Since its beginnings, the American culture has idolized rags-to-riches stories and claimed to be the “land of opportunity,” icing over dirty secrets of racism, oppression and poverty. These same secrets, however, continue to plague our country — the working poor account for a large portion of the impoverished in the United States today. The official poverty rate in the United States in 2006 was 12.6 percent — 36.5 million individuals.
Many claim the impoverished simply aren’t trying hard enough to improve lives or working hard enough to support their families. After spending any time with the poor, however, it is easy to see that this argument simply does not fit reality. Instead, racism, a failed education system, unlivable wages and a lack of services for the poor all contribute to the continued plight of the working poor.
In the United States, a single parent with two children is considered at poverty level if she makes less than $1,353.50 a month. Working 40 hours a week at minimum wage in Ohio will earn $1,096.00 in a month; moreover, these jobs rarely include benefits.
The situation only worsens for immigrant families and women. Racist attitudes and language barriers often relegate immigrants, especially those from central and South America, to sub-minimum wage jobs with no benefits, almost nonexistent job security and no right to unionize. Women, especially single parents, face even further barriers to work. Child care is very expensive and the financial and time pressures of managing a family make holding a full-time job very hard.
I live at a Catholic Worker House in Chicago that provides a home to working homeless families. The five families here are all headed by mothers who fled abusive relationships and were unable to support their children. All of the women were working and yet homeless.
Ana* has working papers and speaks English well, but her job at McDonalds wasn’t enough to cover the rent. She and her four children have been living in shelters for several months. Aurelia* would like to go back to her old job, although it pays on commission and does not offer her a full-time schedule. But she cannot find affordable child care for her 3-year-old son. Isabela* has been living with us for a few months and is taking advantage of the time her kids are at school to take classes in child care; she plans to start a home daycare as soon as she can afford to move to an apartment of her own. If she hadn’t lost her home and moved into our shelter, however, how could she have found time to become a certified caregiver? Instead she would be struggling to provide for her four teenagers.
These few stories provide the smallest window into the realities of being a single mother living in poverty. Of all homes with children headed by single mothers, 28.3 percent are below the poverty line. The statistics are even more striking for Hispanic families: 36w percent of single-mother Latino families live in poverty. The statistics also show us that the poverty rate among single parent homes with a wage earner is almost equal to that of the demographic as a whole.
Having a job by no means assures that one will escape poverty.
If we want the United States to truly be a land of opportunity, we need to deal with the issues that make rising out of poverty so hard.
Available, affordable child care would enable many moms to hold a job, but if these jobs pay less than, or even equal to, minimum wage, it will not be enough to change their circumstances. Instead, better access to education and workers’ organizations will be keys to giving people a chance.
*Names were changed to protect confidentiality.
Ellen Euclide is a senior Spanish and economics major who is working at Su Casa Catholic Worker House in Chicago. Contact her at [email protected]