In Houston, more than 3,200 janitors clean the offices of some of the largest and most powerful corporations in the world: JP Morgan Chase, Shell, Exxon Mobil, Chevron, Wells Fargo, KBR and Marathon Oil, to name a few. For their labor, they are paid an hourly wage of $8.35 and earn an average of $8,684 annually. Two janitors together would earn about $17,300 a year—still well below the poverty line of $22,314 for a family of four.

Yesterday, the contract between the janitors and the cleaning contractors expired. SEIU Local 1 spent the past month trying to reach an agreement to raise the janitors’ hourly wage to $10 over the next three years. But the contractors countered with an offer of a $0.50 pay raise phased in over five years and—according to SEIU spokesperson Paloma Martinez—said that they “wouldn’t budge.” The contractors claimed that the building owners and tenants—the aforementioned corporations—aren’t willing to pay anything close to a living wage.

In response the janitors voted to authorize their bargaining committee to call a strike. For workers already struggling on sub-poverty wages, this was no easy decision.

“The workers were really insulted by the offer,” said Martinez. “The contractors said they weren’t going to move and they blamed it on the building owners, but we all know the state of the real estate market here.”

With the city enjoying the fruits of the energy industry, Houston’s commercial real estate market is indeed the best performing market in the United States in terms of demand. It has the highest number of new corporate real estate projects in the nation, vacancy rates below the national average and rising rental rates.

Nevertheless, the city’s janitors are among the lowest paid in the nation, with workers in cities with far weaker real estate markets earning a significantly higher hourly wage: Cincinnati ($9.80), Cleveland ($10.30), Detroit ($10.97) and Chicago ($15.45) are a few examples.

“While many of us do all that we can to provide a decent living for our families, we are paid poverty wages and are full of despair not knowing how are we going to get to the end of the month,” said Hernan Trujillo, who cleans offices in downtown Houston and has been active in organizing his colleagues. “We can’t provide education for our children or buy medicine when we get sick.”

The janitors are now reaching out directly to the building owners and tenants and asking for their help. Martinez says that even though these parties aren’t directly involved in the negotiations, an ExxonMobil or a Wells Fargo could easily influence any outcome.

“This is a good opportunity for them to say, ‘We’re going to do right by Houstonians. We’re going to do right by working people,’ ” said Martinez. “But so far there really hasn’t been much of a response.”

In a city that has a poverty rate which has risen steadily over the last four years and is higher than the national average, and a cost of living estimated at approximately $47,200 annually for a family of four, the significance of these negotiations extends beyond the lives of the janitors and their families.

“People who have never worked poverty jobs in their lives suggest that the solution is to find another job,” said Trujillo. “[But] these jobs will always exist. Housekeeping jobs are going to be needed. Instead of ignoring the problem, we need to improve these jobs. All hard work should be respected with living wages.”

Martinez notes that opponents of living wages often argue that low-wage workers simply need to better educate themselves so that they can qualify for higher-paying jobs.

“People can’t get other jobs because they have to work two or three jobs to make ends meet,” she says. “They want to get new skills, to get educated, but how are they going to do that if they literally have to figure out every single day how to put food on the table? We need to move towards making these positions full time-family sustaining jobs, emulating the standard of many other cities.”

One can imagine an executive at Wells or Chevron or Shell who might develop a rapport with a worker cleaning his or her office—ask about the family, their other jobs, that sort of thing. Maybe when Christmas rolls around there is a cash gift. But when push comes to shove, and the stakes are high as they are at this moment, how many people will actually step forward for the workers who sanitize their bathrooms and workspace, empty the trash, vacuum the floors—do the hard work they depend on every day?

“We are always perceived as a low category of people. People assume because we are janitors we must be uneducated, rude or thieves,” says Trujillo. “For years we’ve been ignored and when we try to improve our lives many laugh at us. But despite the obstacles, we’re going to do whatever it takes to make it happen, which includes going on strike. Everyone who works hard deserves a good life. We want to make Houston a city that works for workers.”

Conversation with Tianna Gaines: Holidays, Hunger and Poverty

In recent months, I’ve had the opportunity to get to know many participants in Witnesses to Hunger—a project in which people living in poverty use photographs and testimonials to advocate for change at the local, state and national levels. Tianna Gaines-Turner is a Witness living in Philadelphia with her husband and children. She works at Drexel University’s School of Public Health and as a homecare worker for an elderly person. I spoke with Tianna this week about her Memorial Day weekend and she had a lot on her mind. Here are excerpts from our conversation:

Holiday weekends always put a stir on things and make people feel a little more pressure than normal. I think a lot of times people forget what the holidays are for—this holiday was to remember the troops, those who do the great work to keep our nation safe. It wasn’t really about barbecues and pool parties and things like that….

