Working poor struggle to survive in USA FWD

Tom Boland (
Tue, 25 May 1999 12:57:09 -0700 (PDT)

The USA can't afford to end poverty and homelessness, right?

"According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, the fair-market
value of a two-bedroom apartment in Bergen County [NJ] is $910 a month. To
afford that rent and pay taxes and other expenses, a person on minimum wage
would have to work 136 hours a week." - from article below
FWD  Bergen Record [New Jersey, USA] - Thursday, May 20, 1999


By Rev. Wayne Holcomb

     I know of a man who faced a hard decision. His job didn't pay enough
for him to meet the rent for his room and living expenses and also cover
the cost of his child-support payments.

     He chose to pay child support and failed to make a rental payment or
two. He got locked out of his room and ended up in a homeless shelter, from
which he still makes his way to work.

     Each of us experiences various degrees of healthy and unhealthy stress
as we go about the tasks of our lives. Healthy stress occurs when we exert
ourselves to reach a goal we want or when we are challenged toward growth
by someone else or because of a difficult circumstance.

     Unhealthy stress can occur if we overexert ourselves. It can be
"manufactured" stress like that of a workaholic who may need to
reevaluate his or her originally desired goals. But unhealthy stress can
result when an external challenge toward growth becomes a threat to one's
well-being or survival.

     A typical American family experiences stresses related to finances,
parenting, time constraints, and even job security. But if you are reading
this column, chances are you can, at least, afford this issue of The Record
and you have the time and privacy to read it. There are, however, about
5,000 other Bergen County citizens -- including co-workers and your
children's classmates -- whose circumstances and level of stress put them
into another world.

     When the average Bergen County resident thinks of "the homeless" the
image of street people probably comes to mind. The man whose story
introduced this article is now among them. Although it's true that many of
the street homeless have problems with addictions or mental illness, it is
also true that a number of them hold regular but low-paying jobs. Their
kind and level of stress are different from most of ours. They are fighting
to survive.

      I met one man, for instance, who declined the offer of shelter during
a winter night because it was too far from his minimum-wage job, which he
needed to get to early the next morning. Not only was he concerned about
job security, he was also concerned about his physical and personal
security that night, and about finding a safe and warm shelter closer to
his job for the next night.

     About half the homeless here are children. Long-term family shelters
in Bergen County house families who, for instance, have experienced
domestic violence, the loss of a job by the breadwinner, or a sudden
expense (such as medical) that could not be met by the family's income.

     A number of hidden homeless families in Bergen County are living with
relatives and friends, sometimes moving from place to place to ease the
burden on their hosts and to protect them from being caught for lease

     These parents, like more economically secure parents, worry about
their children and how well they are doing in school, especially if
settings for study and homework are inadequate.

     But these parents have other worries, too. One single mother of four,
with a steady office job and opportunities for advancement, is having
difficulty locating affordable housing near her job and her children's
schools, even though she has been approved for a rent subsidy through HUD's
Section 8 program. She is at risk of having this approval terminated since
it has been extended at least twice.

      Other families, particularly those living with relatives and friends,
worry about putting food on their children's plates. Because host families
often do not have enough income to feed the additional mouths in the
household, some hidden but sheltered homeless individuals and families
frequent area food pantries and feeding programs.

     These individuals and families experience unhealthy stress because of
real threats to their survival and well-being. But homeless people
experience manufactured" stress as well. They, like other Americans, have
the expectation that they must compete along with others to secure basic
needs like food, shelter, and health care.

     These things are not rights; they are earned commodities. Since
homeless people have not been successful in earning these commodities basic
for survival, their self-esteem is diminished, and they experience shame.

      This kind of stress is bolstered by many of the rest of us who, by
our attitudes and behavior, reinforce their sense of shame. This is often
the case with the general public, but can also be found in homeless service
agencies and among volunteers who do not understand the apparent lack of
gratitude among some of the homeless.

     Shame makes you want to deny your circumstances. It makes you want to
become invisible, to run and hide. And when it is linked to an inability to
provide for your own and your family's basic needs, shame makes you angry.

     The failure of many to compete successfully for commodities like
shelter results in stress that is "manufactured" because the field of
competition is not designed fairly. One set of players has salaries or
wages linked to the general economy while the other set's wages are set by
a national policy (minimum wage) that is not linked to the economy in the
same way as the first set's.

     The cost of commodities, however, is the same for all. According to
the National Low Income Housing Coalition, the fair-market value of a
two-bedroom apartment in Bergen County is $910 a month. To afford that rent
and pay taxes and other expenses, a person on minimum wage would have to
work 136 hours a week. That kind of effort, by any standard, is

     All of us will experience unhealthy stresses throughout our lives. But
if we understand ourselves to be God's community, not belonging only to
ourselves, then we will understand that what affects our neighbor affects

     And we will know that we can work together toward eliminating the
causes of the worst of these stressors in ourselves and in our society.

The Rev. Wayne C. Holcomb is a Presbyterian minister working with the
Interreligious Fellowship for the Homeless of Bergen County and also serves
at the First Presbyterian Church in Garfield.


**In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. section 107, this material is
distributed without charge or profit to those who have expressed a prior
interest in receiving this type of information for non-profit research and
educational purposes only.**

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