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Working poor

Antje Passenheim / gbJanuary 27, 2014

Former US President Lyndon Johnson launched a fight against poverty. 50 years later, President Obama wants social justice. But students at an adult school in Washington haven't noticed much of either.

Classroom of adults learning to read and write in the USA
Image: DW/A.Passenheim

"Most of the adults who take part in our programs are either unemployed or have really poorly paid part-time jobs," explains Lecester Johnson, the director of the Academy of Hope in the US capital. "We have students who have three or four jobs just to get by."

The adult education facility is just a stone's throw from Congress in one of the richest cities in the world. At the Academy of Hope, the adult students are learning the basic 3Rs – reading, writing and arithmetic – and hoping to earn a high school diploma some day – to get a better job and escape the vicious circle of poverty.

"About 25 percent of the people in this country are leaning toward illiteracy. Here, in the capital, it's estimated that around 85,000 cannot read properly," says Johnson.

Earning a living wage

A term often used to describe these people is 'the working poor' - people who have a job, but can't make ends meet with their meager income.

Lecester Johnson, director of the Academy of Hope in Washington
One quarter of all Americans are illiterate, says Lecester Johnson from the Academy of HopeImage: DW/A.Passenheim

This group has mushroomed in the United States in the last decade, even as the official unemployment statistics have fallen. It is, in fact, not hard to find a job in the US, but living off that income is another matter entirely.

Roughly a quarter of all Americans works for less than 10 dollars an hour (7 euros). The national minimum wage is currently $7.25 – impossible to feed a family with that, says Carlita Johnson, one of the students at the academy. "I spend 350 to 400 dollars for food [a month], because my grandkids come over a lot to eat – that's half of my salary," she says.

Most of Carlita's friends are just scraping by because they have more than one job. In the US, it's expensive to be poor. Everything costs money: the trip to work, health insurance, food. The price for all these things has been going up for years, while the minimum wage has stagnated – and that makes Carlita angry. "The poor are getting poorer. The rich are getting richer," she grumbles.

Prosperity and opportunity unevenly distributed

Growing poverty is particularly a problem for less educated Americans, notes Timothy Smeeding, a poverty researcher at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

Carlita Johnson is a student at the Academy of Hope in Washington
'The poor are getting poorer, the rich are getting richer,' says student Carlita JohnsonImage: DW/A.Passenheim

"If you have a child before you're 30, if you have no education and no stable family, then you are going to have a tough time," he explains. "70 percent of all American men are fathers by the time they're 30. But only half of them live with their children," he says.

Nearly half of all children in the richest country in the world grow up in poverty, according to statistics. Without school lunches and food stamps these children would not have enough to eat.

The US used to be a country in which the next generation did better than the one before, but that is no longer true, says Smeeding. Today, middle class families are worse off than they were at the end of the 1990s. "In every new generation there is more inequality, fewer opportunities and less prosperity."

More education and life-long learning

The so-called "education gap" in the US is also an issue for Judy Berman, deputy director of DCAppleseed. Her organization is dedicated to the interests of the working poor. It conducts research and lobbies for better laws; for example, to raise the minimum wage, as President Obama has called for.

In Washington, the city council has increased the minimum wage to $11.50. But living costs in the capital are so high that a full-time job with that salary is not enough for a family to live on. The problem is that there are just too few well-paying jobs out there, says Berman. "We have jobs and we have people. But the education people have doesn't fit the jobs available."

Judy Berman, deputy director of DCAppleseed
For Judy Berman the 'education gap' needs to be closedImage: DW/A.Passenheim

Closing this gap, says Berman, has not been one of the strong points of her country: "I think one of the weakest points in the fight against poverty during the Johnson administration in the 1960s was that too little attention was paid to employment. Now, we are in a situation where the job market needs more than just well-trained young people. The existing workforce also needs to be sufficiently well-trained."

Carlita Johnson has already demonstrated in front of the Capitol building with other students. She knows that she is not alone in the fight for more social justice. "I'm speaking for millions - millions like me," she says.

Carlita will be getting here high school diploma this autumn. And if everything goes well, she will soon be a therapist and no longer a member of the working poor – one of the few to have made it.