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A constant struggle to make ends meet
Working poor in Bush's America

By Alan Maass | June 4, 2004 | Page 2

"WORKING...AND poor." Sounds like a headline from Socialist Worker. But it was a cover story in the bosses' mouthpiece, Business Week magazine last month--a recognition of the scandal that neither George Bush nor his Democratic "opponents" have much to say about.

According to a recent report by the Russell Sage and Rockefeller Foundations, some 34 million workers--more than a quarter of the U.S. workforce--earn less than $8.70 an hour. At full time, that works out to an annual income below the federal government's poverty line for a family of four.

In other words, fully one-quarter of the U.S. workforce doesn't get paid enough, even for full-time work, to keep their families out of poverty without help--other household members working, a second or third job and so on.

This is the "working poor." All told, 43 million people live in low-income working families with children, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. That's families with employed workers. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly two-thirds of households below the poverty line have one or more family members working.

Adding to the burden is the fact that those with the worst-paid jobs are also less likely to have decent benefits--if they have any at all. Thus, 36-year-old Katrina Gill makes $10 an hour as a certified nurse's aide in Oregon, but as Business Week points out, like so many other health care workers, she doesn't get health care benefits from her job. So Katrina and her husband have to spend $640 a month for health insurance--out of an income that was barely enough to go around before that.

Stories like these expose the reality behind the politicians' rhetoric about a recovering economy. For tens of millions of Americans, it's a relentless, miserable struggle to make ends meet from week to week.

"I feel like I'm in a nightmare," 36-year-old Edward Plesniak, who lost his union job as a janitor in Pittsburgh when the contractor fired all union workers and started operating nonunion, told Business Week. "And I can't wake up."

According to economists, there is a recovery underway, and workers will feel the benefits soon enough. But wages, especially at the poorer end of the workforce, haven't moved. This "recovery" is selective--most of the gains are flowing toward profits and higher productivity.

Even if the jobs picture begins to turn around, that won't necessarily have much of an impact on the lives of the working poor. According to the Department of Labor, of the 277,000 workers that were added to private payrolls in March, two-thirds were in low-wage industries--retail trade, restaurants, janitorial services, home health nursing. In other words, many of the new jobs that are being created during this recovery aren't worth getting out of bed for.

Meanwhile, Congress is dragging its feet on new proposals to raise the minimum wage. The minimum wage was raised twice in the 1990s, but once inflation is taken into account, its value is now at the same level as it was before the hike. Since 1968, the real value of the minimum wage has dropped by 40 percent. If it had only kept pace with inflation, the minimum wage today would be $8.46 an hour today, not $5.15.

As Business Week summarized, tens of millions of people in the U.S.--the richest country in the history of the world--endure "a netherworld of maximum insecurity, where one missed bus, one stalled engine, one sick kid means the difference between keeping a job and getting fired, between subsistence and setting off the financial tremors of turned-off telephones and $1,000 emergency-room bills that can bury them in a mountain of sub-prime debt."

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