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The Working Poor: Survival In An Economic Darwinism America

Think you could feed your entire family on $25 worth of groceries for the entire week? Sandra Walerski does, along with thousands of other working poor across America whose bottom lines are being tightened even more with the rising costs of fuel, energy, groceries and everything else:

Food and gas prices soar while the dollar weakens and employers shed jobs. People like Walerski are among the worst casualties – a rising number of working poor in the region, generally defined as families with one or more workers making no more than twice the poverty level.

Being working poor is like living in another America, a lesser country where you go to a job, pay bills – do everything right – and still teeter perilously close to the edge….

The family often faces months in which they owe about $800 more than they take in, debt they carry around like lead luggage. They always pay the water bill; they’re slowly paying off the $1,500 they owe the electric company.

They haven’t bought heating oil in three years. This winter, three space heaters and lots of sweaters provided the only warmth. ("You’d be surprised to see how fast everyone moves in the house in the morning," Walerski says.)…

The Walerski’s aren’t the only ones dealing with this. The Ft. Worth Star-Telegram has been doing an ongoing series on the working poor in their area by following four families on the edge in Tarrant County, and it is heartbreaking reading.

According to the Working Poor Families Project, there are a lot more folks living on the financial edge these days than you might think (PDF):

?One in four working families is low-income.
?Forty percent of minority working families are low-income, twice the percentage of white working families.
?Of all children in working families, one third are in low-income working families.
?A married couple heads more than half of low-income working families.
?While 35 percent of low-income working families have a parent who did not complete high school, 42 percent have a parent with some post-secondary education.
?More than half of low-income working families pay more than a third of their income for housing; more than a third have a parent without health insurance.

Last month marked the 75th anniversary of the establishment of the minimum wage, which still faces stiff opposition in some corners and some hefty debate:

…The new law was enormously effective: within a year, it brought millions of low-paid workers up to a wage of 30 cents an hour. It also had major weaknesses, notably that it was not indexed to inflation. Congress has to raise it, which leaves low-income workers at the mercy of politics.

The minimum wage continues to have powerful enemies. Businesses that pay low wages lobby strongly against increases, arguing that they cause jobs to disappear. The Bush administration has been hostile. When Elaine Chao was nominated to be the next labor secretary, she called for states to be able to opt out of the federal minimum wage — which would destroy the whole idea of a national minimum wage.

Last year, the new Democratic-controlled Congress raised the minimum wage for the first time in 10 years. The increase was a real victory. But even with it, the minimum wage — which reaches $7.25 an hour in 2009 — is still far below where it was in the 1960s, in real dollars. A family of three earning the 2009 minimum wage would still be well below the federal poverty line. And because the minimum wage remains unindexed, low-wage workers will fall even further behind before Congress rouses itself to grant another increase.

Economists, who are more sophisticated today than they were in 1933, now place more emphasis on raising the Earned Income Tax Credit. Because it is tied to family income rather than wage levels, the tax credit can be targeted precisely at workers who need it most. There has also, understandably, been considerable focus this year on trying to provide the working poor — and everyone else — with affordable health care.

In this year’s “change” election, more attention should be paid to the working poor, who were hit especially hard by the economic policies of the last eight years. There should be talk of tax credits and health care — and the minimum wage. Advocates for the working poor argue for a better raise than the one Congress passed last year — perhaps one set at half the national average hourly wage, which would bring it roughly to where it was in the 1960s, and tie it to the rate of inflation….

Poverty has taken a back seat to so much else the last few years. But it is a problem that is increasing, not decreasing, and one in which far too many of the nation’s children are trapped in an endless cycle of hunger, need, and lack of adequate health care which has dire consequences for academic performance and development if left unchecked. By not addressing these needs, we are consigning these children to this lifestyle that was not of their own choosing, by sheer neglect of basic needs. This is unconscionable.

A whole host of Americans are staring into a financial abyss not of their own making. They try to plan, spend prudently, save where they can, invest wisely, work overtime…and it keeps getting eaten up by costs that are rising faster than they can make up the difference. What is going to happen in the dead of winter with home heating oil costs at all time highs this year, I do not know — but I do know that we had best start this conversation now rather than waiting. Or it may be too late for far too many children across the country whose family fortunes are not of their own making, either.

Because the nation’s soup kitchens and food pantries are already struggling under the weight of increased needs and diminishing donations as more and more Americans tighten their belts for a long, desperate road ahead.

(YouTube — Bill Moyers’ Journal — interview with Holly Sklar about wages and workers.)

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Christy Hardin Smith

Christy Hardin Smith

Christy is a "recovering" attorney, who earned her undergraduate degree at Smith College, in American Studies and Government, concentrating in American Foreign Policy. She then went on to graduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania in the field of political science and international relations/security studies, before attending law school at the College of Law at West Virginia University, where she was Associate Editor of the Law Review. Christy was a partner in her own firm for several years, where she practiced in a number of areas including criminal defense, child abuse and neglect representation, domestic law, civil litigation, and she was an attorney for a small municipality, before switching hats to become a state prosecutor. Christy has extensive trial experience, and has worked for years both in and out of the court system to improve the lives of at risk children.

Email: reddhedd AT firedoglake DOT com