Unfortunately, a lot of people who live in impoverished neighborhoods—especially children—they look forward to holidays because it’s the only day they know for sure they’re going to get a good meal. To me it’s sad, it’s sickening, that you have people who have to wait for a barbecue or an event to know they don’t have to worry about scrambling up food because, for example, they’re going to Auntie’s house and there’s going to be a cookout; or the kids know they can go outside and someone on the block is going to be having a cookout and they can just pretty much eat all day….

I feel like the city wastes a lot of money on nonsense, but then we criticize a person who’s on public assistance or cash assistance. Don’t point a finger at a person who is needing these benefits, but at the people making decisions that are taking away from programs which low-income people rely on….

I understand that the mayor is working really hard at bringing new programs—like healthy eating programs—to the city. But we’re also building an ice skating rink in the heart of center city while just last week we had unions—teachers, janitorial staffs—in front of the school board talking about getting laid off and [city] budget cuts. And right now the city of Philadelphia is sponsoring a Jay-Z concert. People make a big deal out of little things and don’t pay attention to the big things: you have food pantries not being able to feed people because there’s more demand; senior citizens who have nothing to eat; people getting foreclosure notices on their homes and people left to live in squalor in abandoned buildings; people lying out on the streets, panhandling.

So where is city money going? Is it going to a school district to make sure kids can learn? Is it going to go into reopening a homeless shelter? Who is paying attention to where the money is going…?

At the end of the day, it’s about children that are going hungry; it’s about the mother worrying about her house being foreclosed on and where is my family going to sleep—the shelters are over filled, and I can’t stay at Auntie or Uncle’s house because there are already family members there. But people think about these problems as, “It isn’t me that’s losing my house, it isn’t my child that’s going to sleep hungry.” And then they say mean things like, “Why do they keep having children they can’t take care of?”—once again, pointing the finger. The end result is no one is really looking at the big picture.

There should be no person that has to go to sleep hungry in the United States, period. It should not be accepted anymore. It should not be something where people have to feel ashamed to say, “I’m hungry.” Because there’s no shame in hunger. The shame is for those who continue to be pointing a finger at those who are hungry.

We’re people. You can’t continuously try to separate us as if people who live in low-income families are not people. We are people. And we’re getting sick and tired of being sick and tired of people just mistreating us—talking about us as if we don’t exist. We’re not standing down anymore. We’re speaking out, and we’re going to continue to speak out wherever we need to speak—for people to understand that hunger and poverty are real. It’s not a black thing, it’s not a white thing, it’s a people thing. Hunger has no color.

Next Week on the Hill

The Senate is expected to take up the farm bill on Tuesday. Although it will be weeks before a final vote, this is a process to stay on top of, especially because this bill will play a major role in determining funding for the food stamp (SNAP) program.

The importance of food stamps as an anti-poverty measure can’t be overstated. The program lifted 3.9 million Americans above the poverty line in 2010, including 1.7 million children and 280,000 seniors. The average beneficiary household has an income of only 57 percent of the federal poverty line (so about $9,900 for a family of three), and 84 percent of all benefits go to households with a child, senior or disabled person.

While the Senate bill is far better than the draconian House bill—which would cut $36 billion from SNAP and throw 2 million low-income people off of the program—it nevertheless would cut an estimated $4.49 billion, reducing benefits for 500,000 households by $90 per month. Since the average SNAP recipient receives just $133 per month ($4.46 per day), the cut is deep and significant.

I’ll write an update on the bill next week. In the meantime, readers can contact their Senators and let them know that at this time of record poverty, we need to strengthen—or at the very least protect—the SNAP program.

Guest Post: Deborah Weinstein on Poverty, Children, and Diabetes

A few years ago, I attended a community forum on poverty in Utica, New York. There was a sense of urgency at the meeting because poverty in the region had been persistently and extremely high: in 2010, nearly 43 percent of children in Utica were poor, compared to 20 percent of all US children. At one point in the meeting, a presenter talked about going to a fifth grade class and asking how many children knew someone with diabetes. Many hands went up.

I was reminded of this last week when stunning new findings about diabetes in teenagers were reported in the New York Times. A little more than a decade ago, about one in ten 12- to 19-year-olds were at risk of—or already had—Type 2 diabetes. By 2007-2008, that number had jumped to 23 percent. High rates of obesity and low levels of physical activity are said to contribute to this dramatic rise. These are factors associated with poverty.

These findings were immensely troubling: when Type 2 diabetes occurs in children, it is more resistant to treatment than it is in adults. Diabetes that is not adequately controlled by medication, diet or physical activity increases the likelihood of heart disease, kidney failure, amputations and other serious conditions, so children with the disease are at risk of having a lifetime of health problems.

As an editorial in The New England Journal of Medicine points out, it is easy to see why poor children find it difficult to change their eating patterns and increase their levels of physical activity. Empty calories are cheaper and more readily available, playing video games indoors is safer than playing outside in bad neighborhoods, public schools have cut back on recess and gym and parents may not be able to afford paying for their kids to participate in afterschool sports.

