Is “Working Poor” an Oxymoron?

By | Apr 1, 2014

pocket changeGina was huddled in her broken-down Toyota Corolla with her two small children when the official-looking man rapped his knuckles on her side window. This guy was not an Auto Club tow truck driver. He was a homeless outreach worker.

With clothes and food strewn across the car’s seats and dashboard, this scared-looking family was certainly homeless. Gina and her kids had become a homelessness statistic in a city inundated with families hit hard by the spiraling economy.

After an intensive intake interview, the sad facts of a struggling life were revealed. Gina worked at a local fast food restaurant, earning the state’s minimum hourly wage. The company she worked for employed almost all of their workers part-time—30 hours per week—so they did not have to pay benefits.

At $8 per hour, ($12,480 per year), Gina was officially designated as “poor.” She was part of a family of three people earning less than $19,530 per year. Sure, her hourly wage will go up to $9 per hour in July 2014, but even that increased annual salary of $14,040 is still below the poverty level.

As a person who is below the poverty line, but working a job, Gina is a member of this country’s “working poor.”

Working poor. At first glance, these two words seem to be opposites. If you are poor, you don’t have enough money to sustain a self-sufficient lifestyle. If you are working, you should have the means to live a self-sufficient life, especially in one of the world’s most wealthy nations.

It just doesn’t make sense to be “working poor.” To put it simply: if you are working 30 hours per week, you should earn enough to be able to support your family.

You cannot accuse Gina of being lazy or looking for a free ride. She was putting in her working hours, like any other hard-working American. She could consider herself lucky, however, because she had a friend who was willing to pick her kids up from school and watch them until her shifts were finished. Many other working poor don’t have that luxury.

But still, Gina should be earning a wage that, at the very least, is enough to keep her off the streets. Especially when she has two children.

Critics might say that she should have earned a better education so that she would not have to resort to a minimum wage job. But, growing up in a school district that only graduates 2 out of 3 students, the odds were against her.

Others might say she shouldn’t have had children until she could earn a living. But she and her children’s father were able to support their family together until he decided to leave.

Besides, should people with money be the only ones able to have children?

I am still baffled that a person who is willing to work, and actually is working almost full-time, can still end up living on the streets.

Shouldn’t we have a law that protects working people from a life of homelessness?

I guess Gina’s unjust situation is why many leaders, including the President, are pushing for a higher minimum wage. But the federal initiative only increases the wages of federal workers.

That means Gina is still out of luck, unless local or state leaders legislate their minimum wage laws.