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Many American families running on financial fumes

By George Howell and Kyle Almond, CNN
November 29, 2011 -- Updated 1545 GMT (2345 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Poverty levels are the highest since 1993, according to the U.S. Census Bureau
  • At least one of every five American children is considered poor
  • Many families face tough decisions every day on bills and basic necessities
  • CNN Hero Sal Dimiceli has helped the working poor for decades in Wisconsin

Atlanta (CNN) -- Jonathan Hanson and Katina Wright are determined to give their infant daughter a bright and stable future despite the cloud of uncertainty they face after years without steady work.

Once successful real estate agents making six figures, Hanson and Wright are now living on the poverty line.

"We made some good money," Hanson said. "But with new regulations in real estate and different laws and just the amount of foreclosures on the market, it literally took our business away."

The last few years have been a downward spiral, says the Atlanta couple, who have been living off their savings. They've sold jewelry and cars, and now they're trying to sell their home to survive. Every day, they are faced with a tough decision.

"You have to pick and choose what you want to do," Hanson said. "It's either eat that day or pay a bill."

They're not alone. Millions of American families have slipped into what the U.S. Census Bureau defines as poor. About 46.2 million people are considered to be living in poverty, 2.6 million more than last year.

"Those that are in dire need, they'll sell all their personal belongings to survive," said Sal Dimiceli, one of the top 10 CNN Heroes of 2011.

Through his weekly newspaper column, Dimiceli hears from dozens of people each week who are facing hard times. And for decades, he has made every effort to help them get back on their feet.

CNN Hero: Sal Dimiceli

Through his nonprofit, The Time Is Now To Help, Dimiceli has provided about 500 people a year with food, rent, utilities and other necessities.

"We get them back on a track (so) that ... their pride is given back to them," Dimiceli said this year. "They can catch up."

There haven't been this many Americans living in poverty since 1993, according to the Census Bureau.

More than 15% of the population is now considered poor. The rate is 22% for children, meaning at least one of every five U.S. kids is living in poverty.

"If you qualify as being in poverty today, then you're really in deep poverty," said Mark Bergel, founder and executive director of A Wider Circle, a Maryland-based charity that provides furniture and other basic necessities to needy families.

Bergel told CNN's Lisa Sylvester that the numbers used to define poverty today are extremely low and "based on an outdated formula from the '60s."

The Census Bureau defines an individual as poor if they make less than $11,139 a year. The dollar amount rises for every member added to the household.

Map: Poverty rates, state by stateMap: Poverty rates, state by state

For example, the average family of four is considered poor if they make less than $22,314. For a family of three like Hanson, Wright and their daughter, the threshold is just a little more than $17,000.

"There's a lot of people suffering," said Karen Lee, a financial planner and author of several books, including "Simple Steps to Help People Get Unstuck Financially."

Lee said it's important for people who've never faced poverty to keep a positive outlook and believe that things can get better.

"I have seen people go from riches to rags to riches to rags," she said. "You can rebuild, and you can completely change careers and rebuild."

That's what Hanson and Wright are doing.

Hanson is betting on a new business he started: building security cages for air conditioners to prevent copper theft.

Wright is teaching herself Web development.

"I literally threw my Rolodex away, because it was all real-estate-related," she said. "It's no longer of any use to me. So being able to let go is going to be a person's biggest advantage."

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