How work doesn't pay, and why it could destroy America

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Does work pay? It's a pretty fundamental assumption. If you work, you won't be poor. You won't have to depend on welfare. You'll be okay.

But for more and more working families, that isn't true. A new report from the Working Poor Families Project says that since the recession has hit America, one in three working families is struggling, despite a full-time job.

More and more, in America, it seems, work doesn't pay. If this trend continues, will it completely erode our society?

Certainly, the recession has played a big role in who can make ends meet, but the problem isn't just the recession. In the past two years, the number of families who work and yet make under 200 percent of the poverty level grew by 1.7 million, making the total 45 million nationwide. But that means that even before the recession, 43 million of us were dealing with this problem. Maybe it's worse now, but the recession certainly didn't create the entire problem.

When you look at the whole spectrum of workers, not everyone is doing so poorly. Among people with a bachelor's degree, unemployment is only 4 percent, compared with 15 percent among high school dropouts. And upper-income people are gobbling up more and more of what everyone's earning. The top 20 percent of working families get 47 percent of the total income--10 times that of working families.

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Many, it seems, have been insulated from the chill of the recession, while other families are standing outside of our economy, freezing. That divide is widening:

"The divide between higher- and lower-income families goes beyond economics. Increasingly, families from different economic strata are also sorted into different neighborhoods, schools and social networks. These families and their children are at risk of becoming isolated from educational and economic opportunities that could provide a path out of poverty."

The other day, a friend was asking me about the riots in Chicago after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. In a lot of communities, like North Lawndale, people got so angry they torched their own neighborhoods, broke the windows of their own local stores, looted from their own neighbors.

My friend shook her head and said, "Trashing your own community--why would anyone do that?"

When people feel like nothing they do can get them out of the situation they're in, like they're permanently locked out of what society has to offer, I think they feel there's no reason not to destroy it.

Is that where we're headed in America? I hope not.

Photo credit: walknboston


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