty remains high and the gap between the highest- and lowest-income earners continues to grow, the issue doesn't gain traction politically, says Jason Reece, director of research at the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at The Ohio State University. One reason, he says, is that the poor do not vote in large numbers. The other is that poverty's causes and solutions are complicated.
"We are dancing around the topic of poverty when we talk about health care or unemployment," he says. "A conversation about poverty does not fit into 30-second television commercials or a quick statement."
Reece says the last time poverty was at the top of the national agenda was 1964, when the poverty rate hovered at about 19% and President Johnson introduced his "War on Poverty." In the short term, that campaign raised awareness of the needs of the poor. In the long term, Reece says, it created and expanded programs that still exist, such as Head Start, which provides early education, health and nutrition services to low-income children and their families.
In the half-century since LBJ's program, the nation's poverty rate has fluctuated but never dipped below 10%. In sheer numbers, more people are poor today than in 1964.
Reece says attention should focus on creating programs beyond basic needs and offer families opportunities for better education and health. He says existing government programs, such as those for affordable housing or improving underperforming schools, should be better coordinated so they work in tandem.
Tim Smeeding, director of the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says poverty would be higher if not for programs such as food stamps, which the Obama administration expanded during the economic downturn.
A record 46 million Americans receive food stamps.
'There are no jobs here'
Meanwhile, the recovery has not trickled down to Nancy Scott, one of the working poor who make up 28% of those living in poverty in Miami County.
Scott gives a tour of the back of her rusted truck, climbing over the tailgate and sitting on a padded sleeping bag to show the plastic bins where she keeps toiletries, food, knickknacks and batteries for her camping lights. Stacks of clothes and linens crowd another corner. The truck has a camper top that leaks when it rains, so the sleeping bag rests on raised wooden slats to stay dry.
This will be her second winter in the truck, since she and her husband split up. The strain was too much on the couple after he lost his auto factory job, his unemployment benefits ran out and neither of them could find work, she says. Their daughters, 16, 18 and 27, live with her husband's mother in Troy.
When she started looking for work two years ago, Scott says, restaurants and stores told her they had so many applicants that they didn't need to hire a high school dropout.
"I quit school in the 10th grade so I could go to work," she says, remembering her first job in a sandwich store when she was 16. "And then, I'm older and I find out I couldn't work until I went back to school." Her strawberry-blond hair swishes and her crystal blue eyes crinkle as she laughs ruefully.
So she went back to school, earned a GED and still couldn't find work.
The lower unemployment rate here means little to people like Scott. "There are no jobs here," she says.
She signed on with a temp agency that sent her to work in a factory, packing washers and dryers. She worked there for a month, was laid off for a week and was called back in early October. She makes $9.50 an hour with no benefits.
"Without the churches, people would be starving in the street," she says.
That's no exaggeration to David Richey, pastor of Richards Chapel United Methodist Church. He and his wife, Beverly, run a food pantry and a soup kitchen where they dish out close to 1,000 meals a month.
The people who walk through the door "don't make enough to have three squares a day, so we have to supplement that for them," he says.
The biggest increase they see: families with children.
Simply getting by
The growth in child poverty in Miami County tracks national trends: 21% of all children - 15 million - live in poverty. The poverty line varies depending on family size. A family of four is considered poor with an annual income under $22,350.
Damian Hall, 35, and his wife, Franshel, 25, say they struggle daily to raise their four children, with a fifth on the way.
Franshel and the children lived in a women's shelter for a short time in 2011. Hall slept in his car when the men's shelter was full. He found minimum-wage jobs in warehouses and packing plants through a temp agency.
Hall was laid off several months ago from a job that paid $9 an hour cleaning vents and air ducts. He says he's had little luck finding steady work until recently. In October, he started at a department store as a cashier and stocker, making $7.70 an hour for 35 hours a week. Franshel earns $100 a week from a job at a discount store.
The family has gotten by with food stamps and Medicaid. The shelter helped them find a three-bedroom apartment for $750 a month. His mother sends them money.
"We need to make sure people have homes and that people are not sleeping in cars," Hall says.
Even those with advanced training have difficulty finding work.
Kara Long, 26, was out of work for more than a year after she was laid off as a pharmacy technician in 2010. She applied for hundreds of jobs, she says.
"It was incredibly frustrating," she says. "I was trying to figure out how to pay rent and put food on the table."
Her boyfriend, who is two credits shy of a master's degree in information technology, can't find a job in his field. He's working as a nanny for one of Long's friends.
They ditched their cable TV and Internet service. They have one cellphone between them. She turned for help to a food pantry where she had been a volunteer. About six months ago, she was hired full time as a medical biller.
Story after story in Miami County reflects people struggling but not giving up, handling hardship with strained smiles and gritty determination.
Nancy Scott hopes her new factory job will help her get on her feet.
She is saving money for a home - a used camper - and until she finds an affordable one, she plans to stay in her car.
"I'm better off the way I am," she says. "This way, I can get ahead."