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Posts Tagged ‘Poverty’

Living on next to nothing…while we shell out $6.2 billion to broke Walmart workers

In behavior, blogging, domestic life, life, Money, urban life, US, work on July 31, 2014 at 1:06 am

By Caitlin Kelly

No travel...too expensive!

No travel…too expensive!

Have you lived in poverty?

A recent 150+ comment thread at, of all places, Apartment Therapy — a design blog usually devoted to featuring people’s fun, cool homes worldwide — offered a painful, insightful, timely conversation on how some of its readers survive(d) on low or minimum wage jobs.

A few of them:

Charities can only do so much for people, and frankly, when I was living below the poverty line, I chose not to take advantage of a lot of those programs, even though I likely could have, because there were other people who needed it more than I did, and I was getting by, if only just. I was lucky to have no car payment, and a car that was in good condition so the maintenance costs were relatively low. I did, however, end up with pneumonia, because although I had health insurance (I was paying out of pocket for it) I couldn’t afford the copay to go to the doctor and get my Prevacid (not OTC at the time) and as a result I got sick, because untreated acid reflux can do that to you.


 

Even though I pared down to the absolute bare minimum and had a roommate, I was constantly worrying about my car (but couldn’t manage without it), and paying for food, heat, and health care. Any time I got a few dollars ahead, I had some money-sucking but necessary expense. Living on the edge of poverty wore me out. The kicker was that making minimum wage, I made too much to get food stamps and other “help for the poor”. (Adults with children could get help, and adults with disabilities, but the thinking was that if you could work, you didn’t need “hand-outs”.)


For many years, I made more than enough money so I could comfortably afford a house, buy food & necessities, invest and have some fun, too. Approximately two years ago, my position was eliminated from a very reputable company in the area where I live. I can say that I have never fully “recovered”, financially and emotionally speaking. I’ve run the gamut from tearing through my 401k, applying for assistance, working my share of odd jobs and asking family for help. I’ve been forced to learn a new way of living and the bottom line is that living on minimum wage is DIFFICULT…period. Navigating assistance applications can be daunting and because of my assets (owning a home-by some miracle-still) it just wasn’t happening. I can tell you that I have learned to live simpler, though, w/less trips to the clothing store, no more manicures/pedicures every two weeks, etc. Is it such a bad thing? Not really, but “living simpler” ends up going hand in hand with “what do I do now” in reference to the next utility bill, grocery bill, financial emergency, etc. I do believe the sad thing is that individuals that “do the right thing” such as going to school, working hard, etc can still find themselves in this situation. It constantly makes me think “what did I do wrong” and “what do I do now?”

Having lived in five countries — my native Canada, Mexico, France, England and the U.S. (since 1988) — I’m never clear why Americans, some of whom protest that they have “played by the rules,” are so stunned to find their laissez-faire capitalist system has turned against them.

The rules are not made for their benefit!

People who sneer at the idea of accepting (or asking for) government assistance may never have struggled in utter desperation, saddled by illness, disability, injury and/or the collapse of their industry. And many people can never hope for a penny from their friends or relatives.

You can’t bootstrap without bootstraps.

Nor why some of them feel ashamed even asking for help when they have done everything possible to help themselves.

According to this National Geographic story, (August 2014), a staggering six percent of Americans are now “food insecure” and the number of those needing help paying for this food in the suburbs has doubled; here is a radio interview with the author, Tracie McMillan.

While some people can move in with a friend or relative, many don’t have that option and have to figure it out on their own. New York pays a maximum of $410/week in in unemployment benefits, taxable income. Yet in New York City, very few people of any age can find housing for less than $1,000/month. Do the math!

If you’re young, highly-educated, willing to move anywhere a job requires it, in excellent health and flexible — you’ll probably survive. But every one of those categories can shift, as does the labor market and the larger economy.

Nicaragua -- the second-poorest nation after Haiti -- where annual income is $1,080

Nicaragua — the second-poorest nation after Haiti — where annual income is $1,080

I struggled financially for all four years of university, even though my annual tuition was only $600/year. I was living on $350/month and the rent on my studio apartment was $160. I still had to pay for food, phone, books, public transportation, dental work, clothing, etc. My family had too much money for me to get student aid, yet were uninterested in helping me.

So I started selling my photos and writing freelance at the end of my sophomore year — and missed a lot of classes and other cute/fun college activities — in order to bring in additional income. My GPA is a bad joke, one reason I’ve never even considered graduate education. I had to survive!

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Luckily, I was able to feed, house, clothe and educate myself. I can still tell you exactly what was in my wardrobe during those years as there was so little of it. I lived in a rough neighborhood until I was attacked in my apartment and moved.

I never, ever want to feel that anxious about money again.

Low-wage or minimum-wage work offers wages so low and hours so few that some workers have to go on food stamps.

Walmart, reports Forbes, cost us $6.2 billion in public assistance to its struggling staff. They “can’t afford” to pay better, so it’s up to us to bail out a for-profit corporation. Don’t you love the irony of corporate welfare?

Have you struggled to survive financially? Are you now? How are you managing?

Traveling between worlds can give you whiplash

In animals, beauty, behavior, culture, domestic life, food, journalism, life, travel, world on March 27, 2014 at 1:22 am

By Caitlin Kelly

The first thing I did upon my return from a working week in Nicaragua — the second poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere after Haiti?

I took a long, deep, hot bath. In our time there, we only encountered heated water once, in the Best Western Hotel in Managua.

It was the first of multiple culture shocks…

The morning after my return to suburban New York, I got into our 12-year-old Subaru and drove; I hadn’t driven once, as we had drivers there, or took taxis in Managua.

Jose Luis, our driver; Alanna, our team leader -- and our push-to-start-it van

Jose Luis, our driver; Alanna, our team leader — and our push-to-start-it van

The road at home was smooth and paved. I had never thought to question, or appreciate, that.

Our old car started smoothly. That, too. Here’s a push, in 98 degree noon-time heat:

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I drove quickly and easily to my destination, with no bumps or potholes to dodge.

Here, I travel by foot, public transit or car. The bus ride from Bilwi — a 90-minute flight by Cessna — takes 24 hours.

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Here’s the dugout canoe in which we crossed the river to watch Linda work her fields.

 

 

Now that's a commute!

