It’s Tuesday evening, two days before your next paycheck. You open your fridge to find ingredients for dinner and are met with the usual: some condiments, cheap beer left over from that house party two months ago, questionably still usable milk, and if you’re lucky a few fruits and vegetables.
“What should we have for dinner?” You say to your roommate/significant other/cat.
“I don’t know, what do we have?” They reply (if they are human).
“Not much. Should we go to the store?” You ask, scratching your head, trying to come up with a meal using mustard, carrots, and milk.
“I don’t have any extra money until I get paid Friday.” They shrug.
“Oh, I’ll get it this time,” You offer. “but I’m out of gas, can you drive?”
“I only have enough left to get me to work and back until I get paid. You sure we can’t make something out of what we have?” They ask.
“I don’t know…” You open the cupboard to find more of the same random foodstuffs staring back at you: peanut butter, pasta, moldy bread, cereal… “I guess I’m not really that hungry anyway. Maybe I’ll just have cereal.” You reply, your knowledge of your practically empty wallet and the impending electricity bill quickly curbing your appetite.
“Alright, me too.” Your companion replies, they’ve been eating only cereal and granola bars the last day and a half anyway.
Another night, another bowl of cereal: a situation that more than one in ten Americans face even though they have full time employment. This is what it means to be working poor.
True, we all go through financial struggles in our lives, and we all, as Americans, should have the chance to work out of those struggles. However, after the recession of 2009, pulling ourselves up “by our bootstraps” has proven more and more difficult for a large number of Americans.
Americans who have huge amounts of student loan debt find themselves unable to land jobs that pay more than 10 dollars an hour even though they have a master’s degree.
Americans with children who are caught in a vicious cycle of choosing employment over affordable childcare or aid that helps them keep those children fed and healthy because their jobs pay them too much to receive aid, but not enough to cover the expenses themselves.
Americans who don’t go to the doctor when they are sick, who don’t go to the dentist when their tooth breaks, who are still wearing a five year old glasses prescription.
Americans who know one major life event, like their car breaking down, a family member needing their care, or a pregnancy could put them in desperate financial ruin.
Americans who can’t maintain a savings account, can’t afford to buy a house one day, can’t afford to start a family.
Americans who have depleted their entire retirement savings after being laid off from their job.
Americans who live life every day knowing no matter how responsible they are, just around the corner is another bank account with only $20.00 balance, an empty fridge and another bowl of cereal.
This is what it means to be working poor.
So how do we get out of this? Raise the minimum wage? Maybe. Raise the salary threshold for food assistance programs like SNAP and WIC? Perhaps. Extend unemployment insurance? Possibly. Stop giving tax breaks to big corporations while cutting assistance programs? Conceivably. Encourage Americans to invest in their future by investing/saving their very slim amount of extra money instead of spending it and boosting the economy and their spirits? Not likely.
The truth of the matter is, the cure for the working poor is not a one-solution-fixes-all problem, it is a problem that has taken decades of poor policy choices to form, and will take decades of good policy choices to solve.
We can and should do better for the kid who’s not sure how his mom is getting their next meal, for the recent college graduate who feels like she is starting out her adult-life years behind because she’s already thousands of dollars in debt, for the man in his seventies working a minimum wage job because he lost his retirement after he was laid off and needs to pay for medicine.
This is what it means to be working poor.
Photo Source: www.runningwithspoons.com