It’s odd being the working poor serving the truly poor in a poor neighborhood.
Many customers at my east St. Paul Target rely on food stamps (aka SNAP benefits). When the cash register spits out a receipt after a food purchase (Mmm! Steak fillets!), it shows a customer’s SNAP balance. It’s not unusual to see a balance into the hundreds of dollars.
Oh, how I envy her! Oh, how I love steak fillets!
After a succession of excellent job reviews, I’ve been able to cobble together a $9.94 wage after more than six years of all-hours, part-time service to the well-known Minneapolis retailer. I’ve advanced in responsibility from the cashier’s lane to the customer service desk, and from head cashier to a non-tipped Starbucks barista. Yet, like some of my fellow working poor, I have envy not for the multimillionaire rich like my own store’s CEO, but for the real poor, who seem to prosper through social services and tax credits.
My annual review is imminent, and I fear that with one more raise, I’m going to lose the hundred and change I garner each year from the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). If only I were truly poor!
The working poor at my Target cover the race, gender, age and education gamut. There’s a handful of young team members who already have a degree of sorts, but can’t find work in their fields. Bernice, with a husband and a baby, is studying online for a criminal justice degree. Mary is not 18 yet and is shaping her work skills. Jane works only as a cashier and relies entirely on her income at Target to pay rent and bills. Rick is returning to Target to work as a cart attendant, but he plans to hold onto his cab. He says he needs a predictable income.
Lindsey, a 30ish single mother who has worked here since she was a teen, closely monitors the hours she works to maximize her social aid. If she works too much, her total net worth drops.
As the old timer at 60, I am just trying to hold the fort until Social Security at 62.
There’s a predictable bump in business at my Target on the first of every month. Welfare and Social Security benefits arrive, and carts brim with food and notions. But starting in February, federal tax benefits become available. For the poor, especially those with kids, this is Christmas — tax time means the biggest check of the year. Television sets fly off the shelves. Recently, a mother beamed with pride when she was able to buy her 9-year-old son a pricey Xbox controller and a copy of “Call of Duty,” paying for it with a swipe from her H&R Block prepaid debit card.
And I was envious.
All of us at the grunt level at Target would benefit from a raise in the minimum wage, and a bump in the EITC, as well. Still, let’s not get too exuberant. Suddenly making $10 or so an hour isn’t going to prompt many to look at buying a house in Woodbury. But it will allow many to spend something to find out why their car is leaking oil or to make more than a minimum payment on a credit card they’ve relied on to live. An enhanced EITC would allow many working poor to cushion the seasonal reduction in hours and smaller paychecks after December.
Few businesses that rely on low-cost labor would be put at a competitive disadvantage with a higher minimum wage. Customers would barely feel the effect of higher labor costs, be it in the cost of a hamburger or a pair of socks. It would, however, build employee fealty.
But more important, raising the minimum wage is the ethical thing to do. Author Barbara Ehrenreich touched on this years ago in her book “Nickel and Dimed.”
Low-wage workers work like dogs. Pity especially the cart attendant when the walkie-talkie calls him to the restrooms for a “Code Brown.” When economic reports celebrate a rise in worker productivity, it’s a euphemism for grunts like us being asked to do impossibly more in the same period of time with less backup.
There’s a motivational poster near the break room featuring the retail giant’s trademark dog and this aphorism: “Work can be fun or not fun — Choose Fun.” Every time I see this, I imagine it pinned up in the Roman slave galley where Ben Hur is rowing furiously to the beat of the drum and the lash of the whip. Only his hate kept him alive.
It’s unnatural to aspire to be poor in order to eke out a living. Reward work. Raise the wage.
Doug Champeau is a writer from St. Paul.