Now that’s a commute!

Here, I walked into a white tiled bathroom, with metal stall walls; this is the toilet at Linda’s home in the countryside.

 

Try climbing those steps in the dark, wearing a headlamp!

Try climbing those steps in the dark, wearing a headlamp!

 

Normal work for me, and many of you, means sitting at a desk, indoors. Here’s our photographer Rodrigo Cruz working in the Wawa River:

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I got into the elevator at my destination this week to ride up five floors — I hadn’t used an escalator or elevator in a week; most Bilwi buildings were made of wood, and two storeys high at most.

Across the street from our hotel in Bilwi

Across the street from our hotel in Bilwi

 

The streets here in New York have no animals on them, unless they’re road kill; on our final morning in Bilwi, a brown horse ambled past our hotel, riderless, unaccompanied. At Linda’s house in the countryside, we were always surrounded by them: a gobbling turkey, a contented, muddy pig, a flock of cheeping chicks, the Brahmin cow who wandered over to the well at sunset and kept me company while I bathedand many piles of fresh dung!

We saw very thin dogs everywhere, but only two cats. Life without the companionship of animals feels lonely!

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Buildings and houses here in New York are black or white or gray or brown, a sea of blandness. The houses we saw, everywhere, in Bilwi and the countryside of RAAN were painted in glorious colors: turquoise, emerald green, fuchsia, brilliant yellow, often using wood cut into patterns or laid on the diagonal for visual interest on a verandah. Beauty relies on imagination, some tools and a can of paint.

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Instead of breakfast alone at my dining table, we ate together from containers on our laps. Here’s a typical lunch:

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Here are Joshua, WaterAid’s country director, Jennifer Barbour and Alanna on Linda’s porch; she has a separate building next to her sleeping quarters for the kitchen.

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Here’s Linda’s (typical) stove/oven:

 

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Because it is still winter here in New York, the landscape is dull — still brown and sterile. The morning we left Bilwi, the town on the Atlantic coast we stayed in, brilliant red hibiscus glowed in the morning sun, as did wide, green palm fronds and lilac bougainvillea. Pale yellow butterflies flitted past us.

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The tropical rain forest glows green with towering banana and coconut palms and curved, feathery bamboo. It felt like walking into a painting by Henri Rousseau.

This painting in a Managua museum captures it

This painting in a Managua museum captures it

On our final night in Bilwi, the team went out to a disco, where men and women – 80 percent of whom live with no running water in their homes — arrived in stilettos and make-up and sequined tank tops. As we stood on the sidewalk afterward, a young man, clearly high and ill, drooled and begged and dropped to the pavement to caress Joshua’s shoes. The national police, rifles slung over their shoulders, cruised past us in a black pick-up truck.

My breakfast blueberrries in New York came from (!) Chile. One afternoon our rural RAAN hosts chopped open some coconuts from their tree with a machete — fresh juice and meat!

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Our view here is of other buildings and the Hudson River. Here’s the view from Linda’s home.

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We ate lunch in Managua in an upscale cafe, its prices marked in U.S. dollars, ordering food common in the U.S. — panini and cappuccinos. After a steady diet of Nicaraguan food: rice, beans, plantains, fish, a bit of meat — no green vegetables and very little fruit — it was disorienting. There was a case filled with cupcakes and cheesecake and cookies; no restaurant we had been to, in a poor town, had ever offered dessert or sweets on the menu. I’d never considered fruit, vegetables or sweetened foods a luxury or oddity. They are, for many people.

At home I work alone, all day every day. Here are Dixie, our translator (in the hammock) and Laxi, WaterAid’s community liaison, on Linda’s porch in the village we visited. Working with a dedicated and easy-going team is a blessing.

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As we canoed the Wawa River in a dugout, we sat on seats freshly-hacked from a piece of bamboo by Ailita’s machete. How refreshing to watch her casually, quickly — and generously! — make it herself. That sort of self-sufficiency is something so many of us now lack.

Every day, The New York Times — even as it runs front-page stories about poverty or income equality — runs ads from luxury purveyors like Chanel ($1,500 shoes) or Tiffany or Seaman Schepps, an old-money jeweler; recently offering a gold bracelet at $18,750.

The currency is the cordoba; 25 = $1 U.S.

The currency is the cordoba; 25 = $1 U.S.

That’s eighteen years’  of an average Nicaraguan’s annual income.

The head spins…

 

 

A week working in Nicaragua: Lessons learned

In behavior, culture, domestic life, journalism, life, travel, women, work, world on March 25, 2014 at 12:03 am

By Caitlin Kelly

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Have you ever been to a place with no electricity — or refrigeration or candles or kerosene lanterns?

No running water?

No postal service?

A place where ham radio or a transistor radio are the one reliable link to the rest of the world?

A place where the bus comes past twice a day, and a trip in it to the capital takes 24 hours — a 90-minute prop plane 12-seater flight?

We spent one night in Ayhua Tara, a village of 10 families in a part of the country called RAAN; an autonomous region of isolated villages near the northern border with Honduras. To get there meant traveling a washboard road of red dust so thick I wore a kerchief every day to keep my hair clean. (It worked, sort of.) The road was in the best shape it had been for a few years, freshly graded with gravel, but still had multiple dips probably several feet deep for most of our journey, slowing us and jolting us all.

We rode in a small van: a team of five people and all our backpacks and video and camera equipment and lots of cold water.

The families we visited live on land granted to them as members of the Miskitu people. They live in wooden houses high atop stilts, their animals snoozing beneath and around them in the shade — a muddy piglet, a snoozing dog, a hen and and her tiny chicks, a goat or two.

We were welcomed as family. We brought our own food, which they cooked in the dark — with one small boy holding up a flashlight as they cooked on their small clay woodstove, waist-high at the back of the large kitchen.

A few moments:

We met new animals, like the coatimundi chained up at a Bilwi restaurant where we ate lunch one day. Or the turkey at Linda’s house who followed us everywhere, desperately showing off his fluffed-up feathers. And the pavon, an endangered species of bird  — with a brilliant lemon-yellow beak and what looks like a very bad black perm — that perched on the wall over the stove while Linda was cooking.

The pavon.

The pavon.

