Why Jobs Without Livable Wages Still Aren’t Enough

Mar 4, 2022

Poverty is a vicious cycle.

In our neighborhood, 9.3% of Kensington residents are unemployed – this in comparison to Philadelphia and Pennsylvania, with overall unemployment rates of 7.5% and 4.5% respectively. It’s easy to imagine how those who are experiencing joblessness would also find themselves living at poverty level.

But what of those individuals and families whose full-time jobs are still not enough to pay all the bills at the end of the month? How is it that more than a quarter of our neighbors in the city we call home continue to live at poverty level?

In truth, 25.9% of Philadelphia residents live in poverty. With an unemployment rate of 7.5%, that means that 18.4% of our neighbors experience poverty because they work jobs without livable wages.

Take another set of numbers, this time around minimum-wage pay:

The current federal minimum wage is $7.25. That means that a full-time minimum wage worker earns $15,080 a year. Thankfully, 29 states, including Pennsylvania, have their own minimum wages. In our state, minimum wage is $12 (and will be going up to $15 by this summer); as such, one of our neighbors working a full-time minimum wage job instead earns $23,400 a year.

But median rents increased by 54% in our neighborhood this last year, to $1,350 a month. No longer does the 30% rule apply when housing is nearly 70% of one’s overall income.

It’s easy to then see how or why a person has to work multiple minimum wage jobs just to try and pay the bills. It’s easy to see how one of our neighbors might have to pick and choose which bills get paid, or how a working parent getting paid poverty-level wages would struggle when 30% of their income goes to child care.

It’s easy to see how poverty can become such a vicious cycle.

According to a report from the Coalition on Human Needs, “low wage workers are in jobs that are insecure and make it virtually impossible for them to invest in education or training, or to buy a car, to get a better job. In addition, studies have found that low-wages have particularly harmful effects on families, children, and workers’ health, which, in turn, are additional barriers to workers getting better jobs.”

But as Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis reminds us, the poor are God’s people, just as the poor remain the center of God’s concern. We cannot “ignore that Jesus was a leader of a revolutionary movement of the poor who, rather than mitigating the unfortunate inevitability of poverty, called for a movement to transform heaven and earth.”

Might it be the same in each of our neighborhoods, as we work toward transformation for and with our neighbors.

Perhaps then this vicious cycle will start to cease.

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