Defining a Common Poverty: Challenges Facing Today’s Working Class

Earlier this year Doug McMillan, CEO of Walmart, announced that the corporation will raise the base rate pay for its workers. Walmart will offer $9 an hour to employees starting this spring, and eventually transition to a $10 hourly pay rate in February 2016 – a change that will affect approximately 500,000 employees.

This change is a timely one in a public debate on the minimum wage in America. Walmart has come under heavy criticism in the past year for consistently paying its workers an unlivable salary. News reports of in-store food donation drop offs for struggling employees over the holidays helped fuel one of the most recent waves of public frustration. Walmart, as a result, is seen by many as being out of touch with its employees; while corporate leadership continues to take home a significant profit.

Many New Englanders are familiar with protests this past year in Market Basket stores across the region.Headlines were made as workers mobilized in unison, entering a strike period which left shelves at the discount grocer bare for several weeks. This was a response to the firing of CEO Arthur T. Demoulas, a figurehead they saw as pivotal to Market Basket’s unique values. According to an ABC report, employees saw Demoulas as, “deeply committed to his workers and his customers, keeping prices low”. Sentiment among employees was so strong that many were willing to risk their jobs for what they believed to be right.  

“Our interest in the well-being of others can literally redefine what is brought to the table.”

Both of these examples illustrate a larger conversation that is beginning to find its place in civil society, a conversation which questions if a well-rounded life is accessible for a large portion of our workforce in the United States. As wages stagnate, we are simultaneously watching blue collar jobs disappear in the cities and towns where they were once found in abundance. All the while, the cost of living is going up, making it seemingly impossible for one to get ahead in today’s economy. As the very visceral effects of common poverty are beginning to gain attention, Americans are feeling an overwhelming disconnect from persons of power and the possibility of securing a strong future both for oneself, and one’s family.

Some of the effects of common poverty on individual health and well-being are quite alarming. A recentWashington Post article highlighted the increased cost of a healthy diet and found that income is simply not catching up to rising food costs. If wages grow this year as economists predict, “the average worker’s pay hike would be about one-tenth of the 30 percent rise in the cost of peanut butter since 2010”. The items which are deemed affordable are now found in junk food aisles, and as a result, families are seeing an increase in diet-related health problems as diabetes, obesity, and hypertension.

While the federal minimum wage has remained the same since 2009 (when it was set at $7.25 an hour), some cities are taking steps to address the financial needs of their citizens. Seattle, for example, raised its minimum wage to $15 an hour, a change that will be phased in over several years. Wage campaign groups, activists and numerous justice-minded organizations have managed to effectively lobby government officials and leaders in this instance, but further change is needed. More than anything, however, the norms surrounding our working class need to change.  

Accountability and responsibility for the thriving of individuals in community, and in our society as a whole, is a commitment that we should all share. If we are truly caring for our neighbors, that means caring for their wages and what those wages afford. Recent developments ought to call us to question if the businesses and elections we participate in are doing that, or if we are due for a cultural reassessment. Our interest in the well-being of others can literally redefine what is brought to the table.

-Jenny Hyde is a recent alumna of Gordon College, where she received her degree in International Affairs. She is currently living and working in Washington, D.C.