When traveling in hot/dusty places bring plenty of clean cotton bandanas: use as a napkin, towel, mouth-covering, (useful when we visited a live volcano in Managua and the foul steam started to hurt out throats), neck gaiter, blindfold, pillow cover, carry-sack, head covering, neck covering (soaked in cold water as often as possible) — and a bit of style!

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Lifesavers are the best! My bag of mint Lifesaver candies were the hit of the week when we were all feeling weary/hungry/thirsty/tired — offering a portable bit of sweet, saliva-producing relief.

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Kindness and generosity know no language. We stayed in a home where no one spoke much Spanish, only Miskitu. We worked through an interpreter, but their welcome to a bunch of strangers was warm and touching. We walked through the forest one morning with Linda, her mother-in-law and grand-daughter.

Jennifer was handed tiny orchids and some beans by Exelia, the little girl, while Ailita, 69, wearing rubber boots and a torn, repaired man’s shirt, gestured to me to wipe down my bare legs and arms in case I’d brushed against something noxious.

Water is heavy. Many people here carry buckets of it back and forth every day, multiple times, from a well or river. When you see a tiny child of four or five, (their growth stunted by chronic malnutrition, so they might well be seven or eight), with a filled plastic bucket in his head or in her arms, straining, you’ll never leave a tap running again.

Accessing water takes time and physical energy that might be better used for earning income or being with your family. When you need water in a place like this for any purpose, and you need to get it from a well, that means six cranks of the wheel to get enough to fill a small-ish cup. I watched a youngl girl straining just to reach and turn the wheel; I’m a strong adult and it still took energy — in 98 degree heat, direct sun and humidity.

Then you have to fill an entire bucket, if only for your own use. Now add the needs for cooking, bathing and cleaning clothes for a family of six or more who work in muddy fields and hot sun all day.

Traveling pleasantly and efficiently for a week in a multi-cultural, multi-lingual, multi-national team — two Americans, two Canadians, a Mexican and three Nicaraguans, (driver, interpreter and community contact), means being flexible, calm, gentle and fun to be around. I had met Alanna, the communications director, in New York but none of us had met before or worked together until we raced off together on our very first day.

Our team! Jennifer Barbour; blogger; Alanna Imbach; media director; me; Rodrigo Cruz, photographer

Our team! Jennifer Barbour; blogger; Alanna Imbach; media director; me; Rodrigo Cruz, photographer

I was happily surprised to see how quickly and easily we fell into a rhythm, sharing water, sunscreen, Lifesavers, nuts. Maybe because we’re all professionals. Maybe because we’d all traveled, and worked, in fairly tough conditions before. Even pushing the dust-encrusted van to get it started every time wasn’t a big deal as long as we were still laughing about it. I heard no whining, despite hot, 10+ hour workdays starting at 8:00 a.m. or earlier.

Focus is energizing. We never touched, or needed to touch, money: our week was sleep, work, eat, repeat. We wasted no time on shopping, laundry or cooking. If we wanted to Skype with our loved ones, we did so at 6:00 a.m., since they were all two hours ahead in time zone.

Passion is galvanizing. Journalism is a desperate business these days, rife with insecurity and peacocking, whining and competitiveness. To spend a week with a team of smart, warm people passionate about social justice, and wise in its folkways, was deeply inspiring to me.

Pre-industrial life has a rhythm we rarely, if ever, live. When it is dark by 6:15 and there is no light beyond a headlamp or flashlight, and your day has been hot and physically demanding, you go to sleep early because you’ll rise before, or with the sun. The soothing chatter of the transistor radio hung on a nail, or the indignant gobbling of a turkey are the sounds lulling you to sleep.

When you walk through the field to weed your crops, why wear a watch? The work itself will tell you when you are finished.

I read Facebook and Twitter, posting when we had Internet access — freshly struck by how many of our “conversations” are purely trivial. That was instructive.

There is beauty in simplicity. I will not romanticize poverty. But I appreciated the smooth, wide wooden boards of Linda’s scrubbed, swept hardwood floor beneath my feet, the children’s tiny stuffed animals hung from nails (no shelves), a bright yellow flower growing in a blue plastic tub, the region’s purple, turquoise, emerald green and mustard yellow painted houses.

In a poor country, concrete and glass are luxury materials. In a week of travel through several RAAN villages and Bilwi, I saw perhaps six houses with glazed windows and few homes made of concrete, let alone two-story ones. Ironically, the most pristine, spotless, freshly-painted building I saw anywhere — new red metal roof, fresh banana yellow walls — was a large church.

Our host, Linda Felix, paddling her canoe

Our host, Linda Felix, paddling her canoe

We all work. We all struggle. Watching Linda and Ailita head off to work in a dugout canoe, whacking their way through the fields with a machete, claiming the hard-won prizes of enormous white squash and sun-warmed cucumber, felt familiar, even though all of it was new to me.

Work is work.

Fear of economic loss — while theirs is truly dire, and means not even lighting a cooking fire in the worst months because there is no food to prepare — is not unique to the beleaguered American or European middle class.

The Mexican freelance photographer with us told me he’s waited up to five months to see his invoices processed. That, too, was familiar.

I spoke for an hour, in Spanish, to a woman whose 25 year old sister stopped speaking for 18 months. She sold two cows and went to a curandero, a traditional healer, whose ministrations didn’t help. Then they went to a psychologist in Bilwi, then to a psychiatrist in Managua; health care is free, but the cost of distant travel hammered their ever-fragile finances.

“If you want to eat,” she finally said, “you have to work.”

Managing your emotions — and the roller-coaster of beauty/squalor — is…interesting. It was a week of truly dire poverty, with many people living on $1/day with six or eight children in a one-room wooden shack with a rusted, patched corrugated tin roof or walls; Haiti is the only nation in this part of the world poorer than Nicaragua.

You want to cry, but you don’t. It will all be there the next day as well and you’re there to observe and interview, not indulge your feelings and reactions.

Then you stare into the deepest, darkest silent sky-full of stars and want to weep at its beauty, lost once you return to the town filled with light and noise.

A shy, tiny girl hands you an orchid as you tramp through a field of pumpkins with her. Another little girl lets you comb her hair into a ponytail.

You crawl into a narrow, muddy, tippy dugout canoe and pray you don’t tip out into the river.

