For working poor, hope of escaping poverty seems lost Minimum-wage job is insufficient for family expenses

December 09, 1990|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Sun Staff Correspondent

SALISBURY -- It is the country's grand sham: So many of its poor believe they can work their way out of poverty.

For many poor in rural areas, a job often shackles them to destitution; it does not lift them out. The pay is too low for them to get ahead, too high for them to get government assistance. Their wages cover rent or food or clothes for their family, but not all of those.

They lurch from one overdue bill to the next, reporting grimly each day to the hard jobs, the tedious and dangerous jobs, where security is scarce and benefits scanty. Any new misfortune sends them reeling.

Yet they keep working.

Nearly two out of three poor rural families include at least one person in a job. The only bigger myth than the promise of the work ethic is the image of country poor sitting lazy and idle on their porch steps, waiting for the government check.

* Take Jane Robinson. She walks every afternoon from the outskirts of Salisbury to take a company bus to a chicken processing plant in rural Berlin, where she pulls contaminated birds from the assembly line, tags them and dumps them in a tub.

She pays $40 a week to have a baby sitter watch her three youngsters every evening, $70 a week in rent, and $12 each week to ride the company bus. Total: $122, before she has bought a loaf of bread for food, paid the utility bills or got shoes for the children.

Her average take-home pay each week for the past three weeks: $94. She could make more on welfare. "My grandma said, 'You best quit and get on public assistance.' But I don't believe in welfare. I want to work," said the 23-year-old woman.

If the chicken line kept moving, she could make more money. But the plant sends everyone home when the batch is processed, usually with only five or six hours' pay. Her estranged husband's child support might at least pay the utilities, but his check has not arrived lately.

* Take James and Edna Thomas. Mr. Thomas is a hard-working, churchgoing maintenance man at a clam processing plant. The couple live with their four children and Mrs. Thomas' brother in a small, worn-down house on the edge of a soybean field outside Pocomoke City.

They are trying to protect their family. Mrs. Thomas said her brother drinks and will not leave the house, which belonged to their parents. She is adamant about getting her children away from a household of alcohol and tension.

But her husband's $6-an-hour pay would not stretch to cover rent anywhere else. It just keeps the family in food and clothes, heat and water, and pays for the car Mr. Thomas needs to get to work.

"I'm going to step out on faith," vows Mrs. Thomas. "I don't want my family here."

* Or take Charlotte Hitchens. Because her husband, Johnnie, works -- for a company that lays underground cable -- they cannot qualify for a public assistance medical card. The job has no health insurance, and they cannot afford it on their own.

In October, Mr. Hitchens, 47, had a heart attack.

"The hospital already called me wanting a substantial down payment," said Mrs. Hitchens, on the day her husband underwent heart surgery. "I said, 'Ma'am, where do you think I'm going to get it? The one who was the main bread-winner of the house is laying back in your hospital.' "

More worrisome is their immediate fate. The Hitchenses live with their two young children and Mrs. Hitchens' grandmother in a cramped, two-bedroom apartment in rural Pittsville. While Mr. Hitchens is off work recovering, they cannot afford the $135-a-week rent. The landlady is understanding, said Mrs. Hitchens, but the family could become homeless.

"I don't know. I don't know what will happen," said Mrs. Hitchens, sobbing. "God knows I've worked so hard to make a home. I don't want to lose it."

The chances are not good for any of these families. Where employment once was a remedy for poverty, it is no longer sufficient to cure it. The economics are out of kilter: Good-paying rural occupations like mining and timber have faltered, replaced -- if at all -- by low-wage manufacturing and service jobs.

Wages have dropped, but costs have risen. According to one survey,more than three out of four rural poor families pay more than 30 percent of their income for housing, the government standard for "affordability." Some pay 70 percent. Food at small country stores often costs more.

And if the poor have a job to get to, they usually have the cost of owning a car to get there.

Ironically, because many rural poor work and own a house of some sort, they pay taxes that are high in proportion to their income.

The minimum wage jobs no longer keep them above poverty, according to a study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, full-time work at the minimum wage paid enough to lift a family of three above the poverty line, the study found. But by 1989, that job would leave such a family 30 percent below the poverty line.

The minimum wage rose to $3.80 an hour on April 1, the first increase in nine years.

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