Dear America: Do You Know Me? I’m the Working Poor   15 comments

I have a friend named Grace. She’s 52-years-old. She’s a professional make-up artist. Then she went back to school and became a licensed aesthetician. Today, she has four more classes until she gets her AA degree. She has ten dollars in her pocket.

Politicians, activists, commentators, and pundits talk about big business, conglomerates, multi-nationals, millionaires, and billionaires. At a drop of a hat, they’ll talk about the gravity of maintaining America’s middle class. One group I never hear discussed—the working poor.

I met Grace eight years ago when she was hired to work for the company I was studio managing. I worked Monday through Friday, 9-5. I was divorced and had a two-year-old daughter. I was hustling my girl to a 9-hour shift at daycare, then going to work, then hustling back before overtime kicked in for the daycare worker, then hustling home to make dinner, bathe my daughter, read her stories, etc. My ex-husband helped out when he wasn’t on a minimum 12-hour commercial shoot. Or, on location.

Grace and I became friends. A year later when I started my own business, I hired her to do make-up and hair for my clients during the week (when I had clients) and we both worked for my old company, and then another company, on the weekends.

Jin Young Yu - Invisible People

Thankfully, I had friends who said, “Oh, yes!” when I asked if they would look after my daughter for eight hours on a Saturday or Sunday, or Saturday and Sunday. I paid them back by looking after their kids when they took an evening out. I didn’t have evenings out. No time. No money. Grace didn’t either—and this is her story.

After some years, Grace and her husband (a teacher, studying to get his degree) decided they wanted to go home. This sounds overly dramatic, but she pined for her city by the bay—with its rain and fog, hills and views of the water everywhere you looked. Her old car wouldn’t make the 6-hour trip on the highway that takes you inside the middle of nowhere, so they towed it on the back of their tiny U-Haul. She was thrilled to be back home. Then, she spent the next six months commuting back down south (and sleeping on my couch) to do a wedding, fashion shoot or work with me because she couldn’t find any work back home. Her husband couldn’t find a teaching post; couldn’t even land a job in a painting-store chain. It was on Grace to earn all of the money, to pay all of the bills.

Her mind was a hive of anxiety, her body granite with tension, her stress level beyond maximum capacity.

She finally landed a job back home as an aesthetician at a salon. Because of their convoluted payment scheme, her hours could not support her and she had to find a second job at another salon. New clients. Happy clients. Still not enough clients.

One of the salons at which she works is part of a huge chain, internationally known and respected; Grace has to bring in her own products. Executives flew in to commend the staff, telling them that their department had the most service sales and was selling the most products nationwide; they fired the woman who washed the towels to save money. Managers don’t know how to manage. Higher-ups don’t bother to listen to the employees down on the ground. Grace keeps on, though she’s increasingly discouraged about the inefficiency, the infighting, the accelerating shabbiness of the salon, and her paltry bi-monthly paycheck.

Grace only has health insurance because her husband has finally landed a teaching job. He also goes to school, though some semesters he can’t because the state college isn’t accepting anymore students due to budget cuts. Grace often talks about giving up her health insurance since it’s costing her $324 a month and she gets so tired of having to—one more time—call their kindly landlord and ask for a week’s extension. Well, maybe ten days. Yes, that would be great. Thank you so much. (Pride trampled; ego obliterated.)

Like so many politicians and economists recommend, Grace went back to school and learned a new trade (at which she is quite talented). Now, she’s four courses away from completing her Associates Degree. She buys textbooks used because she can’t afford them new. Sometimes she attends classes for over a month before any used texts are available to purchase. She has to take two buses to get to the college library to type her papers, signing in for half an hour at a time because she and her husband can’t afford to get their hand-me-down computer fixed.

She declines friends’ invitations because she can’t afford a whole meal out. She can’t go to a club that has a two drink minimum. She and her husband treat themselves to their favorite taco-stand burritos once a month. They haven’t had a vacation in seven years.

Grace is one of the hardest working people I know. She doesn’t know the words “stop,” “slow down,” or “take a breather.” But she has come to know the meaning of exhaustion, anxiety attacks, depression, and despair.

Grace has a lovely face and a brilliant smile. She’s intelligent, reads the paper, is up to date politically, and is socially conscious. She’s interested in, and can hold her own, on almost any topic. She loves good food. She misses traveling.

Grace has two vocations. She works six-day weeks. She has $300 in savings. She has no retirement account. She still rents. The shoes she wears to work make her feet cold as she walks because they have holes in the soles. She hasn’t bought a new bra in a year and a half.

