Commentary: Government — and that means all of us — needs to help the working poor

Dr. David Gross

Dr. David Gross

My Mom and Dad knew each other in high school and by the time they started dating seriously the Great Depression had engulfed the world. They were engaged for about three years while Mom worked as a bookkeeper earning $14 a week, not today’s 40-hour week. Dad worked for a small chain of shoe stores, driving a truck and delivering inventory to a half dozen or so small stores spread throughout Ohio. When he wasn’t gone on his deliveries he organized and shelved boxes of shoes.

After they got married, Dad started attending night classes to become an accountant. He earned less than Mom, $13 a week. So they lived on $27 a week, $108 a month in a rent controlled apartment in the Cedar Central Project in Cleveland, Ohio.

For some reason when I think about my parents’ first years of marriage a silly ditty repeats over and over in my head:

“My Ma gave me a nickel to buy a pickle, I didn’t buy a pickle, I bought some “chewin” gum. Chew chew chew some chewin gum I bought some chewin gum….” I can’t explain it, maybe the nickel for a pickle, but it was the Depression. In those days a loaf of good bread, Mom told me, cost maybe 15 cents, she couldn’t remember for certain but; “A lot of folks couldn’t afford that loaf of bread.”

My parents were young, in love and happy but $108 a month to live on? Incomprehensible.

I recently met a young single mother with two children, a boy 7 and a girl 4. Her husband, if that’s what he was, abandoned them. Just took off, was all she would tell me. She and her kids were subsequently evicted from their apartment because she was unable to afford the rent. The three of them are currently living in a family shelter. She still works the same job she had when the guy took off. She’s a server in a well-known chain restaurant. She earns $2.50 an hour plus tips but she shares the tips with the people who bus the tables and, she flashed a sarcastic smile, the manager. She usually averages $10-12 an hour. That’s above the current minimum wage, but she is not allowed to work more than 30 hours a week, on split shifts. Something about not having to supply medical insurance benefits…maybe?

So—she works hard, takes good care of her children and earns about $1,440 a month. She doesn’t have health insurance for her or her children so when any of them are ill she sits for hours in an emergency room waiting area. She doesn’t have a car to get around so she can look for a better-paying job, or to attend any kind of training that would qualify her for a better job. She does manage to pay for a cell phone. She considers it essential in case one of her kids gets sick at school or daycare. It costs her about $70 a month.

In 2013, the estimate of the full-time (40-hour work week) hourly wage that a family must earn to afford a decent apartment — at the HUD estimated Fair Market Rent while spending no more than 30 percent of their income on housing — was estimated to be $18.79. If this young mother earned $18.79 per hour she could afford to spend about $225 a month for rent. She’s been looking for an affordable apartment but there are long waiting lists for those that come available and she can’t really afford any of them.

Oh yes, she also has to supply food, clothing and even a very occasional treat for herself and her two children. She doesn’t have a bank account so she pays an exorbitant fee to cash her paycheck at a check cashing place and frequently has to get a small loan from that same “business” against her next paycheck, at usurious rates. The folks at the homeless shelter where she and her children now live are doing their best to help her navigate all the possible programs designed to help folks in her situation, but it is a morass and she, understandably gets very frustrated and depressed.

In the face of this, the legislature in my state of Washington failed to produce any new help for the working homeless this past session and by their inaction may have made the situation worse for many homeless families. Private and faith-based groups are helping as much as possible but those resources are incapable of providing more than a small fraction of what is needed. Government programs, with all citizens contributing their fair share, are the only possible way to deal with these problems.

Dr. David Gross is a writer and retired veterinarian who lives in Edmonds.

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7 Comments

  1. There are so many stories just like this young woman’s and not just in Washington, but all across the US that need help in the form of a higher minimum wage. I just read that the very same Senators who BLOCKED a raise in the minimum wage will be receiving a $2800 cost of living adjustment on Jan 1, 2015! Outrageous!

  2. This is a situation endemic to the United States right now. Thank you, David, for giving voice to the ravages of a class-based economy.

