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Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Cut-Throat Capitalism: Welcome To the Gig Economy


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Economist Gerald Friedman warns that the much-hyped gig economy is a road to ruin for workers.

The media are all abuzz with the changing nature of work. Exciting words like “creativity” and “adaptability” get thrown around, specifically in connection to the shift away from steady, full-time employment to a gig economy of freelancers and short-term contracts. Proponents of the gig economy, from the New York Times' Thomas Friedman to bright-eyed TED pundits, tout it as a welcome escape from the prison of the standard workweek and the strictures of corporate America. Working on a project-to-project basis will set you free, they tell us. Wired magazine has called it "the force that could save the American worker.”
But when you’re actually stuck in it, the gig economy looks quite different.
Consider the New York Freelancer’s Union: According to a report in the New York Times, 29 percent of the union’s New York City members earn less than $25,000 a year, and in 2010, 12 percent of members nationally received some type of public assistance. Turns out that life with no health benefits, vacation pay or retirement plan is not a rosy picture.
Writing for Fast Company, Sarah Kessler, who went undercover to hustle for work in the gig economy, put it this way:
“For one month, I became the ‘micro-entrepreneur’ touted by companies like TaskRabbit, Postmates, and Airbnb. Instead of the labor revolution I had been promised, all I found was hard work, low pay, and a system that puts workers at a disadvantage.”
What’s really going on is the desire of businesses to chop wages and benefit costs while also limiting their vulnerability to lawsuits, which can happen when salaried employees are mistreated. The burden of economic risk is shifted even further onto workers, who lose the security and protections of the New-Deal-era social insurance programs that were created when long-term employment was the norm.
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I caught up with Gerald Friedman, who teaches economics at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and has written about the gig economy, to find out how this trend happened and what it means to workers and our increasingly unequal society.
Lynn Parramore: How did the shift away from full-time employment to the gig economy come about? What forces drove the change?
Gerald Friedman: Growing use of contingent workers (in “gigs”) came when capitalists sought to respond to gains by labor through the early 1970s, and in response to the victories capital won in the rise of the neoliberal era. Because contingent workers were usually not covered by union contracts or other legal safeguards, employers hired them to regain leverage over workers lost when unionized workers gained protection against unjust dismissal, and courts extended these protections to non-union workers under the “implicit contract” doctrine. 
Similarly, the rising cost of benefits due to rising healthcare costs and government protection of retirement benefits (under the 1974 ERISA statute) raised the cost of full-time employment; employers sought to evade these costs by hiring more contingent workers.
In the early- and mid-20th century, employers created careers and job-ladders to lock valuable workers into particular jobs. Job-lock reduced the danger that low unemployment would lead to competition for workers, wage inflation, and would undermine their control over their workers. (The other side of job-lock, as Richard Freeman among others noted, was the organization of labor unions among workers who could not “exit” from no-longer-agreeable employments, and therefore, engage in collective action to improve conditions.)  Reduced market regulation, the opening of markets to international competition, and a shift in macro-economic policy focus from full-employment to price-stability all reduced the danger that workers would quit to gain higher wages or better jobs. 
Instead of using job-lock to protect themselves from labor-market competition, employers rely on repressive macroeconomic conditions, relatively high unemployment, and therefore, do not need to offer job ladders, careers, or benefits to attract and to hold workers.
LP: We hear a lot of buzz from trendwatchers on a new wave of “microentrepreneurs,” “minibusinesses,” and empowered freelancers who are changing the nature of work. Why do people find this vision so intoxicating?
GF: Talk of “microentrepreneurs” presents a favorable view of the rise of the gig economy, one consistent with liberal values of individualism and opportunity, even while ignoring the oppression and poverty-wages many find in the gig economy.
There are certainly some who enjoy the uncertainty of irregular employment. When unemployment rates fell to levels traditionally associated with full employment in the late-1990s, however, we saw how workers really feel about gig jobs: they rejected them and the contingent economy contracted.
Given a choice, workers choose careers and jobs, not freelance gigs.
LP:  The reality of the gig economy often seems to be a system that puts workers at a disadvantage. From your research, how do you see the gig economy playing out in people’s lives?
The gig economy is associated with low wages, repression, insecurity, and chronic stress and anxiety.  Freelance workers fear to complain about working conditions, fear to ask for higher pay, and fear to reject any conditions imposed by prospective employers.  By removing any social protection, the gig economy returns us to the most oppressive type of cut-throat and hierarchical capitalism, a social order where the power to hire and fire has been restored to employers, giving them once again unfettered control over the workplace.
LP: How can we create jobs that are flexible and adaptable, but also give workers some security and decent benefits?
GF: We should not romanticize the situation of organization workers on careers and with job ladders. While providing more security and protection than the gig economy, this was a type of contract established by capitalists to enhance their power over workers. Instead, we should seek to enhance worker security and independence outside of work through systems of income security (enhanced unemployment insurance and guaranteed income and universal health insurance), by establishing worker-controlled guilds to regulate access to gig work through hiring halls and hiring lists, and by extending legal protections to workers’ civil rights and health and safety while doing freelance and gig work.
LP: To what extent do you see the gig economy impacting growing economic inequality?
The gig economy has been a giant vehicle transferring income from workers to capitalists. Gig work has become a vehicle not only to drive down wages but to eliminate employment-related benefits (including health insurance as well as retirement pensions and government social security). By undermining labor unions and promoting individualist competition among workers, gig work drives down wages and reduces the possibilities for effective working-class political action.
Lynn Parramore is an AlterNet senior editor. She is cofounder of Recessionwire, founding editor of New Deal 2.0, and author of "Reading the Sphinx: Ancient Egypt in Nineteenth-Century Literary Culture." She received her Ph.D. in English and cultural theory from NYU. She is the director of AlterNet's New Economic Dialogue Project. Follow her on Twitter @LynnParramore.

