The Working Poor: Real or a Myth?


It seems that everywhere you look, someone’s talking about “the plight of the working poor. But is it true, is there really a huge group of the abject hovering around the unemployment office, hands out, looking for help? Or is it a myth?

The good news is this: there are fewer of them today than there were in 1999 – 1.1 million fewer. But for those who remain, nothing has changed.

As defined by the U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, the working poor are those “who spent at least 27 weeks in the labor force (working or looking for work) but whose incomes fell below the official poverty level.” As is the way with statistics, some reports indicate that their numbers are going down, while others suggest their numbers are rising as more workers lose their jobs and slide into poverty. And it’s not just a matter of income; they lose medical benefits, and any other perks that come with the job.

Many are young people. They earn less money and are more likely to be fired or “laid off” than are older workers. They have simply not lived long enough to achieve seniority. Minorities swell the ranks of the working poor: figures for 2000 indicate that 4.0% of working whites, 8.7% of blacks and 10% of Hispanics were designated “working poor.” Women figure prominently as they are more likely to be supporting children.


“Polly Duncan” works full time as a waitress. She earns around $1,000 a month, including tips, lives in a tiny apartment and pays $675 rent. The apartment is in a poor neighborhood – Polly hates walking home at night. But she can’t afford to move up; as it is, she sometimes can’t afford food, or the medicine to alleviate her sporadic depression. She doesn’t earn much in tips. She blames that on her poor mood and irritability at work. Medication is available but she can’t afford them.

The poor work at low-paying jobs like serving food at fast food chains, stocking shelves, delivering pizza, bagging groceries, washing cars. They don’t often own cars, and those cars that do belong to the working poor sometimes serve as homes. They micromanage their gas usage, pick dimes up off the ground and lie awake nights wondering if they’ll be able to make the rent, or if they’ll have to go (frequently, with their children) to a shelter. And if the shelter is full, what then?

An article in Newsweek) described the experiences of three workers:

“Emily Grant,” a 36-year-old certified nursing aide, worked in one of the premiere long-term care facilities near Portland, Ore. From 10:30 p.m. to 7 a.m., she was on duty alone, performing three rounds on the dementia ward, where she took care of up to 28 patients a night for $9.32 an hour. She monitored vitals, turned for bedsores, and changed adult diapers. There were the constant vigils over patients like the one who would sneak into other rooms, mistaking female patients for his deceased wife. Worse was the resident she called “the hitter” who once lunged at her, ripping a muscle in her back and laying her flat for four days.”

“In New York City, Joseph Schiraldi, 41, guards one of the biggest terrorist targets in the world: the Empire State Building. For eight hours a day, he X-rays packages, checks visitors’ IDs, and patrols the concourse. But on $7.50 an hour in the priciest city in the U.S., he’s a security officer without security — no pension, no health care, and no paid sick days, typical for a nonunion guard.

“Bellingham (Wash.) day-care teacher Mandy Smith can’t afford child care for her 6-year-old son, Jordan, on her take-home pay of $60 a day. Neither can commercial cleaner Theresa Fabre on her $8.50 an hour job. So her son, Christian, 9, waits for her after school in a crumbling upper Manhattan library where the kids line up five-deep to use one of two computers. The librarian doubles as a de facto babysitter for 40 or so other kids of the working poor.”

Sherry Byrum of Spokane, Washington, works full time at a day care center for $9 per hour. She can’t get ahead, though she works a second job that pays her $8.43 per hour to take care of a disabled girl. She pays $71 a week for health insurance. Her husband has heart disease and can’t work; they live in an old mobile home and visit the food bank for groceries. Their medical costs are high because Sherry and her husband both have diabetes. Sherry agonizes over the rent, the utilities, the burden of the load she carries alone.

Some people might say that these people are lazy, or “just plain unlucky.” But is that really the case?


The working poor are victims of social conditions far beyond their control. Many of them work for minimum wage, which peaked in the 1960s. Workers earning the minimum wage today find that their money buys less than in years past. Adjusted for inflation, the value of the $5.15 per hour minimum wage is 24% lower today than it was in 1979.

