She sat across from me at the table, a pretty young woman with a baby in her arms and a toddler at her feet, nervously clutching the paperwork that would prove her eligibility for assistance at the church food pantry where I volunteered as an interviewer. In halting English, she explained her dilemma.
Her husband worked full time for our largest grocery chain as a department manager — produce, I think — making just enough to disqualify the family from federal assistance programs at a time when the annual poverty level was $20,000. Their monthly rent for a substandard house in the worst, drug-ridden slum of Corpus Christi, where drive-by shootings were a regular occurrence, was $650. She lacked the education and language skills to qualify for anything but a minimum-wage job — $5.15 an hour at the time — and child care would have cost more than she could earn. She and her husband were doing everything right, given the skills and education they had, but they were trapped in their poverty.
So with fear and embarrassment, she admitted they had no food and it was a week from payday. In her face — and in the faces of those who waited in line for us to open our doors each week — I saw the faces of the working poor for the first time.
They are not the faces of lazy, shiftless, no-goods who would rather be on the dole than work, the myth I have heard since childhood and I am hearing again in the complaints about subsidies for the unemployed during the pandemic.
Just last week, friends told me of a mutual acquaintance who is complaining he can’t get help because nobody wants to work. People do want to work. The major problem is child care.
According to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, “Between February and April 2020, 4.2 million women dropped out of the labor force, in large part due to an unexpected caregiving burden. Nearly 2 million have not yet returned … . Our policymaking has not accounted for the fact that people’s work lives and their personal lives are inextricably linked, and if one suffers so does the other.”
At the same time partisan voices complain about subsidies for the unemployed, they oppose providing universal child care and preschool, claiming it discriminates against those who want to be stay-at-home moms. Few educated women choose to stay home today. Their family lifestyles require two paychecks, and they can afford the best in child care, preschool and even nannies. It’s the young single moms and the wives of minimum-wage workers who must stay home if their children are to be cared for. And if they stay home, they cannot dig their way out of poverty. The system is broken.
“At the same time partisan voices complain about subsidies for the unemployed, they oppose providing universal child care and preschool.”
Compare that young woman I interviewed 15 years ago to my grandson and his wife. They were living in Austin, where he works for a Fortune 500 company. She taught first grade in a northern suburb, an hour-long drive from their home. With no affordable, quality child care nearby, she took their year-old daughter to a church daycare center near her school. When the pandemic lockdown came last March, both suddenly found themselves working remotely from their small starter home with their toddler and two dogs.
When they realized they could not maintain their workloads for the 2020-21 school year, they had a hard choice. Would she quit teaching, or would they move back home to Dallas where young, healthy grandparents could help? They chose the latter, with free, full-time child care provided by their parents since last August.
It’s still all-hands-on-deck. Neither grandmother works outside her home, and both grandfathers until recently were working remotely with a lot of flexible time. Still, it has meant tight schedules for everyone with little room for error. After mom leaves for school at 7 a.m., dad feeds and dresses the now-2-year-old and makes the half-hour drive to one of the grandparents’ homes before going to his desk as he continues to work remotely. Mom picks her up after school while dad starts dinner. Almost every weekday for nine months.
How many young families today have this support system? This option?
“The federal minimum wage has been frozen at $7.25 an hour since 2009, while the cost of living has risen 23%.”
For those like that young woman I met at the church food pantry, the situation has not improved. The federal minimum wage has been frozen at $7.25 an hour since 2009, while the cost of living has risen 23% and housing and medical care have soared an eye-popping 39%.
Let’s be honest. If you had children at home and had to choose between a minimum-wage job paying $290 a week and the current $300 weekly federal assistance for the unemployed, what would you do? Even the minimum-wage employee who works full time year-round only earns $15,080, significantly below the poverty level of $26,500 for a family of four.
Jana Pinson, executive director of the Pregnancy Center of Corpus Christi and wife of a local Baptist pastor, is passionate about the young single moms she serves. She explains how the current welfare system works against the poor who want to improve their lives. It’s an all-or-nothing system. You make a dollar too much, and you lose your eligibility for federal and state medical, housing and food assistance programs.
“Even the minimum-wage employee who works full time year-round only earns $15,080, significantly below the poverty level.”
Jana argues, “We need to lobby our elected officials for a graduated assistance program that allows the poor to work their way out of the welfare system.”
The plight of restaurant workers and other tipped employees is worse. Their shockingly low minimum wage has been frozen at $2.13 an hour since 1991, and many — perhaps most — of the positions are part time with few if any benefits. During the pandemic, with reduced hours and limited occupancies, the opportunity for big tips vanished. Why would anyone choose to leave their children and expose themselves to maskless diners night after night for such a pittance?
None of it makes sense to me.
Why do we pay our essential workers so little?
Why do we provide so little support for struggling families while giving lip service to traditional family values?
Why is the size of my monthly Social Security check pegged to the Consumer Price Index while wages for the most vulnerable members of our society are held hostage to partisan fights in Congress?
Even more ludicrous, why are the tax-free gifts (wealth transfers) that affluent parents can make to their children annually and when they die tied to the CPI when the minimum wage isn’t?
I always have believed that an affluent, moral and just society cannot leave people to die on the hospital steps for lack of funds or health insurance; and neither can I believe that the Jesus we sing about loving all the children of the world approves of the scant support we give those children and their families.
In his very first sermon, Jesus proclaimed, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.” Are we listening?
Ella Wall Prichard is a journalism graduate of Baylor University who is known as a philanthropist and advisor to Baptist causes in Texas and beyond. A longtime member of First Baptist Church in Corpus Christi, she has served on committees and boards of the Baptist General Convention of Texas and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. She was a member of the Baylor Board of Regents and a director of the Baylor Alumni. Her book, Reclaiming Joy: A Primer for Widows, recounts the story of her husband’s untimely death and her suddenly finding herself the president of the family oil business.