Pam Fessler

Pam Fessler is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where she covers poverty and philanthropy.

In her reporting, Fessler covers homelessness, hunger, and the impact of the recession on the nation's less fortunate. She reports on non-profit groups, how they're trying to address poverty and other social issues, and how they've been affected by the economic downturn. Her poverty reporting was recognized by a 2011 First Place Headliner Award in the human interest category.

Previously, Fessler reported primarily on homeland security, including security at U.S. ports, airlines, and borders. She has also reported on the government's response to Hurricane Katrina, the 9/11 Commission investigation, and such issues as Social Security and election reform. Fessler was also one of NPR's White House reporters during the Clinton and Bush administrations.

Before becoming a correspondent, Fessler was the acting senior editor on the Washington Desk and oversaw the network's coverage of the impeachment of President Clinton and the 1998 mid-term elections. She was NPR's chief election editor in 1996, and coordinated all network coverage of the presidential, congressional, and state elections. Prior to that role, Fessler was the deputy Washington editor and Midwest National Desk editor.

Before coming to NPR in 1993, she was a senior writer at Congressional Quarterly magazine. Fessler worked at CQ for 13 years as both a reporter and editor, covering tax, budget, and other news. She also worked as a budget specialist at the U.S. Office of Management and Budget, and was a reporter at The Record newspaper in Hackensack, NJ.

Fessler has a Masters of Public Administration from the Maxwell School at Syracuse University and a bachelor's degree from Douglass College in New Jersey.

Work crews in Honolulu recently dismantled wooden shacks and tents that lined city streets and housed almost 300 people.

It was the latest example of a city trying to deal with a growing homeless population, and responding to complaints that these encampments are unsafe, unsanitary and, at the very least, unsightly.

Last month, Madison, Wis., banned people from sleeping outside city hall. And in New Port Richey, Fla., the city council voted to restrict the feeding of homeless individuals in a popular park.

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Many of the families that were forced out of public housing by Hurricane Katrina now use government vouchers to subsidize their rents elsewhere. That shift was supposed to help de-concentrate poverty in the New Orleans area, but it hasn't worked as planned.

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Welfare recipients in Kansas may soon be barred from spending their benefits on activities like going to the movies or swimming, or from withdrawing more than $25 per day from bank machines.

If Gov. Sam Brownback signs the bill, it will become one of the strictest welfare laws in the country. It's one of a number of such measures popping up in states that say they're trying to reduce fraud and get people off the welfare rolls. But opponents say the laws are mean-spirited and hurt the poor.

Regulations intended to block money from getting into the hands of terrorist groups has led the last bank that handles most money transfers from the United States to Somalia to pull out of the business.

Somali refugees in the U.S. say their families back home need the money they send each month to survive, and they're counting on lawmakers and Obama administration officials, who are meeting in Washington on Thursday, to try to find a solution.

Remember all that new voting equipment purchased after the 2000 presidential election, when those discredited punch card machines were tossed out? Now, the newer machines are starting to wear out.

Election officials are trying to figure out what to do before there's another big voting disaster and vendors have lined up to help.

During their annual meeting in Washington, D.C., this week, state election officials previewed the latest voting equipment from one of the industry's big vendors, Election Systems and Software.

Life in public housing sometimes can be difficult, but it's also a lot like life anywhere — made up mostly of work, school, family and friends. Still, many who don't live in public housing have a negative image of those who do.

Two former residents are trying to change that.

Rico Washington is one of them. The 38-year-old with long dreadlocks and a neatly trimmed beard grew up in Kimberly Gardens public housing apartments in Laurel, Md. When he was younger he was embarrassed about where he lived, he says, and would have co-workers drop him off down the street.

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Midterm elections are less than six weeks away, but the rules for voting in some states are still unclear. This week alone, courts have been considering challenges to voter ID requirements in Texas and Wisconsin, and whether limits on early voting in North Carolina should stay in place. On Wednesday, a federal appeals court panel in Ohio upheld a decision extending early voting in that state, although state officials say they'll appeal.

Go around the country and you'll hear lots of frustration about just how difficult it is to get out of poverty — and more importantly, how to stay out. The official U.S. poverty rate may have gone down to 14.5 percent in 2013 according to new numbers out Tuesday, but still more than 45 million were poor.

The ALS ice bucket challenge continues to bring in huge donations this summer for efforts to cure and treat what's commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease. As of today, the viral campaign has raised more than $94 million for the ALS Association. That's compared with $2.7 million raised by the group during the same time last year.

More than 21 million children get free or reduced priced meals during the school year. But in the summer, that number drops to only three million.

The big question is what happens to all the other children. Do they get enough, and the right food, to eat?

Mallyveen Teah, 53, has been homeless or couch surfing on and off for the past 25 years. Now, he walks from his job at a construction site in Arlington, Va., to his new home, a one-bedroom apartment.

"Something as simple as giving a person a set of keys to their own place makes a huge difference in terms of their outlook on life, the world," he says.