The Gig Economy

The Daily Beast

The Gig Economy

Now that everyone has a project-to-project freelance career, everyone is a hustler.

No one I know has a job anymore. They've got Gigs.

Tina Brown
Gigs: They're all that’s standing between them and…what? The outer-outer boroughs? Eating what’s left of the 401(k)? Moving to Alaska? Out-and-out destitution?

Gigs: a bunch of free-floating projects, consultancies, and part-time bits and pieces they try and stitch together to make what they refer to wryly as “the Nut”—the sum that allows them to hang on to the apartment, the health-care policy, the baby sitter, and the school fees.
To people I know in the bottom income brackets, living paycheck to paycheck, the Gig Economy has been old news for years. What’s new is the way it’s hit the demographic that used to assume that a college degree from an elite school was the passport to job security.
“With so many part-time people on—and not on—the job, corporate America has started to feel like it’s on a permanent maternity leave.”
My own anecdotal evidence among friends is now borne out by an exclusive poll conducted last week by The Daily Beast and Penn, Schoen & Berland Associates. Five hundred employed U.S. citizens aged 18 and over were interviewed via the Internet on January 8 and 9.
A full one-third of our respondents are now working either freelance or in two jobs. And nearly one in two of them report taking on additional positions during the last six months.
Just as startling, these new alternative workers are not overwhelmingly low-income. They’re college-educated Americans who earn more than $75,000 a year.
Welcome to the age of Gigonomics.
The poll helps explain why it now takes a good ten minutes to get the answer to the once-breezy question, “So, what are you up to these days?”
As often as not, a dolorous monologue pours out. It usually goes something like this:
“Well, I’m doing two days a week, at, uh, this airline magazine, which is not bad because it allows me to still do my three days as, like, a consultant with my old company, where now you get, um, paid by the hour. Which works well, because you can even do that when you’re traveling, which I have to do quite a bit of now because I’m also doing this speaker program for a tech company on the West Coast—well, was doing, because they’re cutting back on their off-site stuff because… ” At which point you tune out. It’s all too familiar. The white noise of the free fall.
For a while last year, the downsized people I know went around pretending they enjoyed the “freedom” and “variety” of doing “a whole lot of interesting things.” Twelve months later, nobody bothers with that cover story anymore. Everyone knows what it actually feels like, this penny-ante slog of working three times as hard for the same amount of money (if you’re lucky) or a lot less (if you’re not). Minus benefits, of course.
“Among the upper class or college-educated,” our pollsters report, “the impacts felt are mostly the lack of a pay raise (40 percent) or the acquisition of more responsibilities at work without more compensation (35 percent).” As Christopher Hitchens replied the other day when I asked about the dress code for his Saturday night inauguration party: “Come as you were.”
The managers of all these disintegrating companies tend to be mesmerized by the notion that everyone can now be hired cheap—that everyone is slave labor. Which, for them, should be great, right? What they don’t take into account is that the Nut is the Nut. If your Gig with them can’t pay it, you still have to make it—which means you‘ve got all these other Gigs boiling along at the same time.
Doing three things badly is the name of the game. That’s why the Gig Economy is no picnic for the flailing employer either. Every time the boss turns around asking for a key member of staff to join today’s frantically convened cost-cutting strategy meeting the reply comes back, “It’s not Sam’s day to come in and he’s the one working on it. Julia can come, though.” “Julia? What she got to do with it?” “Yeah, well, we’ll have to bring her up to speed.”
With so many part-time people on—and not on—the job, corporate America has started to feel like it’s on a permanent maternity leave. Colleagues are an amorphous, free-floating army of rotating waifs whose voicemails are clogged with plaintive requests from their own offices for missing information. I sometimes wonder what the impact of this will be on, say, patients in hospitals where job reducing is just as rampant as in media, or banking, or retail, or anywhere else. Are we about to see a rash of medical malfunctions as bad as the chronic surge in typographical errors in newspapers that just fired their entire copy desk?
I can think of two possible upsides to the tyranny of Gigocracy, one small and one big.
Small: the overdue demise of the hot-air agencies in the Internet world that have preyed on the budgets of fading big media behemoths. In the last few years, there has been a boom in these talk shops with multiple acronyms whose role has been to advise panicky managements on “how to think about the Internet space.” The trouble is, space is all they’ve been offering to think about. Besides, thinking is the last thing a company hemorrhaging money wants to do.
The new big time-waster I can report is meetings about deals for which neither party wants to pay any money. It’s a bit like one of those romantic comedy plots in which the gold digger pretending to be an heiress is hustling the billionaire who turns out to be a con man. How much you got, pal? is the mantra of the day. Forget the Perrier and the PowerPoints. Put up or shut up.
Big: As noted above, the folks at the bottom of the greasy pole have been living with the anxieties, uncertainties, and indignities of Gigwork (it used to be called piecework) for a long time. Now that people nearer the top are learning firsthand about the wonders of “individual initiative” and “self-reliance,” a little more sympathy—maybe even solidarity—with those the meritocracy dismissed as losers may be in order. Maybe having to trade that first-class cabin for a smaller one without a porthole will alert some of the erstwhile winners to the fact that everyone's in the same boat.
To quote our Daily Beast poll, “The old picture of a hustler is a wizened guy standing on a street corner selling some assortment of unsavory goods. Today’s hustler looks much swankier; with the economy in free fall, the American workplace is changing and now the top tiers are hustling.”
I could go on. But, um, I have this, like, consulting thing to do and, er, this speech I’m supposed to be writing, and, um...
Gotta run!
Tina Brown is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Daily Beast. She is the author of the 2007 New York Times best seller The Diana Chronicles. Brown is the former editor of Tatler, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and Talk magazines and host of CNBC's Topic A with Tina Brown. She has written for numerous publications, including The Times of London, The Spectator, and The Washington Post.

