The white picket fence and manicured flowerbeds outside 1 Paradise Lane are straight from a picture postcard of idyllic suburban American life in the 1950s.

But its walls are no more than canvas. Its porch overlooks smouldering bonfires and scrawny hens scratching at dirt. And mail never arrives in the letterbox that was hand-painted by Marilyn Berenzweig.

Mrs Berenzweig, 61, used to make $100,000 (£63,333) a year as a designer in New York’s garment district. Now she and her husband Michael are down and out in 'Tent City' in Lakeland, New Jersey. There is no electricity or running water and racoons steal their food. “It’s not an easy life,” she said.

She and Mr Berenzweig, a former radio producer, are two of the 27 million Americans out of work or under-employed as recession stalks the US once more.

New census figures this month showed that poverty is at an 18-year high, more than one in seven having to survive on less than $11,139 (£7,054) a year each or $22,314 (£14,132) for a family of four.

The couple had to leave their $2,000 (£1,266)-a-month house after Marilyn lost her job. They lived with their 40-year-old daughter and her family for four months before a row drove them out.

After reaching the 90-week limit for unemployment benefits, they now receive less than $100 (£63) per week between them in food stamps. “The nearest supermarket is 2.5 miles away,” she said. “Usually we walk”. Social security will kick in only when she is 62, and her modest pension at 65.

“I'm scared about how life is going in America,” said Mrs Berenzweig. “I hope we'll move into an apartment again one day. But we need money.” ...