The Working Poor

General Topics: 

by Joseph Tisch

As the gap between the highest and lowest paid workers steadily grows, low wage employees have been testing the American belief that hard work cures poverty. A multitude of obstacles keeps the working poor on the edge -- and sometimes beyond the edge -- of household financial disaster. Working poverty is a seamless web of challenges, some personal and some erected by a society content to let the federal minimum wage languish at $5.15 an hour. And that's for those who can avoid the unscrupulous bosses who make their workers falsify their time sheets so they work longer hours for the same pay.

Then there are the fruit and vegetable pickers who have exorbitant housing costs deducted by labor contractors who warehouse the workers in filthy barracks. As for garment workers, they can be paid at piece rates. Try 3/4 of one cent per piece to sew a zipper on jeans. That makes it nearly impossible to earn even the minimum.

All the blame is not on employers and society. People often lack the basic skills that jobs require, like showing up on time, following directions, even knowing how to comb their hair. To be sure, they need better schools and reliable medical insurance, but they also need to know better than to use their precious tax refund checks to get tattoos. Sometimes they clip coupons and turn up faithfully at job training. Sometimes they get drunk and disorderly. They go in for ill-advised sex and foolish spending sprees. In other words, the working poor are not so different from the wealthy celebrities, except that they have less money.

That makes all the difference. When they stumble, low-wage earners have nothing to fall back on. They spend everything and save nothing. They are always behind on their bills. Bad judgment, bad habits, bad luck ...among the middle class, any of these can lead to setbacks. Among the working poor, they lead to disaster.

We know these people. They clean our homes, iron our shirts, serve us fries, wash our cars and sell us specials at Wal-Mart. Their version of the American dream is a nightmare: low paying, dead-end jobs, the profound failure of government to improve decaying housing, health care, and education. The working poor are the forgotten Americans. They are constantly fleeced by loan sharks (payday loans, early tax refunds, etc.), all at outrageous interest. People are growing wealthy on the backs of others.

There are nearly 30 million people working and earning under the poverty level, less than $15,000 per year. This doesn't even come close to providing for the basics of food, shelter, and clothing. The poor are saddled with poor education, dead-end jobs, limited abilities, no savings, and unhealthy households.

The solutions are the expected ones: a higher minimum wage, better job training, medical coverage for the 44 million who have none. Will any of it happen? The working poor didn't vote in anything like the numbers of their more affluent neighbors, so even in election years, they carry no real weight. The economic boom of the 90's is behind us. Job creation is feeble, and the time limits on welfare are kicking in. Expect these dominoes to start falling faster than ever.

Homeless Issues

In the past, it was not common to see women and children at shelters and rescue missions. Unfortunately, today American women with children are more common than ever. Seventy percent of homeless families are headed by women. Even more significant, the population of homeless families has increased by thirty-five percent since 1989.

  1. Almost one-quarter of the homeless in America are women with children.
  2. Every night, 100,000 children sleep in a shelter, abandoned building, or on the street.
  3. 70% of homeless families are headed by women.
  4. 89% of the homeless mothers in our country have been physically and/or sexually abused.
  5. 38 million Americans are living below the poverty level. Those not already homeless are one step away.
  6. According to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, 24% of the families requesting emergency shelter were turned away.
  7. A survey of 29 U. S. cities found that families with children account for 36.5% of the homeless population.
  8. Every state reported an increasing demand for services for the homeless since 1992.
  9. For every 100 extremely low income renters, there are only 64 housing units that are affordable.
  10. 61% of extremely low income renters pay more than half their income on housing.
  11. Less than 10% of homeless persons with a need for mental health or substance abuse treatment actually receive services.

Homelessness continues to grow because:

  1. Many people cannot afford housing.
  2. Income and other financial resources are insufficient to meet basic needs.
  3. Many with disabilities or special needs are homeless because of inadequate access to needed services and supports.

Request for Help.  We recently received the following letter:

Dear Bishop Joseph L. Tisch,

With great pleasure if this letter will reach you. We are a small service group in our area under the Theosophical Order of Service that was formed for home-based care. Some years back we used to receive assistance from Liesel Deutsch (now deceased) of Syracuse, U.S.A. Our major problem is the HIV/AIDS and malaria epidemics which require combating and have left us with a lot of orphans who need our care. Any assistance will be highly appreciated, if this letter reaches you. I will in my next mail include the names of our committee members.

Yours in Love,
Simuye Muntubulyo

Those who want to help should send all donations to: P.O. Box 210322, Chililabompowe, Zambia, Africa.

Speaking of HIV/AIDS, here is some information to consider.

The Current Impact of AIDS

According to the UNAIDS (joint United Nations and World Health Organization report on HIV/AIDS) update released in December 2003, about 46 million people were living with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. In 2003 alone, 5.8 million people were infected with HIV. Every day, 16,000 people contract the HIV infection.

