the working poor

August 26, 2001

About a month ago, I was in Seattle and had to pick up some shipping cartons. So, I went to one of those chain storage and packing products places. A woman sold me the stuff I needed. She was pleasant and helpful. Because I learn a lot by talking to folks, wherever I am, we started chatting about her work.

She began complaining to me about how lousy the medical plan was with this company. No surprise there; nowadays business is offering lousier and lousier benefits when they even bother to offer them at all. A couple of years ago, I was with a big money outfit that gave me a medical plan that covered everything but illness. It’s just like that nowadays.

This woman, her name was Alice, told me what she earned, $7.74 an hour. She was sixty-four years old, just retired as a cop from the Atlanta Police Department. She told me she had a pretty minimal pension, maybe about $150 a month. Then we started talking about the cost of housing in Seattle, which is pretty high.

She pointed out the door and said, “See that green SUV out there? That’s where I sleep.” It was parked in the store’s large parking lot. I guess keeping your vehicle in the parking lot is part of that company’s benefit plan — it sure guaranteed that Alice was at work on time. She told me she had been living in her vehicle for eight months with no hope in sight of changing that circumstance.

Alice also told me about her friends. They all work full time and they are all homeless.

Part of the Reagan revolution, which George Bush is apparently trying to resurrect, was the elimination of hundreds of federally funded social service programs. The programs that acted as a safety net for people like Alice and, I imagine, for some of you as well. But without that net, millions of people like Alice, are simply left to fend for themselves.

And it’s not just adults who are paying the price for this lack of services; it’s kids, too.

Last week, I read that there are more than one million homeless children in America. That’s one million homeless children right here in the land of the free.

I tried to break that number down proportionally and figure out about how many homeless children that meant we have right here in the Hudson Valley. It stands to reason that some of them are living right here in our neighborhoods. Or trying to live, that is.

Yet our politicians point to the seemingly low rate of unemployment. That is a fool’s figure, and most economists admit it. If you are making $7.74 an hour, you are considered employed — even if that wage means that you are living in your vehicle. How convenient.

The fastest growing sector of our economy is the service sector. Retail stores, restaurants, that kind of stuff. Trouble is, these service sector businesses don’t produce anything of value. An auto manufacturer produces value, but a McDonald’s doesn’t — which means that most of the service sector industries can’t pay much more than $7-$10 an hour to their employees.

We are becoming a country with legions of working poor and a smaller class of people who are doing really, really well.

I know there are those of you who, even though you complain about money, are living very comfortably and driving a new SUV or Lexus. You may just want those service sector people to quit whining and provide better service. “What’s wrong with those people?” you may ask.

I’ll tell you what is wrong: life for folks in that sector is damn hard.

Let’s start by doing the math. Let’s round up and say a single person who is thirty years old makes $8 an hour during a forty-hour week. That comes to $320 a week or $1,280 a month. Now that, along with whatever “benefits” your company may provide, means that your take-home pay is maybe $880 a month.

Where do you live on that? Can you get a one-bedroom apartment for under $500 a month around here? Nope. So, you have, at best, $380 left to work with here. Now around here, you have to have a car to get to and from work. Let’s say you’re lucky here and say you own your car and have no payments — but you do have insurance, which is at a minimum another $50 a month. That leaves $330 a month. Of course, you have to fuel the car, and let’s say you average thirty miles a day roundtrip to and from work. We’ll make that about $45 a month in gas and forget about auto maintenance.

Now what are we working with here? We still have $295 free and clear, but there are a few other expenses we have to deal with, like heat, electricity, the telephone and clothing.

As far as I can figure, at eight bucks an hour, assuming you can actually find a place to live for $500 a month, you will do fine as long as you don’t eat. Food just wipes out our budget here.

And that’s just for a single person. But let’s get real radical here: maybe you have a family.

Now, not only is food out the window, but most likely so is housing. So your spouse has to work and will be lucky to be making eight bucks an hour. We have just doubled the net family income here to a grand, and in most cases, it still isn’t enough.

That yearly income comes to a whopping $26,000, which is $2,000 less a year than I was making in 1979. And that was when gas was about fifty cents a gallon and folks, I can tell you that I was not getting rich back then.

How do you live on that? You cut corners. You avoid taking the kids to see the doctor or dentist unless it is a matter of life or death — and you take yourself even less often. Your kids wear hand-me-downs and the occasional item from Kmart or Wal-Mart, but you hope the kids won’t feel different, embarrassed or picked on by the other kids at school who wear the latest designer fashions. You put off getting that tuneup for the cars and only get the tires replaced when they blow out.

You never cook whole pieces of meat, but live on casseroles and lots of spaghetti. For some, it is so hard that drink and even drugs offer at least a moment of respite from the knowledge that you are judged by your neighbors.

There are simply no vacations because going anywhere is downright unaffordable, and for that matter, so is going to the movies.

You wind up feeling like you and your family are living on the margin of something, but you aren’t quite sure of what that something is.

Of course, for entertainment there is television — which is okay except for the commercials that are an ever-present, bombastic reminder of what you don’t have, what your family doesn’t have and what somebody thinks you are supposed to have.

And since both parents are slaving away for that eight bucks an hour and putting in as many extra hours as they can, they may just not be fully there for the kids, who may be getting a bit out of control. So, of course, everybody blames you for being a bad parent. So on top of the bills that you can’t pay, there’s a good measure of constant guilt and the persistent, unshakable feeling that somehow it is all your fault.

But it ain’t.

Who are these people? They live right here, Florida, Warwick, Monroe, Middletown, pick a place. If you aren’t one of these folks, then you see them every day, every time you go shopping or eat in a fast-food restaurant, and no doubt there are those of you working poor listening to me right now.

What can be done? Honestly, I don’t know since so many of the institutions which were there to enable folks to deal with this stuff were dismantled by the Republicans in the ‘80s and kept that way by Bill Clinton, who, if you noticed, rarely spoke about poor people.

In 1979, there were federally funded neighborhood legal services providing assistance to those who couldn’t afford to be billed at $250 an hour. Under Reagan, the concept of a too big federal government, along with that truly obscene notion that a rising tide raises all boats, the neighborhood legal services programs were, for lack of a better term, offed. This fact, along with tougher bankruptcy laws, almost guarantee no escape for working people buried under mountains of debt.

And now Bush believes that rising tide nonsense too. Hey man, a rising tide does lift both the yacht and that old rowboat — but now the rowboat is just going to sink with that family of four in deeper water than before. So, sure, give the rich more money because somehow, that is going to help our family of four here. Yeah, right!

I have nothing against the wealthy, but there is something wrong with this picture. What’s worse is that most of us just want to ignore it — that is, until we lose our job and join those other folks in the ever-growing American mural of the working poor, of hard times getting harder for a million homeless children.

Maybe we can start by paying attention, by talking about it, and most of all, by acknowledging that it’s happening.

Next, we need to demand that our political leaders begin addressing it.

In this time of increasing change and economic uncertainty, who knows? You could be next.

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