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.
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.
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
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.
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,"
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.
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.
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,"
Being working poor means learning the hard way that investing in your future can actually make things tougher.
And can put you at a disadvantage even as you're just starting your adult life.
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.
And realizing that without money, it's difficult to meet fundamental human needs.
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.
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."
And sometimes accepting you'll just have to go hungry.
It means sacrificing your own basic needs for those of your children.
Or coming to terms with the fact that you may never be able to afford parenthood at all.
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.
Have a similar story you'd like to share? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or give us a call at (408) 508-4833, and you can record your story in your own words. Please be sure to include your name and phone number.
Post a Comment