A young woman I know remains in a near-constant state of stress as a single mother of a young child. She’s a bright young woman who is finding it difficult to improve her life. Often, it is enough to just know that she has food on the table and a roof over her head, although it isn’t for lack of trying to improve her situation.. We often hear that America is the land of opportunity. But it is also sometimes a question of choices as well as luck. To protect the individual’s identity, we’ll call her “Marie”.
Marie’s problems began early in life. Bright, she was publicly rebuked by the teachers in the parochial school when it became apparent she already knew the entire year’s material and was daydreaming in class. Being different – including knowing more than one’s classmates – was frowned upon. Marie also played with the students who were a year or two ahead of her. Again, the parents were told that playing with children in a different grade at recess was inappropriate. Marie found herself being disciplined both at school and at home for these infractions, and then ostracized by the peers the school insisted she play with. Teachers and same-age peers could not put their finger on it, but Marie just seemed “different” to them. It was not long before formal education became a dreaded activity, affecting her school work every year forward. At the earliest permitted age, Marie dropped out of high school, started working and self taught herself to earn her GED. Unbeknownst to everyone, a close relative had begun sexually abusing Marie before she had even reached kindergarten. The abuse continued until Marie, then a young teenager, fought back. The individual fled the United States when authorities began to close in.
Marie sought to find love and was sexually active. As is often the case with “young love”, love seems to disappear when pregnancy occurs. The two would-be parents broke up before the child was born. The birthfather created legal issues for himself and is currently incarcerated. Marie now finds herself attempting to fend for both herself and the child without any financial benefit from the man who helped create the child.
And this is how a child of a middle-class home (albeit of divorced parents) finds herself working to just survive.
Earlier this year, Marie had an important choice. There was a one-time-only educational opportunity available; to take it, she would need to borrow enough money to support herself and her child while going to school. No job guarantee, but just “good prospects” according to the for-profit trade school. The flip side of the choice was a job, with a pay just barely above minimum wage, but which promised “good health benefits” for Marie and her child, if she could get past the 90 day probationary period. After the 90 day probationary period, the employer would provide information (including premium and coverage information) about the health benefits.
Marie chose the job with benefits at $10 an hour in pay; she and her child had been without medical benefits for far too long, and the child hadn’t even had basic immunizations. Marie had been anxiously awaiting the day when she would be able to obtain employer-subsidized health insurance for herself and her toddler daughter. After taxes and before other work-related expenses, Marie could expect to take home as much as $1,167 a month. Not a fortune, but just enough to get by, if she were careful.
After the required 90 days had passed, the employer provided the medical plan information. Once she saw the plan and the premiums, Marie quickly despaired. The very best plan had severe restrictions. No more than five visits to the doctor per year per member. No more than $1,000 would be paid in a year for emergency room visits for the entire family. There was a $500 limit on generic prescriptions and brand prescriptions were not covered at all. Routine diagnostics (mammogram, pap smear, x-ray) had a total limit of $400 per year. Also not covered: Pre-natal care, maternity care, well-baby care, immunizations (not even for her toddler!), chemotherapy, or any other truly significant health issue. In short, the “excellent health plan” the employer touted to prospective employees would continue to leave Marie and her child financially exposed for any medical issues beyond a runny nose or two. The cost of this coverage? A heart-stopping $473 a month – just over 40% of her already-meager take home pay – leaving her with $762 a month, assuming she took the medical coverage.
This is the picture of the working poor. On $762 a month, somehow this young adult was supposed to be able to get by and work towards improving her life. Rent was $600 a month and did not include utilities. $162 a month would need to be enough for electricity, heat, food, clothing, and public transportation for work. Marie sought public assistance to help cover the shortfall, and was told she earned too much. Because she had medical coverage “available” to her through the employer, she and her child were refused public medical assistance.
Simply put, taking her employers medical coverage on the hourly wage she was earning just was not possible. Marie was fortunate that a roommate was able to provide child care, by staggering their working hours. When Marie’s employer required her to work a double-shift without notice, Marie informed the employer she could not work the shift, as she had no alternative arrangements for watching her child on such short notice. She was fired for being unavailable to work, and denied unemployment insurance coverage since she had refused to work the double-shift.
The roommate has moved out, leaving Marie without a regular sitter. Marie applied for a job training program, but was told she would have to have child-care arrangements in place. She applied for a child-care subsidy program so that she could take a “regular” job, but was told that it would take three to four months to determine if she would qualify – and until then, she would have to be able to pay the child care center on her own. The child care centers typically charge $225-$250 a week, again effectively preventing Marie from being able to take a “regular” job at anything in the $10-$12 an hour range.
Marie continues to struggle financially, taking odd jobs as she can find them and working some shifts in “gentlemen’s clubs” whenever she can have a neighbor babysit, just to make ends meet, and sees no apparent reason for hope that her future will change.
This is a portrait of the working poor. Struggling day-to-day, losing hope every day that tomorrow will be any better.