I recently finished The Working Poor by David Shipler. This was a monumental occasion on many fronts, since it’s been at least three or four months since I read a book in its entirety. It was also an incredibly educational, enlightening read:
(From Amazon.com) The Working Poor examines the “forgotten America” where “millions live in the shadow of prosperity, in the twilight between poverty and well-being.” These are citizens for whom the American Dream is out of reach despite their willingness to work hard.
We always think that if we work hard enough, we should be able to live a comfortable existence. We may not be rich, but we won’t be living in destitution, either. But Shipler points out that any one of the following factors can obstruct our socioeconomic mobility upward: poor health and health care, bad decisions (drugs, alcohol), environment (inadequate housing, violence in the community), race and ethnicity, and lack of educational opportunities, just to name a few. Some of these derailing factors are self-inflicted, some are the results of traumatic events or abuse, some are perpetuated by our institutions, and some are just the results of bad luck.
So what can we do about the working poor? Should we even care? After all, we’re already paying taxes to support welfare, Medicaid, and various other anti-poverty initiatives. But clearly, it’s not enough. America still lacks several institutions of other developed countries, with universal healthcare being the most cited example.
Issues like universal healthcare and welfare reform are inherently political, and oftentimes the debate will focus on money–how are we paying for this? But outside of an economic discussion about the inequities of a free market, consider your daily interaction with people who may be struggling near the poverty line. These are taxi drivers and Wal-Mart greeters, crop pickers and factory workers, men, women, and families who are stuck in a perpetual cycle of anxiety over putting food on the table.
Even if we abide by the utmost conservative principles and say, “Well, they didn’t study hard enough in school”… or, “They made bad decisions to put themselves in their situation”, I believe we still have a self-interest in making sure that these people are decently fed, clothed, and healthy.
Every morning at 8 AM, I take a van to work, as do many of my co-workers who live in New York but work in New Jersey. The van picks me up in Midtown, drives up along the west side highway, crosses the George Washington bridge into the Jerz, and drops me off at work so that I can pay my rent, buy my groceries, and save some money for the future. But my future depends daily on the van driver: when we’re speeding over the GW bridge, I am at his mercy. His mood, his health, his attentiveness: they all affect me. This is a man who most likely makes less than $12/hour, with minimal or no benefits from his employer. He probably hears people bitch and moan about their well-paying jobs every day. Do I want him to be well-fed, to feel like he has something to live for, to keep his job for? Of course.
And if it’s in my self-interest that this man deserves something like healthcare, then what about people who I never see? What about the people who sew my clothes, pick my vegetables, and fix the roads over which I drive?
So when I pay taxes, I consider it an investment in society, in my security. I wouldn’t mind paying more in taxes so that my van driver can get adequate healthcare; I don’t see anything wrong with taking a little from the top to make sure that the bottom can have basic needs met. It may mean that our economic growth shrinks a bit, but I’m willing to sacrifice that for a more stable, less anxious society. Because Shipler is right: no one who works hard in America deserves to go hungry.