America's new working poor struggling to make ends meet
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.