6 Things That Should Never Be Privatized



These essentials need to remain in the public sector.

The idea behind operating gas, water or electric services as public utilities is that those things are important to people’s health and survival and therefore, must be protected from corporate greed. Some things belong in the private sector, others don’t.
Here are six things in the United States that should remain in the public sector.
1. Running Water
In 2000, residents of Cochabamba (Bolivia’s third largest city) suffered enormous hardship when the city’s public water utility SEMAPA was sold and taken over by the private consortium Aguas del Tunari: prices doubled or tripled, service was shut off for those who couldn’t afford the higher rates, and manycochabambinos suddenly found themselves without running water in their homes. Civil unrest and huge demonstrations followed, and a general strike shut the city down for four days.
But eventually, after many violent clashes between protestors and Bolivian riot police, water went back to being a public utility in Cochabamba, and the Aguas del Tunari contract was canceled. In fact, leftist Evo Morales’ strong opposition to water privatization and support of the Cochabamba Water Revolt is one of the things that led to his presidential victory in Bolivia’s 2005 election. But in the U.S., Americans are still learning the hard way that privatizing running water is a terrible idea.
In 2012, Eleanor Sochanski, a 91-year-old resident of Camden, NJ, suddenly received a bill from United Water for $2,167 after averaging quarterly bills of $50-$60—and even though the private company couldn’t explain the bill and no leaks were found, it placed a lien on Sochanski’s home. Similarly, California-American Water couldn’t explain the $9,800 bill Toni Ray of Carmel Valley, CA suddenly received after having averaged bills of around $40 a month in her home. And Middletown, NJ resident Joe Pezzano was shocked to discover that New Jersey American Water Co. (another private company) had shut off his water entirely because of an overdue balance of 84 cents. If this type of insanity continues, Americans may need a Cochabamba Water Revolt of their own.
2. Prisons
Justice, at least in theory, is supposed to be blind. But when corporate greed is involved, it can become very biased in favor of incarcerating people. The United States incarcerates, per capita, more people than any other country in the world, including North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Iran and the People’s Republic of China. While the vast majority of incarcerated Americans are held in government-owned prisons and jails, the growth of privately owned prisons is a disturbing and dangerous trend because the profit motive encourages more arrests, more prosecutions and more convictions.
In a 2011 study, the American Civil Liberties Union reported: “Private prisons for adults were virtually non-existent until the early 1980s, but the number of prisoners in private prisons increased by approximately 1600% between 1990 and 2009. Today, for-profit companies are responsible for approximately 6% of state prisoners, 16% of federal prisoners and, according to one report, nearly half of all immigrants detained by the federal government.”
The ACLU also reported that private prisons in the U.S. were more likely to have poorly trained and underpaid staff, unsanitary conditions and “a heightened level of violence against prisoners.” And the ACLU noted that when the largest private prison company in the U.S., the Corrections Corporation of America, filed an annual report with the Securities and Exchange Commission in 2010, it admitted that its business model depends on high rates of incarceration, saying, “The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by the relaxation of enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction or parole standards and sentencing practices or through the decriminalization of certain activities that are currently proscribed by criminal laws. For instance, any changes with respect to drugs and controlled substances or illegal immigration could affect the number of persons arrested, convicted and sentenced, thereby potentially reducing demand for correctional facilities to house them.”
New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan has opposed efforts to privatize prisons in that state, and any politicians—Democrat, Republican or otherwise—who don’t share that view should be voted out of office. 
3. Fire Departments
Libertarian John Stossel (a host on the Fox Business Channel and writer for FoxNews.com) has long been a proponent of privatizing fire departments, which he believes would lower Americans’ tax burden and make them safer. As Stossel sees it, privatization would make firefighting more efficient. But the subscription-based privatized firefighting model can have disastrous results.
In 1996, the village of Rye Brook, NY (which is about 30 miles from Manhattan) made the mistake of hiring the Rural/Metro Fire Department (a private company) to fight fires—prior to that, firefighter protection in Rye Brook was handled by the fire department of nearby Port Chester, NY. But Rye Brook returned to public-sector firefighting only two years later after a $1 million home was destroyed by fire—perhaps avoidably. Salvatore M. Cresenzi, Rye Brook’s mayor at the time, acknowledged that Rye Brook’s deal with Rural/Metro “was not a success”—and public-sector firefighters’ unions asserted that the home could have been saved had Rural/Metro operated more efficiently in Rye Brook.
