Who are America’s poor?

An October 7, 2012 cover story in the Christian Science Monitor explores the issue of America’s poor. The provocative article is entitled “Below the line: Poverty in America.”

Correspondent Jina Moore explores via narrative, history and facts what it means to be poor in America. Or at least what some people claim about poverty, and a few who reject the term. She writes:

[Who is poor] turns out to be a very difficult question to answer. How you answer may depend as much on who you are – liberal or conservative, city-dweller or rural homesteader, low-wage laborer or salaried middle class – as on any single set of criteria. Even the government isn’t sure how to think about the question: In some states, making $1,000 a month might qualify you for food stamps but could be too much income to qualify for Medicaid.

A presidential election year only makes the issue of the haves and have-nots more divisive. President Obama took heat for admonishing entrepreneurs that their businesses relied on tax-supported infrastructure and that “You didn’t build that.” Republican candidate Mitt Romney has been caught up in controversy over his statements at a fundraiser that nearly half of Americans don’t pay income tax and “feel entitled” to government “handouts.”

Americans know poverty exists and may agree on its broadest outlines, but when it gets down to the specifics, they often can’t agree on exactly who “the poor” are.

Among the stories she tells is one of Linda, who

steals her fruit.

No one at King’s Daughters Day Care, where she works, would begrudge her an orange or an apple, of course. This isn’t that kind of workplace. When she grabs a piece of whatever the kids are having that day, she’s welcome to it. But the simple staple is also something she can’t buy on her own.

“I can’t afford fresh fruit or low-fat meat. I can’t get cauliflower or green peppers,” she says. When she does buy food, “I buy things that stretch longer.” She opts for whole roasted chickens that she spins into four or five meals. She can stretch a tomato, grown in her home garden, across an afternoon salad and an evening BLT sandwich. Until the first frosts come, and the plants die, that is. Then she waits until summer to eat tomatoes again.

Ms. Criswell’s stoic self-sufficiency isn’t always enough to get her through. “I’ve eaten food that’s seven, 10 days old.” She gestures toward a reporter’s notebook. “You can [write] that down.”

Criswell works full time, with no benefits, and she hasn’t had a raise in three years. After taxes, she brings home $1,030 a month – enough, if she’s careful, to meet her expenses, with little wiggle room. “What I feel,” she says, “is anxiety. I felt it just this morning. It’s constantly in the back of my mind: ‘Am I going to have enough to pay the bills?'”

The “poor” in America are not stereotypical no matter what stereo one might wish to type. The inhabitants of poverty are as deep and wide as the stories that comprise the government’s numbers.

An enormous number of those in poverty work. Many of them work full time. Many others want to work, but cannot find the jobs. And, new estimates tell us, the high paying jobs are not coming back any time soon. This means, to paraphrase one Jesus Christ, “The poor will be with us always.”

Moore’s article continues:

Peter Edelman, a former Clinton administration official and now director of the Center on Poverty, Inequality and Public Policy at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., agrees: “There are literally millions of people … out there working … not getting out of poverty.”

He says the numbers show that there are “people who are in low-wage jobs and get some income supplement. Nobody wants to really admit that’s going on.”

In fact, most of the new jobs seen since the economic crisis – and most of what will come in the next decade – are low-wage, according to the National Employment Law Project. More than 40 percent of the jobs added to the economy between 2008 and 2010 – the first two years of the recession – were low-wage jobs, the project reported in August. Six of the 10 jobs projected to see the most growth by 2020 are also low-wage jobs.

Most people outside of Washington, DC, realize the current “recovery” is itself on life support. We are currently financing not only our own faux-recovery, but helping float the world’s economy. Likely this attempt will continue suppressing our own economy.

John Shmitt and Janelle Jones of the Economic Policy and Research Center found in their September 2012 paper, “Bad Jobs on the Rise,”

[W]e define a bad job as one that pays less than $37,000 per year (in inflation-adjusted 2010 dollars); lacks employer-provided health insurance; and has no employer-sponsored retirement plan. By our calculations, about 24 percent of U.S. workers were in a bad job in 2010 (the most recently available data). The share of bad jobs in the economy is substantially higher than it was in 1979, when 18 percent of workers were in a bad job by the same definition.

In other words, if you are a single-income family of four with $37,000 per year salary, paid health insurance and some kind of 401(k) or other retirement, you are considered by Shmitt and Jones to have a good job.

Personally when I think of that scenario, I think of “working poor.”

Remember Linda? Jina Moore asks whether she is poor:

The government says no, because she makes “too much” money [$12,000/yr/net]. Yet if she needs to go to the mall or the grocery store, she hitches rides with her 35-year-old daughter, to save gas. When her brother gives her a gift card to Big Lots, a discount store, for her birthday, she buys towels and toilet paper.

While other Americans watch the stock market, she watches the grain prices. Grain feeds livestock, and Criswell stretches meat across multiple meals. She’s worried. “Grain is going up,” she says. “I don’t know how much longer I will be able to afford my roast chicken.”

Georgia restaurant owner Charles Sheehan-Miles has witnessed the same thing. On his blog in May 2012 he relates these observations:

Imagine a typical waitress. She works 35-40 hours per week. If she’s lucky, here in Georgia, here hourly wages will be between 2.50 and 3.50 per hour. Yes, you read that correctly. So, after, a weekly paycheck at the very best might be $80 or so dollars. Figure in another $200 in tips, which is pretty typical for a casual restaurant. That works out to about 280 per week.

Imagine a cook, a job which generally pays minimum wage or slightly higher. Maybe 8 buck per hour for a really experienced cook, or even 9 in some cases. Again, for a 40-hour work week, after taxes you’re looking at less than $250 per week.

Imagine supporting a family on that kind of money.

These are folks who are on their feet 8 hours a day, running back and forth, delivering food, taking orders, scrubbing and cleaning, and sometimes putting up with the worst indignities from customers who think it’s funny to be nasty to waitresses, who think it is generous to leave a 50 cent tip after typing up a table for two hours. And yes, some of them are young, and it is their first job. Some of them are there because they didn’t finish college, or they made some choice earlier in life that led to this kind of work. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that they work harder than anyone sitting in an office, any day of the week. That doesn’t take away from their humanity. And personally, I’m sick of seeing the working poor portrayed by politicians and pundits as the dregs of our society. Because they are more honest and hard-working that most anyone else I know.

What is really and truly galling, aside from so many being in the same boat as these, is the calloused indifference–or blind ignorance–of those who think the Linda Criswells of America should not even be able to vote simply because they make too little to pay federal income tax.

Marty Duren

Just a guy writing some things.

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