I’ve read a lot of comments lately that have disappointed me and confirmed one of my fears: the greatest sin in America is to be poor. I’ve always felt that someone who works full-time should be able to earn a living wage – no matter what they do to earn their pay. If a job needs to get done, someone will get paid to do it. If they can do it for 40 hours, they should be able to live above the poverty line without help from others. But I didn’t really understand how that all played out in the real world for a long time. The working poor are all around us but if you don’t know them, you’re not likely to get what it’s like. And because of the vitriol that I’ve read lately, I don’t blame them for not speaking up. It sounds like a lot us hate them.
Years ago, when I started dating Shannon who works in retail, I began to learn just how hard it is to make it for those hourly employees are lucky enough to piece together enough part-time jobs to get up to 40 hours a week. Most of the people I’ve met through her aren’t that lucky and are working multiple jobs that don’t get them up to that much. When she was in Minneapolis, she had an employee tell her that she was contemplating suicide: working multiple part-time jobs, riding the bus for hours and hours each day, not seeing her child, skipping meals. It was breaking her and she didn’t have any hope of things changing. I’ve met the single mom, thin as a rail and sick from skipping her meals and meds, who jumped in a dumpster in heels on her first day of work to get that job so that she could get her kids what they needed for school. The Taco Bell employee who had a great attitude and that Shannon hired and was able to get a few bucks more an hour. The grandmother who goes from selling clothes to serving diners with a great attitude and with little to show for it.
I’ve met so many good people (some of whom will read this) who don’t want a hand out, they want to work MORE, but they can only make it with multiple jobs and with government assistance. They’d like to earn a living wage but no one company will hire them full-time and their take home pay is too low. I’ve come to understand that when it comes to the working poor, I’m not paying the shortcomings of the workers. In fact, I’m paying for the shortcomings of the employers. They won’t pay a living wage and they’re passing on the cost of keeping their employees fed and housed to us: the taxpayers. They’re the REAL welfare recipients, not the working poor. Many of those same companies, like Burger King, are taking it one step further. They’re trying to incorporate overseas so they won’t have to share the cost of our roads and schools either.
Go ahead and say someone shouldn’t earn $15 an hour for flipping burgers or selling shoes. Say that your messed up order damns them to poverty. Accept the fact that someone is making MILLIONS upon MILLIONS of dollars and still expects you and I to make up the difference when it comes to making sure that the people delivering the goods or service can get food and shelter.
I know there are folks who just refuse work any job. They are out there. Lots of them. But I have gotten to know a lot more people who have done everything that we tell them to do in America: get that diploma, get a job and work hard and you can make it. That’s a lie for way too many Americans. For those of us who are in the middle class, they should expect our compassion and advocacy – not our derision and spite.