Lisa Brooks was only 24, but a blemish of weariness tainted her youthful face. She worked hard as a caretaker at a halfway house for mentally ill adults. She was good with them, kind and firm, but she was paid $8.21 an hour, which put her and her four children a couple of thousand dollars below the federal poverty line.

Brooks lived in Newport, N.H., in a damp, drafty apartment in an old wooden house, an apartment that exacerbated her 9-year-old son’s asthma. On two occasions, her son had...

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