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Even the well to do can stumble into poverty

CASTLE ROCK, Colo.—Two years ago, Douglas County, Colo., had the nation's second highest median income among small counties.

But as new home construction, top-notch schools and a serene lifestyle draws thousands of new residents, the affluent community just south of Denver has struggled to deal with a rapid growth in population and poverty.

A surge in service, retail and construction jobs that typically accompany high-growth areas has brought more low skilled, working poor people to Douglas County despite the area's high cost of living.

Only about 7,000 of the county's roughly 250,000 residents are poor, according to recent census data. But 3,908 of the poor—55 percent—are in deep poverty. They include struggling newcomers and families once entrenched in the county's upper-middle class.

The recent technology slowdown caused many Douglas County homeowners to lose their jobs. County foreclosure filings topped 1,000 in 2006, compared with 212 in 2000.

"We've had quite a few people end up losing jobs and going through their savings and their retirement savings," said George Kennedy, Douglas County's human services director. "We certainly have had a lot of cases where the family splits (by divorce) and one spouse or the other ends up with the house and the mortgage and the kids and can't make ends meet."

Marie Kissinger, a 50-year-old stay-at-home mother, was pitched into severe poverty when her husband left the family and his $138,000-a-year job and moved to Seattle in August 2005.

Now as a part-time supermarket stock worker, Kissinger said her income fluctuates from $200 to $1,500 a month, depending on her hours. She said she'd be lucky if she made $5,000 in 2006.

A parent with one child would have to make more than $6,948 to escape severe poverty, according to current Census Bureau guidelines.

In the waiting room of the Task Force of Douglas County, a local social service agency, Kissinger fought back tears as she sought help to get her electricity turned back on.

Already behind on her car payments, Kissinger realizes that she'll probably have to sell her house. "But I don't want to put my son through another change," she said. "I just keep holding on to the thought that somehow I'll be able to work it out."

Next door, in the agency's thrift store, 34-year-old Kyra Wharton picked up items for her children along with some free disposable diapers and bags of free groceries from the task force pantry.

Wharton's battle with severe poverty has been the latest chapter in a tough life. As a child she was moved to a Louisiana boarding school to escape an abusive home in Texas. She married at 14 and had her first child at 17. She now has five children and shares custody of one with the father.

After she was laid off in 2004 from a $32,000-a-year customer service job, Wharton settled last year for a $13,000-a-year job working nights as an auditor at a budget hotel. Under 2006 federal poverty guidelines, a single mother of five was considered in deep poverty if she made less than $13,217 a year.

After paying her rent and other bills, Wharton said she typically had between $30 and $60 dollars to last the month. She depended on $418 in food stamps to keep food on the table.

Wharton wanted a better job, but she said most baby sitters wouldn't accept her state-provided child care voucher because it paid less than the county's $300-per-week standard rate.

In late 2006, Wharton completed an outpatient alcohol rehabilitation program and this week she took a new job as an office assistant at a car dealership. Along with better hours, the new job pays $19,200-a-year and technically lifts her out of severe poverty. However she's well short of the $26,434 salary needed to escape moderate poverty for a single mother of five.

Despite her tough upbringing, she blames no one for her struggles.

"A lot of where I'm at is because of my own mistakes," she said.


(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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