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You don’t have to be out of work to be living on the edge

There is one stark reality about our current economic situation. Namely, that you don’t have to be out of work to be living on the edge. And what’s more, the number of people teetering on that edge seems to growing larger and larger. True, the economy may be recovering, but for many, the normal sense of security that comes with an improving economic situation remains elusive.
For some, living on the edge has been “situation normal” for most of their working lives. Often, they’re simply called the working poor. Most are hard to count since few are on any kind of relief or assistance. Many work at jobs that pay more than minimum wage, but not much more. They

may be unskilled laborers. Or they may have a trade. And it’s not uncommon for them to work more than one job. Some are two person earning families and some aren’t.

Most have made an art form out of simply getting by. Unfortunately, while most get by, unlike many of us, they don’t have much margin between their current situation and economic disaster. What’s more, any margin they had has gotten slimmer and slimmer during the past few years. Just consider the difference, nationally, between the growth in wages and prices. Wages since 2008 have grown at approximately 1 to 2% a year while price inflation has managed a steady yearly increase of 2 to 3 percent. That sounds innocuous enough and really isn’t that bad coming out of a recession. But if you isolate the price increases for food and fuel, the story is more serious. Food prices, bread, eggs, milk, etc have increased dramatically, while at the same time, the price of a gallon of gasoline is at least a dollar more than it was last year at this time. For many of us, that’s just grounds for some grumbling. If you’re among the 25 million or so who live on the edge it’s a question of survival.

Also, there is the safety valve many of the working poor count on in tough times and that’s overtime. Overtime, for many industries, once a mainstay, has dried up. Making more money, covering that car repair or whatever, by working more hours has gotten tougher and tougher to do.

For people living so close to the edge, that as my grandfather used to say, “the wolf used to eat dinner with us,” almost anything can become an economic crisis. One of the most common crisis events is a car repair. A charge of much more than a few hundred dollars, something they can’t cover with what is probably an already maxed out credit card, can be the calamity that sends them on a down hill spiral. Most working poor live and work in locations where mass transit isn’t an option. They need that car. So, not only does the cost to fix it become a stopper, but it can also make the difference between getting to work and not getting to work. The next stop, after that, is unemployment. At which point, rather than a group no one bothers to count, they at long last become someone’s statistic.

Another tipping point, and this is still a powerful argument for the President’s health insurance program, is medical care. Most of the working poor don’t have medical insurance. The exact number of people in the United States without medical insurance is subject to a lot of partisan interpretation, but a good estimate is about 45 million Americans. And this goes back to another tipping point argument. The working poor, all hard working Americans, most of whom aren’t asking anyone for anything, can be felled, at least economically, with just one large medical bill. Medical costs have gone up, on average, 9% a year, and even something as routine as a visit to the doctor becomes prohibitive without some kind of medical insurance.

One of the saddest representations of this is surprisingly common. As a public health nurse told me once, she had several patients, who in spite of her best efforts took only half of the prescribed dose of their medications, just to keep the cost down. In several cases, the lower dosage made the therapy completely ineffective.

All of this, to some, may sound like a bleeding heart liberal whining about the plight of the poor. Maybe it is. But, let me say, I admire these people. They’re working. They’re not complaining, they’re putting their families first, and to the best of their abilities, they’re trying to do everything they’re supposed to. However, and this is the sad part, their situation is gradually deteriorating, their sense of well being is eroding, and as a nation no one even seems to be noticing. That’s the part that scares me.

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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