Seventeen years later in August 2013, there was another horror story involving Rural/Metro—this time in Surprise, Arizona (a Phoenix suburb), where Justin and Kasia Purcell lived in a mobile home. Two weeks after their home burned to the ground, the Purcells received a bill for $19,825 from Rural/Metro because they had not paid the annual subscription Rural/Metro charges for firefighter service in Surprise. But the Purcells told the Huffington Post they had no idea such a service existed and that they would have gladly paid the annual fee had they known.
The Purcells’ nightmare is a classic example of why the public is much better served by an “all for one/one for all” approach to firefighting: people pay taxes, and firefighting is among the things those taxes cover. Period. And there are no outrageous bills for $19,825 when your home burns to the ground.
4. Social Security
During his two terms as president of the U.S., George W. Bush called for the privatization of Social Security—and that dreadful idea should have been put to rest permanently after the economic meltdown of September 2008. But instead, far-right wingnuts have doubled down on their insanity: the Tea Party, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, the Club for Growth and the Heritage Foundation still cling to the delusion that allowing Wall Street banksters to play Russian roulette with Social Security would be a good idea. They haven’t learned the lessons of the Great Depression of the 1930s or the current economic crisis, both of which underscore the need for strict regulation of banking. Certainly, saving for retirement doesn’t have to involve Social Security exclusively—there is nothing wrong with having an FDIC-insured private-sector IRA (individual retirement account) in addition to Social Security. But Social Security itself needs to remain in the public sector just as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt envisioned. 
5. Medicare
During the U.S.’ healthcare reform debate in 2009, low-information members of the Tea Party became the butt of jokes when they carried signs saying things like, “Keep government out of my Medicare, you damn socialists” and  “keep your government hands off my Medicare.” But Medicare, which covers all Americans 65 and older, was not founded by Blue Cross or Aetna: it’s a government program that was started in 1965 as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and was expanded by his Republican successor Richard Nixon (who, for all his flaws, was relatively sensible when it came to economics, the environment and healthcare reform).
Medicare has been wildly popular among America’s senior citizens, who like the fact that they are guaranteed coverage. But that hasn’t stopped Paul Ryan from trying to end Medicare as we know it: Ryan has proposed replacing Medicare with vouchers for private insurance, which would make healthcare much more expensive for seniors. Richard Kirsch of the Roosevelt Institute was not exaggerating when he said that the privatization of Medicare as envisioned by Ryan “would kill tens of thousands of people. Every year.”
6. Gas and Electric
In Philadelphia, many people get their electricity from PECO Energy (a public utility) and their gas from the city-owned PGW (which was founded in 1836). One of the most outspoken opponents of Nutter’s desire tosell PGW to UIL has been Sam Bernhardt, senior Pennsylvania organizer for Food & Water Watch. Bernhardt has been warning that under UIL, Philadelphians can expect major increases in their gas bills—often noting that major rate hikes have occurred “time and time again” when water utilities were privatized.
Nutter’s deal with UIL states that UIL cannot increase rates for three years, but after that, Bernhardt warns, all bets are off. To illustrate how harsh utility privatization can be for consumers, Food & Water Watch has offered the following data on water/sewer privatization in the Philadelphia suburbs. In Bensalem, PA, for example, a typical water and/or sewer bill went from $137.08 annually before privatization to $578.05 annually after privatization—while in Bristol Township, average rates went from $165.44 a year pre-privatization to $661.43 a year post-privatization. And in Media, average annual water charges increased from $335.69 before privatization to $792.22 after privatization.
In a Huffington Post commentary, Thom Nickels asserted: “PGW is good for Philadelphia because, as a nonprofit public utility, it benefits the entire city with gas rates that, though high, would be three times as high if a private corporation like UIL—which exists only to maximize shareholder value—gained control of it....Within 10 years or less, gas rates under UIL will be through the roof....With very cold winters becoming the norm, future gas rates under UIH may very well spell disaster for most city residents.”
Indeed, if UIL is allowed to significantly raise rates on PGW customers, a lot of Philadelphians are going to be much colder during the winter.
Alex Henderson's work has appeared in the L.A. Weekly, Billboard, Spin, Creem, the Pasadena Weekly and many other publications. Follow him on Twitter @alexvhenderson.

