Minnesota Public Radio
By: Jessica Sundheim
June 29, 2010
Fergus Falls, Minn. -- People who work 37 hours a week for $7.50 per hour are not lazy.
They are not standing 37 hours per week, smiling in the face of petty complaints about coupons, working every other weekend as required, and paying half of their income for child care so that they can "game the system." They are not cashing in $40 per month of WIC vouchers with a smile of satisfaction.
Until I went back to school full time this fall, I was a third-generation service worker. My grandmother was a secretary and often worked two or three jobs to raise her three children on her own. My mother worked at the Piggly Wiggly. My father has an eighth grade education, joined the Army, went to Vietnam, and now collects disability checks for his PTSD.
For the most part, I have been a cashier. I wasn't lazy, but I was stupid. I was a really good student, despite attending 10 different schools in three different states, but no teacher ever pulled me aside to explain how student loans worked. No one in my family had ever gone to college. As my friends at Wayzata High School geared up for the University of Minnesota or private schools out East, I dropped out.
I returned the next fall and earned my high school diploma, but college seemed out of reach. I did not know about Pell Grants or work study programs.
When my husband lost his job in 2003, I finally considered going to school. The organization he worked for disappeared over six months. This brings me to another point: People living below the poverty line have not been in a position to save the recommended three to six months of their income. If someone earning $12,000 per year saved 10 percent of her income (10 times the average American savings rate), it would take her five years to save six months of wages. America does not do the math. These workers are the people we call "lazy."
At our poorest, my husband worked 12-hour overnight shifts at a factory. After four hours of sleep, he went on call with the ambulance for five hours, then went to school to tutor until 10 minutes before he had to return to the factory. Now he works 14-hour shifts for Schwan's, five days per week.
At our poorest, I started a cleaning business while I was seven months pregnant, and ran an after school art program that coincided with my husband's tutoring program. I brought my kids with me, and wore the baby in a backpack carrier or sling.
We are not lazy. We have worked so hard all of these years.
We have needed and qualified for WIC, the food shelf, MinnesotaCare (before Gov. Tim Pawlenty kicked us off) and food stamps. We have taken the glares and have forgone the premade birthday cake in favor of a mix because of the cashiers who "hmmpf" at our food stamp card. We have quit listening to Rush Limbaugh and Fox News.
We have also received more charity from churches, family, and acquaintances than I can tally. We would not have made it otherwise.
We need a major attitude adjustment. For far too long, too many Americans have refused to do the math. As a result, for far too long, I have worked long, physically painful hours for a pittance, and a discriminatory pittance at that. So as a mom, I'm dropping my attitude of gratitude, and I am demanding that America's executives and federal and state politicians go back to math class. I am demanding that they show me the money.
As an underpaid, hardworking mom, I demand health care, a 401(K), a pension and a living wage. I refuse to be grateful to the top 10 percent of income earners who continue to cut the average salaries of the workers in this country. I refuse to be ashamed for having to take welfare because employers cut salaries by thousands every year.
Poverty will not cease until someone puts the facts out there, and America stops labeling the working poor as lazy, immoral ingrates. Instead of holding the corporate powers responsible for stacking the deck on income and employment policies, we blame immigration, immorality and the hardest workers in America. It is time for the get-rich-quick, irresponsible, immoral ingrates to have a major attitude adjustment and to look me in my face and say, "Thank you. Thank you for working so hard, here is a little respect." Quit with the discriminating, "reformed," degrading programs.
Poverty will not end until there is respect for the person in it.
Jessica Sundheim, mother and student, provides child care and picks strawberries at a local farm.