How You Can Work Full Time and Still Live in Poverty

In this post April Schueths outlines the unique challenges facing working poor families in the US as well as potential policy solutions.

I want to tell you a story about Ashley and Ty, and their infant daughter, Brianna[1]. The Hunts live in a small rural Southeastern town in Georgia with few job prospects. Ashley didn’t graduate from high school and Ty has a GED. Like many in their community, times have been tough. For several months they have been rotating between friends and family member’s couches. On a couple of nights they’ve ended up sleeping in their car. Last year they rented a small apartment for several months after they got their tax refund but they just couldn’t keep up with the bills. Because of the lack of stable nighttime housing, by some definitions this family is considered homeless.

Would you be surprised to know that Ty has a job working on a small farm but only makes minimum wage, $5.15 per hour? This means his household income is slightly over $10,000 per year. This is well below the poverty line. For a family of three in 2015, their household income would need to be above $20,090 per year to no longer be living in poverty. They would have to be earning nearly $41,000 per year to move out of the low-income bracket altogether (i.e., be above 200% of poverty).

“But I thought that minimum wage was $7.25 per hour?” you may be thinking. It is true that the federal minimum wage went up to $7.25 in 2009, however, Georgia and Wyoming, decided to keep the state minimum wages at $5.15. Federal law requires all states to pay the federal minimum wage for some workers. Even earning $7.25 per hour would bring their household income up to about $14,500, still well below the poverty line.

Who Are The Working Poor?

The Hunt family is what sociologists refer to as the working poor, “people who cannot make enough income to be free from poverty even if, as many do, they work full-time” (Torche, Arum, and Manza 2013, 253). Beyond pay, another challenge for the working poor is that jobs are more likely to be temporary and are often less than full-time. This makes saving money and getting ahead a crapshoot. Many families are one step away from a crisis. If Ty get’s sick or doesn’t have working transportation, this may mean the end of the position.

According to the Working Poor Families Project one in three families in the United States are in the working poor and this rate is much higher for racial and ethnic minorities and women. Unfortunately, the number of low-income working families has increased in recent years. To learn more about how social structure is creating this growth in the working poor see this previous Sociology In Focus essay.

I should mention, Ashley hasn’t had much luck finding consistent work that pays enough to cover childcare; there just aren’t that many good paying jobs in her community, especially for someone without a high school diploma or GED.

What We Can do to Reduce Poverty

In addition to raising the minimum wage to a living wage, the Working Poor Families Project (Brandon, 2008, 6) has offered other federal policy solutions:

  • Increase the number of working adults enrolled in and successfully completing education and skills-development programs.
  • Improve wages, benefits and supports for low-income working families and increase the number of good jobs.
  • Regularly assess the challenges of America’s working families and government policies on their behalf.
  • Focus the nation’s attention on increasing economic opportunities for low-income working families.

What we’ve learned from Ashley and Ty’s family is that even people who work hard are at risk of being poor. State and federal policies, such as offering workers a living wage, among other things, can impact the lives of everyday families. To be sure, individuals who work a consistent full-time job are less likely to live in poverty however this is not a guarantee.

Dig Deeper:

  1. Check out Minimum Wage Mythbusters, a document originally created originally by US Department of Labor. Discuss at least two new facts you learned. If you’re already knowledgeable about this topic, discuss at least two facts that most people would be surprised to learn.
  2. The Ashley and Ty Hunt may be eligible for some social welfare benefits. Do a google search for your state and determine at least two state or federal benefits the family may qualify for. Be sure to specify how you know the family qualifies. How easy was it to find this information? Explain.
  3. Some have argued that people who are willing to work full-time shouldn’t be poor. Using what you’ve learned in sociology, respond to this statement.
  4. Go to the Working Poor Families Project. Besides raising the minimum wage, describe at least two state policy strategies for helping low-income working families.

  1. Ashley and Ty are not real people, but rather they are an illustrative example of the circumstances many working poor people face today. I created their story using the available sociological research on working poor families and also my years of social work experience working with working poor families.  ↩