According to the Detroit News, programs for the poor in recent years have been cut harshly to help pay for the $600 billion in tax cuts Congress and the Bush administration awarded to those who earn more than $288,800 per year. Those programs included housing, higher education, job training and others. At the time of the cuts, these programs were “badly underfunded.” The bottom 20% on the poverty list will get a tax break of $250, less than 2% of their income (average $16,600 annually), while the wealthiest 1% (earning $1.1 million per year), will get $78,460 in tax cuts – nearly 7% of their income.

Another factor contributing to this sad situation is global competition has forced many companies to reduce wages as a cost-cutting measure. And with unions out of the way, workers have no leverage against employers who increasingly want workers to accomplish more for less pay. And then there’s immigration. The Center for Immigration reports that immigration “has reduced the average annual earnings of male workers born in the USA by $1,700 over the last 20 years.”

The welfare reform of the 1990s sent many recipients spiraling into low-paying jobs as security guards, data-entry clerks, child care workers, food processors, receptionists and telemarketers. At today’s prices, people can’t survive on what those jobs pay, much less raise a family.


Steve Malanga for one. In an article written for the for the site, he points out that 40 years ago a “young radical journalist” named Michael Harrington helped launch the War on Poverty with his book The Other America. Recent signs of affluence, he said, were an illusion, that under the sheen of prosperity lay moldy millions immersed in “hopeless poverty,” and called on the government to save them.

Today, says Malanga, new journalists are trying to take up the banner but they face a steeper climb because “âÂ?¦all levels of government have spent about $10 trillion on poverty programs since his book appeared, with disappointing, even counterproductive, results. And over the last four decades “millions of poor people, immigrants and native-born alike, have risen from poverty, without recourse to the government programs that Harrington inspired.”

And then there’s Thomas Sowell, currently a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute in Stanford, Calif. Sowell calls Business Week’s plea, “What can be done?” a misleading question, because “the article is about what other people can do for the “working poor, not what they can do for themselves, much less what they did in the past — or failed to do — that led to their having such low earning capacity.”

Sowell seems to think that because training to improve job skills is available, it’s available to everyone, along with a college education at “heavily subsidized state colleges and universities.” The truth is that only a small percentage of students can afford to pay for their college education – if education is so “highly subsidized,” why are parents being constantly asked to help? What if the student is handicapped or of a low IQ that prevents them from getting into college in the first place? What if they are single mothers raising children, what if they are caring for elderly parents? Stowell seems to think it’s okay to just leave them behind. Spread a warm blanket of promises over them so they fail to meet the eye.

He admits that “Wage rates for people in the bottom 20% have not risen much over the past 30 years,” but asserts that’s okay because they’re not the same people! “Most people,” he says, move out of the bottom 20% on a regular basis. People do not stay beginners or even young forever. Some people never learn, he says, but to give them welfare and free housing, etc., removes the incentive to learn. He says nothing about those who are incapable of learning – apparently they don’t exist.
He cites the law of supply and demand. Raising the minimum wage, he argues, will not benefit anyone, since the higher wages go the fewer workers will be employed by struggling employers (What? With those tax cuts?) In a sort of “trickle up” process, the entire economy will be dragged down.

Sowell is against “better day care options” for single moms. He doesn’t think the taxpayers should subsidize “unmarried girls” who have babies. All right, then, let’s put some teeth in enforcement by pledging some money to round up deadbeat dads and make them pay! But of course, they’re taxpayers, too. And then there’s the danger that this liberal nonsense will spread and they’ll have to include housing and even (gasp!) medical care.

What do you think? Do you know any of the “working poor?” I do. My daughter stood among that number for a time, and her daughter stands among them now. They can’t afford this and that – not cosmetics, the latest fashion or a nap on the tanning bed, but necessities like medication. Health insurance. Car insurance. A savings account. And they, and their husbands, are working full time.

Is it a myth? You decide.

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