You wouldn’t realize looking at her that the jeans she’s wearing are one of the two pair that she owns. You wouldn’t realize as you’re talking to her that her underwear is slipping off her thighs because they’ve lost the elastic but she can’t afford to buy more. As you’re discussing politics with her, you’d never guess that she watches the news on a small, bunny-eared 15” t.v. As you moan about the bad economy and complain about being broke, you’d never believe that you have no true idea what broke really means.

You’d never guess that at this very moment Grace’s savings account balance is zero, it’s another nine days until her next paycheck, and she has a ten dollar bill in her pocket.

Grace has ten dollars to her name.

So, Mr. President, Senators, Representatives, and Americans: may I please introduce you to Grace. Do you recognize her? Have you seen her before? Have you smiled and had a bit of a chat? Never guessing, never knowing that…

Grace is a member of a substantial but invisible group in this country.

She’s the working poor.


©2011 Dear America: Do You Know Me? I Am the Working Poor by Kat Ward



15 responses to “Dear America: Do You Know Me? I’m the Working Poor

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  1. Kat, God Bless You for this post. It truly is a strong piece of writing and one that should be sent to every member of Congress. They simply don’t “get it.”

    Today’s “working poor” is yesterday’s “middle class.” Only 2-1/2 years ago, I considered myself part of the “lower middle class.” I was in an executive administrative job and working 50-60 hours a week (on salary), but I live in Florida and most folks know that “social servants” don’t make much money. I had 36 years’ experience in my field, but when in the Dark Ages when I graduated from college, going on for a Master’s degree wasn’t nearly so essential as it is today in the social services.

    In any case, I was able to pay my bills, including a very low mortgage, I had health insurance and I even had money for non-essential spending on occasion. I also helped out my adult daughter when she needed a subsidy. I was “comfortable.” When our state legislature made its 2009 budget cuts, our agency had to make its own cuts. In order to retain staff, most of the administrators took voluntary pay cuts, including me. My annual cut was $6,000. And it hurt. My supervisor and I knew that I was on borrowed time for the next year, because 2010 was projected to be worse.

    It was. I was laid off on June 30, 2010, and lost my benefits. I couldn’t afford COBRA, as the cost to me would have been just under $500 a month. So, I took a crap shot and elected to go without health insurance. To keep my head above water and subsidize my paltry unemployment compensation, I was forced to apply early for Social Security, causing me to forego $600 in additional monthly SSA benefits that I would have received had I retired at 65. Still, I had hope, because I had a great work history and wonderful references. Yeah, right.

    Over the next 10 months, I applied for hundreds of jobs and was interviewed once in person and once over the telephone. Period. During April of this year, I became seriously ill and was hospitalized at the beginning of May. After one week at the local hospital, I was referred across the state to Moffitt Cancer Center where I would spend the next 3 weeks. My diagnosis: Stage 3 cancer.

    I won’t continue on in detail about the past 6 months, but suffice it for me to say this: I am blessed to have had enough education and enough knowledge about bureaucracy and enough personal contacts and enough out-and-out persistence to have survived the Hell that came about as a result of this chain of events. I have had to FIGHT to receive treatment for a life-threatening illness. On a daily basis, I still deal with bureaucratic and systemic stupidity bad enough to make your head spin. If you don’t know how to play the healthcare system like a piano in this country, and if you have a serious or life-threatening illness and no insurance, you are just plain S.O.L. (I am, by the way, authoring a non-fiction book for first-time cancer patients to offer advice about some of these things that no one ever bothers to tell you.)

    As to my creditors, I have learned to “play them,” too. I pay my bills late, but consistently. If I have to decide between paying a bill or putting gas in my car to go to chemotherapy, the gas goes in my car. Most creditors are understanding. To deal with those who aren’t and who persist in calling me and interrupting the sleep that I need, I simply unplug my phone or don’t answer their calls (thank goodness for caller ID). I have one credit card with a $500 max. that I safeguard for emergencies. My retirement funds are exhausted. I did qualify for Social Security Disability which will give me a small increase next month after a 6-month wait. As to Medicare, even when you qualify for SSDI there is a 1-year waiting periods. Whoever dreamed up that requirement didn’t have their head screwed on right.

    Please don’t take any of the above as a “complaint” on my behalf. I truly have been blessed with a circle of family and friends — and even many strangers — who rallied around me and continue to do so. This is a lament for our country’s working poor, and especially for those not as fortunate as I. As Shakespeare once wrote, “Something is rotten in Denmark….” So rotten it stinks!

    To Kat’s readers: I apologize for the lengthiness of my reply and I’m putting away my soapbox.


  2. Excellent article that tells it like really is. So often people don’t know how it is for others and even get frustrated when they cannot live at the level they do. I am well aware what this is like and commend you on the excellent job you have done here.

