The Working Poor
Posted 3rd October 2006
It doesn’t take an astute political analyst, just somebody with a minimum of social concern, to see that the gap between the rich and the rest of us is growing in this country. Take a walk any day through Manhattan, and you see that luxury shops, hotels, lavish apartment towers, and trendy restaurants have begun to dominate the streetscape in neighborhoods where worn out tenements and bodegas, fetid-smelling luncheonettes and lots with rusting auto hulks were once the rule. All that well-heeled sleekness displays how omnipresent big money has become in Manhattan, and how few working or lower-middle-class people (let alone poor people) will ultimately live on those streets—though for this world of wealth to function, working people are necessary as doormen, grocery delivery boys, homecare assistants, and security guards. These men and women in their variegated uniforms and work clothes labor dutifully and sometimes resentfully to provide comfort and protection for an upper middle class and upper class who usually take them for granted. And who can barely imagine the kind of lives they lead.
Manhattan, and other cities like San Francisco, Boston and San Diego, aided by strong economic and productivity growth have become centers of conspicuous wealth. They are also places where a great many college students head after graduation. (In Manhattan three out of four residents have college degrees, and one out of four has an advanced degree.) But the number of American living in poverty—37 million or 12.6% of the population has not changed. Worse, the number of the uninsured grew in 2005 by 1.3 million people, to 15.9% of the population. And New York City’s relative general prosperity has had little effect on the number of people in the city living in poverty. About 5% of city households reported incomes of $200,000 or more, while 13% report making less than $10,000—with the overall poverty rate at above 19%. It’s self-evident that economic growth alone does not make poverty disappear.
However, the human face of what it means to be poor in this country is best conveyed not by a barrage of statistics, but in films and books that focus on individual lives. Recently I watched a documentary on PBS entitled Waging a Living, directed by Roger Weisberg. It was part of the 19th season of P.O.V.—a showcase for contemporary-issue independent filmmakers. In making Waging a Living, Weisberg “wants viewers to understand what it's like to work hard, play by the rules” and still not be able to make ends meet. The four very different subjects profiled in this cinéma vérité film are not criminals, addicts, or members of the underclass, but people who despite their determination and drive are— as one of them observes—"hustling backwards." Three women and one man; three white Americans and one African-American; the three women are single parents, and the man is separated from his wife and children. I don’t really know if the four are representative of the country’s working poor, but their anxious, onerous lives (“my life sucks”) echo the world of the scuffling working poor depicted in Barbara Ehrenreich’s best-selling Nickel and Dimed.
Though these four are people with limited skills and education who have made some bad choices and have been dealt a terrible hand by fate and their environment, in a more just society the government would guarantee that their lives would be easier and more equitable. For example, Jean Reynolds, a certified nursing assistant in Keansburg, N.J., supports her children and grandchildren on $11 per hour but faces eviction after years of juggling bills. The three-generation family is saved from homelessness by the fact that Reynolds' cancer-stricken daughter (herself the mother of four) is eligible for a housing stipend. There is also Barbara Brooks, of Freeport, Long Island, a 36 year-old African-American mother of five, who makes $8.25 an hour as a counselor at a juvenile detention center, and is attending a community college at night for her A.A degree.
Both women are sweet, caring, smart, and hard working. Jean is also a committed union activist. But what victories they achieve are usually pyrrhic ones. Income gains from promotions are often wiped out by the elimination or reduction of government subsidies for housing and other necessities. These people continue to have hope, but more often than not it leads to a dead end. It’s disturbing to see while watching the film how much of Jean and Barbara’s potential will probably never be realized, and how trapped they are by the absence of money.
Obviously, some of the working poor have less potential than others. But in a society that was interested in promoting greater equality, educational and other supports would be offered to people like Jean and Barbara, and for the less talented there would be safeguards like affordable health care, a higher minimum wage, strong unions, and increased tax credits for people with low incomes.
Just fantasizing alas. Few politicians care about the plight of the kind of people who appear in Waging a Living. They remain invisible to the Bush administration, and to much of the voting public as well.