Thursday, June 2, 2016

The Working Poor of Massachusetts: Invisible, Forgotten

“An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics.”                     --Plutarch

It was late on a recent Monday night, 10 pm or so. On the way home from a friend’s house in Belmont, I stopped in at a late night gas station in Newton for a soda.  Standing behind the counter was a very tired looking young man—mid twenties or so, maybe a bit older. His name tag read “Antonio” and with a smile and a “thank you, sir”, he handed me my change and I went back to my car.

I wondered what life was like for him, as I drove home to my big suburban house. I thought about how completely exhausted he looked.

As a clerk he probably makes the Massachusetts minimum wage for such a job, $10 per hour.  Work 40 hours and after taxes, that’s about $17,000 per year.  I wonder if he has to work another job just to pay his rent, or maybe support his spouse and children if he has any. Food on the table, clothes and shoes, medicine.  Or maybe he’s in school.  How can he hit the books if he has to work 50 or 60 hours a week just to get by?

I wonder…how does he live, survive, economically? Especially in the Boston area.  Must be very close to the bone, that’s for sure. 

Two recent Boston Globe articles make that reality very clear.  The first reports that Boston now has the highest rate of economic disparity among the 100 largest American cities. More than half of the Hub’s residents make $35,000 or less, per year.  Like Antonio. Maybe he and his wife both work full time jobs at or near the minimum wage.  There must be plenty of others like them. The woman who is a crossing guard at the neighborhood school. The man who serves you coffee at the drive-thru.  The kind lady who takes care of people at the nursing home.  The gentleman who works in a group home for the disabled. 

I wonder…how can they find a decent place to live on that kind of pay? Say, a two bedroom apartment.  Who knows? Because the second Globe article reports that Boston is also now the fourth most expensive rental market nationwide.  Want that apartment? You have to make $58 an hour, or $120,000 a year just to move in.  Where are people supposed to live when rents get that sky high? The Boston area may be in the midst of a biotech boom with high tech entrepreneurs and young people flocking to live in the city.  But it is also a place where the divide between the “haves” and “have nots” is about as wide as it has ever been in recent memory.

I wonder…what can be done about this? Is anyone—Marty Walsh or Charlie Baker or the Legislature—doing something to help the working poor? Building more affordable housing? Ensuring that the city and this area that we all love so much won’t become a place where only the few can live comfortably.
I wonder…about Antonio, as I write this.  I wonder about him and all those other folks whom I most often just do not see, really see, as I go about my life.  The folks who work hard at tough jobs; who stand on their feet all day and put up with cranky customers, who take care of our children and aging parents, who drive our school busses and plow our driveways, who serve us lunch and pack our grocery bags. 

I wonder…if sometimes they wonder if anyone really cares about them. Sees them.

I wonder…what my faith has to say about all this.  Jesus did once declare that the poor would always be with us but Christians often read that passage without realizing Christ was actually quoting an older, longer passage, from the Old Testament.  The full verse says, “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.’” I wonder why I seem to always forget the second part of that scripture.

All I wanted to do that night was get a Coke for the ride home.  And then I encountered Antonio and he made me wonder…about what life is really like for the working poor of Boston and its suburbs.    

I wonder….

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