The woman holding a cardboard sign at the stoplight. The man pushing a shopping cart filled with his earthly possessions. Children running in and out of dilapidated tents clustered in a haphazard community on the outskirts of town.

When we think of poverty in America, these are the images that often come to mind.

But look closer.

The cashier handing out change at your favorite fast food restaurant. The maid tapping on a hotel room door. The field laborer harvesting apples as traffic whizzes past on the interstate.

Often, these are the faces of the working poor.

The U.S. Census Bureau says more than 38 million American households make less than $25,750 a year – the federal government’s poverty threshold in 2019 for a family of four. That’s almost 10 percent of our population.

The Working Poor

Someone working 40 hours a week at this upper echelon of poverty makes $2,146 a month ($12.38 per hour) before federal, state, city, Social Security, and Medicare taxes. What’s left over has to stretch to cover housing, health care, transportation, food, utilities, clothing, and child or elder care. Then there are phones, computers, and internet service – communication tools once considered luxuries that are now essential to tapping into employment and educational opportunities.

Speaking of education, let’s not forget costs associated with school supplies, field trips, class projects, sports, clubs, dances, graduation gowns, class rings – and the dream of college.

You can see how quickly $12.38 per hour can evaporate. But millions live on even less than that. In Missouri, the minimum wage is currently $8.60. It won’t reach $12.00 until 2023.

The term working poor describes people who spent at least 27 weeks (eight months) in the labor force, working or actively looking for work, but whose incomes still fell below the official poverty level. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics demographics, the working poor usually includes:

  • More women than men
  • Twice as many African Americans and Hispanics than Caucasians and Asians
  • More families with children than couples or individuals without kids
  • More people with only a high school diploma than college graduates
  • A large percentage of people employed in service occupations

The Roof Over Their Heads

On any given night, nearly 600,000 Americans are homeless. The U.S. Department of Education reports that during the 2016-2017 school year, 1.4 million students between the ages of 6 and 18 were homeless sometime over the course of the year. That figure includes 32,133 Missouri children whose families were forced to enter shelters, live in hotels/motels, move in with other families, squat in unoccupied properties, or go unsheltered – sleeping in cars or under bridges, for example.

How does this happen? 

Sometimes homelessness is triggered by addictions or mental illness. But situational homelessness – a job loss, natural disaster, death or absence of the primary breadwinner, overwhelming medical bills, and more – can hit anyone.

The working poor are especially vulnerable. Fortune Magazine points out that across the board, millions of Americans are one missed paycheck away from poverty. More than 10 percent of households are behind on bills; 40 percent don’t have any money set aside for an emergency. A full third don’t even have a savings account.

It’s difficult to save money you don’t have, of course. Congress defines housing affordability as monthly rental or mortgage costs no more than 25 percent of household income. Unfortunately, according to the National Low-Income Housing Coalition, there isn’t a single state with an adequate supply of affordable rental housing for the lowest income renters. Missouri has nearly 200,000 extremely low-income renter households, but only 42 affordable homes are available per 100 applicants. A larger percentage of income – 50 percent isn’t unusual – is often demanded from those least able to afford it.

This isn’t the only debt plaguing the working poor. Obtaining credit is harder and rates are higher for low-income applicants. This pushes up car, home, and installment loan payments.

The Health Care Donut Hole

Health care costs alone are often the tipping point for “donut hole” households with incomes hovering just above the poverty threshold. They may earn too much to qualify for subsidies or Medicaid yet don’t have enough to cover other bills if they pay full sticker price premiums. Missouri legislators could expand Medicaid to cover more of the poor, but so far have chosen not to do so.

This poses an untenable choice for the financially challenged: Pay the premiums, and there’s not enough left for essentials. Remain uninsured, and risk disaster if an accident or illness strikes.

Even with affordable insurance, deductibles remain in the stratosphere. High-deductible plans feature out-of-pocket amounts starting at $1,300 and going up from there. In the U.S., the average hospital stay is $5,220 per day – almost two and a half times the monthly poverty threshold amount. Ironically, people unable to afford insurance are routinely charged full price for procedures, far above the negotiated amounts insurance companies pay. One emergency can land the working poor in debtor purgatory, their meager paychecks garnished to settle bills too large to ever pay off.

Under federal law, nonprofit health care providers are required to offer care – sometimes referred to as charity care – at reduced cost to low-income patients. The National Consumer Law Center notes that nonprofit hospitals are given tax-exempt status because they are supposed to be serving the public and especially the poor.

Until recently, however, it was hospitals that decided how “poor” poor was, how much bills would be reduced, and how such information would be shared with the public. A presidential executive order issued in June 2019 now requires health care providers and insurers to provide patients with information about out-of-pocket costs they’ll face before they receive health care services – including discounts available to low-income patients.

Food Deserts

Another challenge for those living under the poverty line is maintaining good nutrition. Food insecurity stalks millions of poor U.S. families; as many as one in seven children are not sure where their next meal is coming from.

Food deserts are areas where residents have limited access to affordable, healthy foods. Urban families without cars might live close to a couple of fast food restaurants or convenience stores but have no farmers market or full-service grocery store within walking distance. Immigrants may be unable to purchase cultural staples. Hometown groceries continue to close in small-town America, forcing rural folk – 2.3 million of them – to travel 10 miles or more to find a supermarket.

My Brother’s Keeper

The “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mantra is pervasive in American society. Even the poor don’t want to refer to themselves as such. “The fear of being singled out never left me; I wore it like a weighted vest,” said Stephanie, a working poor parent. “I felt the stigma of poverty every hour, even in my own home, but I never admitted to friends how desperate my situation was.”

How can someone pull themselves up by their bootstraps when they don’t even have boots? Poverty is not just something that happens to the other guy. A whirlwind could swirl into any of our lives at any time, landing us in the same situation.

If you can, please extend a helping hand to someone in need. We’ve dedicated this issue to worthy causes in our area. Together, we will make an awesome impact.