January 28, 2007
The Downward Spiral of Poverty
Have you ever wondered why so many people have to struggle just to make ends meet? Nickel and Dimed, by Barbara Ehrenreich, attempted to give the American public a window into the life of our society’s lower class. It gave a viewpoint that included both the mindset of the workers and an educated analysis of their situation as a whole. Although many working poor believe that they are responsible for their situations, there are several factors outside of their control, such as the hidden costs of financial difficulties, competition over limited resources, and a lack of education that all contribute to their continuing economic difficulties.
There are many costs of being poor that are often unseen by the higher classes. Unlike Ehrenreich in her poverty experiment, most people who actually live in poverty do not have start-up money that allows them to circumvent these hidden costs. Not having the money to make a deposit for an apartment can force them to live in hotels with weekly rates. These hotels are almost always significantly more expensive over time, but because they do not require a large deposit they are one of the few choices available. Once she found lodgings in Minnesota, Ehrenreich paid $255 per week to stay at an inn (151) . Not having the money to buy in bulk also increases costs, especially the costs of food. In fact, many poor don’t have the choice of cooking their own food because they can’t afford to buy the ingredients, utensils, and appliances necessary to do so. Another hidden cost of being poor is a lack of mobility. The middle and upper classes take having their own vehicle to drive for granted. The workers of the lower class don’t always have that luxury. Cars are expensive to buy and operate, and maintenance costs can be extreme. The mobility needed to get to and from jobs can limit a worker’s options. Where public transportation exists it is often inadequate. Bus routes don’t go everywhere, and their schedules can make it even more difficult to get to a specific place on time. Timing can be everything when so many people want the same jobs or living spaces.
The fact that there are so many low-wage workers means they are forced to compete with one another. Rents increase because the supply is smaller than the demand. Housing is usually too expensive for the poor because the rich can afford to pay more. “When the rich and the poor compete for housing on the open market, the poor don’t stand a chance” (Ehrenreich 199) . In urban areas space is almost always limited, and the rich are able to afford higher rents because they have higher wages. Employers don’t have to offer the working poor higher wages because regardless of how little they pay, there will be people who are desperate enough to work for it. Even when work isn’t properly compensated by pay, jobs are filled. There are an estimated
11 million illegal workers in the United States, many of whom are willing to work for less than the national minimum wage of $5.15 an hour (Illegal
Some argue that the working poor actually have almost complete control over whether or not they remain impoverished.
Poverty is more than a lack of income. It is also the consequence of specific behaviors and decisions. The 2001 Census data clearly show that dropping out of high school, staying single, having children without a spouse, working only part time or not working at all substantially increase the chances of long-term poverty. Certain behaviors are a recipe for success. Among those who finish high school, get married, have children only within a marriage and go to work, the odds of long-term poverty are virtually nil. (Bailey) However, it is important to remember that these factors that are likely to lead to poverty are not always strictly choices. Jobs are not always available, and many people have children by accident. It is very rare for someone to have such complete control over every portion of their life.
Another factor that not only makes it more difficult for the working poor to earn more money, but also contributes to their misunderstanding of the underlying cause, is a lack of education. Poverty can force teenagers to drop out of school in order to work so they can support their families.
Non-fluent English speakers attempting to go through the public school system in the United States face the challenge of attempting to learn in a foreign language. Even assuming that students from low-income families are able to graduate from high school, higher education poses additional problems. The cost alone can deter many people from going to college. In
2006-07 the estimated average annual tuition for a two-year public college was $2,272 (Cost of College) . To be considered below the poverty line in 2007, an individual living alone must make less than $10,210 per year (2007 Federal Poverty Guidelines) . That means the average person living below the poverty line and attending a two-year college would be paying over 20% of their annual income to do so. For those who can afford it financially, the addition of schoolwork and the necessity of attending classes at certain times can make scheduling difficult. In the case of workers whose shifts vary each day, conflicts between work and college are common. A lack of education among the working poor prevents them from acquiring higher-paying jobs and limits their understanding of the underlying causes of their economic situation.
While it’s true that people’s actions can have a major impact on their lives, there are situations in poverty that create such a downward spiral that they are almost impossible to escape from. Although the working poor of the United States are more likely to blame their situations on their own personal shortcomings rather than outside influences, it is likely that the latter is far more influential in certain areas. With more emphasis placed on educating the poor, and especially on preventing teens from dropping out of school, it would be possible to give them a chance to finally break the cycle and rise out of the lower class.
2007 Federal Poverty Guidelines. 24 Jan. 2007. United States Department of Health and Human Services. 26 Jan. 2007.
Bailey, Blake. How Not to Be Poor. 15 Jan. 2003. National Center for Policy Analysis. 25 Jan. 2007. <http://www.ncpa.org/pub/ba/ba428/>
Cost of College. CollegeBoard. 25 Jan. 2007.
Ehrenreich, Barbara. Nickel and Dimed. New York, NY: Owl Books, 2001.
Illegal Workers. 8 Mar. 2006. Common Dreams. 22 Jan. 2007.