Is The Increase In Prisoners Necessary?

Over nine million people are now held in penal institutions worldwide, a report by the British Home Office revealed, but levels of imprisonment rarely have anything to do with levels of crime. In the United States, the prison population has increased from half a million to over two million in the last twenty years. Yet this is against a background of falling crime rates in that period. Impisonment is often used, even for petty offenses, as a punishment of first instance, rather than of last resort.

The total number of prisoners has been dramatically inflated by the use of imprisonment in an attempt to deal with the problem of the use of drugs in society. In some cases, more than 50% of all prisoners are detained for non-violent, drug-related offenses. Ironically, similar percentages of prisoners continue to use illegal drugs while in prison.

The Solicitor General of Canada has concluded that "harsher criminal justice sanctions had no deterrent effect on recidivism. On the contrary, punishment produced a slight (3%) increase in recidivism." He added: "Criminal justice policies that are based on the belief that 'getting tough' on crime will reduce recidivism are without empirical support."

The so-called war on drugs has been a disaster for prisons throughout the world. It fills prisons with people who are addicts, sick people; it opens up many opportunities for corruption; it intensifies the subordination of the addicted prisoners to the prisoners who control the supplies; and it increases the violence endemic in prison life. It also increases the spread of disease through the sharing of needles.

The notion that prisoners should be incarcerated and left to vegetate for an untold number of years is counter-productive and leads to thousands of people leaving prisons each year who feel alienated from society and who are not able to adequately cope with the expectations that society has of them.

In the 1950's, the Finnish rate of imprisonment was one of the highest in Western Europe. Yet in the last forty-plus years, this rate has fallen dramatically as a result of deliberate, long-term and systemic policy choices involving politicians, government officials and academics. In Finland, there is a single Criminal Sanctions Agency, which administers all custodial and community disposals. The agency has two goals: to contribute to security in society by maintaining a lawful and safe system of enforcement of sanctions and to assist in reducing recidivism by endeavoring to break the cycle of social exclusion that reproduces crime. The agency also has two central values: respect for human dignity and justice, and a belief in the potential for individual change and growth.

Income Gap Widens Between Rich And Poor

Over two decades, the income gap has steadily increased between the richest Americans, who own estates and stocks and get big tax breaks, and those at the middle and bottom of the pay scale, whose paychecks buy less. The growing disparity is even more pronounced in this recovering economy. Wages are stagnant, and the middle class is shouldering a larger tax burden. Prices for health care, housing, tuition, gas, and food have soared.

According to the Census Bureau, the wealthiest 20% of households in 1973 accounted for 44% of total U.S. income. Their share jumped to 50% in 2002, while everyone else's fell. For the bottom fifth, the share dropped from 4.2 to 3.5%.

For those working in the bottom half of the pay scale, they are under an enormous amount of pressure. New government data shows that the President's tax cuts have shifted the overall tax burden from the wealthiest Americans to the middle class.

The U.S. job market is soft, sending wages down. Hiring came to a near standstill with companies adding just 32,000 new jobs overall, stunning economists who had expected seven times as many. More than a million jobs have been added back to the 2.6 million lost since Bush took office. However, they pay less and offer fewer benefits, such as health insurance. The new jobs are concentrated in health care, food services, and temporary employment firms. Three in five pay below the national median hourly wage of $13.53. On a weekly basis, the average wage of $525.84 is at the lowest level since October 2000.

Economists say wages should rise as companies boost hiring, but the growing gap between haves and have-nots will remain. Technology has eliminated many U.S. jobs, as has global competition, particularly from countries such as China. Highly skilled, educated workers in America will thrive, while low-skilled jobs remain vulnerable to outsourcing.   BACK

Special Courts To Fight Drugs

Former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno said special courts to handle drug offenders work better than just sending people to prison. Speaking before a meeting of judges, she said that in 1987 when people were charged with possessing a small amount of cocaine, nothing happened to them. They got credit for time served, got no sort of treatement, and were rotated through the system. So Miami set up a drug court which mixed punitive measures with rehabilitation programs. The program's success became a model for the rest of the country. The court proved it could reduce repeat drug offenses. Courts and judges found that with sufficient resources they could make a tremendous difference in the criminal justice system.

Reno also said that juvenile court systems throughout the country need reform. Legislatures seem to be taking power away from the juvenile courts and transferring it to adult courts. Judges must be given the authority to control some of the decisions.

Family institutions have failed a large number of children in America. There must be re-entry programs to give youngsters the opportunity to come back to communities with a chance for success. We have to think in terms of alternative housing, pre-natal care, and mentoring programs. Violence prevention programs should combine medical, public health, social work, and all other disciplines that would make a difference in a child's life.

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