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What it means to be the working poor

October 29, 2014

By Margaret Dietrich and Marianne Ofenloch

Recently, a gathering of Pike County residents heard about the state of poverty in our area, when Todd Behr, professor of economics at East Stroudsburg University, spoke at St. Patrick’s Church Hall at the invitation of the Social Justice Committee of the Five Catholic Parishes of Pike County. Behr’s presentation focused especially on a group known today as the working poor.

In 2012, 46.5 million people (15% of the U.S. population) were living in poverty. Nearly one-quarter of those—10.5 million people—were classified as the working poor. These are people often working two or more jobs, and still they cannot make ends meet. They generally work part-time jobs with no benefits. Many make an hourly salary of less than or equal to the minimum wage (currently $7.25 an hour). While the federal poverty level for a family of four was $23,624 a year before taxes in 2013, a full-time job of 40 hours a week at minimum wage equates to only $15,080 a year. Thus, it is obvious why those working even two jobs at minimum wage are struggling with poverty.

Many factors contribute to the plight of the working poor, including reduced purchasing power and an inability to obtain cheap credit or any credit. An inability to service existing credit can lead to the loss of possessions; loss of a car can lead to unemployment; loss of a home leaves families on the street. Those in poverty often have low self-esteem and feel they have no worth in society. This can lead to alcohol and drug use, crime and family violence, which only reinforce the cycle of poverty.

Education is a major factor for gaining employment and improving earnings. The 2013 median weekly income tells the story: those with only a high school diploma earned just $651 a week compared to those with a bachelors degree who earned $1,108 and those with a masters degree at $1,329. But education costs money that those in poverty simply don’t have, and employers have been cutting educational funding for their workers.

Unemployment benefits no longer last 26 weeks, the average time to find another job. While out of work, a worker not only tends to lose skills and cannot learn new job skills, but also cannot stay current in job information. Discouraged workers (those no longer looking for a job) cause the actual unemployment rate to be understated in statistical reports.