Even before COVID-19 rocked this country (with over 6 million cases and 183,000 deaths at the time of this essay), the United States faced an increasing problem with the income gap between the poor and the rich.
A few years ago, McDonald's partnered with Visa to show us how McDonald’s employees could budget their money to make ends meet. The results were laughable.
In this sample budget, the person working at McDonald’s couldn’t even survive on a full month from the earnings at their job. They would be forced to work a second job to make ends meet. According to the U.S. Census data from 2013, the same year this sample budget was released, 13 million people worked multiple jobs.
This imaginary employee also paid $600 per month for rent (unrealistic for major American cities unless you live with multiple roommates), $20 per month for health insurance (unrealistic for any person living in the United States who isn’t using Medicaid), and had $150 car payment (Source: NASDAQ).
For a person who lives at home with their parents, this budget would allow them to live comfortably. However, it doesn’t account for student loans, $1.59 Trillion dollars spread out across 44.7 million borrowers as of today. It also doesn’t make any space for credit card debt, in which the average American keeps a balance of $8,398 across four credit cards. (Source: Debt.org).
Millions of Americans are unable to survive on their one or two job income and turn to credit cards in order to make it month to month, financing groceries, gas, or even other bills with insanely high-interest rates from their credit card.
Before the pandemic, Yahoo Finance reported 49% of Americans expected themselves to live paycheck to paycheck this year. Now with many businesses shut down, millions still unemployed, and a virus raging through the country due to impatience and ignorance, that number could be closer to 75% by the end of 2020.
What Does “Working Poor” Mean?
“The simultaneous rise of both the working poor and the non-working rich offers further evidence that earnings no longer correlate with effort.” -Robert Reich, Saving Capitalism, xiv
So what exactly does it mean to be “working poor” in the United States in 2020?
Working poor means that you make enough money where you don’t qualify for financial assistance from the government, but you also can’t afford quality programs within your health insurance provider that don’t require you to pay thousands of dollars out of pocket.
Working poor means bunking with roommates well into your adult life because none of you can survive on your own, even by working two or three jobs.
Working poor means choosing a bill to pay with your credit card so you can afford to put food on the table or nourish the addiction you’ve picked up due to the constant state of depression from how much debt you’ve accumulated, realizing it will take years to pay it off.
Working poor means feeling guilt every time you attempt to spend money on a leisure item or activity (clothing, entertainment, something that brings you a bit of happiness) because you could have used that money to pay additional on your student loans or credit card debt.
Working poor means you’re in a perpetual state of worry even after leaving work because you don’t make enough money. You constantly worry about getting enough hours to pay your bills and then worry about paying those same bills on time.
Working poor means having depression and anxiety but being unable to take time away to deal with these issues because there’s someone else who can replace you when you can’t do the job.
Who Are The Working Poor?
You are surrounded by America’s working poor. They are your neighbors. They are the people you aggressively honk at for not crossing the street faster. They are the people you yell at when a mistake is made with your Starbucks order. They are doing everything they can to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps”, as older people love to say.
As much as older generations want to tell us how easy we have it, we really don’t. To live in a major American city in 2020 it sometimes requires three sets of financial income to make sure the bills are paid. 78% of workers in the United States live paycheck to paycheck today (Source: CNBC).
Baby boomers were granted the opportunity to provide for their families with one income. College was free at many universities. Since their youth, the prices of housing and education have become astronomical to the point where if you don’t have a college degree you likely can’t obtain a job that pays you enough to survive.
Let me explain this in better detail. There are levels of wealth, especially in the United States. There are people who are homeless and live on the streets and there are people who are on the brink of that life. The working poor remain one paycheck away from not making ends meet each week.
The working poor is people like Mary, a Lyft driver who still accepted ride requests while going into labor. Lyft drivers average $11 per trip and the company doesn’t offer benefits or maternity leave as Mary is considered an independent contractor (Source: The New Yorker).