    Recently I happened upon a project being undertaken by a decorated Viet Nam veteran that gives cinematic voice to your topic, David. This veteran is producing a documentary about the dynamics of poverty in the streets in his home state, California. Pro bono I am editing his expose/essay “Mentally Blind” and am proud to be associated with his project: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rvvSOTQ1jJ4

    It is my experience after taking a 10,000 mile ‘See the USA’ trip 18 months ago that the fabric of America is in shreds, many 200-5000 pop. towns have become what is now known as “food deserts” because of closed-for-business grocery stores that could not sustain losses during the recession. Many working poor and impoverished families purchase their groceries at gasoline station convenience stores as their furniture is tossed out by landlords onto walkways and sidewalks, busting into useless kindling upon impact.

    Let’s roll up our sleeves — the reality of the situation is that food banks, the elderly, and young struggling families need our volunteerism and our donations. We aren’t the best that we can be unless — as individuals — we give back to the community.

  3. Here., here Emily. Let ‘s see some landlords ., property maintenance companies., property owners roll up their greediness and work with potential tenants for affortable housing. We can all SHARE the American dream…….Again, CIVILISED nations TAKE CARE of their most vulnerable. There is so much to be learned from the Scandinavian countries……We have been so busy being the MASTERS of the universe that we have forgotten about the many that are STARVING right here in our own country…….children….EVERY day

  4. Thanks to all for your comments, good to know progressive thinkers are rallying to the causes.

  5. It’s a pleasure working with Emily she is the motivator everyone needs. She contacted me and jumped right in and started to help. Thank you so much Emily. Dr Dave Gross thank you very much for putting this Article up. You are a blessing.

  6. Two guardian angels sure blessed me @ the Edmonds QFC 2 days ago. My ATM Card repeatedly wouldn’t work, after making a small deposit that day. At QFC, I had a lot of groceries, so I tried to figure out what I could still buy w/the small amount of $ in my pocket. The 2 men who’d been behind me in line told me to put all my groceries back in the bags, because they were buying ALL of my groceries! OMG! I was so excited, so grateful, I had “God-Bumps” from head to toe for hours! I’d recently spent 10 days in hospitals, came home & found both my refrige & freezer open & the heat set to 90-because of a fever w/pnuemonia I’d had. Almost everything was spoiled. To be able to replenish my fridge for free is such a blessing! I’m unable to work due to health issues, so times are tight. Edmonds has 2 men who shopped @ QFC who’re thoughtful, caring! Wow! When I asked how I could ever pay them back, the elder man told me “everybody has a bad day, doesn’t matter why…” and to “pay it forward as you can!” You bet I’ll be paying it forward! It’ll be so fun! Whoohoo!

  7. The average wage in Washington State is approximately $30,000 per year. That’s $14.42 per hour working full time, or about $2300.00 a month, before taxes. After taxes, you’re looking at close to $1,900.00, depending on exemptions. Source: Census

    This doesn’t include medical coverage. For a single 30 year old, making the above wage, the Affordable Care Act costs $209.00 per month in Washington State for the Silver Plan. Source: Washington Healthcare Exchange. The average 1 bedroom, 1 bathroom apartment costs $1048 in Everett, without utilities. Source: Seattle Times. Basic utilities (water, sewage, garbage) will probably run somewhere between $100-$200 per month, depending on a variety of factors. This doesn’t include phone, cable, or internet service fees.

    The reality here is that if you earn the median income and live in the Everett area (and other areas of south Snohomish County), you’re going to spend more than 50% of your net income on housing expenses alone (rent plus utilities). After that, there’s food and non-food necessities, such as clothing and other necessary sundries and transportation costs. If you purchase or own a car, you’re paying car insurance and possibly a car payment, as well as fuel and maintenance costs.

    This represents bare subsistence for a single person, if they’re living on a very disciplined budget. It’s important to note there’s no money left for retirement, savings, or medical co-payments. If this person’s a single parent, it’s not sustainable, she can’t survive. Remember, this is the median wage, not the current minimum wage.

    Thank you again for drawing attention to this very important issue facing our communities, locally and across the nation.

    Bob Lewis
    Green Party Candidate for State Representative
    LD 21, Position 2

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