You sleep under a mosquito net and hope it works; malaria is no joke and the region you’re in is the country’s worst for it.

Fear, joy, awe, anxiety, exhaustion, guilt, inspiration, confusion.

Yes to all of these, and more.

Trust is key. Trust that the van will start. That the water won’t make you sick. That those weird itchy bites on your ankles are nothing, really. That the food is safe to eat. That the very small plane won’t crash.

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That your outraged bowels will calm down soon. That all those long, hot tiring days filling our hearts and heads and notebooks and cameras have gathered valuable useful insights.

That your team is as smart, funny and professional as they appeared to be. That you won’t want to tear each others’ throats out after a super-intense week. (We didn’t, nor did we want to.)

Have you been to a place that changed how you see your world?

Tell us….

Nicaragua, Days One and Two: Coconuts, Wells and a 16 Year Old GC

In blogging, books, culture, education, Health, journalism, life, travel, women, work on March 19, 2014 at 1:02 am

By Caitlin Kelly

It began with a flight from Atlanta to Managua — that was turned back 40 minutes in for mechanical problems, circled for 60 minutes in turbulence to burn off fuel — and had everyone rush into a waiting aircraft to get going, fast, before the Managua airport shut down for the night at midnight. We arrived at 12:30 and got four hours’ sleep because we had to catch a 6:00 a.m. flight to Bilwi/Puerto Cabezas, a town of about 40,000 on the edge of the Caribbean.

Jennifer and I at Bilwi airport, after arricving.

Jennifer and I at Bilwi airport, after arriving.

Our team: Mexican photographer Rodrigo, Maine mom blogger Jennifer, media director Alanna and I crammed into a plane with 12 seats. After 90 minutes we arrived, met by Josh, the Vancouver-born country director, and a borrowed van — that wouldn’t start until it was pushed.

Within an hour, we were all off and running in 95 degree heat, driving due west along washboard red dust roads that jolted us every few feet. Our destination? A house whose 48-year-old owners had decided would finally have a toilet, and we were going to watch them digging the trenches and drilling the gray PVC pipe that will serve as drainage.

Our journey took — to go 40 miles — about two hours, and included crossing the Wawa River on a barge. The road was jammed with chickens and pigs and dogs and small children. Cooks boiled food in pots on charcoal braziers. Enormous colored buses pulled up with men sitting on the roof.

We visited a primary school, where the boys were learning Spanish homonyms.

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The landscape changed, from scrubby low pines in sandy soil, to lush green hills. The house where we stopped was painted wood, as most are here, and on stilts, with lemon and mango trees on the hill. We watched the team working, spoke to them and to the family, then drank fresh coconut milk from the nuts on their tree, hacked open with a machete.

The rooster finishing my coconut

The rooster finishing my coconut

It’s very hot here, at sea level with the Caribbean ocean nearby — about 95 degrees during the day, dropping to about 82 after the sun sets at 5:45.

Much of our work interviewing and photographing people means we’re standing around outside in the sunshine for a few hours, sweating buckets.

By noon, my hair and clothes are drenched and dripping with perspiration so I cover my head, pirate-style with a kerchief. It looks a little goofy, but it works, keeping the sweat from my eyes and face; my notebook today at noon was so sweaty I couldn’t even use some of the paper.

We drink a lot of water! I also brought a bag of peppermint Lifesavers, which offers everyone a nice blast of sweetness and flavor in noonday heat.

Last night in the WaterAid office in Bilwi -- it has AC!

Last night in the WaterAid office in Bilwi — it has AC!

On Tuesday we met and interviewed Cora, a 16-year-old girl who’s acting as GC — a general contractor — building a bathroom for a local man whose house is under construction. Cora is a high-school dropout who WaterAid is helping, (the group sponsoring my trip), teach technical and life skills.

It was amazing to see her self-confidence supervising her team of four male workers. Like any 16-year-old, she wore a sparkly butterfly hair clip, tight blue jeans and a red cellphone she likes to check.

We visited an extremely poor neighborhood near the beach; that’s saying a lot in a place where poverty is endemic, where 0nly 20 percent of Bilwi’s residents have access to running water or any form of toilet in their home.

There we saw a community well and spoke to Nelisha, a shy, freckled 12-year-old living down the street in a bright green wooden house — who used to carry two heavy buckets of water every morning and night for a mile. Now she only carries them about a two-minute walk.

When you’re reporting in the field, the best thing you can do is get away from the official story, in this case, the well we had come to admire.

Jennifer and I wandered a block away toward the beach, where we found a long row of wooden latrines — their sewage emptying into a ditch barely 100 feet from the ocean. This was no tourist beach. This was squalid, dirty and unhealthy.

Jennifer and I at the beach; our translator, Dixie, takes a break

Jennifer and I at the beach; our translator, Dixie, takes a break

We ate lunch together at a local restaurant, then drove to Cora’s home to see how she lives.

We walked up a slight incline, red dust clogged with fallen palm leaves and coconuts, the walkway shaded by leaning palm trees. On either side were wooden houses on stilts, some patched with corrugated metal, some raw wood.

Her house is barely a few yards from a chain-link fence, the outer perimeter of the Bilwi airport.

Cora has lived here her whole life and shares her home — 15 by 20 feet, wood, no windows — with eight others, including three children, her nieces, ages 1, 3 and six. They have no running water or toilet. To get drinking water, they turn on a white plastic faucet in their small dirt yard.

But, despite the scorching heat and the thirst of a large family, it offers nothing, as the city only opens its taps a few hours a day, and not every day.

Their well, which her father dug, sits about 20 feet from their house’s open doorway. It has no cover or railing and is about 50 feet deep.

Easy for a tiny child to fall into — which apparently one or two a year do.

We have been here only two days, a group of people who were strangers to one another before that. It’s quite astonishing to join yet another five or six people — translators, staff, driver — and meld into a working, laughing, van-pushing unit.

Tomorrow we head into the countryside where we’ll spend two days, sleeping overnight in a village, using mosquito nets. There will be no electricity.

Imagine the stars!

A country splintering into angry shards

In behavior, business, cities, culture, domestic life, immigration, news, politics, urban life, US on February 20, 2014 at 12:37 am

By Caitlin Kelly

Americans know the expression, E pluribus unum.

