Working and Poor in the USA

Working and Poor in the USA

A vast impoverished population languishes in the midst of our economy.


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.

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.”

In 1962 Michael Harrington stirred the conscience of the nation with the publication of The Other America. He reminded a country basking in the glow of postwar prosperity that poverty was alive and well. Harrington revealed the struggles of invisible millions living in passed-over regions of the country and the economy–in Appalachia, the South, in rural America. They were caught in dying towns and industries, shunted off the main tracks of the economy into unemployment, and left to fester in idleness and despair. In a word, they were outlanders, watching as the rest of the country went to work and thrived. The nation spent the remainder of the century wrestling with this sort of jobless poverty, expanding and then contracting the welfare state as it experimented with different ways of dealing with a population cut off from the economic mainstream.

These forms of poverty persist, and the country is still arguing about what to do with its welfare recipients. But the great secret of America is that a vast impoverished population has grown up in our midst. These are not Americans who have been excluded from the world of work; in fact, they make up the core of much of the new economy. And it is estimated that low-wage jobs will make up 30 percent of the economy by the end of this decade.

Thirty million Americans make less than $8.70 an hour, the official US poverty level for a family of four. (Most experts estimate that it takes at least double this level for a family to provide for its basic needs.) Their low-wage, no-benefits jobs translate into billions of dollars in profits, executive pay, high stock prices and low store prices.

Who are they? They are all around us in jobs essential to our lives. Low-wage workers are security guards and childcare givers. They are nursing-home workers and retail clerks. They are hospital orderlies and teachers’ assistants. They are hotel workers and pharmacy technicians. They bone the chicken that we eat, clean the office buildings where we work and handle our questions and complaints at call centers.

Yet few express outrage about the plight of these workers. There is a reigning American mythology that blunts any concern: that holding a low-wage job is a temporary situation, that mobility and education and time will solve whatever problem exists.

The evidence, however, contradicts this myth. Most low-wage workers will never move up the ladder into the middle class. Economics professors Peter Gottschalk of Boston College and Sheldon Danziger of the University of Michigan found that about half of those whose family income ranked in the bottom 20 percent in 1968 were still in the same group in 1991. Of those who had moved up, nearly three-fourths remained below the median income. The US economy provides less mobility for low-wage earners, according to an Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development study, than the economies of France, Italy, Britain, Germany, Denmark, Finland and Sweden.

Inadequate wages are only part of the problem. Most of these workers lack basic job benefits. In 1995 less than half of workers making under $20,000 a year were offered health insurance by their employer. Only one in five workers with incomes below $20,000 has pension coverage. For low-wage parents with children under 6, one-third do not get paid vacations or paid holidays. And most low-wage jobs fail to provide sick pay or disability pay. These jobs leave little flexibility to care for a sick child or deal with an emergency at school–let alone the normal appointments and needs of everyday life. Quality childcare is unaffordable for most, and many nighttime shifts and employers’ schedule changes make it harder and more expensive to obtain.

Low-wage workplaces are often physically dangerous and emotionally degrading. High injury rates are common. Constant surveillance, time clocks, drug testing and rigid rules reinforce the workers’ pervasive sense that employers do not trust them. Fear is the chief motivator: Being five minutes late can mean losing a job. A few minutes too long in the bathroom can bring punishment. It is consistent with this lack of respect from employers that these workers are half as likely to receive employer-sponsored training as workers in higher-wage jobs.

These conditions are no accident. Over the past quarter-century, a variety of political, economic and corporate decisions have undercut the bargaining power of workers, especially those at the lower end of the work force. Those decisions included the push to increase global trade and open global markets, government efforts to deregulate industries that had been highly unionized, tight monetary policies and a corporate ideological shift away from the postwar social contract with employees and toward the principle of maximizing shareholder value. During the same period, the most vulnerable workers were deprived of many of the institutions, laws and political allies that generally helped to counterbalance these forces. Liberal allies who historically had championed their interests mostly sat silent. Unions were in decline. Minimum-wage, fair employment and labor laws were weakened.

Today, Americans can make different choices. Democrats should call for a compact with working Americans that establishes the mutual obligations and responsibilities of employers, workers and government. The compact would have a simple and clear purpose: It would insure that if you work hard you will be treated fairly and have the resources to provide for yourself and your family.

One place to start is raising the minimum wage to $8.70 and indexing it to inflation. The compact should require that industries receiving public funds through contracts, tax abatements or other subsidies provide quality jobs with benefits and living wages. Access to affordable healthcare must be provided to all workers and their families. Workers need to know they can get time off to be with a sick child or an elderly parent without fear of losing their jobs or a day’s pay. Quality childcare and early education should be made available to their children. And workers must have the right to organize without fear of intimidation, harassment or being fired.

In the past, we have established standards and rights to insure that older Americans would not be impoverished or go without healthcare, to prevent young children from working and to insure equal opportunity in employment regardless of race, religion, national origin, sex or age. Now we must set standards to protect the well-being of all working families and the integrity of the nation. It is urgent, both morally and politically, for the Democratic candidates to confront this critical issue.

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