Monday, May 19, 2014

5 Ways the Poor Are More Ethical Than the Rich


comments_image 44 COMMENTS

Nine out of 10 of the fastest-growing occupations are considered low-wage.

May 18, 2014 

Many wealthy Americans believe that dysfunctional behavior causes poverty. Their own success, they would insist, derives from good character and a strict work ethic. But they would be missing some of the facts. Ample evidence exists to show a correlation between wealth and unethical behavior, and between wealth and a lack of empathy for others, and between wealth and unproductiveness.
The poor, along with a middle class that is sinking toward them, make up the American meritocracy. Here is some of the evidence.

1. The Poor Don't Cheat As Much

An analysis of seven different psychological studies found that "upper-class individuals behave more unethically than lower-class individuals." A series of experiments showed that upper-class individuals were more likely to break traffic laws, take valued goods from others, lie in a negotiation, and cheat to increase their chances of winning a prize.

And this doesn't even begin to examine the many, many significant cases of fraudulent behavior in the banking industry. Or private equity firms that cheat their investors over 50 percent of the time. Or the many unscrupulous corporate tax avoidance strategies.

2. The Poor Care More About Other People

Numerous reputable sources have concluded that lower class individuals tend to be more generous and trusting and helpful, compared to the upper class. As people gain in wealth, they depend less on others, and thus they have less reason to understand the feelings and needs of the less fortunate. The poor are better at interpersonal relationships because they need other people.

In addition, careful studies have determined that money pushes people further to the right, making them less egalitarian, and less willing, as a practical consequence, to provide broad educational opportunities to all members of society.

One neuro-imaging analysis even suggested that the super-wealthy view photos of impoverished people as things rather than as human beings. They react to the poor not with sympathy, but with contempt.

3. The Rich Focus on Me, Me, Me

The authors of a recent psychological study argue that rich people are different because they have the freedom to focus on self. In support of this, a number of studies have demonstrated that higher social class is associated with increased narcissism, even to the point of looking at themselves more frequently in a mirror. The rich feel entitled. They attribute success to their 'superior' traits, while people from lower economic backgrounds attribute success to societal values, such as educational opportunities.

4. The Poor Give a Greater Percentage of Their Money to Others

Research has shown that low-income Americans spend a much higher percentage of their income on charitable giving. Results from three studies average out to 4.5% from low-income people, 2.7% from those with high incomes. With respect to helping people in need, the rich give even less. As Robert Reich notes, about two-thirds of 'charitable' donations from the rich go to their foundations and alma maters, and to "culture palaces" – operas, art museums, symphonies, and theaters.

Charles Koch said, "I believe my business and non-profit investments are much more beneficial to societal well-being than sending more money to Washington." The well-being of high society, perhaps.

5. Entrepreneurs are in the (Sinking) Middle Class

The meritorious behavior of job creation comes from the middle class, which is quickly sliding toward lower-income status. The very rich generally don't risk their money in job-creating startup businesses. Over 90% of the assets owned by millionaires are held in a combination of low-risk investments (bonds and cash), the stock market, and real estate.

With the demise of the middle class, entrepreneurship is decreasing. According to a Brookings Institute report, the "firm entry rate," a measure of new firms and thus of entrepreneurial startup activity, fell by nearly half in the thirty-plus years between 1978 and 2011. America's average entrepreneur is 26 years old, but most of our 26-year-olds are burdened by student loan debt.

Meriting Our Respect and Appreciation

Lower-income Americans serve our food, care for our sick, and clean up after us, with minimal benefits and few complaints. More and more middle-income workers are falling into this struggling group, as 9 out of 10 of the fastest-growing occupations are considered low-wage, generally not requiring a college degree.

