Some weeks, RaShaun Rodgers works 50 hours at his two jobs. Other weeks, he works fewer than 10.
His unpredictable schedule, along with his $8 hourly wage, makes it nearly impossible for him to support his 4-year-old son, or even provide for himself. He relies on $170 a month in food stamps, as well as Medicaid, to make ends meet.
The Milwaukee resident puts in up to 30 hours a week as a sales assistant at Old Navy. He recently added a second job as a crew member at Wendy's, where he hopes to train as a manager later this year. He's looking for a single, full-time job, but hasn't landed anything yet.
"Sometimes I work full-time hours, but at part-time pay," said Rodgers, 24. "If I'm working hard, I shouldn't have to rely on anyone for assistance. I hate depending on the government."
Like millions of other Americans, Rodgers is working, but still poor. A combination of meager pay and insufficient hours leaves these folks unable to get by, much less move up the economic ladder.
Rodgers is part of a growing movement of low-wage workersfighting for higherpay. Some companies, including McDonald's(MCD), Wal-Mart(WMT) and T.J. Maxx(TJX), have recently agreed to increase their hourly rates to at least $10 an hour.But employers would have to boost pay to a minimum of $12 an hour for families to become more self-sufficient, said Ken Jacobs, chair of the University of CaliforniaBerkeley Center for Labor Research and Education.
Related: Will Hillary Clinton support a $15 minimum wage?
Until then, many working families continue to collect government benefits. A quarter of those receiving food stamps live in households where at least one person works 30 or more hours a week, according to the center's research. Some 21% of people receiving cash assistance from the federal government are in working families.
Many of these folks are employed in fast food and retail, butthey are also home health care workers, pre-school teachers and waitresses, said Sarah Halpern-Meekin, an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who co-wrote"It's Not Like I'm Poor," a new book on struggling working families. Since their hours often fluctuate, many of these low-wage workers also are subject to great shifts in income each week.
Years ago, low-wage workers were usually teenagers looking to make a few extra bucks. Now, these workers are in their 30s, on average, and provide more than half of their family's income, Jacobs said. And more are educated, with a growingnumber having attended college and somewithbachelor's degrees.
Related: It's expensive to be poor
Jemaire Steward, 37, is the sole breadwinner for his wife and two young sons, ages 3 and 1. His work schedule varies between 0 and 70 hours a week as a chef at a casual seafood restaurant in the Washington D.C. area, where he makes $10.10 an hour. He is also on call at other restaurants in hopes of securing another paycheck.
Still, his wildly erratic hours left him making only $8,000 last year, he said. His family receives food stamps and Medicaid and is facing eviction from their one-bedroom apartment in Northeast D.C. He has applied unsuccessfully for jobs at hospitals, hotels and other eateries, hoping to get a higher wage and full-time hours. But employers balk when he asks for $15 an hour, he said.
Related: These workers are striking for $15 an hour
Even having two workingparents isn't enough tolift some families out of poverty.
Melinda Robinson and her husband, Romero, both have jobs. He works full-time as a cabinet builder for a small business, taking home about $1,000 a month after taxes. She works part-time at Taco Bell for $9 an hour.
Together, she estimates the couple made about $27,000 last year, which wasn't enough to support their six young children solely through their wages. They receive $825 a month in food stamps, and she and the children are on public health insurance. The family also received a tax refund, which included an Earned Income Tax Credit worth about $9,500, which went toward buying beds and clothes for the kids and catching up on their monthly rent.
"We are working Americans and we deserve so much better," said Robinson, 38, from Kansas City, Missouri. "We all deserve a livable wage."
CNNMoney (New York) First published May 7, 2015: 6:04 PM ET
The Working Poor Summary
SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics. This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of The Working Poorby David K. Shipler.
The central premise of David Shipler’s sobering book The Working Poor: Invisible in America is that no one who works hard should be poor. The working poor are those whose labor is critical to American life (meaning, American comfort) — those making clothing in sweatshops, food pickers, assembly line workers, immigrants in various, ignominious jobs – and yet, are heinously underpaid and undervalued for their service. They will always work hard, and they will always remain pour, states Shipler, unless change is prioritized.
The nature of the changes that Shipler recommends is as complex at times as the underlying questions surrounding the existence of poverty itself, or homelessness. This will prove refreshing to many readers, although it may be discouraging to others. Those tired of platitudes and simple solutions to complicated problems will find it a novel change. However, while The Working Poor can at times view itself as a methods book, it ultimately works better as an anthology of stories of those afflicted by poverty.
There are two primary visions regarding American prosperity and poverty that Shipler dismantles. The first is the tried and true vision of the American Dream, i.e., anyone who is willing to work hard will have success, and possibly even wealth. They will be able to achieve their dreams, by default of pursuing them within America’s borders.
The second is that wherever poverty exists, it is the fault of society. It is this clear-cut binary that Shipler takes issue with. It is not that either of these explanations are wrong. Poverty exists for both of these reasons, but there is far more behind the problem, and by extension, the myriad solutions. Shipler’s comprehensive review of the factors that can and do lead to poverty is vast. The Working Poor argues that one of the greatest impediments to social progress is taking too reductive a view of expansive issues.
The political process produces leaders who need to find solutions to problems that will, ideally, not cause discord among their constituencies, but that will also work easily and affordably. By pretending that a problem has only one cause, it becomes easier to sell the idea that there must also be one solution. Inevitably, when the “obvious” solution fails, it is back to the drawing board, with no relief for those most affected by poverty. When a system is “rigged,” according to Shipler, there is no amount of hard work performed by those inside the system that necessarily improves their station in society.
Much of The Working Poor focuses on the victims of the system. The book comprises a great deal of absolutely heartbreaking anecdotes. A woman named Caroline struggles mightily to provide for her disabled daughter, Amber. Caroline slaves away in dead-end job after dead-end job in an effort to provide the necessities. She faces insurmountable, escalating medical crises and battles depression as her struggle deepens and her quality of life dwindles. Caroline, unable to afford dental care, eventually loses all of her teeth. Finally, Caroline’s story does not end in triumph. Rather, she nearly loses Amber, despite the work she has done and the sacrifices she has endured just to scrape by.
Every story in The Working Poor is equally unsettling. This allows Shipler to achieve one of the book’s major goals: these working poor are no longer invisible. They have names faces, histories, families, dreams, and situations beneath which they are absolutely crushed. The working poor are a people without hope, given the framework in which they are forced to participate. By inviting the reader to view the text through such a personal lens, Shipler is able to show the view of “Get a job, you bum” that too many Americans share for what it is: repulsive, unproductive, and a substantial roadblock to true change.
However, while The Working Poor succeeds greatly in documenting the challenges faced by its subjects, it does not entirely hold up to scrutiny when it comes to Shipler’s theorizing. Despite his aversion to victim blaming, many of his philosophies do that very thing. Ultimately, the book falls victim to his own statement that the problem of poverty is massively complex, and cannot be understood and solved without innumerable answers. Of course, innumerable answers are beyond the scope of any one work.
Above all, The Working Poor may serve as an important conversation starter for people who have long considered the problems of poverty to be intractable to the point of hopelessness and apathy.