Magazine

What Can Be Done For The Working Poor


Just last week, I told my husband I was disappointed with the lack of press coverage of the working poor in America. It's not a pleasant story to tell, and therefore I appreciate BusinessWeek's candid addressing of the issue ("Working...and poor," Cover Story, May 31). I've been aware of the problem since I started working at my church's food pantry a year and a half ago. With a congregation of 500, the church serves 50 to 60 families a week. The recipients are regular people who work hard and play by the rules but just can't make ends meet. The working poor are a silent but significant group. Thanks for making their voice heard.

Jen Pulins

Romeoville, Ill.

As a member of the working poor myself, I have some advice: If you want to improve your standard of living, don't expect your job to change. Instead, change your job! Go back to school, and earn marketable skills. As a $200-a-week part-time supermarket cashier, I took one look at the $1,600-a-week paycheck our retail pharmacists were making and said to myself: "I am getting the hell out of here and going to pharmacy school!"

The good news is that my employer, Publix Super Markets Inc., pays tuition reimbursement for my pre-pharmacy courses at our local community college. It also offers $1,500 a year in tuition assistance for the doctor of pharmacy program itself and a chance for high-wage employment when I graduate. As long as I continue to work 20 hours a week, they will pay my health insurance and contribute to my 401(k) and retirement stock accounts.

Karen M. Linz

Dunedin, Fla.

Your article was very good but left out one important element: housing. More than 10 million families are paying in excess of 50% of their incomes for housing. Housing is the largest single cost item for working families, and the cost of housing available to them continues to rise faster than their incomes.

Due to NIMBYism (Not in My Back Yard), exclusionary zoning practices, and outdated building codes, there is little incentive to provide affordable housing.

I would strongly urge the authors to add affordable housing to their "what can be done" list.

Robert J. Reid

President and CEO

Center for Housing Policy

Washington

"Working...and poor" makes sweeping generalizations about Wal-Mart Stores' (WMT) effect on jobs. Our wages compare favorably with union and nonunion retailers. We also offer a 401(k) plan, profit sharing, store discount cards, performance-based bonuses, and company-paid life insurance. More than half of our associates own stock through our discounted-purchase program.

More than 90% of our associates have medical coverage; approximately half of these are covered by the Wal-Mart plan. Since more than two-thirds of our associates are college students, senior citizens, or second-income providers in their families, an additional 40% already have coverage from another source.

"The Wal-Mart effect" you reference also included promoting 9,000 hourly associates into salaried management positions every year, and most of these jobs do not require a college degree. Two-thirds of our managers started this way.

Mona Williams

Vice-President for Communications

Wal-Mart Stores Inc.

Bentonville, Ark.

You attribute lack of education and opportunity as the major factors that hold people back from entering the middle class. I would like to know how you can explain the many success stories of first-generation immigrants from all over the world who come to this land with nothing but the shirts on their backs. Countless first-generation immigrants who do not speak a word of English, many without the support of friends and relatives, transform themselves into business owners and top professionals.

Success requires hard work and perseverance, not largesse from taxpayers.

Johnny W. Ng

Long Beach, Calif.

Twenty-six years ago, as a newlywed college graduate, I supported my husband -- barely -- through graduate school on a lab technician's salary that was slightly above minimum wage. My pay just covered rent, utilities, my own HMO costs, groceries, car insurance, and gas. If we had to repeat this strategy today, we couldn't make it. Until our country focuses attention and resources on affordable housing and health care, the plight of the Katrina Gills, Joseph Schiraldis, and Columbus Harrises will only multiply.

Jennifer Grant Prileson

Tucson

Would it not be a better idea to make the Earned Income Tax Credit more generous than to raise the minimum wage? Increasing the latter could send additional jobs overseas, would put upward pressure on the consumer price index, and might cause some small business owners to offer less employment, possibly by working harder themselves or pressing other family members to help out more.

Jetson E. Lincoln

Montclair, N.J.

The minimum wage needs to be raised so the poor can have health care. However, this needs to be done carefully so that the extra "raise" is invested properly. The 30% correction for inflation since 1968 would amount to about $1.55 per hour. This increase, or a somewhat larger one, would not be paid directly to workers. Instead, employers would remit directly into a single, government-controlled fund to provide health insurance, essentially eliminating the "emergency room" approach currently used by the poor.

Bruno Morosin

Albuquerque

It was interesting to compare the lot of poorer workers in the U.S. and Britain: The British minimum wage is $8.10, rising to $8.80 this October (vs. $5.15 in U.S.). All workers receive paid overtime at premium rates. All workers receive a minimum of 20 days paid vacation -- typically closer to 30 days. All workers must by law receive up to 28 weeks paid sick leave -- the minimum sick pay by law is $25 per day, but typically it is much higher. All workers (and their families) are entitled to free health care -- even if the system's not perfect! All children 3 to 5 receive over $2,000 per year in child-care vouchers (good for five half-days per week). Thus we go some way to alleviate many of the problems described in your article.

Keith Appleyard, CEO

Fiveways Playgroup

Brighton, England

The cover featured the line, "One in four workers earns $18,800 a year or less.... What can be done?" Simple: Tie executives' pay to a multiple of the salary of the lowest-paid worker in the company.

Israel Jacobs

New York


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