Rules have changed on making a living

I am one of America’s 7 million working-poor citizens. My youngest two children and I are on Medicaid and for a few months each year we qualify for food stamps. Like many families living below the poverty level, I receive the Earned Income Tax Credit. Last year, a portion of my EITC, through the Child Tax Credit, was disbursed for six months in a row.  

Created as part of the Biden administration’s COVID relief package passed last March, the CTC gave monthly payments to qualifying families starting on July 15. Through its Build Back Better bill, the administration wanted to extend the CTC but with the bill stalled, the original deadline held and payments ceased.  

When it became clear that December’s CTC payment was, for now, the final one, proponents decried the loss. According to a study conducted by Columbia University, the CTC payments reduced the U.S. child poverty rate from 16% to 12%, or about 3 million children. 

The detractors of the CTC fall into roughly two camps: Those who blame the poor for being poor and others who deem the CTC as an imperfect solution to child poverty and, therefore, should be abandoned without first implementing anything better. In other words, the old “letting perfect be the enemy of good.” 

Blaming poor people for their situation is nothing new. And, yet, in recent decades, those who do have become more strident. For most of the 20th century, plenty of conservatives knew intimately that poverty is not essentially a character flaw. After all, many of them lived through the Great Depression and the lean years of World War II. 

In 1964, the Johnson administration introduced its War on Poverty legislation, which sought to solve the endemic problems that leave so many citizens behind in the world’s richest country. Instead, in the ensuing decades, legislation created by politicians of both parties (I’m looking at you, Bill Clinton) was more of a war on poor people. 

For three decades, I have worked hard and played by the rules. 

A first-generation college graduate, I took a smattering of classes after high school, only getting serious at age 21 when I enrolled at Ohio State University. I graduated five years later in 1992 with two bachelor’s degrees and paid off my student loans in less than two years. 

But then the rules on moving up in life changed. 

Federal funding for higher education, starting with the G.I. Bill in 1944, helped create the largest middle class in the history of the world. For several decades, the halls of higher education were no longer the exclusive domain of the rich.  

That tide changed starting with the Reagan administration. Using data that showed college graduates make more money over their lifetimes than those with only high school degrees, funding to colleges and students was slashed. This has continued until it is now nearly impossible to earn a bachelor’s degree without an insurmountable mountain of debt. 

In 2010, I graduated from Kent State with an MFA and $30k in student loan debt. It has since mushroomed to $40k even though I pay more than the minimum payments.  

Like many Americans, I am a gig worker. I teach at the University of Akron, I write freelance, I proofread for court reporters and I own a rental property. 

Also like many American workers, I didn’t choose this, but have few alternatives because American employers have moved positions at an ever-accelerating pace from actual employment to contract work. 

Why? It’s simple. Employers don’t have to pay contract employees living wages or provide them with benefits. This is a profit-driven strategy not only adopted by large companies in the commercial sector, but throughout the economy. 

A prime example is my work teaching at a university.

Based upon a review of best practices, the Modern Language Association recommends that part-time faculty receive, as minimum compensation, $11,500 for teaching a three-credit-hour semester course. Shoot, I’d be thrilled with half that.

As adjunct faculty, I make just under $3,000 for a three-credit-hour semester course, which is about $127/week (after deductions) for a position that requires a master’s degree, the same one I suspect I’ll die before paying off. In order for freshmen to learn to write successful academic papers, my students write, and I grade, a lot.

As a result, I earn less than $5 an hour teaching.

This scenario is not unique to my university or even Ohio. Colleges and universities nationwide are ever increasingly replacing what were once full-time teaching positions with adjunct faculty who receive subpar pay and little to no benefits.

This and other forms of indentured servitude is why, in this post-vaccine phase of the pandemic, workers are not flocking back to demanding jobs that offer no possibility of earning a living wage.

From the rearview mirror, I would agree that some of the choices I made early in life resulted in me having less income. But, in the world as it was then, there was no way to foretell this.

Research shows that families receiving the CTC spent it mostly on food and education. I used to buy reliable transportation — the base-model, used car I purchased last June. It was a godsend to set up a car payment to occur a few days after the monthly CTC payments hit my bank account.

So yes, the CTC, which simply provided some of the EITC funds monthly instead of in one lump sum as a federal tax refund, is not a solution to decades of rising economic inequality.

But it helped America’s working poor families make monthly ends meet in an economy that, after 1979, no longer rewards the hard or smart work of the majority of Americans. That the CTC should be maintained, even at amounts lower than those paid in 2020 as a part of COVID relief, is a no brainer.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, January 23, 2022.

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