Critics of the food stamp program have been alarmed in recent years by its rapid growth. Last year, about 1 in 7 people in the U.S. received food stamps, or SNAP benefits, as they're called. That's almost 48 million people, a record high.

But the numbers have started to drop. In February, the last month for which figures were available, 1.6 million fewer people received food stamps than at the peak in December 2012, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which runs the program.

Desiree Metcalf's story is heartbreaking, but among the 46 million Americans who are poor today, her story is not unique.

Metcalf is 24 years old.

She's the mother of three little girls — ages 6, 4 and 2. They all have different fathers.

"That about sums me up, I think," she says.

Ask Anne Valdez what poverty means for her, and her answer will describe much more than a simple lack of money.

"It's like being stuck in a black hole," says Valdez, 47, who is unemployed and trying to raise a teenage son in Coney Island, New York City. "Poverty is like literally being held back from enjoying life, almost to the point of not being able to breathe."

For years, researchers have complained that the way the government measures income and poverty is severely flawed, that it provides an incomplete — and even distorted — view.

It's that time again, when primary voters start casting their ballots for the midterm elections. As in recent years, voters face new rules and restrictions, including the need in 16 states to show a photo ID.

But this year, some voting rights activists say they're seeing a change — fewer new restrictions and, in some places, even a hint of bipartisanship.

President Lyndon B. Johnson went to eastern Kentucky in 1964 to promote his War on Poverty. But when he did, he opened a wound that remains raw today. People in the region say they're tired of always being depicted as poor, so when NPR's Pam Fessler went to Appalachia to report on how the War on Poverty is going, she was warned that people would be reluctant to talk. Instead, she got an earful.

Fifty years ago today, President Lyndon Johnson stood before Congress and declared an "unconditional war on poverty in America." His arsenal included new programs: Medicaid, Medicare, Head Start, food stamps, more spending on education and tax cuts to help create jobs.

In the coming year, NPR will explore the impact and extent of poverty in the U.S., and what can be done to reduce it.

In the debate over whether to cut the food stamp program, members of Congress are looking at two pretty arcane provisions in the law. People who want to cut food stamps call the provisions loopholes. People who don't want to cut food stamps say they're efficient ways to get benefits to those who need them most.

1. Categorical Eligibility

People who qualify for one means-tested program — like welfare — can automatically qualify for other programs — like food stamps. This is called "categorical eligibility."

Payday lenders made about $49 billion in high-interest loans last year. More than a third of those loans were made online. I wondered what happens when you apply for such a loan, so I decided to find out.

In the course of reporting a story earlier this year, I logged on to a site called eTaxLoan.com and filled out an application.

I asked for $500 and, to be safe, I made up an address, a name (Mary) and a Social Security number. The site asked for more sensitive stuff — a bank account number and a routing number — and I made that up, too.

New U.S. poverty numbers come out on Tuesday. But what, exactly, do those numbers measure?

Consider the case of Ann Valdez. She's a 47-year-old single mom who lives in an apartment in Brooklyn with her teenage son. She doesn't have a job. She gets a cash payment of about $130 every two weeks from the government. That's all that's counted for her income in the government's poverty measure.

The College Kid

Rico Saccoccio is a junior at Fordham University in the Bronx. He's from a middle-class family in Connecticut and he spent the summer living at home with his parents, who cover about $15,000 a year in his college costs.

According to the U.S. government, Saccoccio is living in poverty. The $8,000 he earns doing odd jobs puts him well below the $11,945 poverty threshold for an individual. In fact, the U.S. Census Bureau recently reported that more than half of all college students who are living off campus and not at home are poor.

Food banks around the country face growing demand, despite improvements in the economy. Many families are still underemployed and struggling. So some food banks are looking for more permanent ways to address hunger, beyond handing out food.

One of them is the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona, based in Tucson. Among the many programs it runs is Las Milpitas de Cottonwood, a community farm located in one of the city's lower-income neighborhoods.

Get Howard Buffett into the cab of a big ole' farm tractor and he's like a kid — albeit a 58-year-old, gray-haired one. He's especially excited when it comes to the tractor's elaborate GPS system, which he describes as "very cool."

"I'm driving hands-free," says Buffett, the son of billionaire investor Warren Buffett.

He says that the tractor has been automatically set to plant 16 perfect rows of seeds, "so it makes everything more efficient. And it's going to give you a better crop in the end."

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

As we've been hearing, the reaction to the court's decision was strong and immediate.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

President Obama said he was deeply disappointed and he called on Congress to act. Civil rights groups say they have lost the most powerful weapon in their effort to ensure equal access at the polls.

MONTAGNE: But as NPR's Pam Fessler reports, some lawmakers in states where voting laws changed - voting law changes were subject to federal approval are saying they're finally free of an unfair burden.

When President Obama first took office in 2009, he had an idea called the Social Innovation Fund.

"We're going to use this fund to find the most promising nonprofits in America," he said when announcing the plan. "We'll examine their data and rigorously evaluate their outcomes. We'll invest in those with the best results that are the most likely to provide a good return on our taxpayer dollars."

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