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Working Poor Face Struggle To Survive
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Welfare reform has reduced the numbers on public assistance, but many now working live in poverty, with better access to programs and services being their best hope of improving their circumstances.
Michael Rupured, financial management specialist at the University of Georgia, authored a publication on "Promoting upward mobility for the working poor." It is part of a series published by the Southern Rural Development Center headquartered at Mississippi State University titled The Rural South: Preparing for the Challenges of the 21st Century.
Rupured said one of the biggest problems standing in the way of the working poor trying to make a better life for themselves is a lack of understanding by policy makers and voters about the reality of their situations. Working poor are defined as those currently employed or looking for a job who struggle to make ends meet.
"There's a basic assumption that anyone working full time for minimum wage should be OK. The reality is that they're not," Rupured said. "The poverty threshold is a pretty low bar."
Rupured questioned where the line truly is between the working poor and someone earning a living wage, or enough money to provide a supportive environment for a family.
"We don't know the answer to that question, but evidence suggests it's considerably higher than the poverty threshold," Rupured said.
Rupured said the federal poverty level was originally based on the cost of food and varies by household size and is adjusted for inflation annually. The threshold is based on the assumption that a family at the poverty level spends about one-third of their income on food. In 2000, the poverty level for a family of four in the continental United States was an annual income of $17,050.
"Is the family that makes $18,000 any better off? The poverty threshold is an arbitrary line drawn for statistical purposes," Rupured said. "It has its uses, but when we talk about the people needing education and community outreach, we're talking about a much greater audience."
In his publication, Rupured discussed the problem of many working poor not knowing about the resources available to them. Employers, too, are often unaware of these resources.
Rupured said education is a vital part of solving the problems of the working poor. Their education needs can be classified as life skills to manage resources more effectively and training that leads to better jobs.
"Providing either type of training is a challenge. Time is in short supply at all income levels, but particularly for the working poor who may work two or more jobs or extra shifts to make ends meet," Rupured said.
But more than offering education, a community must support the working poor's efforts to move up.
"While the burden for realizing self-sufficiency falls squarely on the shoulders of the working poor, individual communities bear some responsibility as well," Rupured said.
This responsibility includes offering better paying jobs, affordable child care, educational improvement, public transportation and more.
"The bottom line is that a community must have an infrastructure in place that supports working parents and provides opportunities for advancement up the economic ladder," Rupured said. "Communities need to identify any barriers that may exist to upward mobility for the working poor, and develop creative solutions."
Rupured said welfare reform has been viewed as the tool to move everyone out of poverty, but that has not necessarily been the case.
"Across the country, the percentage of families receiving welfare benefits has declined significantly in every state. Policymakers look at that and say that welfare reform has been successful, but we're not asking what has happened to the families once they're off welfare," Rupured said. "Welfare reform was successful in reducing welfare rolls, but I don't believe it has been successful in raising families above poverty."
The complete report can be obtained by calling the Center at (662) 325-3207.
Contact: Michael Rupured, (706) 542-8860