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Poverty rate increases, working poor are more squeezed

I don’t write about this topic all that often. Some readers will see it as just another bleeding heart liberal talking about what’s wrong with America. Sometimes, when this topic comes up, one that seems so intractable and seemingly so unsolvable, I can understand their point of view. Don’t we have enough problems already?

Awhile back I wrote about the group I call the “squeezed.” These are the working poor. Many of them, contrary to popular belief, work harder than most of us can imagine. They work and work hard. Welfare programs aren’t a part of their life. For some, the wolf is at

the door, and for others, as my great aunt used to say, while not at the door, he has their address in his back pocket. It’s a tough way to live.

Last week the Department of Labor reported that the poverty rate in the U.S. reached its highest level in 30 years. One pundit, on a network I sadly must admit I listen to occasionally, Fox, said it’s all relative and not that important. What an obvious thing to say. All statistics are relative. In India, he said, rather annoyingly, a family making the money we consider the poverty level here at home, would be rich. But, and alas, I don’t know where they find these people, we don’t live in India. This is Virginia. Life is different, and for some people while not living in horribly desperate situations as much of the world’s poor do overseas, it is hard living just the same.

We all know them. There is the guy who does my grass. It’s a job that keeps him hard at work in all the daylight hours. After that, for three or more nights a week, he works at a convenience store. In the winter, he trims trees and hopes for snowstorms so he can clear driveways. He has no health insurance, no pension, and no savings to speak of. He is married, has two nice kids, and his wife works a schedule that, though not so punishing as his, is still pretty tough.

This situation, for him and people like him, didn’t seem so bad, say, 15 years ago. Sure, some had it hard, but for the most part, the working poor were making progress. Their average adjusted salary was staying ahead of prices. And I don’t mean the price of an airline ticket, a top of the line car or a PC. I am thinking of gas, food and very basic of clothing. However, at the turn of the century, that started to change. Wages for the working poor and those just above that level began to level out. That wasn’t good, but for most of that period, inflation wasn’t bad, so at least they were holding their own. However, since 2008, while wages have gone up only slightly, and in some cases not at all, prices have outstripped any gains in the take home pay packet.

But, again, this isn’t some anonymous basket of goods, the products that saw the largest increases were for the key inputs in the lives of America’s working poor. They include gasoline, food and basic medical care. Each of which, in just the last 18 months, has increased by double digits. After a while, it’s not possible to work enough hours to make ends meet. That’s when things start to fall apart. And in a societal sense, that’s when they start to get expensive. For a working family, one living on the edge, anything can cause a total collapse. But it’s amazing what won’t. People will live without basic utilities, delay repairs, dental care and stop taking prescriptions. But when something in this delicate balance slips — a car that just won’t work anymore, which means no way to work and a lost job, or a stroke because Dad chose food over his blood pressure medicine — it’s all over. Strangely enough, that’s when the taxpayer starts to feel it. Children end up in foster homes, Medicaid costs skyrocket, parents have no choice but to go on disability, and any hope of self sufficiency, and the pride that goes with it, evaporates.

Sadly, we don’t do so badly in helping when the economic house of cards falls apart. However, we don’t do much to make that tiny investment needed to help these folks keep things together before it’s too late. Indeed, no one even talks about them. But, somewhere, and I don’t know what the answer looks like, there must be a way to help them keep afloat. Thing is, I am at a loss in describing what that might look like.

You ask them. They don’t want anything. And they don’t ask. But a society with a 15.1 percent poverty rate and a percentage of working poor that’s double that and all I can say is that we’ve got problems. In the long term, an America divided so sharply on the basis of income isn’t healthy. Our best years have been when everyone had a fighting chance. And if we all want that national revival we all so desperately crave, then that’s going to have to be one of the conditions that makes it possible.

You may reach David Kerr at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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