A 21st Century Journalism Project

A Daily Struggle

In Defining The Problem on March 1, 2012 at 1:15 am


Everyday 21 million Americans get up, go to work and at the end of the week they collect a paycheck which barely supports them and their family.  Yet, with the rising costs of living and low paying jobs the number of working poor in America continues to climb.

Harvard anthropologist Katherine Newman defined working poor in her book, No Shame in My Game, as “people who toil year-round and either fail to pull above the poverty line or struggle to make ends meet just above it.”  Job growth is not the issue.  It’s the type of jobs being created that is contributing to the problem at hand.  Newman goes on to say that 19,000 high wage jobs were created while 400,000 low wage jobs were created between 1994 and 1997.

According to Feeding America, 21 million Americans are classified as working poor.  The average house hold income of a working poor family is $860 per month or $10,320 per year.  Federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour before taxes.  Every worker is required to pay state, federal, Social Security and Medicare taxes.  State income tax and Federal income tax can be adjusted depending on number of dependents a worker has.  However, Social Security, 6.2 percent, and  Medicare, 1.45 percent, is withheld before a paycheck is even cashed.  A minimum wage job, at 40 hours per week, pays $290 per week and $15,080 per year.  Once subtracted, Social Security and Medicare taxes reduce the pay to $267.8 per week and 13,926.38 per year.

Even for those earning $10 per hour, the situation is not much better.  Paul Osterman claims 20 percent of Americans earn $10.65 or less.  A person working 40hrs/per week only earns $20,619.37 per year after taxes.

Annette Bernhardt, co-director at the National Employment Law Project studies the post recession job growth in the U.S.  She claims that 76  percent of the jobs created in 2010 can be classified as low wage.  Wages ranged between $8.92 to $15 per hour.  The national average hourly wage is $22.60.

For a American working a minimum wage job, the cost of living quickly exceeds the money they earn.  Feeding America believes working poor families spend between 40 and 50 percent of their income on housing and utilities.  That totals $6,736.99 per year and  561.42 per month using the take home pay of a minimum wage job.  Find The Data.org, which publishes cost of living across the United States, stated that a person living in Erie, Pennsylvania  could expect to spend  9% of their monthly income  on transportation and another 9% on healthcare.

The minimum wage worker starts with $13,473 per year or $1,122.83 a month.  After housing and utilities, $561.42 remains.  Subtract transportation and healthcare and just $359.31 is left to cover any other essentials like food, clothing and childcare.

If a person living in Erie ate a bowl of cereal for breakfast, a hamburger sandwich for lunch and a frozen meal for dinner and drank a half gallon of milk each day for a month.  The cereal breakfast would cost $18.60 a month.  The hamburger lunch would cost $88.80 a month and the frozen dinner meal would cost $97.20 a month.  The milk would cost $55.80 per month.  The monthly total of this diet equals $260.40.

A diet lacking fresh produce is affordable but only leaves a $100 dollars for the remaining necessities of life.  Amber Waves, a website centered on the economics of food, shows that the amount American’s spend on food items has drop from 30% to 10% since the 1960s.  If working poor American’s wanted to increase the amount of food they buy, and the quality of that food, then they would have to cut costs on the other necessities in their lives.

According to a 2010 study conducted by the Second Harvest Food Band of Northwest Pennsylvania, one-third of the food bank clients had to choose between buying groceries or paying for utilities and another a quarter of its clients had to choose between buying groceries or paying rent.  Poor health was another issue of the study.   Nearly a third of the food bank clients listed at least one person in the house hold as having health issues.

Many health issues stem from the lack of proper nutrients.  There are a large group of workers in America who cannot afford nutrient rich diets.  Iris Caballero, a diabetic since 19, is a agricultural worker who cannot afford fresh produce and also does not have close access to a grocery store carrying fresh produce.  Her local grocery carries a wide variety of canned foods but limited produce.  During the off season, Caballero is forced to feed her family a diet of potatoes, bread and tortillas.

University of Washington professor Adam Drewnowski studies food choices among consumers.  He claims the working poor are subject to obesity due to the fact there is a lack of money and inexpensive diets are less healthy.

Diets lacking fresh produce are becoming common among the working poor.

Unhealthy diets are also contributing to a drop in work place productivity.  Unbalanced diets can lead to a 20 percent drop in a worker’s productivity.

For 21 million American’s, the struggle to make ends meet with a low paying job is a daily battle.  Their paychecks are diminished, first, by taxes then by the necessities of living.  With what’s left over, they buy food for themselves and their families.  Yet, with so little income the quality of food is as much a struggle as is the struggle to make ends meet.


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