Working poor means getting to work by any means necessary, whether you have to walk or hitch a ride on your city’s bus system (if public transit hasn’t been severely cut).
Maybe you heard the story of James Robertson from Detroit a few years back? He walked more than half of his 21-mile commute to and from work each day for 10 years before someone saw his story and gifted him a car (Source: Detroit Free Press).
Those classified as working poor have made their fair share of financial blunders. However, those mistakes have become less forgivable compared to those of a wealthy person. While we’re trying to “pull ourselves up by our bootstraps’’ the powers that be are continuously lengthening the laces.
Pay wages have stagnated for our working-class while CEO’s, Presidents, and other company executives receive enormous salaries and bonuses each year. One only needs to look at the fall of Toys R’ Us as an example; the company filed for bankruptcy while closing stores but advocated for their executives to still be paid their bonuses.
A failing store that rewarded the failures of the people who drove it into the ground. Capitalism, as America knows it, has destroyed the American dream. Instead, it has implemented a system of greed that only benefits the people who do the least amount of work for the company.
The Government Has Failed Its Citizens
The world is crumbling before our very eyes, yet we’re supposed to keep moving as if life is normal. Oh, and by the way, you need to do these assignments with your child, submit them, and check-in with their teacher at 8:30 am or your kid will be marked absent from distance learning since you don’t want your child to contract a deadly virus at school.
How can we keep working on meaningless tasks at a time like this? Why are we expected to keep moving as if everything is “business as usual” right now? When you put profits and money over the well-being of people, you put added pressure on them to keep working while they’re sick.
This ultimately leads to more employees working while they’re sick — who wants to burn a day off when you can just work with the sniffles? Especially when most companies give employees a total of 10 days to take off of work for the purposes of vacation AND sick leave for the entire year.
Nothing about what’s happening in the world reflects “normal” at the moment. What’s happening in the world right now with COVID-19 is a moment in history. As our broken education system teaches the tragedy of the 9/11 attacks, schools will look back and use this as a teachable moment in 10 years.
But will they tell the full story? We’re witnessing a Presidential administration that has given up on the people and expects them to die. President Trump said it himself in his interview with Axios when questioned about the COVID-19 death numbers: “it is what it is” (Source: Axios).
In Florida, schools have been forced to re-open for the fall semester. At the time of this essay, Florida ranks second in the United States with positive cases of COVID-19. Schools in Georgia and Florida were both forced to shut down within days of opening due to students and teachers contracting the deadly virus.
So why did the schools need to reopen? Our school system serves more as childcare than it does an education tool.
Parents who are forced to go back to work need the schools open so they have free childcare. It’s a chain reaction; the economy can’t open if it doesn’t have workers, and workers can’t work if they don’t have someone to watch their children.
The Trump Administration, and Congress in general, decided their way of helping workers who were out of jobs (you know, with 40 Million Americans being out of work due to the pandemic) would be a one-time payment of $1,200 for individual taxpayers. After that, you’re on your own.
Instead of taking care of the citizens of this so-called great nation, as other countries have accomplished during the pandemic, America told its citizens that the stimulus package (including small business loans and direct payments) should last them 10 weeks (according to the Secretary of Treasury) and to get out there and get back to work during the reopening in May.
It has been 16 weeks since these comments were made. Unemployment claims come in at 1 million claims per week every week.
We’re nowhere close to a vaccine.
People with jobs that require you to operate in person (dubbed essential workers) are required to wear masks to work and hope that their community will wear masks and social distance to keep them safe.
COVID-19 has exposed the wage gap to an even bigger audience. Nobody in charge is doing anything to stop the fire (literally, our country is burning down) choosing instead to fan the flames.
Instead of coming to an agreement to keep the extra unemployment benefits going for those out of work, Congress went on vacation through Labor Day.
This administration has failed its citizens.
Our government has failed its citizens
Capitalism has failed the Americans who really make this country great.