HR Pros – Poverty Myths about America’s Working Poor

Many of America’s poor work somewhere

If you work in HR you develop policies and programs that effect employees and/or family members who live “below the line.” Time Magazine article: “Below the Line” (November 28, 2011), is a comprehensive summary of the growing issue of poverty. (Sorry, you can’t get the whole article without subscribing. You could when this was first published. This post summarizes highlights).

“(The poor includes) low wage earners, single mothers, disabled veterans, the elderly, immigrants, marginalized factory workers, the severely mentally ill, the formerly incarcerated, the under-educated and the fallen middle class.  They live in Appalachia and the inner city and the wealthiest suburbs.”

The number of people living below the poverty line is apparently at the highest number since data was first gathered – 46.2 million Americans. It got me to thinking about how human resources interacts with the lowest paid staff. Since the shortest, easiest way out of poverty involves getting and keeping a decent-paying job, it’s useful for HR professionals to understand the reality of poverty.

Poverty myths:

1.  Poor people don’t have jobs.

Though most of the poor are physically or mentally unable to work, many work more than one job.  The problem is that 10 hours here and 20 hours there at minimum wage will not lift a family from poverty.  Leading to one of the reasons families fall into poverty – lack of healthcare coverage

2. Income levels define poverty

At greater levels today, middle class families slip into poverty due to a major health incident and the lack of health coverage, or when a middle class family is caring for an elderly or disabled family member. In addition, as mentioned in the Time article, the unhoused –  if you don’t have a permanent address, phone, transportation and computer it can be difficult to get and keep a job.

3.  People with mental illness can’t work

On the contrary, of those with a diagnosable mental disorder only a fraction have disorders make it impossible to work. Most can be treated or mitigated with therapy or medication. Only serious & persistent mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, sociopathy, untreated Bipolar disorder might be associated with inability to work.  Diagnosable conditions such as anxiety, depression and other maladaptive behaviors respond to a combination of talk therapy and medication.  But here’s the catch, employees typically need insurance to gain access to these treatment options.

4. Poor people lack a work ethic

Again, poor adults often work more than one part-time position while juggling care for families or elderly relatives. The problem is that pay is too low to save against a rainy day.

5. The poor are at fault for lack of proper training

Forces that significantly increase poverty are systemic: off-shoring  good paying jobs; the collapse of manufacturing businesses; massive cutbacks in highly skilled jobs, etc. are more connected to business health and economic conditions than individually based phenomena.

HR programs and activities can support employee financial stability

  • creating schedules with reasonable minimum hours – 30 or more
  • providing financial literacy programs
  • jobs re-training programs (grant money is sometimes available)
  • working with community service providers who support employment
  • encouraging employee volunteering for work readiness training nonprofits
  • advocating for “workforce” housing projects
  • advocating for public transportation or better routes
  • locating businesses where workers have access to public transportation
  • offering reimbursement or partial reimbursement for education
  • consider waiving nepotism provisions so family members can work together
  • using company buying power to provide employee purchasing discounts


(c) Copyright Benoit Consulting, LLC 2011 with updates 2023, all rights reserved

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