A 21st Century Journalism Project

The Hidden Struggles of the Working Poor

In Defining The Problem on March 25, 2015 at 11:09 pm

By: Charles Ivey Jr.

construction put on hult around 21st and Somerset in North Philly

21st and Somerset in North Philly

When we were younger we all had a dream and were told if we worked hard enough we could accomplish anything. Often, we were not told about the barriers we would face, barriers such as discrimination. The level playing field that America still claims to offer no longer exist and when you are already considered to be at the bottom of the economic and social totem called the working poor, life can be rough.

Poverty can simply be defined as a general scarcity or the state of a person who lacks a certain amount of material possessions commonly referred to as money. Poverty can be permanent or temporary and most of the time can be closely related to inequality.

21st and Somerset in North Philly

21st and Somerset in North Philly

African-American communities with high poverty rates can be seen all around the nation but mostly in bigger metro areas like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. The topic of poverty reduction is a major issue across the country but nothing seems to get done to resolve the issue.

An offshoot of the issue is the discrimination of the working poor class. stereotypes, racism,assumptions and beliefs all play a factor.

“I think people don’t want to be poor,” Alfred Lubrano, a poverty reporter at the Philadelphia Inquirer suggested.” I think that people do want to rise above and the problem is that it is one of the hardest things to do in America.”

The working poor is a social class that to put blankly, consist of people who are working but barely making ends meet. These people do in fact have jobs but those jobs, which usually involve the service industry, do not help portray the “America dream.”

These jobs include anyone making minimum wage. A person can work very hard at these jobs, put in full weeks plus overtime. However if you make say, $19,700 a year for a family of three that is considered to be at the working poor level.

The issue of the working poor vs, discrimination has been a low profile problem for a while. Evidence from a sociological study of the American-American people of Philadelphia done by W.E.B Du Bois was published in The Philadelphia Negro back in 1899. During the Progressive Era, Du Bois saw society’s unequal opportunity as the main cause of poverty among the working poor. He also saw a connection between moral factors and poverty which draws a line between two groups.

One group consists of people who cannot escape the working poor class because they simply cannot overcome obstacles such as money issues or racial discrimination and the second group being people who live under the poverty line due to moral deficiencies such as not having the will to do anything.

The confusion of mixing the two groups often do occur.

“And yet well-meaning people continually do this,” wrote Du Bois in 1899.” They regale the thugs and whoremongers and gamblers of Seventh and Lombard Streets with congratulations on what the Negroes have done is a quarter century, and pity for their disabilities; and they scold the caterers of Addison Street for the pickpockets and paupers of the race. A judge of the city courts, who for years has daily met a throng of lazy and debased Negro criminals, come from the bench to talk to the Negroes about their criminals: he warns them first of all to leave the slums and either forget or does not know that the audience he is speaking to, left the slums when he was a boy and that the people before him are as distantly differentiated from the criminals he has met, as honest laborers anywhere differ from thieves.”

Being a part of the working poor or poverty in general can be the result of any combination of circu,stances such as being another generation born into poverty, causing a lack of skills and resources.

“Maybe one of the hardest things to do in America is to get out of poverty because you come from a poor place, a place that is dangerous. A place that has poor schools, poor role models, bad infrastructures, bad homes. there is bad health and a lack of jobs. so what you have to do is fight against each and everyone of those things,” Lubrano said.

There are people who are no longer a part of the middle class due to bad luck, being a victim of the competitive job market or a corporate takeover for example who ultimately ended up as the working poor.

During the recession, people held jobs that basically kept them on the thin line of the middle/ lower class and when they lost their jobs they were not able to find new ones. So they became a part of the working poor. The fact that people are forced to forfeit their jobs to outsourcing in places like India and China does not help.

A neglected factor that contributes to the working poor is the occurrence of forced college dropouts who could not afford to fund their college education. But sometimes while in the pursuit of a college degree, you may run into mental barriers too.

“Sometimes just the fact that you are educating yourself is almost like an revolutionary act because alot of people around you will ask, ‘why you doing that?’ and ‘why don’t you just be like the rest of us?’ It’s tough because there are people around you that’s not even encouraging you to do it. It is the single toughest things to do in America and I think people don’t understand that,” Lubrano mentioned.

“It’s crazy because in the city, it is a lot of resources but people keeping getting sucked back in because xyz,” Dolores Gonzalez Adriaanse said, a post secondary and career specialist at the Philadelphia Education Fund.

Photo credit- Charles Ivey Jr.

A few steps from 22nd and York was an empty home next to a lot filled with snow covered trash

Throughout North Philadelphia you will see bordered homes, litter filled vacant lots and loitering groups of mixed ages sitting around as illegal dirt bikes and ATVs with poorly done paint jobs swerve in between traffic as if they were invincible. A stimulus scene which influence many minds into thinking this is all that government assistant produce.

“I think there has been some exaggeration about it, [working poor and government assistance.]” Lubrano said. “For example, many people will say that there are people trying to take advantage who are on food stamps. In fact, the majority of people on food stamps or either disabled, children or elderly. Yes, there are so called ‘abled body’ Americans on food stamps but the vast majority is that other group and they’re not taking advantage of the system they are simply trying to survive.”

No matter where you look or who the issue is blamed on there is always in the back of someone’s mind the urge to group people of a particular background in one homogeneous unit. When you are on the outside looking in your vision often narrows.

People who look from an outside lenses make judgement about who these people are and do not really understand the over dominating pressure(s) that are dragging them down. Someone looking from the outside would not experience these difficulties.

More privileged people wake up in safer communities vs. Pittsburgh’s North side section. They experience good schools, good environments where good role models are present. They have one benefit piled on top of another and it is not uncommon for those same benefits to be invisible to them, hinting towards the illusion that they earned everything they have their selves. They assume the working poor have the same opportunities in life as they did, believing the working poor had the choice to be like them.

The simple answer is that they just do not have the same positive experiences in life and when coming right down to the point, the ideology of poverty can and will influence the discrimination of the working poor.

In a way the American dream still exist, it is just not a dream everyone have the luxury to experience. As Lubrano puts it:

“Sometimes it’s just what you’re faced with, no one in your family really rose above poverty and it has a force like gravity, it kind of holds you back. so there is a number of reasons but it all spells out the same thing which is the great difficulties to rise above.”


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