(Here’s a definition)

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The idea is that, with more than 300 million people sharing a sense of national identity, we’re all just American.

Not really.

Not any more.

Every day now seems to offer another horrific story of racial, economic and political division splintering the country into angry, gun-toting, vitriol-spewing shards.

Two men shot and killed two people who were behaving, they thought, disrespectfully — one, texting in a movie theater:

It started with a father sending text messages to his daughter during the previews of a movie.

It ended with the 43-year-old man shot dead amid the theater seats, and a 71-year-old retired police officer in custody.

The shooting Monday during a 1:20 p.m. showing of “Lone Survivor” at a Wesley Chapel, Florida, movie theater escalated from an objection to cell phone use, to a series of arguments, to the sudden and deadly shooting, according to police and witnesses.

the other, annoyed by music from a nearby vehicle:

It was November 23, 2012, when Michael Dunn pulled into a gas station in Jacksonville, parking next to a red Dodge Durango full of teenagers.

The teens had pulled in for gum and cigarettes; Dunn, meanwhile, had just left his son’s wedding with his fiancee, who’d gone inside the convenience store for wine and chips.

Dunn didn’t like the loud music — “rap crap,” as he called it — coming from the teens’ SUV. So he asked them to turn it down.

What followed next depends on whom you believe. Dunn claimed Davis threatened him, and he decided to take matter into his own hands upon seeing what he thought was the barrel of a gun sticking out of the Durango.

But prosecutors asserted that it was Dunn who lost control, firing three volleys of shots — 10 bullets total — at the SUV over music he didn’t like.

Here’s a recent New York Times piece on the ongoing battle to integrate poorer Americans into the wealthy precincts of Westchester County, which stretches from the Hudson River in the west to Long Island Sound.

I live in this county, in a town that has always been, and continues to be, economically and racially mixed: subsidized housing for the poor; rental apartments and houses; owned single-family houses, owned multiple-family houses, co-op apartments and condominiums.

In our town of 10,000, you can find a $10 loaf of bread at one food store while another shop sits between two projects — New York jargon for government-subsidized housing. Here’s a recent story I wrote about Tarrytown, explaining its diversity and appeal.

It’s one of several reasons I felt at home where when I arrived in 1989 and, even though the town has changed with the influx of much wealthier residents in recent years, (many fleeing Brooklyn and Manhattan’s real estate prices), I still like that diversity.

But the town of Chappaqua, a 15-minute drive north of us, is home to former President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, with a median income of $163,201.

From the Times story:

Few places on the planet are as enviable as this Westchester County hamlet.

Stately houses are set on spacious, hilly lots shaded by old trees; its village center has gourmet restaurants and bakeries; its schools are top notch and its 9,400 residents have a median household income of $163,201, ranking the area roughly 40th among America’s wealthiest communities.

It is no surprise that Chappaqua is the home of a past president and perhaps a future one, Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton, as well as a Hollywood star or two.

But the hamlet — like many other affluent, overwhelmingly white localities across the country such as Garden City on Long Island, Wellesley in Massachusetts, Marin County in California and several neighborhoods in New York City — has been churned up by plans to build new housing for people of much lower incomes, including black and Hispanic newcomers.

A developer is offering to build 28 units of affordable rental housing with caps on family earnings, though with no income floor; families of four earning no more than roughly $64,000 would qualify, as would poorer families, including those who receive federal vouchers.

It’s been said that Americans today have very few unifying experiences where rich and poor alike are subject to the same stresses and challenges — as they were in the Depression and WWII.

Today, with income inequality the highest since the Gilded Era, the nation feels as though it’s splintering into armed camps, whether the armaments are literal guns or a six or seven or eight-figure income.

Here’s a post from The Root:

Although economic downturns disproportionately affect black unemployment and home ownership, working-class and college-educated whites are now feeling the sting of restricted opportunity. In his book Angry White Men, sociologist Michael Kimmel describes how these men often blame the trifecta of feminism, affirmative action and immigration for their woes.

The relative devaluing of white privilege has been interpreted as racial oppression of whites and “reverse discrimination.” Opinion polls (pdf) suggest that half of all white Americans now see themselves as the targets of racism, and that number pushes past 60 percent among self-identified Republicans and among those who watch Fox News.

It’s a frightening and depressing trend, certainly for those of us who chose to come to the United States from another country with all the idealism and hope that every immigrant brings.

(And yet, watching terrible images of Syrians fleeing their homeland, and Venezuela erupting into protests and Ukraine killing protestors there…this is not [yet] that.)

How do you feel?

Do you see this sort of class warfare or random, ugly violence playing out where you live?

What, if anything, could address it?

Scrooge city! Employers hotly defend poverty-level wages

In business, life, Money, news, politics, urban life, US, work on December 17, 2013 at 3:22 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

‘Tis the season!

Check out the 300 comments — and climbing (including a long one from me) — at the Harvard Business Review blog where a Wharton professor, Peter Capelli, (gasp, competing B-school!) posted the following argument in favor of actually paying workers a living wage:

Jobs paying $15 per hour are not the concern, though. Those are routinely seen as good jobs now. The concern is those jobs paying at or around the minimum wage, $7.25 per hour or only $1160 per month for a
full-time job. About 1.6 million workers in the U.S. are paid at that level, and a surprising 2 million are actually paid less than that under various exemptions. If you are an employer paying the minimum wage or close to it, the Government has determined that your employees need help to pay for food, housing, and healthcare even if they have no family and no one to look after but themselves.  As we’ve been reminded this season, many of those workers also need help from families and coworkers to get by.

No doubt the reason low-wage companies continue to pay low wages is because there are plenty of workers willing to take jobs at those wages, and the need to pay more to avoid the risk of being unionized is
largely gone. But “can” and “ought” are not the same thing.  Nothing about the minimum wage implies that it is morally ok as long as you pay at least that much. It simply says that the government will prosecute you if try to pay less than that level.

A longstanding principle in all developed countries including the U.S. is that labor is not like a commodity where taking advantage of the market to squeeze down prices is a fact of life. Employees have human rights that do not disappear when they enter the workplace. Even in business law, principles like the “mechanic’s lien” say that employees should be paid before other creditors because they are more vulnerable than businesses and do not get profits to compensate them for risks.

