Monday, August 4, 2008

Are You Okay with This?

We generally refer to them as the working poor: low wage workers who struggle to make it from paycheck to paycheck.

The Washington Post, working with the Henry J. Kaiser Foundation and Harvard University, has begun a series of articles examining their lives and chronicling their efforts to keep their heads above water in an economy in which they are becoming increasingly more vulnerable.

In a nationwide poll, conducted from June 18-July 7 included 1350 people between 18-64 who worked at least 30 hours a week and earned no more than $27,000 a year.

Low wage workers account for 25% of all U.S. adults and they work in jobs that make them nearly invisible to the rest of us. They work in nursing homes and day care centers, they are at reception desks in hospitals or they are on assembly lines in factories. They often have no health care coverage, no vacations, no sick days and during an election year when the focus is on the travails of the middle class the only real attention that they have gotten was the help some of them got with the recent increase in the minimum wage.

These are workers who tend to be younger, less often Republican, less likely to be registered to vote, own their homes or be married. They are typically female and Hispanic. Many are armed with only a high school diploma and they are mired in an economy which stagnated their wages and has widened the income disparity gap more than anytime since the early part of the 20th century.

About half said they would only be able to survive a month before landing in financial trouble if they suddenly lost their jobs, a third said they could last maybe two weeks.

The safety net that the federal government provides is critical to their survival. Half said they took advantage of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), half with children were dependent on Medicaid, or State Children's Health Insurance Program (S-CHIP).

But there are two other things that caught my attention in this article. One was that these are people who remain hopeful. They still believe in the American Dream and believe that hard work and perseverance will pay off and that not only are their lives comparably better than their parents at this stage, but that life will be better for their children.

Their faith is vital to their optimism. Melissa Delgado, whose husband was laid off from his construction job and who has had to reapply for a job at a lower pay rate when the supermarket she worked for was taken over by another company in a buyout, says, "Everything's going to turn out okay, I always say the Lord doesn't give you more than you can handle."

The other thing that I claimed my attention is that this group will increasingly become larger if there is not some effective intervention. The very things which frustrate the hopes and dreams of low wage workers as they struggle to reach the middle class, actually threaten the middle class. Globalization, job off shoring, lower trade barriers, increasing advances in technology and the decline in union memberships are not only hurting low wage workers, but also erode the economic security of the middle class.

The things that work will work to help the bottom two thirds of the American populace: the middle class and the poor are the things that always have worked: greater human capital investment - in education, workforce training and retraining, affordable health care, housing and neighborhood redevelopment and revitalization and closing the digital divide, living wages.

Unless, of course, you're okay with all of this...

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