Note: I wrote this post originally in August, before my husband lost his job. Now that we are on food stamps and Medicaid because of our mutual lack of employment, my reasoning and rationale behind this post is even more personal than it was before. I have added references to my own experience in blue. This is intended to be a multi-part commentary. Links at the bottom to subsequent posts.
Unemployment is an income maintenance program. This has an absolute requirement to look for work. Basically if you are offered a job, you must accept it if it falls within certain category requirements or equivalents, even if the job pays less than what you had been earning before. It’s put up or shut up.
But on a larger scale, tell me how this scheme allows people to create their own destiny? There’s no holding out for a better offer. You cannot refuse a job. If you do, that safety net is gone and you’re on your own. Never mind the impact that unemployment has on a resume or what taking a job isn’t your dream job does to your attractiveness to future employers who are looking for a consistent and solid work history. Remember, employers don’t look fondly on any gaps in work history but they also want to see a gradual increase in responsibilities and achievement, something you can’t create when you have a temp job for 4 months.
And if unemployment required you to take a job A earning 25% less than your expected pay grade then in your next position Employer B is likely only going to offer you a modest bump up from your most recent all-time low. It can have a very clear ratcheting down effect that makes it that much harder to get back to your pre-unemployment potential. This, I can tell you from experience. I still haven’t broken the glass ceiling of my all time low to get back to what I was earning in my dream job 6 years ago, despite my qualifications and knowledge. A stint of unemployment longer than 3 months, can destroy a person’s bargaining potential for years to come.
But the mantra is “any job is a good job”, right? Sure, any job is a good job, particularly when it’s a step up from having no job at all. But that doesn’t mean it’s the right job or a long-term solution to crippling debt. It doesn’t mean it will pay enough to feed your family. It doesn’t mean that your children escape the detrimental effects of poverty. And it certainly doesn’t mean you have significantly improved your chances of escaping poverty.
In Denver County, for a typical family of 4 to survive (2 adults/2 children), the adults would have to be working in jobs that pay an equivalent of $19.65/hr ($40+K per year). Sounds reasonable, right? But that’s the living wage, the actual cost of what it takes to live in this county. The level of income they would need to qualify for most levels of aid (and to fall below the poverty line) is roughly $10.60/hr or $22K a year, still significantly below the wage they would need to earn to make ends meet. Working a minimum wage job (at $7.25/hr, 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year) gives that family $15K to live on and pretty much automatically qualifies them for aid.
So, in order to make enough to get out of poverty in Denver county (let’s not include the debts accumulated in order to make ends meet or get utilities turned back on), they would need to be in one of the following types of positions: Management ($45.62/hr), Business and Financial Operations ($29.75/hr), Computer and Mathematical ($38.14 /hr), Architecture and Engineering ($35.93/hr), Life, Physical and social Sciences ($30.20/hr), Legal ($33.05/hr), Education, Training and Library ($21.37/hr), or Healthcare Practitioner and Technical ($30.13/hr). (Information courtesy of MIT’s Living Wage Calculator available here: http://livingwage.mit.edu/counties/08031)
Do you notice any trends here?
That’s right, all of these are positions where one needs at least some post secondary training/education, significant work experience or a college or post-graduate degree. If they are in a position that requires only a high school diploma with little to no additional training, they are more likely, if not absolutely assured, to fall below the poverty level.
Add to that anecdotal evidence of people who are looking to go back to school so they can improve their chances—only to subsequently be let go or have their hours reduced for daring to utter or even investigate that dream. Employers have a lot of power to be as choosy, bitchy or negligent as they want. Not all jobs are created equal or provide an equal opportunity to advance or maintain a living. And in at-will states, you can basically be terminated for any reason.
[Oh and another little tidbit that I noticed on that site is that a single parent with two kids pays about $2000 more in annual taxes than a 2 parent household. Hence, a clear argument for the inequity applied to same-sex households with children and that disproportionately could land a same-sex household below the poverty level. Fortunately, the reversal of DOMA will help remedy this situation but not completely.]
Another cost of poverty that you may or may not have considered is the constant stress that comes with wondering where the next paycheck is going to come from. Sure, if you believe the Heritage Foundation (a conservative think tank) children living in poverty may or may not be going hungry each day. But you still have rent to pay, right? You still have electricity to keep on? And in this day and age, you still have to choose whether internet is a good idea to pay for as you try to find a job or complete online classes. Stress creates a whole host of health issues that, if left unchecked, could significantly lessen your chances of maintaining stable employment and thus ever escaping poverty.
Finally, let’s also consider those who are living just outside the poverty line. In my example above, it’s the difference between those making $22K and those making $40K. Quite a large number, if you think about it (two full-time, minimum wage earners with two kids fit here). These are people who are just one car wreck or one illness away from complete financial catastrophe. Even the family with $40K a year is hovering in that danger zone.
Think about what causes people to enter poverty. Think about the traumas, disasters and crises they may have experienced. The death of a spouse, a chronic illness requiring daily medications or treatments. The special needs child who requires constant care. The snowstorm where they slid into another car and totaled their vehicle. The lay-off. The divorce. The hurricane.
This isn’t laziness. This is life and it is threatening to eat us alive every day.