August Is No Recess When Working Poor

Garbage Picker at Work

Garbage Picker at Work

School is out for Iowans who work yet remain on the margins of society.

There is no recess from the constant demand to secure basic needs of food, shelter and clothing. The add-on expenses of transportation, health care, interest on loans, and servicing addictions? It’s a question of what gets priority each week.

Last summer I wrote about two issues: how work is not valued adequately and how compensation is a murky endeavor at best. There is a third: the resilience of people who work and are poor.

This August I work four jobs writing, in retail, and on two farms. After a 25-year career in transportation and logistics, our family balance sheet looks better than most of my low-wage peers. I can afford the experience. I’m one of the few workers who keeps a balance sheet because most live paycheck to paycheck sustaining their lives with inadequate income. I don’t see how people can make it, but they do.

I’m cautious when writing about peers because my narrative is grounded in real people with lives. It is important to show respect and maintain their privacy. I won’t write about anyone with whom I am currently working unless they already are a public figure. That rules out most everyone.

A significant number of my peers are aged 14 through 18 and live at home with parents or grandparents. Their money is spent on personal expenses and they are full of confidence and hope — enough so to be inspiring. There are also spouses and significant others where the partner works a big job with benefits and their low wage income adds to the household. There are the “special people” whose stories are so different they garner attention easily.

The person living in a car with her dog, boarding her horse with a co-worker while figuring out what to do next; the woman in an abusive relationship attempting to hide bruises with makeup; the man who has trouble standing for a shift on a concrete floor yet tolerates it because he needs the income; the small-time loan shark recently arrived from Chicago who heard from friends there are jobs and cheap living in the Cedar Rapids – Iowa City corridor. These stories capture the imagination, but in my view are too “special.” I’d rather write about plain folk like myself. My takeaway is no one who works for low wages has given up and that too is inspiring.

Many of us have lives where there is more to do than time allows. We have to set priorities. Approaching Medicare age it is hard for me to keep up with everything while working fours jobs. I don’t. Mowing the lawn falls to the bottom of the list and the long grass becomes habitat for birds and small animals. The garden is producing with abundance and I struggle to preserve enough of it for winter before it goes to compost. I have trouble staying awake on my daily drive across the lakes to work in Coralville. My challenges aren’t unique. The thing is I’ve worked a big job with benefits and wouldn’t go back for anything.

Once a person accepts the decency of most people, and what we share in interests, working poor are no longer a cipher or story for journalists and social scientists. They are one of us, more than we acknowledge.

If August is no recess, life is still pretty good because there are people who behave as if the amount of money we make is less important than seeking ways to help each other get along. That is as good as it gets.

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