America's new working poor struggling to make ends meet

Tue, Oct 30, 2012, 00:00

Having a job is no longer a guarantee of keeping poverty at bay, writes CARL O’BRIENin Aurora, Colorado

SOME ARRIVE in their cars. Many earn a monthly wage, though not a big one. Most are white and significant numbers live in the suburbs, though many other ethnic groups are also here in numbers.

What unites them is that many are scraping by as part of America’s new working poor.

The low-slung building at the Friends of St Andrew Hospitality Centre, in the blue-collar neighbourhood of East Colfax, Aurora, tells a story of survival in troubled economic times.

Michelle Fewell and her partner, Chris Johnson, are the latest arrivals seeking help.

They have made the long bus journey up from Houston, Texas, after hearing that job prospects were better in Colorado.

They are carrying all their possessions with them: two backpacks, a trolley bag, a small sum of money and some food stamps.

Johnson (34) has been working in construction jobs, while Fewell (38) has worked in real estate and as a store manager for various outlets. Any recent jobs have offered only limited hours and minimum wages.

“The pay for any jobs I’ve done was just ridiculous. You can’t support yourself on them, so we’re here to find better-paid work,” says Johnson. “We’re optimistic it will work out for us,” says Fewell, as she leafs through a local newspaper for job advertisements. “It’s God’s will.”

She worries that her appearance might make it difficult to find work. The veneer on her front tooth fell off but she can’t afford to get a replacement. “It will cost $500 [€388] to fix. My work involves dealing with the public – but this makes me look like a big crackhead,” Fewell jokes.

IN AURORA today, having a job is no guarantee of keeping poverty at bay. Volunteers estimate that at least half the people using food banks and other supports are working in some form of paying job.

“We find demand for assistance is greatest at the end of the month, when people’s pay cheques have run out,” says Judy Barrow, executive director of the Aurora Interchurch Task Force, a non-profit group that provides emergency assistance.

“They just need something to get by, to bridge the gap for a few days.”

Barrow tells of people who once were donors to the food bank now coming in search of support, or middle class people who are in ndeed but still find it difficult to ask for help.

“I’ve had grown men cry in the lobby here,” says Barrow. “They are so humble, they’ve never asked for anything.”

THE SITUATION in Aurora mirrors the national picture. Demand for assistance from food banks and other centres rose by some 44 per cent between 2007 and 2009. Many of these households included family members who were working.

There are jobs, but most are poorly paid. Low-wage jobs accounted for just over 20 per cent of job losses during the recession. Since employment started growing in recent times, low-paid jobs accounted for almost 60 per cent of all job growth.

ACCORDING TO the most recent data available from the census, one-third of the population – just over 100 million people – have annual incomes at or below the poverty line and are struggling to make ends meet every month.

These figures will pose a headache for whoever is elected president next week. Jump-starting economic growth is an urgent priority – but how do you ensure that the jobs that are created pay a decent wage and provide enough hours to help people survive?

Most of the economic debate on both sides has focused on protecting the middle class, but there has been little emphasis on those trying to climb the ladder out of poverty.

On the streets off East Colfax, signs of economic stress abound. There are shops with names like “EZ Pawn” and “Jewlery and Loan”, as well as a heavily fortified outlet with iron bars that offers “10 per cent loans”.

Just across the road, at the junction of East Colfax and Dayton Street, is a group of casual labourers – Hispanic men mostly – who are waiting at the side of the road in the hope that a contractor will come by in a pick-up truck.

In the chilly afternoon sun, Dale Morris is standing outside the Friends of St Andrew Hospitality Centre, holding a brown paper bag containing a packed lunch.

He has seen days of promise, and days of darkness.

The 46-year-old had a scholarship to college when he was younger and worked in various decent jobs, such as teaching physical education and special education.

More recently, Morris has worked in a succession of low-paid jobs, the last of which was in a dog-food factory. After being hit by a car a few months ago, he now walks with a limp and is struggling to find work. He once had a house, three cars and horses, he says, but lost it all.

Drink, he says, is a constant temptation whenever he has money in his hand these days.

‘It’s day-to-day living,” says Morris, who is a native American. “But if something catastrophic happens – like an injury or death in the family – you can lose everything.”

It’s a familiar refrain for many of those helping people at risk.

“Most of the people just need a hand-up,” says Judy Barrow. “They need a chance of getting a decent, good-quality job. At the end of the day, it is the only route out of poverty.”