The Working Poor Needs a Place at the Table

As someone who spends a significant amount of volunteer time working with homeless families, a passion of mine is to help inform others that the homeless and impoverished people in the US are not embodied in the panhandler that people see on the street. To this day, when I tell people the majority of the homeless families we help have jobs, it boggles their minds. These are people who are doing their best to make ends meet, but through low paying jobs, diminished work hours, or a lost job by one of the heads of household, these folks lose their house or cannot pay their rent. It has only gotten worse since the economic downturn with so many people living paycheck to paycheck and with their mortgage underwater.

This issue was heightened once again on the campaign trail when a fundraising video caught Governor Romney speaking about the 47% of Americans who need to take responsibility and consider themselves victims. This is not a speech that is out of context with his beliefs and platform nor did he apologize for the words. He just said he could have more elegantly stated his comments. And, this is what is so troubling. I see commercials where our President is accused of trying to divide our country, when I see Governor Romney and his party drive wedge after wedge separating and alienating people.  As a true Independent voter who has and will vote for moderate Republicans and Democrats, I do not see the Governor as someone who will speak for or even understand Americans unlike him.

In speech after speech I hear Romney’s words about people being entrepreneurs or helping small business owners, yet I hear very little about the teacher, auto worker, lineman, teller, salesperson, etc. who just want to have a nice place to live, feed their family and try to send their kids to college. They cannot borrow from their parents to fund a business as their parents don’t have the money to lend. Who are these irresponsible victims – these 47% of Americans that total 76 million and do not pay federal income taxes? Well, about 17 million of them are senior citizens. There are another 10 million that  have various tax credits. Of the remaining 49 million, 38 million filed tax returns, but due to the lowness of wages, the exemptions and standard deductions reduced their taxable pay to $0. The remaining 11 million are the folks who are both employed and unemployed, but receive tax credits for children or because they have extremely low or no wages.

The 49 million jives with the 46 million Americans we hear that are living in poverty. So, that is a validation of the latter number. Yet, as noted above, at least 38 million of these people are working as evidenced by filing a tax return. I would not call that being irresponsible. Through lack of education, outsourced manufacturing jobs, downsizings, rightsizings, and layoffs, many in the middle class are now in this category. They are working jobs (sometimes more than one) that pay lesser wages and/ or fewer hours which generate lower pay. These jobs also do not pay enough where the employee can afford to elect health care. If this claim sounds unbelievable, I work with a lot of retail clients, and the percentage of employees who sign up for company health care is often beneath 50%. I have one client where the number is less than 20% – that means over 80% of the company’s employees do not have medical coverage through them.

These working poor need a place at the table. I have often cited the book “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America” by Barbara Ehrenreich. While this book was written following her first hand experience of working minimum or close to minimum wage jobs back in 1998, its findings and observations hold even more true today. In essence, she witnessed a group of people who worked their fannies off every day for more than eight hours a day. These folks could hardly be called irresponsible as they were doing what they had to do working one or more jobs to make ends meet. Her key conclusions were two-fold. First, these kinds of jobs perpetuate poverty. You cannot eat well, you cannot save and you are an economic slave to the hours allotted by a supervisor. Second,  it is no longer a truism in the US that you can work your way out of poverty. This last comment goes against the American Dream, but it is more true for the impoverished than it is not. For every Herman Cain, who should be proud of the life he has made for himself, there are thousands who cannot make that climb by themselves. They need opportunity and someone who can help them climb a ladder.

Using our homeless families we help as an example, out of about 200 families we helped during the last year, 84% had employment. The remaining 16% were employable, but the economy limited their hiring opportunities. These 84% are teachers, teacher assistants, nursing assistants, bus-drivers, retail and restaurant workers, etc. Their median family wage is $9.00 an hour. It should be noted, in my area, a living wage for a single person is $9.67 per hour while a living wage for a one adult family with one child is $17.68 per hour. These people are making less than is needed to support housing, utilities and food for their family. What we do is help them climb the ladder to self-sufficiency. What we have found is lack of education is key to their circumstances. So  is lack of health care. They are living beneath paycheck to paycheck, meaning the check is not covering the bills. Yet, these people work hard and should not be called irresponsible.

The issue that arose from Governor Romney’s speech are a spotlight into what he and his party believe. Again, he did not walk away from them saying he could have stated them more elegantly. These comments belittle the efforts of many to try to build a life for themselves and their children. The comments show a lack of understanding of what is happening in America and are behind policies that will actually make things worse for the many, while benefiting the few. He wants to cut taxes on the high-end which have been shown to increase the deficit. And, he wants to gut the social programs that are trying to help these folks and those in even worse places in their lives. We do need to cut spending but we need to be very thoughtful how we do it. Yet, we also need to raise revenue as well, again being very thoughtful how we do that.

