The Working Poor
I volunteer at a local benevolent organization because I think it’s important to practice what I preach. I work with people who come to the organization asking for food, help with utilities or rent, or information where they can get help for any number of needs. I am constantly amazed at the trying circumstances in which people are attempting to make it.
Could you live on $560 a week gross? That’s what Walmart pays ($14/hour) for full-time employment. I talked to a single mother of a 14-year-old today who is trying to live on that amount of money. Not only did she need the food for which she came to our organization and the voucher for clothing at a local thrift store, but she is also being evicted from her government-subsidized housing at the end of this month. When I asked what her options are, she said, “I guess my daughter and I will live out of our car until we can do better.”
Here’s the thing: there are many thousands of people like this single Mom who are in the same predicament—not enough money to live on even though she is working! It gripes my constitution to hear privileged politicians complain that requirements to work should be strengthened in the welfare system. What would they say to this single Mom who IS working and can’t possibly make it?
I know there may be more to her story than I know, but I also know our communities have many people who are living month-to-month if not week-to-week and, like this single Mom and her daughter who will probably lose their housing with no other options, end up in a homeless shelter or on the street. How long will she be able to keep her job then? Okay, it’s an over-simplification, but I’m going to say it anyhow: It’s a travesty that the richest country the world has ever seen cannot, NO, will not solve the problems of the working poor.
The Working Poor
The Bureau of Labor Statistics describes the working poor as people who work at least 27 weeks out of a year, either working or looking for work, but whose incomes fall below poverty levels. Most recently, 9.5 million Americans fell into this category. That’s a lot of people! If all those people were gathered together in one city, it would be the largest city in the country by a lot.
According to PolicyLink, one recent study found there isn’t a single Congressional district in the country where a full-time minimum wage worker could afford a two-bedroom apartment. This is an everyday reality for 12 million Americans ages 25 to 64. That stat was only 7 million in 1980 but is now 12.4 million to be exact.
Looking Beyond the Stats
The single mother part of whose story is told at the beginning of this blog is among the working poor. Stats don’t do much to help us understand the hopelessness and frustration of the working poor. For that, we have to meet them and talk with them, allowing them to tell their own story.
David Shipler spent years studying America’s working poor and has written a book about his findings. As you might imagine, he tells about many working poor folk he encountered in his study. He says, “The working poor include a man who washes a car but doesn’t own one, an assistant teacher in a daycare who cannot afford to enroll her own children in that same daycare. These are folks who do essential jobs in our economy and yet are paid very low wages.”
Shipley tells about Chris, a 26-year-old in Claremont, NH, a working-class mill town on the western edge of the state. Chris walked to work at 5 AM recently on a cold spring morning because his car needs a new starter, a repair that will have to wait. He works at an herb-packing plant, and for 10 hours or so, that’s what he’ll do to earn $8.50/hour. He says, “I make about $15,000 a year, roughly about $1,200 to $1,300 a month.”
Eryn, 21, is Chris’ fiancé and the mother of his 2 sons, 3 and 1. She says about their circumstances, “We feel helpless a lot, like if something goes wrong, there’s nothing we can do about it, and that’s why I’ve started babysitting because his income just wasn’t enough, and mine helps a little more.”
Eryn makes $99 a week or about $400 a month. That puts their income at about $19,000 a year, just below the poverty line, which qualifies them for government-subsidized housing and qualifies their children for Medicaid. And their beat-up car, it’s a replacement for a much better car they lost over the winter over a $350 loan for heating oil and Christmas presents.
The interest rate for this kind of loan is astronomical! Chris says, “It was 37 percent a month. I lost my job and wasn’t able to pay the loan, so we lost our car, unfortunately.”
Chris and Eryn are typical of the working poor—working as best they can while living in the vulnerable position of one accident or one injury or one mistake at work could cost them some of the basics for their family, not luxuries but basics.
What to do
I’m going to hazard a guess that not a single person who reads this blog is or has ever been among the working poor. And that includes me. If I’m wrong, let me know.
So, what can we who have been spared the unfortunate existence of the working poor do to help them? First, get to know them. There are agencies in every county whose purpose is to serve the working poor. Go there and volunteer. Become informed about the real-life circumstances of the working poor. From there, God will show you (IF you ask Him) what you can do to serve these struggling neighbors.