  3. This has to be the best article I’ve read on this subject, a group I identify with intimately. I have known so many people like this. They are hidden and ashamed because something in our culture makes it seem shameful not to have enough money for the essentials. The advertising, the social pressure, the assumptions people make about hard work equalling financial success…. I have been in this group in the past but I cannot say I am quite in it now. I have enough clothes and food for myself and my family. I have a good job and good freelance prospects. However, vacations are nonexistent, dinners out are rare, and I can’t afford the lavish Christmas the people around me seem to expect this year. People who work hard and struggle to provide necessities for themselves and their children and pay their bills on time always look for the blessings and don’t complain. Staying positive is actually necessary for survival.

    I look forward to reading more of your essays!

  4. Kat…this is a really important piece of writing. Have you considered pitching it to newspapers or magazines? You could keep it as an opinion-piece, or you could put Grace’s voice in there with quotes and stats. I appreciate your compassion and I am so glad to have come across this through SheWrites! MMF

  5. Wow Kat,VERY impressive. As a member of the working poor all of my life, I say Thank You. I have written up articles about my families lives and what we have gone through for example but I think people think I am complaining but I have been trying to get across that we are NOT the only ones. What my life is now is what happens to Grace if she were to become disabled or get terminal cancer. My husband has terminal cancer and is past his death date already so we are grateful for everyday. He worked since he was 18 years old in the worlds largest underground copper mine literally breaking rock ALL of his life. He now has genetic terminal lung cancer and he still isnt allowed to touch his pension because he is too young, in spite of the fact that he will never be old enough to see it even though he earned it with every rock he cut into. As a result our family with our ten year old son is basically begging to meet his insurance premiums that exceed what he gets in his social security check and will NEVER be able to go to Disneyland together nor will I be able to make his last wish of seeing Hawaii come true. People say if you work hard in this country you will succeed, but thats never been true and THAT statement is what has hurt the working poor the most because politicians believe that crap-that if you are poor its because you havent worked hard enough. I DARE ANY ONE OF them to spend ONE shift doing what my husband did all of his life! They wouldnt make an hour! We never asked for extra, we got a lawyer to check out his pension probono so he would be able to use it before he was too sick to care. Its iron clad, he will never see that money and our son will never have the memory of sharing Disneyland with his father for the first time since my husband has never been there either and THAT literally is what eats at me everyday. All because a big corporation doesnt care that he gave his life blood to them, and wont let him have his own money when he is ill. After I became disabled in 06 after being a caregiver for over a decade myself and not finishing college to take care of my dying grandparents,we had been living on his one check but when my husband finally loses his battle with cancer, our son and I are out on the street. THATS the reality of this country and if I hear ONE more time that you will succeed if you only work hard I think Ill go ballistic, NO ONE worked harder than my husband! NO ONE! I hope someone see this somewhere that makes a difference because you wrote exactly what its like.

    • Samantha, I wish you were here right now and I could give you the fiercest hug. Your story is horrific and beyond incredible. Your family deserves every blessing and good wish.

  6. WOW! I am speechless. This was a really great post. I hope it falls into some politicians hands and gets passed around.


  7. wow!! so well written. unfortunately, i don’t see the people that need to really see this – congressmen, president, CEOs, upper management -ever really being subjected to “Grace”. How to do that???

    Grace puts me to shame when I complain about my paltry issues compared to hers!! I would like to send her our computer that is just “sitting” as an extra….how to help all of the “working poor”?

  8. Deep sigh! Grounding. I am, now was, feeling the weight of my own world until reading this post. Now I am feeling greedy for wallowing in my own thoughts. I know each person’s life is the center of the universe and we can’t help but get caught up in ourselves, it’s expected. We have to keep perspective. Thank your for reminding me.

  9. Thank you for giving voice to Grace and those sharing this experience. So much media, so much “connectedness” and yet so difficult to get a true picture of how many people are living like this …

  10. We must counter the talking heads who would have us believe that the poor are lazy. They are not. They are generally the hardest-working people I know. Thank you for sharing Grace’s fierce determination — and for shattering a horrible myth. It’s great to see someone standing up for truth.

    • Thanks, Nadine. I’ve known lazy people—rich and poor. But for the most part, I see people working really, really hard, and not getting very far. Keep hope alive. Thanks for reading. And commenting!

  11. I had to tweet your article. I am so tired of arrogant smug bastards making fun of people’s struggles. I get on twitter and tell them all off. Then I take a break. Thanks for writing this. Hope you’re doing well!

    • Thanks for the tweet-ing (don’t know how to say that). And, I can relate; I go on an email or letter dash, getting in touch with dozens of politicians, etc., and then it’s like I can’t read a paper for a week. Thanks for the help.

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