We’re at an inflection point in the U.S., where some low-wage workers, unprecedented in decades, have actually begun to stage walk-outs, strikes and protests in recent weeks.

In Germany — where 9,000 workers are employed by Amazon — employees have just gone on strike.

Wage list

Wage list (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have — as we say here in sports-metaphor-obsessed-America — skin in this particular game.

I worked 2.5 years making $11/hour (the federal minimum is still $7.25/hour) selling costly outdoor clothing at an upscale mall, the subject of my book, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail.”

No matter how insanely productive we were — one of us sold $16,000 worth of merch one holiday Saturday — we never got more hours or  serious raise (mine was 30 cents/hour) or a boost into a low-management position with a (barely) liveable salary.

The endless argument in favor paying crap is that low-wage workers are all teens, seniors and/or have no skills.

False! A recent survey of 436 New York City retail workers found that two-thirds of them are supporting another family member on their wages. Their average age? 24.

I also pay my assistants $15/hour, albeit part-time, about 10 hours a month. This year I paid out $1,5000 in wages to one worker, a significant amount for a one-person shop — me — and a healthy sum to a person new to my line of work, in effect, someone essentially entry-level I was training and paying.

I am appalled, disgusted and fed up with corporate greed, corporate welfare and the right-wing outrage that all low-wage jobs are low-skilled. They’re not.

Every single job adds profit to an employer’s bottom line or — in union-free America — it’s swiftly cut, with no severance or warning.

Walmart and MacDonalds workers suck up my tax dollars in Medicaid and food stamps because their greedhead CEOs think this is moral, equitable and justifiable way to treat workers.

I disagree.

How about you?

Does Dasani’s NYT homeless story leave you angry? Sad? Indifferent?

In behavior, children, cities, culture, domestic life, education, family, journalism, news, parenting, urban life, US on December 12, 2013 at 1:11 am

By Caitlin Kelly

It’s a story that took a year of reporting and writing to produce, prompting more than 600+ comments after the first day — by 5:30 p.m. yesterday, more than 1,713 readers had weighed in.

English: The New York Times building in New Yo...

English: The New York Times building in New York, NY across from the Port Authority. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The New York Times is running a five-part series on Dasani, an 11-year-old African American girl living with her siblings in a squalid New York city shelter that has sucked up millions of tax-payer dollars already.

Her parents take methadone, do not work and have seven other children sharing a 500 square foot room.

Dasani is smart, capable, liked by her teachers, and burdened by caring for her brothers and sisters. She, like them, has nowhere clean, quiet and comfortable in which to do her homework. Their room has no desk. One wall has a hole where mice run freely.

Here’s an excerpt from the first instalment:

Dasani is among 280 children at the shelter. Beyond its walls, she belongs to a vast and invisible tribe of more than 22,000 homeless children in New York, the highest number since the Great Depression, in the most unequal metropolis in America.

Nearly a quarter of Dasani’s childhood has unfolded at Auburn, where she shares a 520-square-foot room with her parents and seven siblings. As they begin to stir on this frigid January day, Dasani sets about her chores.

Her mornings begin with Baby Lele, whom she changes, dresses and feeds, checking that the formula distributed by the shelter is not, once again, expired. She then wipes down the family’s small refrigerator, stuffed with lukewarm milk, Tropicana grape juice and containers of leftover Chinese. After tidying the dresser drawers she shares with a sister, Dasani rushes her younger siblings onto the school bus.

Dasani guards her feelings closely, dispensing with anger through humor. Beneath it all is a child whose existence is defined by her siblings. Her small scrub-worn hands are always tying shoelaces or doling out peanut butter sandwiches, taking the ends of the loaf for herself. The bond is inescapable. In the presence of her brothers and
sisters, Dasani has no peace. Without them, she is incomplete.

I spent more than an hour reading the comments, which came from social workers, past and present; from New York schoolteachers; from the formerly poor and homeless able to escape a difficult past; from the fed-up-with-generational-welfare crowd.

A few readers simply shrugged — the entire United States, not just New York City, is deeply pockmarked by poverty now, with the second-highest rate of child poverty in the developed world.

As one commenter said…wait. This story will soon be only one of many. She is hardly unique.

Reader reactions, predictably, are mixed:

outrage at the shelter’s squalor; dismay at the parents’ inability or unwillingness to work, earn money and set an example for their children; anger at the tens of thousands of tax-payer dollars supporting a couple of adults who have made repeatedly poor choices, including producing more and more children they have no way to support; disappointment that the U.S. allows children like her to live in such appalling conditions; confusion as to what can be done to alleviate this kind of poverty.

As I’ve blogged here before, I was a Big Sister in 1998 for 18 months to a 13-year-old child whose family was also deeply dysfunctional.  (For readers outside of North America, Big Sister/Big Brother is a national program that matches volunteers — usually middle or upper middle class, employed and well-educated — with struggling youngsters. The idea is to foster relationships that will help poor children and teens survive and thrive.)

I found the process deeply frustrating, as much because I expected far too much from it and because, I thought, the organizers expected far too little.

My “little sister”, like Dasani, was bright and very likeable, apparently eager to flee the clutches of poverty.

But, sadly also highly unlikely to do so. I saw frightening and destructive behaviors within her family I’d never before encountered en masse — abandonment, laziness, welfare dependence, neglect and passivity — that boded ill for her future.

The desire to flee poverty can also create an impossible choice — between the bosom of a chaotic family a child knows well, and a larger world they don’t. You’re not going to get very far saying “axe” instead of “ask” a question.

I saw this play out with my “little”. The more I tried to find her better options, (even, yes, a scholarship spot at a private school barely 30 minutes drive from her family), the more they shrugged it off.

I admit it. After 18 months, I burned out and walked away.

Children need consistently healthy role models if they’re going to succeed and avoid the pitfalls of addiction and/or teen pregnancy. Dasani’s mother teaches her to fight — physically — which, as the Times reports, gets her suspended from school.

The series’ pathos has left some readers eager to “help” — but what, exactly, can they do?

Donate to charities? Pay even more taxes? Volunteer individually with a child on their own? Foster a child or several?

What do you think?

What — if anything — would change (for good/better) a life like hers?

Helping writers in financial crisis: please donate to WEAF!

