America: Living Wage, Poverty, and Labor

Erin Brown

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Poverty in Philadelphia
Everyone can recall a time when they have walked through a large metropolis and witnessed a homeless person sitting on the curb begging for spare change. Most of us threw fifty cents in the cup or continued to walk in a futile attempt to clear the disturbing image from our minds. We live in Radnor, an affluent and privileged area where we don’t witness extreme poverty. We reap the benefits from living in a privileged area and receiving an outstanding education. If we drove 45 minutes to Chester or North Philadelphia, we would be faced with a much different reality. According to, Philadelphia has the nation’s highest rate of ‘deep’ poverty out of the ten most populous cities. Living in deep poverty is “having an income half or below the federal poverty level”. An estimated 185,000 Philadelphians are living in deep poverty, including 60,000 children. How are so many people living in poverty? In order to find the answer, we must look back to the redesigning of the American welfare program in the 1970’s.
        A Brief History of Welfare in America
The origins of the “living wage” go back to the revamping of the American welfare system in the 1970’s-1990’s. Poverty was promoted by Michael Harrington’s book “The Other America: Poverty in the United States”. Harrington made the claim that 40-50 million Americans, or 20-25% of the nation’s population, were living in poverty. This book spurred a nationwide frenzy to reform welfare and dramatically decrease poverty rates. Ronald Reagan promoted the refinement of the welfare system, since the current system run by the AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children) had no mandates for recipients to prove they had a job.  Bill Clinton attempted a welfare reform in order to  develop childcare programs and create career placement assistance. However, in 1994, Republicans gained control of Congress and passed TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families); TANF changed how states managed welfare and cut the budget for education and training. The law was successful at first but, around the early 2000’s, the poverty rate began to increase.TANF changed the rules on how states managed welfare and cut the budget for education and training. TANF was successful at first but around the early 2000’s the poverty rate began to increase at an alarming rate. The government has programs such as CHIP and ETIC to  provide benefits to the working members of the nation’s lower class. If you do not have a job then you are out of luck.
Living Wage in Philadelphia
MIT created a living wage calculator which compares the minimum wage to the “living wage” based on your geographical location. The average family of four (2 adults and 2 children) in the Greater Philadelphia Area need a living wage of $24.10 dollars an hour, but the minimum wage in Pennsylvania is $7.25 an hour. did an interview with a native Philadelphian, Dorothy Caban, who has been living in Philadelphia for 42 years. 7 years ago, Caban fell into deep poverty. As a result, the Social Security Administration provides her with $740 a month, or $8,880 a year. $8,880 is not enough for Caban to support herself and her  three children. Caban lacks the skills to get a job and did not graduate high school. Many of us are focused on curing poverty in Africa or visiting foreign countries in order to help the underprivileged living there, and we turn a blind eye to poverty less than 45 minutes away. How is taking a mission trip justifiable when there are people living in you area who can’t afford food?
Poverty and the Living Wage
The living wage and poverty tie in well with this month’s Radnorite theme “Labor”. Americans who live below the poverty line struggle to find a job. The real tragedy is once Americans find a job they cannot make enough money to support themselves. This has a ripple effect because their children are more likely to struggle in school, have health problems, and experience difficulties leaving their socio-economic class. Last spring, Pennsylvania Senator Daylin Leach introduced a bill to raise the state minimum wage to $15 an hour. Leach said, “If the minimum wage had kept pace with labor productivity, it would now be over $21 an hour”.  Having a bill introduced is a small step for raising the minimum wage and important recognition that millions of Americans are seriously struggling financially.
If you are interested in reading more about poverty and the “living wage” I recommend…
Living Wage: “$2.00 A Day”
While I was researching the living wage and poverty in America, I read several reviews about a book called “$2.00 a Day” by Kathryn J. Edin and H. Luke Schaefer. For the past ten years Edin and Schaefer have been going across the country interviewing impoverished Americans. They have compiled research and stories in an attempt to explain why 1.5 million Americans are living on $2.00 a day. Many Americans who live below the poverty line are supported by SNAP.  SNAP provides support for basic needs but not enough funds to pay rent or support a large family. Edin and Schaefer have come across impoverished Americans who have donated plasma for grocery funds and are living homeless shelter to homeless shelter.
For more information on “Two Dollars a Day” go here: