Business NH Magazine / JUN 2014
(Excerpted from the Magazine) Does America’s longstanding vision that work and reward go hand-in-hand still hold true today? … For millions of citizens born and raised in difficult circumstances, “working poor” is not an oxymoron. Five years after the Great Recession officially ended, the number of low-income workers in the United States has swelled to the highest rate in over 25 years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Fully half of American jobs now pay less than $33,000 per year and one in four pay poverty-level wages of $22,000 or less. The National Employment Law Project reports that 60 percent of all jobs lost during the Great Recession were in mid-wage occupations while 59 percent of jobs gained through 2012 were in lower-wage occupations; meanwhile, the number of high-income jobs lost and gained was unchanged at around 20 percent. As a consequence, Americans in the bottom income quintile now receive the smallest share of income–3.3 percent–since record-keeping began in the 1960s, according to the Census Bureau. In sharp contrast, the share of income gains flowing to the top 1 percent from 2009-2012 reached 95 percent, according to U.C. Berkeley economist Emmanuel Saez.
For the 27 million adults who are either unemployed or underemployed, and the 48 million people in working poor families who depend on some form of government assistance to get by, the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality reports that means-tested programs, excluding Medicaid, have remained essentially flat since the early 1990s at around $1,000 per capita per year. Only unemployment insurance and food stamps saw a marked increase during the Great Recession, although both are under continued assault in Congress.
New Hampshire is not immune to these trends. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, seven in 10 low-income families in NH work–two-thirds of them full-time. Of the nearly 150,000 working families across NH, one in five is defined as “low-income” with annual earnings below 200 percent of the federal poverty line, or less than $37,000 for a typical family of three, according to the Working Poor Families Project, a national initiative focused on state workforce development policies. More than 100,000 of NH’s 1.3 million residents currently live in low-income homes. Members of “working poor” families often have limited educational opportunities and attainment; work in service, manual labor, or retail jobs where supply outstrips demand; and are more often women, children, and people of color than the general public…
Although no group of citizens in NH is spared the reality–or the risk–of being part of the working poor, children and members of minority groups are particularly vulnerable. Around 50,000 NH children–one in five–are currently raised in low-income families where at least one parent works, and in nearly two-thirds of those families, the parent(s) works full time, according to the Kids Count Data Center, a project of the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Although the percentage of children in low-income working families in NH is noticeably less than the nationwide rate of 37 percent, other statistics suggest child wellbeing in NH is under threat. For example, the number of NH children living in poverty jumped by 30 percent between 2011 and 2012, for a total increase of 75 percent since 2007, according to the Carsey Institute at the University of NH.
Making matters worse, data from the National Center on Children in Poverty find that poverty status is frequently transmitted from one generation to the next, with nearly half of those raised in persistent poverty nationwide still poor at the age of 35 and raising poor families of their own. Meanwhile, less than four percent of children raised in poverty join the upper-middle class as adults, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts.
For Kathleen, work was always part of the plan but poverty was not. The Keene native, who has lived and worked in the Peterborough area for most of her adult life while raising her daughter, was determined to break from her hardscrabble past. “A lot of uprooting and going,” is how she sums up her childhood in rural New England. By the time she reached 8th grade, her family had lived in 26 different homes. It was not for a lack of trying to settle down.
“Dad was a very hard worker, double-shift man,” Kathleen says. “He worked in manufacturing, construction, paper mills, at a creamery, picking apples, but couldn’t settle down at a steady job.” With her mother in chronically poor health, “I felt like when I was 5 years old I was already being the adult in my house, mother-henning,” she says. Her father worked a stream of low-wage jobs and occasional temporary construction jobs that paid a better wage.. As a rule, luxuries were few. She recalls how her father saved to buy her favorite childhood toy. “Dad would go to the guys at the plant, get them to save their soda bottle caps so I could get a doll in exchange for the large number of required caps.”
Kathleen saw education as her pathway out of poverty. Neither of her parents made it past junior high and they regretted it, she says. Although money was always scarce, Kathleen managed five years of part-time community college, while working a slew of low-wage jobs, before transferring to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Two and a half years later, she proudly became the first member of her family to earn a Bachelor’s degree, cum laude.
Kathleen says her dad insisted on attending her college graduation in spite of considerable health problems of his own after a construction site accident left him a paraplegic on disability. She would later help sustain him during his 36 long years in a nearby nursing home, and he would sell his crafts to support her daughter’s education with “extras” that Kathleen could not afford, like sports and the occasional summer camp.
In spite of her college degree, Kathleen’s career did not pan out as expected. For one thing, there were family complications of her own to deal with. Six months after giving birth to her only child, her boyfriend left the scene for good, leaving her to juggle both childcare and long hours at a low-wage office job. Kathleen says the welfare office in Keene made a half-hearted attempt to pursue child support but came up short and decided to call it quits. She says she never took welfare or food stamps–“Always wanted to pay my own way.” Still, she says rent subsidies have been a Godsend over the years.
Inspired by her father, “a union man” at heart, Kathleen tried to organize her female colleagues into a union at one of her early retail jobs. She was unsuccessful and later was let go. She then took up administrative work for the local school district, but the pay never broke $9 an hour. Eventually, she found her way into a small-scale manufacturing company in southern NH, where she processed orders and provided technical support. Although she enjoyed the work, the occasional chats with her manager about a promotion never panned out.
Thirteen years after taking the job, the company retooled and Kathleen was let go. Her pay–the most she’s ever earned with modest benefits–was $11.50 an hour. Since that time, she has worked a range of temporary, part-time, and volunteer jobs in the area, and recently started receiving Social Security. She says she knows plenty of people who have it worse, but with $741 in Social Security after Medicare and supplemental premiums (a must ever since she had a brain tumor removed in 2004), “everything that comes in goes out–if not this month, then next month.” Right now, she has her eye on the June car insurance bill, hoping to scrape together enough money to stay safely on the road and keep volunteering and looking for part-time work to supplement Social Security.
At least there is her daughter’s future to look forward to. Like her father before her, Kathleen is proud of her daughter for making her way through the University of New Hampshire, thanks to a bundle of loans and financial aid. Although she knows there are no guarantees and the debt won’t go away anytime soon, Kathleen has high hopes that her daughter will be able to land a job commensurate with her degree in due course. Maybe then she can build a better life, Kathleen says.In the meantime, Kathleen is working to help move the needle on issues she feels are setting her daughter back, like the high cost of college and threats to Social Security down the road. Unlike the vast majority of low-wage workers surveyed, Kathleen has managed to log her share of volunteer hours on political causes and campaigns. “Started on presidential campaigns in the 1980s,” she says, before getting involved in local and state issues around 2000. Making time to volunteer while working and raising her daughter were challenging enough, but it wasn’t as hard as absorbing the costs of traveling to volunteer events in other parts of the state. “The [political] parties wouldn’t even pay my expenses when I volunteered,” she says, adding, “When I tried to get political work, they didn’t want me because I had only done volunteer work, no credible experience.”
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