A 21st Century Journalism Project

An Obscene Yet Unseen Issue

In Defining The Problem on March 1, 2012 at 3:57 pm

By Sean Maiolo

Recession is a very ugly word. When the housing market collapsed in 2007, other aspects of the economy soon followed suit, either freezing or taking tremendous steps backward.

Some of the luckiest individuals endured only a wage freeze while others took pay cuts, sometimes significant ones, just to remain among the suddenly shrinking core of working Americans.

While all this unfolded on the job front, the costs of goods and services managed to sustain themselves and in many cases increased, creating a tremendous inflation of individuals classified as America’s working poor.

The suffering of the millions who lost their jobs, many of them skilled positions and high-paying jobs, during the downturn of the last few years dominated news wires nationwide.

Given a staggering unemployment rate, a person working a full-time job, regardless of the wage, was labeled as lucky especially given the dire needs of others. Little focus went on just how tough their lives as working poor were and even less thought went towards improving their quietly deficient status in society.

But when analyzing statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), it becomes strikingly obvious that the plight of the working poor is growing rapidly with the prolonged recession.

According to a 2011 BLS report, the number of individuals classified as working poor surpassed 10 million people for the first time this century in 2009 and working poor families grew to over 5 million. Both figures represent significant increases over 2008.

Economic indicators put the working poor in virtual lock-step with the wavering economy. That means the population will continue to expand, as will the problems they face on a daily basis.

Although it went largely unnoticed, Marlene Kim, formerly of the Department of Labor Studies and Employment Relations, first presented the problems and scope of the working poor at a symposium at the Economic Policy Institute in the middle of 1999. At that time, America was thriving from record low unemployment and promising labor markets, especially the dot-com bubble, which had yet to burst.

But even then the number of working poor Americans and families remained high. Kim pointed out then that the working poor problem would get worse, noting that they represented the fastest growing segment of those in poverty.

Many took her claims with a grain of salt. But after more than a decade her report proved prescient.

The primary aim of Kim’s study was to present not only the relatively unnoticed population but also eight of the most defining problems the working poor encounter. Those included social (health constraints and healthcare), family and educational quandaries as well as some working poor not even being aware of what programs existed to which they were entitled.

Though her study focused on the working poor from a national perspective, the regions and their localities–the sum of the whole–magnify the issue to a much greater extent.

Linda Mitchell of Irwin, Pa., a suburb of Pittsburgh, knows all too well of those struggles. She was among the working poor in the 80s and early 90s that Kim brought to light in her article and reiterated many of the issues that Kim shed some light upon, especially healthcare.

“I worked as a temp for about three years probably and didn’t have health insurance because you just didn’t have it as a temp,” she said. “I’d just tell (my daughter) that every time she thought about joining in on some of the horseplay that some of the kids were doing ‘Don’t, because if you get hurt, I can’t take you to the doctor’s.’”

Dr. Irene Fiala, a sociology professor at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania who has also worked as an emergency medical technician (EMT) for nearly a quarter century, noted that healthcare for the working poor has gotten worse since Kim first presented and published her findings. According to some of her research, both from academic and real life experience, healthcare is arguably the biggest obstacle facing the working poor, and skyrocketing prices for medicines and care only make it harder to overcome.

“I can tell you that we have a lot of patients who, because…they have jobs that don’t provide healthcare services, aren’t seeing their physicians,” she said. “They’re not on their medications. They’re not receiving any kind of pre-natal care or anything like that.”

Fiala noted that the lack of sufficient healthcare creates a domino effect that consumes far more than just the working poor and their families.

She expanded on that effect in her explanation of a functionalist theory towards fighting off illness in a book she co-authored with several other scholars all examining social problems worldwide. That theory dictates that the typical sick person in the United States will do everything in their power to combat their illness in order to return to work healthy and productive. However, the working poor often cannot adhere to that basic principle.

“If I’m not employed in a position where I can afford to go to a doctor’s office, then I’m going to come (to work) sick, I’m not going to be productive and I might actually make other people sick,” she said.

That mindset develops in part from what Fiala and other sociological scholars call heat, treat or eat. This philosophy, she contends, is one that many working poor must live by and hope that whichever one is neglected does not end up costing more in the end.

“Take high blood pressure, for example, where you’re feeling okay, you’re on your pills, you get off your pills and you’re still feeling okay so you start to think ‘Why am I spending $150, $200 a month on high blood pressure pills?’” she said. “Then go three months down the road, and now you have a cardiac problem. So something that could be treated easily with medication…now turns into a $2,000 to $3,000 ER bill.”

Another key aspect of Kim’s report involved taking a more realistic approach towards measuring the working poor, going beyond the poverty line (only $16,700 for a family of four in 1999) to include families and individuals making up to 150 percent of the poverty line, people that the government categorizes as lower middle-class. Such figures have since been adopted and implemented by state governments and charities, such as the Second Harvest Food Bank of Northwest Pennsylvania, who focus primarily on helping the working poor.

“The federal poverty level for example, for a family of three, is $18,000. We’re saying ‘You know what, you can make more than that,’” said Karen Seggi, the food bank’s executive director. “You can make $27,000 and we’re still going to let you get food from the food bank.”

Seggi said that they actually have nothing to do with establishing that 150 percent figure.

“That’s the federal government,” she said. “Instead of the federal government increasing the poverty level, they say, and I don’t know why because it just causes me to think more, they say ‘Let’s keep the federal poverty level where it is, but let’s make all these programs contingent on 140, 120 percent of the poverty level.’

“(It) doesn’t make sense though, because even if you worked a minimum wage job, you’re still not making the poverty level.”

Regardless of the ambiguity of what statistics exist and how they are calculated in whatever facet of society, there is tremendous clarity in that the growing number and daily struggles of working poor Americans continues to be a serious problem, one that Fiala said requires much greater attention.

“It’s the working poor that’s the issue,” she said. “They’re making too much money to receive government assistance, but they’re not making enough to pay for their healthcare, they’re not making enough money to pay for their medication and they can’t afford healthcare insurance.

“Insurance is ‘Why would I pay $500 a month for something I may use when I can use $500 a month for groceries that I know I will use.’ So it’s a gamble.”

Unfortunately for the working poor, it’s a gamble on everyday life.

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