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Recently the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce identified low-wage jobs as a growing concern in the state and the nation. Nearly one in five people in our region hold such jobs, which generally pay between minimum wage of $5.15 per hour and $8 an hour. The chamber says a family would need to earn about $8.70 per hour to stay out of poverty, and a 2001 study by Kentucky Youth Advocates found that families needed to earn more than $10 per hour to meet a bare-bones budget.

This article will look at how two low-wage families cope. The first is a young couple with no children, the second a family of immigrants with two children.

Brian and Rachel

Brian and Rachel are an unmarried couple in their 20’s. Rachel has lived in a modest, one-bedroom apartment for some months, and Brian is moving in with her shortly. They both work about 25 hours a week at a fast-food restaurant in Owensboro and earn $6 per hour. Brian said he has been promised an extra 20 hours per week shortly. Currently, their combined income is about $1,045 per month.

Working part-time on shifting schedules is not their preference, but they don’t have a better option. Rachel didn’t finish high school and has an uneven job history. She previously worked in a coffee shop but lost her job after becoming depressed when a previous relationship ended. She stayed out of the workforce for a time and had a hard time finding a job when she started looking again.

Today, Rachel has been working for eight months and is confident her experience will allow her to find another job. She’s also studying to take the GED and thinks about becoming a technician in a veterinarian’s office someday.

Brian is a high-school graduate and has worked more steadily; he too feels his future is not tied up in his present job. He loves computers and has also thought about becoming a mortician. For now, however, the two are depending on the fast-food industry, which depends on part-time workers. “If you work 40 hours, they have to give you benefits,” Brian said. “Sure, I’d like to work full-time, not just for the money, but to get health insurance mainly.”

So how do they make it on such low salaries? Together they have expenses of $600 per month, which leaves them about $111 each week for food, clothing, personal supplies, medical expenses and other unanticipated costs (Rachel has two kittens that have had to be taken to the vet twice in the last few weeks). Neither has a car at the moment; they both ride bicycles two miles to work and two miles back. Recently Rachel’s bike was stolen and replacing it was a major hardship for her.

Neither has ever been rich, they say, but they do not consider themselves poor. When asked if they were satisfied with their present lot, Brian answered, “As long as we have each other,” and Rachel said almost simultaneously, “As long as we’re together.”
For now, they think short-term and plan in small steps. Rachel says her real fear is that the continent will sink into the ocean. Brian talks of things he would like to be able to do in six months. For pleasure, Rachel paints and does other art work, and is a heavy reader. Brian’s love is computers.

?I really do want to go to school,? Brian said. ?It?s just a matter of figuring out how to pay for it.? Rachel pointed out to Brian, ?We work evenings and school is usually in the day time, so you would just have to give up some of your computer time to school time.?
As to longer-range desires, Rachel mentioned wanting children “some day” and Brian said, “Yes, but not now.” When asked how they might get from their “now” to their dream-future, Rachel said simply, “I have no idea.”

Maria and Carlos

Maria and Carlos and Maria’s brother Juan are Mexican immigrants who share a home in town. Maria and Carlos have two children who were born in the U.S. and thus are American citizens.

The three adults each work as close as possible to 40 hours a week but only rarely do all three reach that goal. Among them they have five jobs; generally they earn about $7 per hour, so all three of them could make a total of about $3,120 per month. Sometimes, though, their income does not even meet their expenses and Carlos has to pick up odd jobs wherever available to make ends meet, he said. When the three of them do have a good month, they send money their parents in Mexico.

The children, ages 4 and 2, are in day care while the parents work. The parents pay $48 per week to the child-care center, which is about a third of the cost; the rest is covered by CCAP (Child Care Assistance Plan), the state’s subsidy program. The adults have no medical coverage but the children get Medicaid and some prescription medication at a local clinic. Dental expenses are a problem for the adults and their budget is limited enough that they are staggering dentist visits, one appointment per month.

Maria was trained as a nurse in Mexico but is not certified for nursing in the U.S. She works part-time in a local medical facility and also works in a local office; in both jobs her Spanish skills are helpful. She said her family would like to stay in this country, partly for the sake of their children. As immigrants, however, they fear they will eventually have to return to Mexico. Daily they face the possibility of being arrested and deported. This makes long-range planning difficult. Maria said she knows that they are doing better economically than some other immigrants, but also is aware they are still close to the poverty level. She said her family is treated well by everyone. Networking with other immigrants and organizations that work with immigrants makes life pleasant for them.
Carlos, Maria’s husband, is future-oriented and his concerns pivot on making a better life for his family. He completed two years of college in Mexico and dreamed of being an attorney, but the economic situation there made that impossible.

In Owensboro, Carlos cooks hamburgers, but he also attends classes at a citizens’ police academy in another city and speaks excellent English. His long-range goal is to be a police officer. But, “We can’t think long range,” he said. “We pay too high rent, so I would like to be able to buy a house. But what if I make house payments for years and then go back to Mexico? I could be left with nothing.”

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