These people merit our admiration for persevering in a society where a privileged few are taking almost everything.
Paul Buchheit is a college teacher, a writer for progressive publications, and the founder and developer of social justice and educational websites (UsAgainstGreed.org, PayUpNow.org, RappingHistory.org)

Here's The Painful Truth About What It Means To Be 'Working Poor' In America

The Huffington Post

Huffpost Politics

Here's The Painful Truth About What It Means To Be 'Working Poor' In America


In a nation that has long operated on the principle that an "American Dream" is available to anyone willing to try hard enough, the term "working poor" may seem to have a bright side. Sure, these individuals struggle financially, but they have jobs -- the first and most essential step toward lifting oneself out of poverty, right?
If only it were that simple.
According to 2012 Census data, more than 7 percent of American workers fell below the federal poverty line, making less than $11,170 for a single person and $15,130 for a couple. By some estimates, one in four private-sector jobs in the U.S. pays under $10 an hour. Last month, Senate Republicans blocked a bill that would have raised the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 an hour, despite overwhelming public support for the measure.
And these numbers don't say anything about the many Americans who earn well above the official poverty line and still barely stay afloat. In HuffPost's "All Work, No Pay" series, the working poor told their own stories, painting a devastating portrait of their day-to-day struggles.
They're a diverse range of people: single parents, couples with and without children, young women with graduate degrees, business owners, seniors and everyone in between. Their financial situations, however, show many similarities. Jobs generally provide them with the means to barely scrape by, treading paycheck-to-paycheck, earning just enough to keep from going under, swallowing their pride sometimes to take food stamps or visit food banks. Others are entirely out of work, tirelessly seeking employment and relying on other means to survive.
Through their words, we see what it's really like to be "working poor" in America -- and just how much more it looks like rock bottom than most would imagine.
Being working poor means toiling through "pure hell" for next to nothing.
Earlier this year, 55-year-old Glenn Johnson was making about $14,000 a year -- or $7.93 an hour -- at a Miami-area Burger King. He'd been in and out of the fast food industry for more than 30 years. Recently he watched as his employer reported a 37 percent increase in its quarterly profit, while continuing to resist a minimum wage increase that workers like Johnson have been fighting for.
Johnson described his daily routine as "pure hell." It's a nonstop effort to keep the store clean and the customers and his managers -- most of whom are less than half his age -- happy. "Sometimes, I get home and I’m so tired, I eat dinner, take a shower, lay down to watch TV, and I’m going to sleep," he said. "Next morning comes. I’m tired, but I'm trying to make it."
fast food employee
And yet still wishing you could work more.
While Johnson was far from enthusiastic about his work at Burger King, with no computer and few immediate prospects of another job, he still wished he could clock more hours. He said he worked about 35 hours a week, but wanted anywhere from 40 to 50, which would make it easier to pay for his $765-a-month rent, gas and any of the things he can't currently afford. Since Johnson first told his story, his corporate-owned Burger King made him full-time and gave him a raise.
Deangelo Belk, a 21-year-old Wendy's employee making $7.50 an hour, also knows the pain of not getting enough hours to pay for the things he wants or to help him save enough to move out of his mother's house. He works around 10 hours a week and said that he's regularly ignored when he asks for more time.
Because you know you're lucky to have a job, no matter how awful it is.
Vanessa Powell, 29, works full time in a Goodwill warehouse in Seattle for $9.25 an hour. She holds a bachelor's degree in English and a master's in business administration. But with her fiancé out of work, she's just grateful to have a job, even though she occasionally feels it's "beneath" her. Even with the job, however, it's sometimes hard for them to get enough to eat.
"I mean, yeah, it's dirty work and often demeaning work, but at least it's work," she said. "Even though [my fiancé] only worked part time, it was still something. I make enough to cover rent and electric, but we share a cell phone, which is why it's kind of hard for both of us to search for jobs."
But finding employment can also risk the crucial aid that helps you get by.
Helen Bechtol, 23, is a mother of two and a community college student with dreams of graduating from the University of North Carolina Wilmington. To help pay for child care, she took a second job, which made her ineligible for day care assistance.
Ashley Schmidtbauer said her family is "not destitute, but we barely make it month to month." She stays at home to raise her kids and has found there aren't any easy alternatives. Her husband's income alone makes the family ineligible for day care assistance. "To be honest, we make roughly $35,000 a year. Somehow, we make over $10,000 more than their limits allow," she said. "We are the in-betweeners. Not making enough to live 'comfortably' -- but not 'poor' enough to get any assistance either. We don't expect handouts. We just want what is best for our family."
Being working poor means knowing it can be expensive just to keep your job.
Joanne Van Vranken, 50, was laid off in 2011. After nearly two years of unemployment, she landed a temporary administrative assistant position, which requires a 60-mile round-trip commute every day. Van Vranken's car is in desperate need of repair, but she hasn't had the money to fix it in years. She's worried her car will die, which could put her back in dire financial straits. "And I don't have the money to buy a new one," she said. "But I have to do it, because we need to pay the bills."
