“The poorest people in our country today, on the whole, are
working every day. But they are earning wages so low that
they cannot begin to function in the mainstream… We have
thousands and thousands of people working on full-time
jobs, with part-time incomes.”
-The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
I was asked to see her while she was hospitalized for a flare of her autoimmune disease. She had been brought to the Emergency Room with seizures, a high fever, a rash that covered all of her body, and numerous swollen joints. She was a patient at a local arthritis clinic. Medicaid paid for her visits to the specialist and for most of her medicine. The clinic was run by one of the medical schools. Her doctors were young people still in training. Once they graduated a new batch of doctors took their place. They were not easily accessible after hours, and they rarely took the time to find out anything about the personal life of the patients they saw.
She was 27. One of several children whose mother did not have much time to educate. She became ill as a junior in high school. Until that time she had done well; some of her teachers had encouraged her to apply for college. Her disease put an end to her hopes. She was not able to get her high school diploma. She did odd jobs when she felt well enough to work. A pregnancy followed, which almost killed her and her child. She worked at a fast food place, again when she could; the months that her disease was controlled she put in 60 hours a week.
But she could never get ahead. The boss would not promote someone who could not be relied on to show up every day. When the state legislature ran out of money (because they cut taxes for the wealthy) her medical benefits were cut. The more money she made, the more the state expected her to contribute to pay for her medicine and blood tests. Her car broke down; she had to take a ninety minute bus ride one way to work. Responsible child care was hard to find. If her child got sick that meant losing a day’s wages.
She gave up. She stopped going to her doctor visits. She took her pills every other day. She hoped, against what she knew was inevitable, that she would remain in remission. She made her disease invisible, the same way that society had marginalized her and encouraged her to remain in the sidelines, unseen; ignored; an ugly sore that we did not want to admit existed.
The news was not good. Her kidneys were not working. She remained unconscious for three days. She developed pneumonia. Every day I would look for a relative that I could communicate with. No luck; there was a sister who took care of her child, but she had her own set of problems trying to make a living and she was hard to find.
When she was alert enough to talk I learned more about her. She had made an attempt to go back to school. She was able to pass her GED. There was a little bit of grant money for her to begin a health career. She worked fifty hours a week at minimum wage; she went to school another twelve; she could barely lift her head out of bed in the morning. There was no money to buy medicine, and no time to go to the clinic, nor did she have a way to get there. She clearly saw that she needed a degree, but something had to give. Her body did.
The hospital did everything it could. Many specialists were called in. Tens of thousands of dollars were spent treating a condition that could have remained under control had she been able to make an extra $300 a month. After six weeks of a never ending string of complications she died. I don’t know what happened to her child.
Minimum wage. A popular subject on any day. When President Obama wanted to mandate a sharp rise from the current level, the opposition maintained that jobs would be lost, and businesses would suffer. They added that most minimum-wage jobs were held by part-timers. That businesses would hire less workers if they were forced to pay more.
One of my friends, a very intelligent and accomplished professional, is dead set against an increase. He is a good man, and he worships his family. I asked him why he is opposed to what seems to me to be a matter of elementary fairness.
“I worked for the minimum wage as a teenager. This is where I found out that I needed to go to school so that I could make more.”
You did not work for minimum wage. I understand what you say. But you did not work for minimum wage.
“Of course I did.”
I believe that in those days, you worked for $4 an hour. But did you pay for your rent? Of course not. Did you have to ride the bus for 90 minutes to get to your place of work? God forbid that your parents would have allowed that! Were you working in an unsafe neighborhood, in a hazardous place of business? Not the white child from West County, not even a chance.
Allow me to continue. Your meals were free. You had two parents who loved you, nurtured you, and tucked you into a warm bed every night. You knew, with 100% degree of certainty, that had your job fallen through, you would still have a home, and a bed, and three hot meals a day. All of these comforts cost money. Your employer may have paid you $4 an hour; you were living as if you were making five, ten times that much.
I am not trying to put you down. I grew up with the same benefits you did. We were born on third base. After we were born our parents gently guided us down the path from third to home plate; they made sure that we scored a run. Yes, we expended a lot of effort. We studied hard; we work even harder. But this does not hide the fact: we were born on third base. We did not hit a triple.
Let me tell you what it is like to be born at home plate. You are one of five kids. Your father is nowhere to be seen. Your mom works 70 minimum-wage hours a week in order to pay the rent and buy food. You never had a pediatrician; if you got your immunizations you were lucky. No one ever read to you; there were no books in the house. You heard gunshots outside your home at least three days a week. You were cold in winter, and six months later you were unable to sleep due to the stifling heat.
Once you got to first base they took you to school. Your teacher barely knew your name; there were too many kids in the class. There were few books and fewer teaching materials. And the worst part: everyone expects you to fail. It’s the norm. If you do well the other kids beat up on you, and the teacher does not have the time to give you special attention.
