Working and Poor in the USA | The Nation


Working and Poor in the USA

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For generations, Americans shared a tacit understanding that if you worked hard, you could earn a livable income and provide basic security for yourself and your family. That promise has been broken. More than 30 million Americans--one in four workers--are stuck in low-wage jobs that do not provide the basics for a decent life.

About the Author

Beth Shulman
Beth Shulman is a lawyer and consultant focusing on work-related issues and author of The Betrayal of Work: How Low-...

As we celebrate the fortieth anniversary of President Johnson's declaration of the War on Poverty, we are reminded that economic growth alone is not sufficient to combat the problem. Today, the war on poverty must be fought not on the margins but in the very mainstream of our economy. It must be a war to restore the promise of work.

While the Democratic presidential contenders are vocal about general economic conditions, ill-advised tax cuts and continuing unemployment, they have only recently begun to point out a fundamental economic failure--the failure of work to meet people's needs.

Finding ways to make sure that people who work hard can take care of their families would put the Democrats on the offensive instead of their customary defensive position on family values. It would have broad appeal to working Americans, as millions of middle-income jobs take on the characteristics of the low-wage economy--layoffs, outsourcing, unaffordable healthcare and vanishing pension benefits. And it would have great potential to help those suffering in low-wage jobs--workers like Cynthia Porter.

Cynthia Porter works full time as a certified nursing assistant at a nursing home in Marion, Alabama. When she comes on duty at 11 pm, she makes rounds, checking the residents for skin tears and helping them go to the toilet or use a bedpan. She has to make sure she turns the bedridden every two hours, or they will get bedsores. And if bedsores are left unattended, she tells me, they can get so bad you can put your fist in them. But there aren't enough people on her shift. Often only two nursing assistants are on duty to take care of forty-five residents. And Cynthia must also wash the wheelchairs, clean up the dining rooms, mop the floors and scrub out the refrigerator, drawers and closets during her shift. Before she leaves, she helps the residents get dressed for breakfast.

For all this, Cynthia makes $350 every two weeks. She is separated from her husband, who gives her no child support. The first two weeks each month she pays her $150 rent. The next two weeks, she pays her water and her electric bills. It is difficult to afford Clorox or shampoo. Insuring that her children are fed properly is a stretch. She is still paying off the bicycles she bought for them last Christmas.

She can't afford a car, so she pays someone to drive her the twenty-five miles to work. There have been a few days when she couldn't find a ride. "I walked at 12 o'clock at night," she said. "I'd rather walk and be a little late than call in. I'd rather make the effort. I couldn't just sit here. I don't want to miss a day--otherwise, I might be fired." No public transportation is available that could take her all the way to work.

Cynthia lives with her three children in a small maroon-colored shack. It is miles from a main road. Inside, the plywood floor is so thin and worn that the ground can be seen below. In the next room, a toilet sinks into the floor. There is no phone. A broken heater sits against the wall; the landlord refuses to fix it.

Keeping her children's clothes clean requires great effort because Cynthia has no washing machine. Instead, she fills her bathtub halfway and gets on her hands and knees to scrub the clothes. Then she hangs them out to dry.

I first met Cynthia at a union meeting. She had a quiet, dignified presence with her dark suit and her hair pulled back in a bun. She and twenty-five others from the nursing home--all eighty of her co-workers are African-American women, like her--gathered in the little brick Masonic building outside of Marion to talk about having a union. None had ever gotten a raise of more than 13 cents an hour. Some who had been there ten years were still making $6 an hour. But ultimately, it was the lack of respect from their employer that motivated these women. They said they often told their supervisors something important about patients, but no one listened. The home offered no promotions either. Cynthia said, "I knew it wouldn't improve without outside help."

Despite the frustration and the difficult conditions, Cynthia beams when she talks about her job. "I like helping people," she says. "I like talking with them, and shampooing their hair. I like old people. If they are down, I can really make them feel better. The patients say, 'Nobody loves me or comes to see me.' Sometimes I help the residents play dominoes. Sometimes their hands shake, but I hold them. It's a lot of fun for them. I tell them 'I love you,' and give them a hug. I like being a CNA. I'm doing what I want to be doing."

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