Working poor is a term used to describe individuals who maintain full-time jobs but remain in poverty. Often, they have negative net worth and lack the cultural and social capital to escape their situations, although if they have negative net worth, someone must have been willing to extend them credit, a social capital advantage lacking in much of the third world.
A contrast against the ideal portrayed in Horatio Alger novels, wherein determination and a strong work ethic could lift a person from poverty into middle class comfort, the term "working poor" describes those who work hard by necessity yet do not escape poverty, although it they have a job and work hard, they have some of of the cultural and social capital to get ahead.
When wage controls such as minimum wages are not set, workers without marketable skills will often face low wages, harsh working conditions, and few opportunities to attain skills that would allow them to escape their undesirable situations, especially if libraries, schools and student loans are unavailable. Traditionally, before unionization and the child labor laws of the early 20th century, these individuals were manipulated into positions of debt (often as early as 12 or 13 years of age) by their employers. Laborers often lived in company towns and received wages that were deliberately set too low to cover their housing and board costs.
In 2004, the bulk of the working poor occupy unskilled and semi-skilled positions in the secondary labor market, predominantly in the service sector. Often, they work multiple part-time jobs which may require, in total, upwards of 80 hours per week of work. Often, these part-time jobs require full-time hourage (sometimes even more than 40 hours per week) but are classified by each of their employers as "part time" so benefits are not paid.
The working poor often live "paycheck to paycheck", so unexpected costs related to healthcare, automotive repairs, or other unanticipated events often bring them to financial ruin. Even an unexpected expense of $ 100, less than the cost of an average speeding ticket, can dramatically upset such a person's life. In The Working Poor: Invisible in America, David Shipler says that these people "may find jobs, but are forced to buy cars to get to them. When those cars break down, they skip payments on phone bills to pay for repairs. Late payments send credit ratings down, causing their interest rates to soar. The stress of financial pressure causes depression, which leads to missed work, to more missed payments, and so on".
The working poor rarely have adequate health coverage, and are frequently poorly educated. Many of them have no high school diploma; in some cases, this is at the parents' demand-- at 16, the child is expected to work full-time in order to support the family, and this makes it difficult, if not impossible, to complete high school.
One cannot deny that some proportion of the working poor are in their given situations as a result of decisions that did not increase the long term materialistic well being but may have been preferred at the time, but once an individual falls into this class, it is difficult to escape. Even with a strong work ethic and fiscal prudence, many of the working poor still lose ground, or still choose other values over materialism.
Job-training programs offered to low-income individuals can ameliorate this situation, by providing access to marketable skills. However, most lower-income individuals do not have the educational resources to swiftly change or expand their skill sets, and may have been given skills that, 5 years later, are useless. Some who utilize government-sponsored career courses and job placement programs find themselves working in entirely different occupations than what they were trained for.
- David Shipler, The Working Poor: Invisible in America, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2004.
Last updated: 05-21-2005 05:03:23