Thursday, February 21, 2013

Welcome to the world of the working poor

From Occupy Seattle.
I use the self-checkout terminal at the grocery store where I work to pay for my own purchases because I don't want fellow employees to know that I use food stamps. At the self-checkout terminal, you can discreetly swipe your EBT card with no one the wiser.

I suspect I am not alone, though I have seen a fair number of my fellow workers go through my line and use an EBT card, even full-time employees who have worked for years at this company.

They, like me, are the working poor.

How poor do you have to be to be eligible for "SNAP benefits" in the state of Mississippi? You need to be at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty level.

For a single person, your monthly income cannot exceed $1,211 (the amount before taxes and deductions are taken out, usually about 15 percent, which means this figure is actually $1,028).

A single person receives $189 in food stamps monthly. That's amounts to $47.25 weekly. For a grown man to survive on that is not impossible, though weight loss is guaranteed (and indeed, I have been losing weight, an unintended benefit).

For a mom and dad with a child, your combined income cannot exceed $2,069 per month.  For a single mom with three kids, income cannot be more than $2,498 monthly. If you're a single mom living with your parents, you're not eligible until you're 24 years old.

I don't think I've ever met a single mom with three kids making $2,498 dollars a month, but that's another story.

To receive food stamps here, you must provide the following:

  1. Proof of residency in the state of Mississippi.
  2. Proof of American citizenship (birth certificate, driver's license, social security card).
  3. US Citizenship and Immigration Service document if you are not a citizen. 
  4. Notice from out-of-state-agency if you have received assistance in another state. 
At the food stamp office where I went, I was greeted by this sign:

A request for assistance in the state of Mississippi is a request for a job. 

Some facts and figures.

The federal poverty level is $11,490 yearly, roughly $950 per month. Take 15 percent off the top for taxes and you're talking real income of $807, about $200 weekly. 

A minimum wage yearly salary is $15,080, roughly $1,250 per month, at $7.25 an hour. Take 15 percent for taxes and you're talking $1,062, or $265 per week.

Out of these figures come all the usual expenses: Rent or mortgage payment, car payment, insurance, utilities including heat, water and the like, gasoline for the vehicle, haircuts, clothing, medical bills, what to speak of luxuries like cable television, Internet access, cell phone payments, dining out, going to the movies, etc. 

For a minimum wage worker bringing home $1,062 dollars per month, how are these expenses to be met? 

There's another report in the news today about how the CEOs of fast food companies make more in one day than their workers do all year. There have been many such reports. The CEO of Walmart is said to make more in one hour than his employees do all year. Some CEOs make more in one minute than their employees do all year. 

The Walton family, who own Walmart and Sam's Club, are valued at $93 billion dollars. Clearly someone is making a profit at Walmart, but it's not the one million workers that Walmart employs, whose wages are so pitiful that many rely on food stamps and Medicare.
We need to consider this very carefully. A person working full time at Walmart is still so poor they have to rely on government assistance to get by. Who pays for that government assistance? Taxpayers, of course. While the CEOs and the stockholders and share-owners are doing very well, thank you, the government must subsidize Walmart because it pays its employees so poorly. 

When we talk about "the government," we're talking about American taxpayers. It's the taxpayers who subsidize Walmart, who make it possible for this company to pay its employees so poorly

An interesting dynamic, don't you think? 

From Wal*Mart 1 Percent
You can join the workforce, work forty hours a week or more, and still be so poor that you need food stamps and government-supplied health care to survive. 

Walmart apparently provides health care insurance for its full time employees, but it's so expensive that many employees can't afford it. 

Republican vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan reduced it all down for us with his "makers and takers" dichotomy. The Walmarts of the world are the makers, the job creators; Walmart employees who need food stamps are takers, even though they work full time. 

Another very interesting dynamic, to work every day of your life and not be able to pay your bills, to be a "taker" sucking off the government's tits because your corporate masters are so cheap they won't pay you a living wage even while their CEO and executives and stockholders have so much wealth they can't possibly spend it all. 

There are many calls these days to raise minimum wage. It should be a no-brainer, but our Republican friends are aghast and have vowed to torpedo any efforts to raise it. 

Let me make sure I get this straight. The party that routinely demonizes the poor, whose vice-presidential candidate dismissed the poor as "takers" (even those working full time), is firmly against raising the minimum wage because it would "hurt" the job creators like the Walton family sitting on their $93 billion dollars. 

This party would rather encourage government dependence, in the form of food stamps and Medicare, than ask job creators to pay people fairly and decently. To add insult to injury, they then heckle President Obama and call him the "food stamp president," as if he's to blame that so many working poor have to rely on the social safety net.

Mississippi is a solidly Red State, and our folks in Congress routinely vomit up the Fox News talking points for the day like the faithful lapdogs they are. If Republican economic policies are so wonderful, why is Mississippi the poorest state in the Union? Why is Mississippi drowning in the working poor? Why are we the largest beneficiary of federal largess, the hugest drain on federal tax dollars? Why is the rest of the country subsidizing us? 

I long for the day when Mississippians begin to make the connection between policy and reality, between the policies put forward by the Republican party and the disastrous reality all around us. Are we not the fattest, the poorest, the least educated? Do we not have the highest number of teen pregnancies? Are we not the height of mismanagement and stupidity when it comes to our public policies? Have we not earned our place at the bottom by constantly voting for the wrong people? 

When will Mississippians realize that other states do well because they're smarter and they elect officials who work hard to improve the quality of life for residents in their state? 

The answer, of course, is that when Senator Roger Wicker, or Congressman Alan Nunnelee, go off to Washington, they don't much care about people like me. They don't care that I furtively use the self check-out lane so that my fellow employees don't know I'm on food stamps. They don't care about the problems of the working poor because there's no future in it for them. 

The working poor cannot afford to hire high-priced lobbyists who dump mountains of cash in their campaign coffers in exchange for their support of policies that favor the Walmarts of the world over the working poor who live in their states and whose interests they are supposed to be representing. 

To make up for their disregard for our economic well being, they throw out red meat for the masses in Mississippi -- asides about abortion, gay rights, veiled racism directed at a black president. They offer up a governor hell bent on shutting the state's only abortion clinic. They shudder at the thought that gays in Mississippi might get married.  They fear-monger about socialism and federal intrusion into the "sovereignty" of the Magnolia state. They accidentally hoist the Confederate flag at a court house. As if any of that will help the working poor, or get folks off the food stamp roll, or help kids graduate from high school. As if any of that will solve the "fattest, dumbest, poorest" thing.

Eventually Mississippians will get mad enough to start demanding more of their elected officials. 


  1. This is excellent, Nick -- poignant and damning and maddening. You should have a bigger platform for your considerable talent. Anyone reading your phenomenally good posts should pass them on, as I did. Best wishes to you. I'm sorry a man of your substance merely subsists. It isn't right or fair, for you or anyone.

  2. I have just come upon your story, thanks to a wonderful Facebook group called "It's not easy Leaning Left in Mississippi". I echo Linda's comments and those who have commented positively on your posts. I plan to share with anyone I know. I left MS when I graduated from high school, and did not return for more than 40 years. Now, after three years here (white affluent suburb of Jackson), I am wondering why. So many of the problems of the Jim Crow MS I grew up in may have morphed into a different kind of oppression, but there is still rampant racism, intolerance, and so-called "Christians" who wish only those of their particular faith or socio-economic station well. Thank you for your eloquent narrative. I hope things improve for you soon. Meanwhile, I will follow your story and share with anyone who will listen.