TODAY   |  July 23, 2010

Jobless mother struggles in severe poverty

TODAY’s Ann Curry reports on the heart-wrenching reality of Sunny Mash, an unemployed mother of four who is trying to care for 14 family members under the roof of her parent’s home in Nelsonville, Ohio.  

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This content comes from a Full-Text Transcript of the program.

AL ROKER reporting: This morning, a rare look at the recession's impact on America 's working poor In a tough economy, they're the first to be hit and experts say likely the last to recover. So for the past nine months, "Dateline" has been reporting from southeastern Ohio , where many families are proud but suffer in silence. More now from Ann Curry .

ANN CURRY reporting: When we met Sunny Mash and her family in Nelsonville , Ohio , earlier this year, there were 14 family members living in a four-bedroom house .

Ms. SUNNY MASH: I slept in the bedroom on the floor with my husband and three of our kids slept on the beds.

CURRY: The home belongs to Sunny 's parents. Sunny , her husband and four children moved in two years ago when her father got sick. You tried to be a good daughter, and that created a situation in which you were stuck.

Ms. MASH: Right.

CURRY: Stuck because she quit a good job in another town packing produce to take care of her sick father and couldn't find other work. Then Sunny 's brother Todd lost his home and moved his family in, too. But there just wasn't enough room for everyone inside.

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

CURRY: People were sleeping in the tents during the winter?

Ms. MASH: Yes.

CURRY: Inside the house , small children live in the same spaces as grandparents, aunts and uncles. For the most part, this family of 14 was living on Sunny 's mother's Social Security checks, $563 a month. Sunny prepared hearty meals, but food was often scarce as her food stamps ran out well before the end of the month.

Ms. MASH: Kids, I always make theirs first so they always get plenty. It's just the adults that usually end up going without.

CURRY: The stress was often too much for Sunny .

Ms. 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 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. That makes you feel really crappy.

CURRY: What does it take for a family to rise from this kind of pain? One woman among 40 million people in America now living in poverty and struggling for answers. For TODAY , Ann Curry in southeast Ohio .

ROKER: Yeah, that's awfully hard to watch but we have to because this is -- this is America ...

NATALIE MORALES, anchor: Absolutely.

ROKER: ...and this is happening.

MORALES: And America 's starting to fall apart, you know, families like that know all too well the pain.

SAVANNAH GUTHRIE reporting: What's so devastating is that this recession, this unemployment has gone on for a lot of people...

MORALES: Mm-hmm.

GUTHRIE: ...six months, a year, people are without jobs.

ROKER: And they've almost given up.

MORALES: Yeah.

GUTHRIE: Indeed. And frankly, we hear in Washington a lot about the extension of unemployment benefits...

MORALES: Unemployment benefits, exactly.

GUTHRIE: ...but it doesn't go past 99 weeks and yet so many people in this country have been jobless for longer.

ROKER: This is...

MORALES: And they're having to take care of their families and extended family ...

ROKER: Yeah.

MORALES: ...and then it just ends up becoming everybody's problem. Yeah.

ROKER: And this is a really important story to see. Ann 's report, a special