The Politics of Poverty

Ideas and analysis from Oxfam America's policy experts

Congress, want to know about the new poverty rate? Ask a working mom

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Decreasing the poverty rate means putting faces to the numbers.

Tianna Gaines-Turner, center, speaks to a Capitol Hill forum on realities of life for the millions of working poor in the US. Listening is Andrew Yarrow of Oxfam America (left) and Eugene Steuerle of the Urban Institute (right). Photo: Oxfam America.
Tianna Gaines-Turner (center) speaks to a Capitol Hill forum on realities of life for millions of working poor in the US. Listening is Andrew Yarrow of Oxfam America (left) and Eugene Steuerle of the Urban Institute (right). Photo: Minor Sinclair / Oxfam America.

To a packed room at the US Capitol on Tuesday, a low-wage worker from Philadelphia threw down a challenge to Congress:

“Want to know what my life is like? Then ask me,” said Tianna Gaines-Turner, a childcare provider and mother of three from Philadelphia.

Gaines-Turner, speaking on behalf of Witnesses to Hunger at a forum sponsored by Oxfam America, brought the first-person perspective of the working poor to a conversation about the realities of life for the millions who work hard and long, but barely manage to stay afloat in an ever more unequal economy. The event occurred on the heels of Tuesday’s announcement by the Census Bureau that the US poverty rate remained flat for 2012 at 15 percent. According to Gaines-Turner, Congress could make more progress towards decreasing that number by putting faces to the numbers: invite the working poor to the table, and hear their experiences directly – rather than defaulting to worn-out stereotypes.

At the event, Oxfam President Raymond C. Offenheiser and Guy Molyneux, the pollster from Hart Research Associates, presented the results from “Hard Work, Hard Lives,” a report on a national survey of low-wage workers commissioned by Oxfam. The survey revealed that low-wage workers are working hard and long, and hanging onto faith in the American Dream. But the economy is failing them; most are struggling to make ends meet on low wage-and-no benefit jobs and must turn to other sources to get by (e.g., loans, credit cards, food stamps).

“These numbers [in the survey] tell the story of my brothers and sisters struggling in poverty,” said Gaines-Turner.

The nation’s poverty rate may have remained flat, but that doesn’t convey the harsh reality that millions are falling behind every day. Almost 50 million Americans are living below the federal poverty line ($11,490 for an individual, $23,550 for a family of four). Of these, a staggering 9.17 million people live in a household with a full-time year-round worker. As Offenheiser noted in an op-ed recently, “Working hard but staying poor is, indeed, an injustice.”

This grim reality for the working poor is coloring their attitudes toward government and the future. The survey showed that most are convinced it is now more likely for middle class workers to fall behind than for poor workers to get ahead and a majority reported making less in their current jobs than they had in the past. Most think Congress is more likely to pass laws that benefit the wealthy than to support opportunities for the working poor.

Amid a heated debate on the federal budget and reauthorizing crucial programs like the supplemental nutrition assistance program (SNAP), Gaines-Turner told the crowd Tuesday that no one wants to be on public assistance, but when your job does not pay enough to provide for your family, you need to turn somewhere. Workers prefer jobs that pay good wages and provide benefits many take for granted, but the survey revealed few employers provide these for low-wage jobs. The more a worker does earn, the survey showed, the less likely they are to turn to public assistance.

“Helping low and moderate income workers and promoting economic mobility is not at the front of the agenda of either political party,” said Eugene Steuerle, former Reagan Administration advisor and now senior fellow at the Urban Institute, on Tuesday. “Most Americans support the idea that those who work hard should be able to get ahead.” It’s hard for any politician to disagree with the core values such an agenda represents.

So what would an agenda for the working poor look like? Steuerle cited policies as diverse as increased funding for early childhood education and worker training, subsidized child care, improving tax credits and phase-outs of means-tested programs (to mitigate the penalties facing low wage workers as they seek higher wage work or get married), and even a modest increase in the minimum wage. Many of the low-wage workers we surveyed also strongly supported these ideas, so maybe he’s on to something.

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