Janet Weatherly, 43, has almost completed her doctoral degree but can't find employment in her field. Instead, she's making $11 an hour as a sales associate for a major retailer. Her job is a 45-minute drive from her house, and a significant chunk of her paycheck goes toward gas money. Weatherly's parents put her car repairs on their credit cards. She'd like to finish her dissertation, but currently can't afford to get her documents out of a storage unit halfway across the country, much less invest more time in her education.
job fair unemployed
Or lowering your standards for employment and often still not finding work.
Craig Gieseke is unemployed. At nearly 60, he spent 32 years in journalism, but most of the past decade he was self-employed, so he doesn't qualify for unemployment benefits. Gieseke doesn't want assistance. He wants a job, and he'd take pretty much any at this point. Would-be employers tell him that he is "overqualified" -- a term he calls a euphemism for "too old" -- or that he'd be "bored" doing the required work. "'Bored' is hanging around the house all day because you don't have money to do anything else,"he said.
It means making shortsighted decisions because long-term plans seem doomed.
Linda Tirado knows what it's like to be desperately poor. She understands firsthand the mentality that leads many people in similar situations to spend money on things like cigarettes and fast food.
"It is not worth it to me to live a bleak life devoid of small pleasures so that one day I can make a single large purchase. I will never have large pleasures to hold on to,"Tirado said. "There's a certain pull to live what bits of life you can while there's money in your pocket, because no matter how responsible you are, you will be broke in three days anyway. When you never have enough money, it ceases to have meaning."
And living in constant fear of losing what little you do have in an instant.
When Alicia Payton, a 31-year-old mother of two, received a promotion at her job, she thought the increased pay would make the nearly 100-mile round-trip commute worth it. But hope quickly turned to panic when she had a car accident, doing $4,000 worth of damage to her vehicle. Unable to afford immediate repairs or a rental, Payton couldn't get to work, which she thought would result in her firing. "I've worked so hard to get where I'm at, and one simple thing and I'm afraid I'm going to lose everything," she said. Payton later learned that she had not been fired and had more time to find another way to get to work.
Karen Wall, 38, works as a teacher, cheerleading coach and weekend bartender. Yet money is tight, and all of it goes to keeping her family afloat and paying off her student loan debt. Both of her boys have special needs, so even with the multiple income sources, Wall knows she's only one disaster away from losing it all. "If I got in a car accident, I'd be homeless," she said. "If I get laid off from any of my jobs, my kids will end up going hungry."
food stamps
Even if things seem manageable now, you could be just a few setbacks away from collapse.
Not so long ago, Kathleen Ann had a house, vacation time, spending money and everything else available to someone with a high-paying corporate job. Then she was discarded in a layoff, cast into a world where she could only find occasional part-time work. Ann now makes less than $20,000 a year, lives in an apartment and has been forced to accept that she is poor -- a "Used-to-Have," as she described it. "As a 'Used-to-Have,' I know exactly what Corporate America, lobbyists and politicians have taken away from me," she said.
Being working poor means learning the hard way that investing in your future can actually make things tougher.
Weatherly, who has a bachelor's degree in English and a master's degree in public health, is still paying off her six-digit student loan debt. "Things are so bad that I can't even afford to file for bankruptcy," she said. "I have applied for hundreds of jobs over the past six years."
DJ Cook, 36, a teacher who has a master’s degree and lives in a converted garage, described himself as “suffocated by student debt.” "I've done everything that I was told to do in order to be successful," he said. "I'm in a lifetime of debt with no foreseeable answers."
Carla Shutak thought buying a house with her husband, who was gainfully employed as a civil engineer, would be a wise investment. When he was laid off in 2009, they couldn’t keep up with the mortgage payments and their home was foreclosed on. "My American Dream died," she said. "Despite doing what we were taught was right by putting 20 percent down and asking for a fixed 30-year mortgage, we were now in our 40s and starting over with nothing."
And can put you at a disadvantage even as you're just starting your adult life.
Monica Simon, 24, works full time at an online advertising firm, earning $23,000 a year after taxes. She's still paying off her student loans and often relies on credit cards to cover basic costs. "Sometimes I get paid and then I have, maybe, $150 left over for the two weeks," she said. "I just feel I'm getting way behind where I want to be for my age. I feel I'm just starting my life and I'm already miles and miles behind."
college students debt
Even if you saved for retirement, being working poor means using up those funds long before you get there.
Van Vranken spent 16 months unemployed before landing her current temp job. During that time, she used her retirement savings to cover expenses. “I’ve decimated my 401(k),” she said. "Without a permanent job, I don't know if I'll be able to rebuild it. I worry I'm going to be one of those senior citizens whose only meal each day is from Meals on Wheels."
It means facing the harsh reality that while money can't buy happiness, it's hard to be happy without any.
Bechtol is consumed with constant anxiety over having enough money to support her two young children. "I go to school and am only paying my parents $250 a month to live in their house and can still barely do it," she said. "I get so overwhelmed sometimes that I think it affects my parenting, and that's what I hate the most. I don't need money to be happy, but I do need money to pay for the resources I need for happiness."
And realizing that without money, it's difficult to meet fundamental human needs.