In blogging, books, business, culture, journalism, Media, Money, US, work on December 6, 2013 at 3:11 am

By Caitlin Kelly

As some of you know, many journalists now work full-time freelance. Some do so by choice, while many have been shut out of an industry going through almost daily re-invention; 24,000 of us lost our jobs in 2008 and many of us did not find another.

Add to that a difficult economy in the U.S., and some writers — even the most talented and productive throughout a long career — can find themselves in a terrifying financial crisis, with no alternate source of income and few savings if your anchor client shuts down or a few reliable editors suddenly leave and/or you get a bad medical diagnosis and you’re too busy getting surgery and treatment to keep working.

Typically, it’s a medical emergency, theirs and/or that of a loved one, and its out-of-pocket costs that shove a writer into fiscal desperation — in the U.S. (a sad and ugly truth), most bankruptcies are the result of overwhelming medical bills.

Writer Wordart

Writer Wordart (Photo credit: MarkGregory007)

I serve on a volunteer board of the Writers Emergency Assistance Fund. Since 1982, we’ve given out more than $400,000 to help qualified, deserving non-fiction writers through tough times. Our board is made up of veteran writers and editors, current and former, including Pulitzer Prize winning author Philip Caputo and novelist Betsy Carter.

Books behind the bed

Books behind the bed (Photo credit: zimpenfish)

Unlike most charities, there are no administrative costs, so every penny you give goes only to the writers who seek our help.

When a needy writer asks for a grant we quickly read their application and — within a week — send them what we agree is a fair amount, usually the maximum, up to $4,000.

The money you give us is also tax-deductible, as WEAF is a registered charity.

I’m proud to help others in my profession. I hope you’ll do so as well this year. Writers — whether we’re producing unpaid blog posts or paid books, articles, scripts or other media — enrich our shared culture, explain the world and help us all see things a little more clearly.

Here’s a New York Times story I wrote about funds like ours, including WEAF.

I hope you’ll consider giving even a small amount.

For every $50 donation to WEAF — and please email me at learntowritebetter@gmail.com to let me know you’ve made the donation, with your name and mailing address — I’ll snail mail you a signed copy of “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail”, my most recent book. USA Today called it “a bargain at any price” and Entertainment Weekly described it as “an excellent memoir.”

I’m happy to sign it to you, or to someone else for a holiday gift.

Thank you!

A homeless man went to church, and this is what happened next…

In behavior, children, culture, education, life, love, news, parenting, science, urban life, US on December 2, 2013 at 12:05 am

By Caitlin Kelly

This is an extraordinary story, from a place that normally wouldn’t make the national news, and from the Mormon church, a faith that usually also receives little mainstream press.

English: Homeless man, Tokyo. Français : Un sa...

English: Homeless man, Tokyo. Français : Un sans abri à Tokyo. Español: Persona sin hogar, en las calles de Tokio. Türkçe: Evsiz adam, Tokyo. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

From NPR:

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Finally, this hour, a Mormon bishop in
Taylorsville, Utah, went to great lengths last Sunday to teach his
congregation a lesson. David Musselman disguised himself as a homeless
person with the help of a professional makeup artist friend. After
getting mutton-chops, a ski hat and thick glasses, the bishop waited
outside his church and wished congregants a happy Thanksgiving. To
describe what happened next, I’m joined by Bishop Musselman, welcome to
the program.

BISHOP DAVID MUSSELMAN: Glad to be here. Thanks, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Describe the response you got.

MUSSELMAN:
Well, I got several types of responses. I had some people that went out
of their way to let me know that this was not a place to ask for
charity and that I was not welcome and that I needed to leave the
property. I should also state that I had a number of people come and
were very kind to me. But I was most impressed with the children. The
children definitely were very eager to want to reach out and try to help
me in some way

From the AP:

Musselman, who told only his second counselor that he would be
disguised as a homeless man, walked to the pulpit during the service. He
finally revealed his true identity and took off his wig, fake beard and
glasses.

“It had a shock value that I did not anticipate,” he said. “I really
did not have any idea that the members of my ward would gasp as big as
they did.”

Ward member Jaimi Larsen was among those surprised it was her bishop.
“I started feeling ashamed because I didn’t say hello to this man …
He was dirty. He was crippled. He was old. He was mumbling to himself,”
she said.

It wasn’t Musselman’s goal to embarrass ward members or make them
feel ashamed, he said. Instead, he wanted to remind them to be kind to
people from all walks of life not just at the holidays, but all year
long, he said.

“To be Christ-like, just acknowledge them,” he said

Musselman made the invisible visble.

Here is a powerful blog, written by a television cameraman who himself was once homeless, his effort to make this population of the poor, struggling and suffering visible and audible.

The population of homeless has risen by 65 percent in the eight years of New York City’s billionaire mayor, Michael Bloomberg; 21,000 New York City children have no home to go to beyond a shelter or whatever space they can beg from a friend or relative.

Here is one Manhattan shelter I’ve contributed to.

As we gather with friends, family and loved ones to celebrate the holidays — those of us fortunate enough to have a warm, clean, dry place in which to safely sleep — remember those who don’t. They can be, for some people, a terrifying sight, slumped on the pavement or dragging enormous overstuffed metal carts. Their utter desperation reminds us what the bottom of the ladder looks like — that there very much is a bottom — the place we work so hard and save so hard and cling to our jobs to stay clear of.

We could never ever become them.

Could we?

So much easier, then, to avoid their gaze or studiously ignore their outstretched hands or cups or their signs, scrawled on cardboard.

I have, and it shames me when I make that choice.

Please don’t.

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The endless fight for a living wage: is $15/hour really too much?

In behavior, business, cities, culture, life, Money, news, urban life, US, work on November 6, 2013 at 2:55 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

The federal U.S. minimum wage remains $7.25. Five states have no set legal minimum at all; six pay more than $8.00/hour.

(The minimum wage in Australia is already $15.00.)

In an era of almost $4/gallon gasoline and rising costs for food, health care and other necessities, the fight to win a living wage continues.

Official seal of SeaTac, Washington

Official seal of SeaTac, Washington (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The city of SeaTac, in Washington State, is fighting this battle today.

From bbc.co.uk:

Supporters of Proposition 1 say $15 an hour is a “living wage”.

Detractors say that it would see businesses close and lay off some of
the 6,300 workers who would be impacted by the raise.

