Why Jobs Are Not the Only Solution to Poverty

Just because someone lives in poverty, that does not mean they don’t work or don’t try to work. 

Some believe if a person works hard, he or she will succeed. And if they don’t succeed, that means that they’re not working hard. Success is an overwhelmingly loaded word that doesn’t always get perceived the way it should be. Success could encompass something as grand as getting that corporate promotion at work, to something as relatable as comfortably raising children and keeping them safe.   

So while achieving that royal status at work is something to feel proud of, so is feeding your family and teaching them the importance of humanity, and setting life goals. 

By now, you might be wondering what I am trying to get at here …

Take a look at the average pay of some lower-skilled jobs. On average, caregivers and cashiers make $23,000 a year, janitors make $26,000 a year, and fast food workers make $9.00 an hour.

According to a 2016 survey conducted by the American Enterprise Institute, nearly two-thirds of respondents did not believe that most poor people held steady jobs. But in reality, that same year, most nondisabled working-aged adults living in poverty were, in fact, a part of the labor force. In addition, over one-third of respondents believed that most welfare recipients prefer to stay on welfare rather than get steady jobs. 

Most of the time in America, when a person sees another wrapped up in a blanket on the side of the road collecting every penny he or she can, that person wonders how he or she failed. In France, for example, the observer of the same situation wonders how the state failed him or her. 

The belief is that people living in poverty should work, because “they don’t,” and clock in as many hours as humanly possible since the pay for the jobs available to them is generally pretty low. But the fact is that millions of Americans work with little hope of finding job security and comfort. 

In the last few decades, there has been a rise in low-paying jobs that offer little to no benefits at all, and low certainty and job security, in America. So what is the real problem that falls at the feet of the decline of quality, paying, low-skill jobs? Is it those living in poverty and their willingness to work? No. 
The work itself is not what is believed to be the solution. That’s the problem. 

I want to put this highly talked-about dilemma into perspective with a story produced in the New York Times Magazine. When you have a moment, read the full article, Americans Want to Believe Jobs Are the Solution to Poverty. They’re Not—it is an excellent piece that dives even deeper into poverty, welfare, and what can be done to help.

In May, Vanessa finally secured a spot in public housing. But for almost three years, she had belonged to the “working homeless,” a now-necessary phrase in today’s low-wage/high-rent society. 

Vanessa works steady hours and likes her job, even the tougher bits like bathing the infirm or hoisting someone out of bed with a Hoyer lift. “I get to help people,” she said, “and be around older people and learn a lot of stuff from them.” Her rate fluctuates: She gets $10 an hour for one client, $14 for another. It doesn’t have to do with the nature of the work — “Sometimes the hardest ones can be the cheapest ones,” Vanessa said — but with reimbursement rates, which differ according to the client’s health care coverage. After juggling the kids and managing her diabetes, Vanessa is able to work 20 to 30 hours a week, which earns her around $1,200 a month. And that’s when things go well.

If single mother Vanessa Solivan clocked more hours, it would be difficult for her to keep up with all the ways she manages her family: doing the laundry, arranging dentist appointments, counseling the children about sex, studying their deep mysteries to extract their gifts and troubles. Yet our political leaders tend to refuse to view child care as work. 

When it comes to people like Vanessa, the question is not, Can I land a job? (The answer is almost certainly, Yes, you can.) Instead the question is, What kinds of jobs are available to people without much education? By and large, the answer is: jobs that do not pay enough to live on.

In recent decades, the nation’s tremendous economic growth has not led to broad social uplift. Economists call it the “productivity-pay gap” — the fact that over the last 40 years, the economy has expanded and corporate profits have risen, but real wages have remained flat for workers without a college education. Since 1973, American productivity has increased by 77 percent, while hourly pay has grown by only 12 percent. If the federal minimum wage tracked productivity, it would be more than $20 an hour, not today’s poverty wage of $7.25. American workers are being shut out of the profits they are helping to generate.

People who work should not have to live in poverty and struggle to simply live, or to raise and take care of a family. So many people who want to work, or do and just don’t make enough in wages, are found on the streets every day including single mothers and single fathers, formerly incarcerated individuals, drug users who struggle with addiction, retired bus drivers whose pensions were squandered, veterans, and the list goes on.

And if we respect hard work, then we should reward it, instead of deploying this value to shame the poor and justify our unconscionable and growing inequality. “I’ve worked hard to get where I am,” you might say. Well, sure. But Vanessa has worked hard to get where she is, too.

You might be wondering why we are sharing this unique point of view on American poverty with you. There is no quick fix to change the way people and communities view poverty. Jobs within the reach of the poor will hopefully improve with regards to pay and benefits. But until then, it is important that people can continue to develop their skills and their education. What they need is not to work harder, longer hours. What they need are basic literacy skills and workforce training—both of which are readily available across the country.

According to the National Institute for Literacy, 43 percent of adults with the lowest literacy levels live in poverty, and 70 percent of adult welfare recipients have low literacy levels. There is a clear correlation between more education and higher earnings, and between higher educational scores and higher earnings.

Workforce DEVELOPMENT and Adult Literacy

Help your community rise out of poverty and get #LoudForLiteracy. It is as simple as going to your local literacy and workforce development programs in your area, grabbing some flyers and brochures, and plastering the town with such valuable and helpful sources of help for these individuals. Remember, just because somebody is lying in the street does not mean they don’t want to work and change their life. And just because a person like Vanessa is living on welfare and lives in public housing does not mean that she doesn’t work and doesn’t want to live a stable life to help her children grow up to be successful, goal-setting adults with bright futures. 

We all can collectively help them get on their feet and turn pages to improve their lives.


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