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.

One of the more memorable moments in President Obama's State of the Union address this week was his introduction of an elderly woman sitting in the House gallery. The president said that Desiline Victor had to wait three hours last year to vote in North Miami.

"Hour after hour, a throng of people stayed in line to support her," Obama said. "[Because] Desiline is 102 years old. And they erupted in cheers when she finally put on a sticker that read, 'I Voted.' "

Minutes after he was re-elected in November, President Obama vowed to fix the long lines that many voters faced at the polls. He mentioned the problem again in his inaugural address. And now, the president is expected to raise it once more in the State of the Union address on Tuesday — this time with some possible solutions.

In his inaugural address, President Obama talked about a country where even "a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else." But in reality, that's not always the case. A new report finds that one of the biggest obstacles for many Americans is that they don't have the savings or assets they need to help them get ahead.

This weekend, hundreds of thousands of people — including President Obama and his family — are participating in volunteer activities around the country. Saturday's National Day of Service kicks off the president's second inauguration and honors the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday.

As budgets tighten and personal schedules fill, nonprofits are looking for new ways to attract extra helpers, and organizers for the national event hope it will lead to a permanent boost in volunteerism.

Willingness To Give Back

Among the donations that poured into the American Red Cross building after the earthquake in Haiti three years ago was a box of Frisbees. In a flood of well-intentioned but unneeded donations, this box stuck out to Meghan O'Hara, who oversees in-kind donations for the organization.

O'Hara says someone clearly wanted to help — the person mailed the box from Germany — but all she could think was, "Wow. That $60 or $70 could have been sent to so many different organizations to help out in so many different ways, and now we have a box of Frisbees."

Newtown, Conn., was so inundated with teddy bears and other donations after last month's school shootings that it asked people to please stop sending gifts. Relief groups in New York and New Jersey are still trying to figure out what to do with piles of clothes and other items sent there after Superstorm Sandy.

It happens in every disaster: People want to help, but they often donate things that turn out to be more of a burden. Disaster aid groups are trying to figure out a better way to channel these good intentions.

First, there was the post-Thanksgiving sales spectacle Black Friday and then the online version, Cyber Monday. Now, charitable groups want to start a new holiday tradition — it's called Giving Tuesday and the first one is tomorrow.

It may seem a little surprising that no one came up with the idea before of designating a specific day to help launch the holiday charitable giving season.

Whenever there's a disaster, people want to give, and Hurricane Sandy is no exception. According to The Chronicle of Philanthropy, U.S. charities collected more than $174 million in donations as of Nov. 9 to help respond to the storm.

But it's not only money that has been pouring in. Relief programs have also received mountains of clothes, food and other supplies, not all of which are needed.

Food banks in New York and New Jersey were already hard-pressed to meet the demands of families struggling with a bad economy. Add to that a natural disaster and the upcoming holidays, and they're looking at a whole new set of challenges.

Preparation did help some organizations. Five days before Superstorm Sandy hit the Jersey Shore, the Food Bank of Monmouth and Ocean Counties got its new generator up and running. Thank goodness for that, says Executive Director Carlos Rodriguez.

Although voting problems in Tuesday's election were fewer than some people had expected, there were extremely long lines at many polling sites; so many that President Obama noted them in his victory speech.

"I want to thank every American who participated in this election, whether you voted for the very first time, or waited in line for a very long time," he said, adding, "by the way we have to fix that."

Melissa Block talks with Pam Fessler about voting issues that arose on Tuesday.

The presidential race is expected to be extremely close, and that has a lot of people nervous about what it will mean for election night.

Does it mean that the vote count could drag on for days, or even weeks, as it did in 2000?

Lawyers for the campaigns, the political parties and state election offices are preparing for the possibility.

Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted could very well be the man in the middle of any election night storm. By all accounts, the vote in his crucial battleground state will be extremely close.

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Looming over the recovery from Super Storm Sandy is what to do about next Tuesday's election? The prospect that some voters could still be displaced or without power a week from today has election officials trying to come up with alternative plans.

It even has some people talking about the highly unusual step of delaying the vote, as NPR's Pam Fessler reports.

Concerns about problems at the polls appear to be greater and coming earlier than usual this election year. Already, mysterious phone calls in Florida and Virginia have told voters they can vote by phone — which they cannot do.

And until this week, there were anonymous billboards in Ohio and Wisconsin warning that voter fraud is a felony — which it is.

It's a sign that Election Day is getting closer: increasing reports of efforts to intimidate or mislead voters. Florida officials say they're now investigating fake letters that have been sent to voters in at least 20 counties questioning their citizenship and eligibility to vote.

Dozens of anonymous billboards have popped up in urban areas in the crucial battleground states of Ohio and Wisconsin. The signs note that voter fraud is a felony, punishable by up to 3 1/2 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

Civil rights groups and Democrats complain that the billboards are meant to intimidate voters.

The nation's poverty rate is as high as it's been in almost two decades. Last year, 1 in 6 Americans was poor — more than 46 million people, including 16 million children.

But on the campaign trail, the issue of poverty has received surprisingly little attention.

When he first ran for president, Barack Obama went to a low-income neighborhood in Washington, D.C., and spoke passionately about hunger and poverty. He repeated Bobby Kennedy's question in 1967: "How can a country like this allow it?"

If you want to vote in the November elections and you aren't registered yet — you'd better hurry. The registration deadline in five states is this weekend. By the following weekend, the deadline will have passed in more than half the states.

A big embarrassment came this week for the Republican Party, which has made voting integrity and fighting voter fraud a major issue.

A consulting firm hired by the Republican National Committee to register voters in five battleground states has been let go after one of its workers apparently submitted over 100 questionable registration forms in Florida's Palm Beach County.

The party severed its ties with the firm — Strategic Allied Consulting — because it has "zero tolerance" for voter fraud, said RNC spokesman Sean Spicer.

The first sign that getting a new ID isn't going to be easy for Beverly Mitchell and Kathleen Herbert comes before the pair have even left their downtown Philadelphia senior center. As they wait for a ride to a nearby Department of Motor Vehicles office, they get the news: The van that was supposed to take them is broken.

Noncitizens aren't allowed to vote in federal and state elections, but efforts to remove them from the nation's voter registration rolls have produced more angst than results.

Opponents say the scope of the problem has been overblown; those behind the efforts say they've just begun to look at the problem.

'Early Stages'

The U.S. poverty rate last year was unchanged from the year before, according to new figures Wednesday from the Census Bureau. But that still means almost 1 in 6 Americans was poor.

The new data show that 46.2 million people in the U.S. lived below the poverty line — about $23,000 for a family of four. The number of poor was almost exactly the same as it was the year before, but still historically high.

Eight weeks before the presidential election, new laws passed by Republican legislatures that concern who can vote and when remain in the hands of federal and state judges.

Among the cases: The Pennsylvania Supreme Court this week will hear an appeal to overturn that state's new voter ID law. An appeal is expected in a case involving early voting in Ohio. And a federal court is still considering whether South Carolina can go ahead with its new voter ID law.

The number of U.S. families struggling to put enough food on the table remains at record-high levels, according to new figures out today from the government. Last year, 1 in almost 7 households were what the government calls "food insecure." That's about the same level as in 2010, but still far higher than before the recession.

If you vote, you might very well be confused about what the rules will be when you go to cast your ballot this fall. There's been a flood of new laws on things such as voter identification and early voting, and many of them are now being challenged in court.

Some cases could drag on until Nov. 6, Election Day, and beyond. The outcomes will affect voters, and maybe even the results.

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