Full-time work is not enough for millions of Americans. We need to talk about it.

Inside the comfortable air conditioner of a chocolatier in Berkeley, California, I noticed a man sitting on the sidewalk, surrounded by skinny belongings, begging for change. I had to pass him to reach my car. It was the mid-1980s, and the country grabbed hold of Reaganomics.

I breathed, laid my head down, and with a firm grip on my package, I quickly walked over to my car and ignored his call for help. When I opened my car door, the man shouted at me.

“You know you do not have to give me anything,” he scolded, “but you must treat me like a human being.” In that moment, I recognized the truth of what he was saying and saw my own insensitivity. I spent the rest of the day jumping between shame and the realization that if my mother was raising us now, our family would not be able to afford housing either.

I was 9 when the burden of being the breadwinner of the family moved to my mother. My father had been severely disabled by several strokes, and my mother, a woman without a high school education, entered the labor market to support our family of six. She found a minimum wage job as a nurse assistant at a state psychiatric hospital. She chose to work on the cemetery shift so she would be home in the morning to see us off to school and home in the afternoon when we returned. She had this job for many stressful years, but what I remember most clearly was the first time I saw her come home from work. I cried all the way to school, and had never seen her so exhausted and demoralized. It was a look I got used to when I was growing up.

My mother’s exhaustion quickly gave way to a hectic anxiety as she confronted the limits of minimum wage. Her desperation was met by incredible strength and determination. She would do what she could to keep us fed and to keep a roof over our heads: She stole potatoes and dog food from the grocery store, twisted soup bones and baloney butts from the local butcher, and more than once sold her blood to the blood bank area. .

She cried with relief the day my father’s disability check on social security arrived. In 1966, my mother earned $ 1.25 an hour – in today’s dollars it equates to $ 10.53 or $ 21,060 a year. That was not enough. It was not enough to pay all the bills and it was not enough to keep adequate food on the table. If the minimum wage had kept pace with productivity, it was now over $ 24 per hour. But it did not. The current federal minimum wage is $ 7.25 per hour ($ 15,080 per year).

In Oakland, California, the onslaught of tech workers in search of affordable housing is contributing to an influx of white residents into color communities and pushing rents beyond what locals can afford.
In Oakland, California, the onslaught of tech workers in search of affordable housing is contributing to an influx of white residents into color communities and pushing rents beyond what locals can afford.

Greetings from Celine-Marie Pascale

As I took stock of my response to the man on the sidewalk begging for change, I realized that all the people I knew — people who had housing — reacted in the same way to rising poverty. I began to wonder how we, people I knew were kind and caring, could be so unfriendly. I started joining people who could not afford housing as they protested against new laws criminalizing non-criminal behavior, including sitting on the sidewalk and telling lies.

Among the people in this harmless community was a 55-year-old woman. The small money she had after a hostile divorce had run out, and her serious health problems prevented her from being able to keep a job. She had been on the street for two years when we met and there seemed to be no way away from them for her. For decades, people fell out of housing when they lost a job or the ability to work. In 2021, the lack of affordable housing is not just a problem for the unemployed.

While researching a new book, I met people all over the country, from Appalachia to Oakland, who worked multiple jobs, had more roommates, and still could not reliably pay all their bills each month. The wider gap between low-wage labor and housing costs has created a deep crisis for families across the country.

That The U.S. Department of Housing and Development (HUD) is considering anyone who pays more than 30% of their income on housing to be “burdened by costs”. Nevertheless, HUD’s own figures show that millions of low-wage families spend between 50% and 70% of their income on housing. HUD has a housing coupon program to help low-income families burdened by housing. An estimated 9 million families qualify for housing coupons, but i In 2017, when 3 million families were on the federal waiting list, the program stopped accepting applications to make the safety net practically meaningless, even though built-in people rarely know about it.

For the rest of my mother’s life, our family lived on the outskirts of a wealthy suburb. The new zip code gave an unexpected status, and my mother was happy to tell her colleagues that she was a wealthy widow who actually did not have to work. She would tell me, “They do not need to know the truth.” I used to wonder how being “a wealthy widow” protected her at work.

Our family got smaller over the years, first when my dad died and then when the kids grew up. Eventually, my mother’s income improved. We celebrated the day she started earning $ 5.00 an hour, as if it were a national holiday. Soon our sheets were no longer stamped “Property at XXX Hospital” and laughter came easier to all of us. And when my mom started dating, she met a man who helped her buy a house, and things stabilized even more.

That $ 5.00 an hour may not sound like much to celebrate in 2021, but given inflation, my mother’s $ 5.00 an hour would be around $ 27 an hour ($ 56,160 a year) in today’s dollars. That reality is breathtaking. Of course, everything is more expensive now: Housing, health care, transport and childcare have increased; mobile phones and internet access have become indispensable. So I was wondering how far my mom’s big paycheck would go today.

I used Economic Policy Institute (EPI) Family Budget Calculator determining basic the cost of living for a two-parent, four-child household in Allegheny County (where I grew up) in 2021. It is now nearly $ 100,000. For a two-parent family with two children, EPI’s self-sufficiency budget is $ 79,486. This can make Allegheny County seem wealthy, and wealthy people live there. But the power per capita per per capita is $ 29,549. Millions of working people struggle to keep a roof over their heads and their families are fed. In 2019, 44% of all workers had jobs that paid $ 10.22 an hour or less. And according to the available census data roughly speaking 51% of workers earn less than $ 35,000 a year – just a little over the federal poverty line for a family of four in 2020 at $ 25,701. As the economy is split between low-paid, low-skilled work and high-paid, high-skilled work, the nation is facing an inventory that has been decades along the way.

When disposable income disappears in communities, so does access to public space.  Though sparse, this city park is an expression of commitment to families and youth in Timber Lake, the Cheyenne River Reservation, South Dakota, a community where teenage suicide is 3.5 times the national average.
When disposable income disappears in communities, so does access to public space. Though sparse, this city park is an expression of commitment to families and youth in Timber Lake, the Cheyenne River Reservation, South Dakota, a community where teenage suicide is 3.5 times the national average.

Greetings from Celine-Marie Pascale

Reaganomics set in motion neoliberal policies that have pushed down minimum wages, displaced middle-class workers, closed factories, abandoned the working class, and cut social safety nets. The same policies have built up enormous wealth for companies and for the top 1%. Among the developed countries, the United States now has highest inequality in the world. This should tell you a lot about who the government is earning.

I’m decades and thousands of miles from the store in Berkeley. What does it mean to treat someone like a human being? That is a strong question. We need a national inventory that squares the stories we tell ourselves about who we are with the reality of the choices we make.

Celine-Marie Pascale is a professor of sociology at American University in Washington, DC She studies how deep inequalities are normalized through the language we use (or do not use) to describe them. Her latest book, “Living on the Edge: When Hard Times Become a Lifestyle,” looks at the lives of people who are struggling to make ends meet, a system that benefits from their struggles, and a vision of change from the working people who know full well that the economy we have is unsustainable for most of the American population. That e -bog is available now. You can learn more at cmpascale.org or follow her on Twitter at @cmpascale

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