Idiots Guide: 5 Soul Crushing Problems facing the American Working Poor

According to current statistics there are approximately 12 million hardworking, noble American citizens who have become all too familiar with the ‘working poor’ lifestyle. It’s the dirty little secret written in fine print located near the bottom of the capitalist manifesto. When people say that they’re ‘comfortable’ financially speaking, what they are really saying is that ‘We don’t have to worry about every dollar we spend’. Unfortunately, millions of Americans are forced to do exactly that. The fact of the matter is that the world’s best accountants have nothing on the average working mother of three when it comes to creative household financing. The problem at the root of this issue is that ‘income’ is not constitutionally bound to keep up with cost of living increases. Millions of people simply don’t earn enough to stay afloat, and certainly not enough to get ahead. We have become largely a nation of ‘In-Betweeners’. Not earning enough to live ‘comfortably’  while not being ‘poor’ enough to get relevant assistance either. Welcome to the ‘middle class’ squeeze play. Cost of living expenses are growing at a rate more steadily than income is increasing (Inflation). The harsh result of this is that people find themselves riding a financial  hamster wheel. Consistently behind on living expenses while working full-time at the same time. That is the definition of ‘working poor’ in America. In effect, living ‘paycheck to paycheck’.  This list highlights five, though certainly not all, of the  discouraging aspects of the working poor.

working poor oxymoron

#5. Borrowing from Peter to pay Paul.

Fact: 77 percent of all Americans are now living paycheck to paycheck at least half of the year. 

As the cost of living continues to outgrow wages, it is common among the working poor to suffer from cash flow issues. Often times workers are paid every two weeks. What happens when certain bills are due in the space between paychecks? Borrowing happens. There are more ‘Payday Loan’ businesses (over 20,000) in the United States than McDonald’s franchises (14,267). There is a very good reason for that. My mother used to call it ‘Borrowing from Peter to pay Paul’. This is a process by which people are spending their next paycheck in the week(s) before they actually receive it. This is known as the ‘My paycheck is already spent’ syndrome. The feeling of pride and accomplishment that a given payday should engender, is often replaced by discouragement, and malaise. This is in addition to the feeling that one is working simply to pay bills. As the percentage of discretionary income fades into oblivion, so to does the perceived potential for happiness.

basic needs

#4. The Absurdity of Choice.

Fact:  Half of all American families earn $500 or less per week.

When income is barely sufficient, if at all, there comes a time in almost every month that the working poor have to make hard choices about priority spending. An example of this is the conundrum surrounding paying the past due energy bill (Gas, Electric, etc) or paying for weekly groceries. Besides the absurdity of it all, it’s a very real situation. Clearly, the lights need to stay on, so the cuts must come out of the food budget. This is highly discouraging for a person who works full-time, yet has to sacrifice their families nourishment needs. As a result it is not uncommon that a ‘Little Caesar’s’ $5 pizza will have to suffice for family dinner, more than once. The McDonald’s dollar menu exists for a reason. Luckily most kids are happy to see those clown colors, and they generally like the shit food, however, most parents understand that it’s shit food and a potential health problem. (See High Fructose Corn Syrup as it relates to Childhood Obesity). Trust me, there are plenty of parents who are unhappy about feeding their children Happy Meals.

make it month

#3. ‘I can’t afford to be sick, I’ve got bills to pay.’  

Fact: U.S. Census Bureau:  The middle class is taking home a smaller share of their overall income than ever before in recorded history.

A chronic problem of the working poor is the reality that not having the money to seek and/or receive medical treatment doesn’t necessarily mean that you don’t need to seek and/or receive medical treatment. Avoiding routine medical care is a problem. Many people find themselves putting things off, and/or trying to fix medical problems on their own. People shouldn’t have to worry that getting sick will disrupt a families ability to eat. One out of every four American workers has a job that typically does not offer paid sick days and/or sick leave. Therefore having to take time off for sickness can become a major financial decision. More often than not taking a sick day isn’t a viable option. Affordable healthcare is something that our government is working to improve, but that is only part of the issue. Being afraid to get sick because you can’t afford to miss a day of work is lunacy. The irony being financial stress often contributes to poorer health. The cycle is vicious, and the reality is harsh.

#2. ‘There’s no Romance without Finance’.

Fact: 85 percent of American workers experienced at least one labor market problem (unemployment, involuntary part-time employment or low wages (defined as less than $342.87 per week).

Here’s the dirty little secret…It’s true that money can’t buy happiness, it’s also equally  true that it’s hard to be happy when you don’t have enough of it. Basically, people don’t need money to make them happy, but they do need enough money to pay for the resources they need to feel the relief that leads to happiness. Relationships are difficult even in the best of financial circumstances, add the complication of financial stress to that mix and you have a critical ingredient in breakup stew. When parents are unhappy, children become unhappy, and the road of slow descent into a fractured family is well paved. Then there are the couples who are forced not to have children because they simply can’t afford to do so. The irony is perverse, the reality as cold as it gets.

working poor 2

#1. ‘Living in Constant Fear…’

Fact: 40 percent of all Americans have $500 or less in their family savings.

The working poor live in a constant state of fear of losing what little they have, due to an unforeseen problem lurking around the next corner. Turning the key on the car ignition and hoping that it starts because a serious car problem/expense will likely set the family back something serious. Not to mention it might jeopardize the commute to the job that barely pays enough to cover the bills. Worrying about the heater, the air conditioner, the washer and dryer, you name it. Any large unexpected expense is a potential knock out blow to the gut. Financial stress eating away at a soul like cancer. Falling behind even one month can cost six months to catch back up. The reality is that all of this stress is a  by-product of a financial system that is rigged. Americans live in a system where the average American CEO earns approximately 350 times as much as the average American worker that they employ. The difference between now and the 1950’s is that employers simply don’t want to pay their workers wages that are equal or greater than inflation. The average American worker suffers because the CEO typically prefers a 5th home in France, and/or keeping their shareholders happy to paying their workers enough so that they might get ahead. Their excuses are duly noted, and I for one, am not buying any of it. The bottom line is simple, and to be clear these are 1st world problems, however, a full time worker should reasonably earn enough so that their basic cost of living expenses should be covered, at a minimum. There are of course outliers to this tenet, but for the most part, ‘working poor’ should be an oxymoron, and hopefully soon, a thing of the past.

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