Posted Oct 06, 2022 8:36 AM
By Patricia Jones, Alliance Community Task Force: Creating Opportunity
What causes poverty? We like to convince ourselves that people who are poor deserve to be poor. Their situation is caused by their poor decisions. Spending more than a person earns. Dropping out of school. Not working at a decent job. Becoming addicted – to alcohol or drugs, gambling. Their poverty is their choice, their fault. This is hardly ever true.
We should not forget the role exploitation has in creating, and continuing poverty. Many who live in poverty are there because of their race, gender, age, disability, immigration status, or gender identity. People in these categories are often at the mercy of those with more power and influence who see them as property rather than as humans.
Let’s look at employment opportunities. How often do we hear of businesses that exploit minorities, especially undocumented residents? They pay far lower wages than the type of work merits. They might not provide benefits, or work people 34 hours a week so benefits don’t have to be offered. They might overcharge for things like uniforms or food. Businesses often require workers to clock out but return to finish tasks so overtime will not be paid. Working conditions are unsafe, but reporting problems would lead to dismissal.
Another problem with employment is calling people “independent contractors.” This means the employer does not have to pay any benefits like insurance or retirement, or even their share of social security. There is no overtime, no worker’s compensation, no unemployment compensation, and no guarantee of hours. In large cities, lumberyards have “day laborers” lined up to help with construction projects, all as independent contractors. Ride share companies like Uber and Lyft employ independent contractors as drivers, even if they work full time at that job.
Many people think there is a benefit to being salaried, and they jump at the chance when offered this option by their employers. Only later do they realize they are now expected to work over 40 hours per week, not only without overtime pay, but without any pay at all for those extra hours.
What happens when we have economic downturns? Who gets laid off? Five employees at the bottom of the wage scale who actually do the work for the company or institution, or one person in management who earns the same as they did – combined?
Why are so many exploited? Remember tyranny of the moment? Many people in poverty live paycheck to paycheck. When people have no extra cash and no extra time, they don’t have good choices available to them and have to accept whatever someone offers. When they cannot afford a car, they have to live near their job or on a bus line. When they have children, they have to work around school schedules or whether they can find child care.
So many people in poverty are marginalized by employers who take advantage of their situation. They rationalize it by thinking it’s a person’s own fault; that s/he deserves to be poor.