“Poverty is the worst form of violence.” Gandhi
Researchers Mark R. Rank and Thomas A. Hirschl did a long-term study which followed 4,800 households from 1968 to 2011. They followed groups of people from ages 25 to 60 in order to get a sense of how many people will fall into poverty and extreme poverty within their lifetimes. "Rather than an uncommon event," Rank says, "poverty was much more common than many people had assumed once you looked over a long period of time."
“Our results indicate that the occurrence of relative poverty is fairly widespread. Between the ages of 25 and 60, 61.8 percent of the population will experience at least one year of poverty, whereas 42.1 percent will experience extreme poverty. Furthermore, 24.9 percent of the population will encounter five or more years of poverty, and 11.4 percent will experience five or more years of extreme poverty.”
On a campaign stop, Jeb Bush said:
“My aspiration for the country — and I believe we can achieve it — is 4 percent growth as far as the eye can see. Which means we have to be a lot more productive, work-force participation has to rise from its all-time modern lows, means that people need to work longer hours and through their productivity gain more income for their families. That’s the only way we’re going to get out of this rut that we’re in.”
According to Bush, we’re having some economic problems — slow economic growth, low worker productivity, and Americans families who aren’t bringing in enough income. According to Bush, the individual behavior of American workers is to blame for these problems. Ultimately, for Bush and others like him, poverty can be explained away by attributing it to the failure of low-income people’s individual work ethic. Bush’s rhetoric may get him the Republican nomination but as an explanation for our economic problems it fails miserably. And it fails precisely because it focuses on the individual behavior of workers, rather than the economic and political institutions within which they find themselves.
In Minneapolis, Neighborhoods Organizing for Change (NOC) published a report on the challenges workers there face when providing for their families. NOC surveyed more than 500 hourly workers in North Minneapolis about their work schedules, compensation, and benefits like paid sick days. Fifty-one percent of the workers NOC surveyed make $10 an hour or less. “Nearly 40 percent of workers surveyed are working part-time schedules, which is 34 hours or less per week.” People working only part-time and at low wages are struggling to provide for their families. To them, Jeb Bush would say, “work more hours.” But as NOC’s report demonstrates, these vulnerable workers can’t work more hours. It’s not that they don’t want to. In fact, 78 percent of part-time hourly workers and even 58 percent of full-time hourly workers reported that they would prefer to work more hours than they are currently assigned. However, hourly workers have little to no control over their schedules and cannot simply choose to work more hours.
Often, they are scheduled for on-call shifts, meaning they must be available to their employers to work a shift, but they are not guaranteed work that day. The employer may choose to not call them in and the worker then loses that opportunity to gain income from a day’s work. In addition, hourly workers are often sent home early before the end of their scheduled shift. On-call shifts and sending workers home early save the employer money, but have negative effects for the workers who lose income and cannot adequately budget due to unpredictable earnings.
Some might argue that part-time hourly workers should simply get a second job if they want to be able to provide a decent life for themselves and their families. However, NOC’s research demonstrates that most workers are not free to find secondary employment. Many of the workers NOC surveyed are required to have “open availability,” which means they can be scheduled to work at any time, day or night. The challenges workers face due to open availability policies are compounded by schedules that change weekly, or even daily. “Over half (55 percent) of all hourly workers surveyed reported that they receive their schedules a week or less in advance.” Subject to open availability policies and without a set schedule, coordinating a work schedule with a secondary employer is prohibitively difficult. Unpredictable schedules and open availability policies are, then, significant impediments to secondary employment.
In another NOC report NOC’s illustrates the transit challenges that low-income workers face that make secondary employment virtually impossible. In Minnesota, people of color are disproportionately employed in low-income jobs. In addition, low-income people of color are significantly more likely to rely on public transportation to get to and from their places of employment. As NOC’s research demonstrates, workers using public transportation to commute to work pay a significant time penalty for doing so. “Every year, Black and Asian transit users spend the hourly equivalent of about 3.5 weeks of work more than white drivers on their commutes alone. For Latino transit users, it is nearly 4.5 weeks.” As NOC points out the transit penalty has deeply problematic effects on workers from communities of color. “That means that for a month a year more than white drivers, transit commuters of color are unavailable for working, helping children with homework, helping parents get to the doctor, running errands, volunteering in their communities, or participating in their churches.”
NOC’s reports demonstrate important ways in which the individualist rhetoric around poverty in America obscures the causes of poverty among low-income workers. Low-income workers are vulnerable to economic exploitation by their employers. They do not earn a living wage and have little control over the number of hours they work in any given week. Our labor laws and economic policies at all levels — city, state, and national — put the interests of employers over workers. To say to the most vulnerable among us “work harder” is to ignore the structural challenges low-income workers face. It’s an individualistic oversimplification of the problem.
Dr. Donna M. Beegle, author of “See Poverty ... Be The Difference,” tells us:
“The systemic barriers that people in poverty face often manifest themselves in a deep lack of self esteem and a strongly ingrained sense of despair. Faced with what they perceive as impregnable barriers, people in poverty find no one to blame for their failures but themselves. Even if they verbally blame others, to try to save face, they keep internalizing the poverty.
“The predominance of misconceptions, stereotypes, and punitive structures, combined with the harshness of their daily struggles for survival and the elusiveness of any kind of success, create experiences for people in poverty that often lead them to internalize the blame for their poverty situation. This blame creates internal barriers that lower their self-esteem, extinguish their dreams, and further limit their abilities to succeed. This in turn greatly affects their expectations for the future and impedes their hopes to lead a fulfilling and successful life.
“People who live in poverty in the United States have experiences that teach them they are not as good as other people and that they somehow deserve what has happened to them. Because we do not teach about structural causes of poverty, people in poverty often think of themselves as somehow deficient and less worthy than others who live in more affluent circumstances (Freire, 1970). Growing up in poverty meant that they were often ostracized for their appearance and shamed into believing that if they were born into poverty they had done something to get there. As a result, a natural reaction of people in poverty is to hide their poverty experiences and develop a tough exterior. Shame and poverty go hand in hand.
“Many of the shaming messages come from the interaction of people in poverty with those who are not familiar with their life experiences. Helping professionals, for example, often fail to show the people they serve that they are talented, creative, and worthwhile and that they are just as smart and motivated as middle-class people. They also fail to project the belief that middle-class are not better human beings, but rather they are people who have simply received better opportunities and support. “Another source of these messages is people who tend to blame the characters of people in poverty when something goes wrong, but blame the situation when the same thing happens to them. Attribution theory assumes that people try to determine why people do what they do. A person seeking to understand why another person did something may attribute one or more motives to that person’s behavior.
“Attribution theory explains that people tend to attribute causes for behavior to the situation (or to factors outside themselves) when they understand and empathize with the circumstances of a situation. Alternately, a lack of understanding, typically leads a person to place the cause of the misbehavior on the other person (or to their personality and other internal traits). For example, someone may say, “I got a ticket for speeding, but it was a speed trap.” But when they hear of another person receiving a speeding ticket, they may say, “She is a speeder.” Another example is someone saying, “I was going through a rough time and started drinking too much. I put my family through a lot and needed help.” But when describing another person’s problem with alcohol, that same person might say, “He is an alcoholic and does not really care about his family.”
“Middle-class and wealthy people understand their own circumstances and attribute the causes of their behavior to the situation. However, they tend to attribute the behavior of people in poverty to the personalities of the people rather than the situation. Blaming someone’s personality degrades the person and leaves no hope. It is not helpful since most people see personality as an essential, unchangeable quality. Attributing cause to a situation allows the option of identifying solutions to a problem through changing the situation.”