Reality bites back: working poor are not a new class

A “Week in Review” story in the The New York Times declared the welfare rolls were unaffected by the recession. This simply isn’t accurate and nurtures a major misconception about poverty: only the unemployed are struggling to meet their basic needs. The largest growing population in the United States is the working poor.
In 1998, I worked for a welfare lobbying agency and witnessed first hand exactly why the “success” of the 1996 Welfare Reform bill was a fallacy. I saw how the focus on employment rather than sustainability provided short-lived success for my friends and neighbors. One woman had two young children was constantly trying to balance medical and day care issues with work unsuccessfully. Another woman that I knew was able to use her college hours towards welfare job training requirements. She wanted to get a college diploma in Social Work. She dreamed of making more than minimum wage, so she could truly independently support her family. With the welfare policy changes of 2002, she had to withdraw from her college classes to take a job training course in secretarial work. The welfare system has improved since then. Day care and expanded health care subsidies are now available. Yet, the number of working poor continued to grow. These facts shouldn’t be surprising.
Many welfare recipients have multiple barriers to work such as poor health, no high school diploma or lack of recent work experience. Without the high school diploma necessary for more than one half of all U.S. jobs openings, many people have fallen into the trap of being unskilled laborers working low-wage jobs. Even those who have managed to find jobs with higher wages are at an even greater risk in this economic climate.  Employers are much more likely to retain college educated workers over those less educated. And minimum wage will not feed a family. In the 2006 US Census Bureau’s report “Still Working Hard, Still Falling Short”, 28% of families were making 200% below the poverty line. This would be the equivalent of one family member working $9.91 an hour in a full-time job to support a family of four. It is unfathomable to me how many more Americans are currently working multiple minimum wage jobs just to feed their family.
It’s unfortunate that a tragedy like Hurricane Katrina was necessary for Americans to face the extreme third world poverty happening in our country. What has still not been recognized is the even greater number of employed people that are barely surviving. Americans need to be aware that poverty is a very real situation and old preconceptions of welfare need to be lifted. If Americans truly want to change the course of our country, this is one reality we have to become educated about in order to help our leaders understand and end U.S. poverty.


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