Jason Derr, 37, who earns $10.75 an hour and supports his wife and baby, wishes he and his wife could socialize with the few friends they have. But the lack of money stops them."We can't afford to do anything," he said. "I feel like we are unable to participate in humanity, that being alive has a buy-in cost."
Similarly, Simon will spend full weekends at home without social interaction. "There will be weekends when I'll just have to sit home because if there's a priority between food and going out, it's going to be food." Powell added that she hasn’t seen her friends in "six months because I can't afford to go out with them, and they all want to go out."
minimum wage protest
For the working poor, basic medical care is a luxury that's often sacrificed.
Carol Sarao, 57, a formerly successful musician who now brings in roughly $240 a week writing web content, saves money by avoiding routine medical care and hoping her health remains relatively stable. When she does get sick, she tries to fix the problem herself. "I try to research it on the Internet or I try to find a friend who has antibiotics or something," she said. "I haven't had any sort of exam in years. I don’t know how much longer it can go on."
Sarao described a time she suffered an allergic reaction and desperately needed a hospital visit, but ultimately decided the financial burden wasn’t worth it. "I remember sitting outside of the emergency room and thinking, 'If I can't breathe, I'll go in and get the shot. But if I can breathe, I won't go in and I'll save the money,'" she recalled. "I've had different cuts that got infected and I just used a hot compress."
Or a necessity that leads to taking risky chances.
Bernadette Feazell, 65, who makes $8 an hour at a pawn shop in Texas, takes a four-hour bus trip to a dangerous area of Mexico when she has medical needs. She contends the trips save her thousands of dollars. "I need a cavity filled," she said. "My last Mexican filling fell out, from two years ago. I went down to Nuevo Laredo. It’s very violent."
Because not having the money to seek medical treatment doesn't mean you don't need medical treatment.
Beverly Hill, 60, was laid off from her full-time job more than six years ago and has been actively seeking employment ever since. She avoids routine check-ups because she can’t afford them. But the last time she visited the doctor, for what she described as excruciating abdominal pain, he found something more worrisome.
“He wasn't so concerned about my guts as he was about an irregular heartbeat,” she said. "I was hospitalized. Two and a half days in the hospital came to over $40,000. After pleading poverty and asking to be considered a charity case, the hospital relented and lowered my bill to $12,000. I still can't afford to pay this. I'm eking it out a little at a time."
Being working poor means coming up with creative solutions in order to eat.
Larry Silveira, 60, who earns $9.25 an hour at his part-time retail job, was raised on a farm and learned how to can vegetables at a young age. He now uses the same strategies to maximize his family’s limited food supply. "You buy certain vegetables when they're in season, when they're cheap. You put them in the freezer and have them in the winter when they're expensive," he said. "If you find chicken breast for 99 cents a pound, buy $3 worth and put it in the freezer."
Derr and his wife keep a "food safety box" in the pantry. “Every time we go grocery shopping, we buy a $1 item -- pasta, canned veggies, etc.,” he explained. "At the end of October, we had to live off that box for two weeks."
food pantry
And sometimes accepting you'll just have to go hungry.
Cory Brooks, a senior at George Washington University, works more than full time in addition to her studies and barely makes enough money to eat. "My friends always ask how I stay in such good shape, how I never gained the 'Freshman 15,'" she said. "I smile and shrug, but what I really want to tell them is that being too poor to buy food is great for keeping the weight off."
It means sacrificing your own basic needs for those of your children.
Trisha Lovetrove, a wife and mother of two, said that despite her husband’s full-time job, some weeks she can't afford to buy enough food for the whole family -- so she's the one who suffers. "I feed my children and my spouse, and find an excuse not to be hungry because there's nothing left," she said. "Those weeks suck your will to live."
Kelly Lingo, 22, a stay-at-home mom raising her infant son with her boyfriend, who works full time for $10 an hour, described a similar struggle. “If we do have extra money, it usually goes to diapers or formula,” she said. “Feeding my son, that's my biggest concern.As much as I don't like to skip meals, I can do it -- I can go without eating if it means feeding my son."
Or coming to terms with the fact that you may never be able to afford parenthood at all.
At 36, Cook would like to have children someday. But his financial situation makes that seem impossible. "[I]t's slowly starting to dawn on me that I will most likely never have children, as I would never intentionally bring another child into the world of poverty,"he said. "A house and/or a family is a laughable proposition at this point."
For the 29-year-old Powell and her fiancé, poverty has also affected discussions about having kids. "My fiancé and I have kicked around the idea of having kids for almost as long as we've been together, but we don't make enough, in all sanity, to allow a child in our care," she said. "About eight months ago, we just stopped talking about it entirely."
And if you have children, being working poor means worrying that their lives will ultimately be harder than yours.
Jennifer Blankenship, a 39-year-old mother of four whose family lives on her husband’s $11-an-hour job, has been able to send one daughter to college with the help of financial aid. Still, she, along with a growing number of both middle-class and poorer Americans, takes a bleak view of her children’s future.
This story has been updated with information about Johnson's current full-time employment status.
These stories are part of a Huffington Post series profiling Americans who work hard and yet still struggle to make ends meet. Learn more about other individuals' experiences here.
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