SeaTac covers just 10 sq miles (26 sq km) and has a population of just 30,000, with only 12,000 registered voters.

But what everyone agrees on is that tiny SeaTac has suddenly become a battleground for one of the biggest issues confronting the US economy – income inequality, or the widening gap between the rich andpoor, which has risen to its highest level since 1917.

“Coming out of the recession, we’ve seen job growth come out of the low-wage service sector,” says Prof Ken Jacobs, head of the University of California-Berkeley Labor Center.

The battle is pitched — desperate workers struggling to make ends meet against employers who insist they cannot possibly pay more.

Or that workers simply offer little to no skills, certainly none they value at that price.

The state of New Jersey — with 50,000 workers employed at minimum wage — will raise its lowest legal wage January 1 to $8.25/hour.

Like every argument, this one contains a blend of truth and perception, of assumption and received wisdom.

One of the issues is really thinking harder about what constitutes a “skill.”

Here are my thoughts, quoted recently in U.S. News and World Report, about what it’s like to work retail.

I worked a low-wage job from September 2007 to December 18, 2009 when the economy fell off a cliff and I desperately needed additional income. I sold costly outdoor clothing and accessories for The North Face, in an upscale suburban mall in New York, a 10-minute drive from my home. I earned $11/hour with no commission, few bonuses and a 30-cent raise in that time.

I typically sold $150+ worth of merchandise every hour; my best day ever, I sold more than $500 worth per hour.

And the company’s “reward” for selling $25,000 worth of its merchandise, virtually all of it sourced from low-wage factories in Peru, China and elsewhere? A gift card for the same merchandise worth $25.

You can exhort your workers and plaster mission statements to your walls, issue edicts, wave your hands…It’s tough for any worker to get excited — or “engaged” as the workplace gurus like to call it — when you’re toiling for pennies and earning significant profits for the person who relies on your labor.

Let alone a major multi-national corporation whose top executives now stagger home bent double with the bags of cash they’re netting — now typically 354 times the wage of their average worker.

When you can’t even pay your bills, no matter how hard you work, work loses much of its meaning.

And all of its dignity.

In January 2009, our store manager cut all our hours. I was only working one seven-hour shift, then cut to five hours, one of which paid for the cost of parking at the mall. We were told “the company can’t afford more.”

That month The Wall Street Journal reported that the parent company of The North Face was sitting on millions in cash — money it used in 2011 to purchase a competitor, Timberland for $2 billion.

The assumption being that no one working a low-wage job would notice this odd and striking definition of “can’t afford.”

I did, and wrote about this in my book about my time there, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail”, which was published in China in July 2013.

malled cover HIGH

I do realize what happens when you pay workers poorly — they quit! I’ve been hiring part-time assistants for more than 15 years, when I paid a college undergrad $12/hour for her skills. Jess was amazing: smart, funny, a quick learner and a ferocious work ethic.

That was a lot of money then, and for some workers, it still is. I’d have simply felt embarrassed offering her less; I recently heard from an undergrad at a prestigious American university that a professor offered them $7.25/hour, which I find appalling and abusive.

When I pay $10/hour I can find smart and talented people  — but only for a few weeks, a month or so at most. They leave quickly, as they must, to make more elsewhere. At $15/hour I was able to keep the skills of someone else this year for more than eight months.

Hoping to replace her, (as she now seeks a full-time job), I recently interviewed someone who came highly recommended…and who wants $25/hour.

That’s my breaking point. So, for now, I am mostly assistant-less, and feeling that loss in my reduced productivity.

The pricing of our labor is a delicate dance. But tight-fisted employers who insist that low-wage workers have “no skills” are lying to themselves and to their weary workers.

They’re also short-changing their customers, who need, expect and deserve good service for their hard-earned dollars.

Here are some of the skills we used in our retail work:

– Maintaining a sense of humor (let alone having one to start with!)

– Listening carefully and for long periods of time to customers to discern their needs

– Speaking to customers in whatever style/tone/speed (even foreign language) best suited them

– Learning and memorizing a wide array of product knowledge: size/price/technical specs

– Lifting, carrying, stacking, folding and hanging goods

– Cleaning and tidying the entire store, top to bottom

– Ringing up purchases

– Watching the sales floor to deter shoplifting

No skill?

Snort.

Try calming a shrieking one-per-center threatening to “call corporate” if you fail to meet her demands.

Try helping a mentally disabled teen sort through all his jacket options to find something he loves that fits

Try explaining to a Saudi prince’s servant which down jacket will keep the princeling warm in his first New York winter.

walmart beijing

walmart beijing (Photo credit: galaygobi)

When Walmart employees suck up taxpayers’ money in food stamps ad Medicaid because their cannot earn a living wage...we’ve got a problem.

A 2004 study by UC Berkeley’s Institute for Industrial Relations found that, in California, the average Walmart employee required over $500 more in total public assistance than workers from comparable large retailers. Families of Walmart workers required 40% more health care assistance and 38% more in other kinds of public assistance (like food stamps, subsidized housing, and school lunches) than comparable families of large retail workers.

In addition, a 2006 report by the Philadelphia Inquirer found that Walmart had the highest percentage of employees enrolled in Medicaid in the state; one in every six of Walmart’s 48,000 Pennsylvania employees was enrolled. Finally, in January of 2012, the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services found that Walmart employees and families were the top recipients of Medicaid, food stamps, and cash assistance in the state.

The American worker is being subjected to a fierce game of chicken — who will blink first? Who will cave most quickly to imperial corporate demands, like these, made to the mayor of a small, economically-strapped town in Idaho:

Another economic rescue with Hoku’s glamour and promise is not on the horizon. Mr. Blad, in an interview in his office, said a big employer had recently expressed interest in coming here, bringing perhaps 1,000 jobs. But the company, which he declined to name — a warehouse distributor that does most of its sales over the Internet — has said it would offer $10 an hour, only a few dollars above the minimum wage.

The company even had the audacity to ask for financial incentives, which the city has politely declined. “We would welcome them, and we would value them,” Mr. Blad said. “But I can’t justify taxpayer dollars for a $10-an-hour job.”

What say you?

Are you working for (or paying) minimum or low wages?

If you’re earning so little, do you have an exit strategy?

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