Type 2 diabetes is hard to control even under the best circumstances. A teenager who might be inclined to reject adult advice and who is in an environment filled with the wrong choices is not going to be fighting the disease in optimal conditions. A large body of research over the past few decades has documented that poor children are also already at a greater risk of chronic health problems, hospitalizations and developmental problems. These difficulties are all associated with falling behind at school, dropping out and reduced earnings in adulthood.

Many poor children do beat these odds; children are miraculously resilient. But the extreme risk of diabetes that we are now seeing—with more serious health complications likely for children than for adults who get the disease—makes the hurdles in front of them even harder to clear. What kind of future do these kids look forward to?

One thing is certain: young people entering adulthood with diabetes urgently need the new healthcare law, so their pre-existing conditions will not place health insurance out of reach. To help defend the new law, sign up for Families USA’s Health Action Network. Or to fight those in Congress whose budget proposals deepen poverty and compound its consequences, sign up for alerts from the Coalition on Human Needs.

Deborah Weinstein is the executive director of the Coalition for Human Needs, a Washington, DC–based alliance of national organizations working together to promote public policies that address the needs of low-income people and other vulnerable populations.

Get Involved

The Alliance for Appalachia’s End Mountaintop Removal Week in Washington
Stop Elimination of Commission Jobs at JC Penney
Home Defenders League
Support Paid Leave


Why Your Grocery Store Makes Farmworkers Poor,” Greg Asbed and Lucas Benitez
Plantations, Prisons, and Profits,” Charles Blow
Study Ranks US Second-Highest in Child Poverty,” Center for Community Change
Raising Threshold for Bush Tax Cuts… Would Lose $366 Billion,” Center on Budget and Policy Priorities
Peter Edelman on ‘Why It’s So Hard to End Poverty in America’,” Karen Dolan
…Threat to Working Families in Louisiana…” Melissa Flournoy and Vicki Shabo
Time to Fight For a Minimum Wage Increase,” Katrina vanden Heuvel
America’s Families Speak Out,” Kathy Mulady
Why the Unemployed Are the ‘Forgotten Man’ of 2012,” Tim Price
Wasting Time is New Divide in Digital Era,” Matt Richtel
… Obama Rejected Bush Administration Concession to Write Down Mortgages,” Matt Stoller

Other Resources
Arsenal of Exclusion and Inclusion” blog
Asthma’s Impact on the Nation—Infographic,” Centers for Disease Control
New Educational Materials on Trends in Inequality,” Stanford Center on Poverty & Inequality
What Works in Reentry Clearinghouse,” Urban Institute & Council of State Governments


Uninsured Veterans and Family Members: Who Are They and Where Do They Live?”
Jennifer Haley and Genevieve Kenney. Ten percent—or 1.3 million—nonelderly veterans don’t have health insurance coverage or use VA care. Nearly 950,000 adults and children in veterans’ families are uninsured. 41 percent of uninsured veterans have unmet medical needs, while nearly 34 percent report having delayed care due to cost. The Affordable Care Act could increase uninsured veterans’ coverage: nearly half would qualify for expanded Medicaid, and up to 40 percent could qualify for subsidized health insurance exchange coverage if they lack access to employer coverage.

Diverse Charter Schools: Can Racial and Socioeconomic Integration Promote Better Outcomes for Students?” Richard Kahlenberg and Halley Potter. This paper examines the causes of the current trend of charter school funders and government program guidelines to develop racially isolated high poverty schools in urban locations (as well as segregated white schools in some other locations) and suggests a series of policy changes and incentives that could increase racial and economic diversity in charters.

Vital Statistics

US poverty (less than $22,314 for a family of four): 46 million people, 15.1 percent of population.

Children in poverty: 16.4 million, 22 percent of all children, including 40 percent of African-American children and 37 percent of Latino children.

Number of poor children receiving cash aid: one in five.

Poverty rate for people in female-headed families: 42 percent.

Single mothers with incomes under $25,000: 50 percent.

Single mothers working: 67 percent.

Deep poverty (less than $11,157 for a family of four): 20.5 million people, 6.7 percent of population. Up from 12.6 million in 2000.

Increase in deep poverty, 1976–2010: doubled—3.3 percent of population to 6.7 percent.

Americans with no income other than food stamps: 6 million, 2 percent of population.

Twice the poverty level (less than $44,628 for a family of four): 103 million people, roughly 1 in 3 Americans.

Families receiving cash assistance, 1996: 68 of every 100 families with children living in poverty.

Families receiving cash assistance, 2010: 27 of every 100 families with children living in poverty.

Impact of public policy, 2010: without government assistance, poverty would have been twice as high—nearly 30 percent of population.

Quote of the Week

“People assume because we are janitors we must be uneducated, rude or thieves.”
                                           —Hernan Trujillo, janitor in Houston

This Week in Poverty posts every Friday morning. Please comment below. You can also e-mail me at [email protected] and follow me on Twitter.