Deal with all of this. Make it to second base. Bullying from the older kids. Your mom gets sick; now you have to go to work to help out. There is no way that you will be able to earn the grades and the test scores it takes to receive a college scholarship. When your grades drop no one seems to be upset. You are supposed to be poor and stupid. You begin to wonder if there is some truth to this. If you are a woman, you are constantly harassed and vilified by the neighborhood men. You do not feel safe. All of your friends have had a baby; they want you to join them.
For us to say that we made it, that everyone should make it as we did is to demonstrate an abysmal lack of knowledge of what life is like for poor people. If we could only send our kids to live in these households for a week; if they were forced to wait for a bus at 11PM in the middle of an unsafe neighborhood, maybe we would begin to understand what it’s like to make it to first base.
We have the chance to make a huge difference in the life of hundreds of thousands of people, at a minimal cost to us.
What holds us back?
This Post Has 12 Comments
One of your best writings.It is easy to give opinions and not look at the whole picture.I fully agree we were lucky and our kids are more.They should have a week inmersion into poverty as a summer course!To their advantage.
Thanks. I like what you say about it being easy to give opinions; we used to say “Con la boca es un mamey.” There’s no substitute for walking a mile in someone else’s shoes; I highly recommend it particularly for our children.
As usual you have brought an interesting perspective to a subject that affects the lives of so many people. The same people who complain about their hard earned dollars supporting “freeloaders” are often the ones opposed to raising the minimum wage.
Isn’t that curious? We tend to pick on those who we feel are just below our rank in life. Instead of giving them a hand we make it hard for them to reach our level. Why is that?
Agreed–one of your best (of consistently good) postings. I couldn’t have said it better, and I think of myself as a bit of a wordsmith.
Thanks. Coming from the an accomplished writer like you it means a lot.
We have not been dealt the same hand in life. We judge others by our own circumstance.
Great job. Keep the good work.
Ver, very well said!!
Some seem to be born with 3 strikes against them. It takes a lot to raise above that. I also believe the minimum wage needs to be raised. I also believe that business needs to step up too. I saw it starting to happen just before I retired, 18 years ago. Cutting positions and not giving good raises. I also see many of the young adults, who are working, not giving 100%. The bible said ” the poor will be with us always”. We still have to do what we can.
Let me start off by saying that I enjoy your writing and I believe that you are on the verge of a second career. I would also like to say in advance that I don’t have the answers to poverty in this country. With that being said I don’t believe rasing tbe minimum wage in the answer. First of all minimum wage was not meant to be the end result, it is for entry level work. It is a starting point. It is not meant to raise a family. Second if the minimum wage is raised to, say $10.00 an hour. Don’t you think that every business in the country would have to Raise what they charge dramatically, in order to pay that wage. What do you think a burger would cost, or a gallon of gas? When it’s all said and done the poor will be no better off. We will all just paying more. If I have an employee that has potential I give them an opportunity to make more and or promote them.
I don’t think anyone is expecting a higher minimum wage to eliminate poverty. It will help some people; according to the CBO 1 million people will escape its clutches. That sounds like a good start to me.
Think about it. If lower wages is what poor people need; if they will create more jobs, why not lower the minimum wage to $4 an hour? Then businesses could charge less for what they make; the economy would boom because people would buy more. Why do you think no one has proposed to take this step? Maybe because they’d be too ashamed to admit that this is what they want in public?
At current minimum wage, working 40 hours a week, a person would make $15,000 a year. Not enough to afford to rent an apartment, or eat, or pay for health care.
Maybe this wage was meant to be a starting point, but for 30% of the people who earn it, it is the ONLY source of income. How is anyone supposed to make it on this much? By working 3 jobs, and not being able to educate their kids properly because they’re so exhausted all the time. Your employee with potential will never be able to consistently demonstrate it. To make matters worse, these people who work at low wages are frequently treated unfairly by their supervisors; all sorts of demeaning remarks and sexual advances are tolerated because they have no alternatives.
There have been three increases in minimum wage in the past thirty years. Do you offer raises to your employees every 10 years? Would that be fair?
I have not been able to come up with any evidence, none, that past raises in minimum wage have adversely affected employment or ruinously raised prices. What is different about now?
What do we need to do to make this conversation unnecessary? Businesses need to make a commitment to pay a living wage to all of their employees. They need to repatriate the trillions of dollars that they have stashed away in foreign countries in order to avoid paying income tax. They need to use that money to provide a first class education, a warm home, healthy meals, and excellent health care to every child that’s born in this country. In exchange, if I were in charge, I would abolish all corporate taxes and, in 20 years, when these kids are educated, I would eliminate the minimum wage.
Give everyone a chance. If they blow it that’s their problem (because of human nature 10% or so will), but it is our sacred duty as human beings to give them a chance.
I love this opportunity to talk; I really, really appreciate that you have taken the time to comment. Dialogue is the key.
No one is able to understand what so many people (young and old alike) have to go through each and every day just to survive. Read the newspaper and watch the news can give us a glimpse into the poverty right here in St. Louis. It is so easy take for granted a warm house, food on the table and the love of parents to provide for us. I do not know what is the answer to these problems. Everybody has an opinion but no real answers to the problem. It can break your heart when you hear or read the way so many people have to live and try to survive.