While our President needs to do more, he has done several things that are helpful. The Stimulus Act did not fail – six well-thought of economists have noted it saved us from a depression and created 2.5 million jobs. Saving GM and Chrysler were huge as well. Yet, he is not getting credit for job retraining and community college support which is paying dividends to many. He is not getting credit for increasing Pell Grants and making college more available. He is not getting credit for sourcing more jobs in greener technologies and investing in cleaner coal and natural gas retrieval. His Affordable Care Act is huge and should continue as noted in earlier posts, while making it a little less complex.  And, the President is working with states to find better ways to provide welfare services, which has been used inappropriately and incorrectly as a lever against him.

Yet, we are not talking enough about the horrendous inequity in economic distribution in this country. This disparity is traceable back to the early 1980’s when the tax rates were significantly reduced and proliferated when the outsourcing wave hit which sent jobs overseas in the pursuit of cheap labor. A “Dilbert” cartoon hit home last week, when a job candidate asked the pointy haired boss what he was looking for? His answer was “someone who is willing to work 80 hours a week for low wages.”

Let me close by saying we need to discuss the people in need. They need a place at the table. It is not just the middle class, yet many of those living paycheck to paycheck are our former middle class. A society’s greatness is measured by how it takes care of its less fortunate. Yet, it goes beyond that. Quoting a local minister in a documentary called “Souls of our Neighbors,” he said we cannot fathom the untapped intellectual capital that resides in the homeless and impoverished children. They need opportunities that we all take for granted. And, if you do not believe him, the second place winner in the Intel National Science Award this spring was a homeless teenager. We need to find a place at the table. We owe it to them and we owe it our community.

16 thoughts on “The Working Poor Needs a Place at the Table

  1. I’m the cynical one, I know, but I do see the middle class being slowly destroyed in this country. From my vantage point, it was the middle class, from the end of WW II to early 21st century, that created the growth in this country, that provided more education and contributed to the continued growth of GDP and improving standard of living.

    Since the age of the big corporations, and the death of competition through mergers and buyouts, combined with the obscene growth in executive salaries and bonuses, tied to stagnant wages, that is driving the wedge in this country, and until wages increase, consumer confidence will remain low, and the middle class will gradually disappear under the weight of underwater mortgages, higher rents, job losses, and increasing health and retirement costs.

    The Romney’s And Ryan’s of this world don’t see that from inside their gilded, gated communities. They only see an incremental few more dollars coming their way if only they could get rid of those pesky entitlement programs, if seniors would all agree to die at 65, and if returning veterans would just disappear, and not make R/R look at the wounds they’ve caused.

    Romney’s dad may have had to live on welfare as a child, but Mittens is so far removed from that he doesn’t have a clue how the other half lives. After all, he is the one who said the middle class was in the $200,000 to $250,000 range.

    Great post

  2. Great post. I think that many people cannot understand just how many Americans struggle to get by because it is often thought to be the strongest economy in the world. While that may be true in terms of sheer size, America has one of the highest income inequalities and highest levels of poverty of any developed nation. I am reading Nickel and Dimed at the moment and I too was shocked to see just how far minimum wage goes.

    • Thanks for stopping by and your comment. The book is disturbing. There was an editorial this weekend about your ability to succeed in the US is related to whom your were born. The odds are stacked against so many here. Best regards, BTG

  3. Great post. Mr. Magoo suffered because he did not know that he could not see. As a result, when he walked into a wall … he blamed the wall!

    There is something to be said about living a diverse life. Diverse economically, socially, and skeptically. Some of my best friends have lived very charmed lives and accept as faith that anyone less successful must be as a result of weakness, work-ethic and a lack of competence. They simply can’t accecpt that life is much more complicated that the simplistic utopia created in books or that many f them were simply born lucky.

    Keep on dispensing the truth with your thoughtful posts.

  4. Great example with Mr. Magoo!! Malcolm Gladwell in “Outliers” said successful people are smart enough, work very hard, are given opportunity and recognize and seize the opportunity. If you are in a lower economic class, the last two items may never come. Many people end up homeless as they do not have a support group. So, how can you network for a job for you or your children without a network. Thanks for reading and comment and I can hear Jim Backus’ voice as Mr. Magoo. BTG

  5. When some GOP legislators go off about “entitlements” for the disadvantaged…and do not see how entitled oil companies are when they receive huge government subsidies, or how entitled multi-billion-dollar corporations are when they are allowed loopholes that spare them from paying most taxes, or how entitled the wealthiest Americans are when they have the option of sheltering their money tax-free in other countries…I swear, it’s enough to make a person boil over.

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