Sixteen years-old and frightened, a young girl sits in a doctor’s office, the office of an obstetrician/gynecologist to be exact, ready to receive the news that will change her life forever. Too young to realize the consequences that will resonate throughout her life, she has made a life-altering decision that leaves her with a child and an uphill struggle against poverty. Upon her entry into high school this girl dreamed of college, a career, and later a family. Now the order has been reversed as she takes on a new role—mother. This role will keep her from graduating from high school, leaving her without a thorough education, which will keep her from having a well-paying career, and she will face struggle after struggle to support her child.
It has often been believed that hard work will lead to financial success. The underprivileged look to figures such as Andrew Carnegie and an enticing story of rags to riches. Americans turn their eyes toward a dream of being a great entrepreneur and establishing a legacy of wealth. The typical citizen believes that with hard work, obstacles can be overcome with a life of luxury as the prize. Unexpected obstacles, such as pregnancy at a young age, are not calculated into this dream. In addition, society tells us that the poor are in a state of poverty because the lower class is not willing to do the hard work that is necessary to acquire any kind of high-esteemed position. This, however, is not the case.
A single mother, like the sixteen year-old girl, can work long hours and multiple jobs but still not make an adequate amount of money to support her child. Poverty exists in a cyclical fashion, as David Shipler shows:
A run-down apartment can exacerbate a child’s asthma, which leads to a call for an ambulance, which generates a medical bill that cannot be paid, which ruins a credit record, which hikes the interest rate on an auto loan, which forces the purchase of an unreliable used car, which jeopardizes a mother’s punctuality at work, which limits her promotions and earning capacity, which confines her to poor housing (11).
Something must be done to aid the girl so that she might provide for her new baby. However, segregation exists between the various income levels in America. The wealthy have little to no interaction with the financially unstable, yet according to Barbara Ehrenreich:
the affluent exert inordinate power over the lives of the less affluent, and especially over the lives of the poor, determining what public services will be available, if any, what minimum wage, what laws governing the treatment of labor (216).
Our single mother needs some sort of government aid to take care of herself and her child. She and other individuals need important economic policies to be enacted but have little power, and she is quite possibly politically apathetic (due to insufficient education and a lack of resources), and thus ill-equipped to make important political decisions to better her situation. American politicians are people of great wealth, individuals who can run expensive campaigns, resulting in the formation of an elite group of decision-makers designing policy for a people from a lifestyle dissimilar of their own. These individuals face a different kind of work than the young mother.
Work exists in every aspect of life. In Doing Nothing Ken Cmiel writes about his quest as a young man to adopt the art of nothingness. His quest was to survive without having to work. His definition of work seems to be employment because in his attempt to avoid work he did vast amounts of labor such as tending his own garden and building the various supplies that were demanded. He was doing great loads of work but without fiscal compensation. Similarly, migrant farm workers perform demanding physical labor in exasperatingly high temperatures with very little compensation. The sixteen year-old girl with an infant works on her feet all day long serving people at a restaurant and comes home to a hungry child that needs constant care and attention. This girl’s work is never ending. On the other side of the spectrum is the white collar professional that sits indoors with air conditioning processing paperwork, as opposed to the migrant farm worker who is out in the field. The amount of effort that is put into each job is completely relative. All are difficult occupations. One individual may consider physical labor more demanding than intellectual labor while another may disagree. However, the level of compensation differs drastically and the single mother along with the migrant worker is living at or below the poverty level.
Work is present even when great effort is put forth in the avoidance of work, so why is poverty such a prevalent problem in the United States? First, the American welfare program is poorly enacted. Welfare is a good program in theory. It was devised to keep a person out of poverty and at a livable standard until a stable foundation can be established. Unfortunately, it does not help the individual work toward independence and self-reliance. Instead, it provides a wage and food stamps to allow for stable living that, while important, does not solve one’s economic problem but merely makes it more comfortable. While the U.S. government has taken steps toward welfare reform, and has made progress, it is not enough. Many are still living without the proper education to accomplish career advancements. Good, efficient welfare reform is greatly overdue. The less affluent are in desperate need of programs to further their education, and need to be taught effective skills in finance, investment, and trade. Steps need to be taken to pull citizens out of poverty and to direct them to a far more promising life in the middle-class where financial security can be established. A plethora of initiative programs need to be enacted in order to solve the poverty epidemic that plagues the United States.
Cmiel, Ken. “Doing Nothing.” The Contrary Reader: Part One. Ed. Randall J. VanderMey. (2006): 41-55.
Ehrenreich, Barbara. “Nickel and Dimed.” The Contrary Reader: Part One (2006): 214-221.
Shipler. “At the Edge of Poverty.” The Contrary Reader: Part One (2006): 3-12.