Tag Archives: Working poor

The Language of Austerity: ‘Working Poor’

Amidst all the debates about austerity, debt and stimulus packages, albeit rarely spoken about explicitly, lie notions of ‘deserving’ versus ‘undeserving’ people, whether they be poor, unemployed or otherwise. These ‘values’ lie below the surface when such words are not actually mentioned.

Notions of deserving and undeserving poor have enabled other people, i.e. those with decent incomes, to ignore and/or complain about the ‘undeserving’ while bestowing ‘charity’ upon those deemed more ‘deserving’. The latter, in turn, who are expected to demonstrate ‘gratitude’ for whatever handouts are provided. (What is missing is the recognition of the system as having any role in all of this, which, as you know, is ridiculous.)

One term that has not received a lot of attention, at least to my own knowledge, is that of ‘working poor’. The term itself appears to reinforce the notion that the poor do not ‘work’, hence the adjective. Although redundancy in language use is rather common (i.e. adding an adjective or adverb where one is not needed), the more formal use of this phrase is not yet redundant, though perhaps becoming more so. That is, work has ceased to be a way out of poverty for an increasing number of people in most Anglophone countries (of the North Atlantic) at least (since their political parties of the centre and right (aka neoliberal and neoconservative) share similar approaches to work, austerity and welfare). Of course, many probably still believe the idea that a job — any job — will get you out of poverty. It takes time to change (so-called) ‘common sense’, but it does change.

While the notions of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor were linguistic counterparts to the social-economic structure of 19th century society, with the arrival of the ‘working poor’ as a significant albeit still minor portion of the working population, the ‘poor house’ is no longer a necessity. Instead, of course, we have prisons to replace the 19th century ‘workhouse’ and post-secondary education increasingly becomes a ‘holding tank’ for the ‘other-wise’ unemployed and enable the building up of debt for young people to ensure they are forever ‘working poor’ (youth unemployment rates in Canada and Europe are at their highest levels in decades). (When students are working part-time or in summers during their post-secondary education, they are more hopeful that such a situation is only temporary and will be quickly rectified once they graduate — and, as such, they are also less likely to want to organize and fight back against bad employers.)

An important counterpart of ‘working poor’ is ‘being poor’ or the fact that, as the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives in Manitoba pointed out a couple of years ago, it takes ‘all day to be poor’. That is, what people who have never been poor, or never been on welfare or unemployment benefit/employment insurance, don’t understand, is the amount of work that you have to put in to deal with just the everyday realities of living on next to nothing.


Postscript: I forgot to add that ‘poor’ can also be read as an adverb for ‘working’ or as an adjective for ‘working’ as a noun, whereby the emphasis (in speech is on the ‘working’) also indicates a development as being poor at working or most likely working but poor. This latter emphasis is also a result,  not only of working at minimum wage or at wages below the ‘Low Income Cut-off’ or ‘poverty line’, but also when employers refuse to pay you your wages or delay your pay: i.e. ‘wage theft’. But, that is another issue for another time.


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Filed under Frames and Framing, Language, Politics, Poverty, Wages, Welfare, Work and working conditions

Wage theft and CEO pay

A report in today’s Toronto Star (http://bit.ly/ieCxVK) about how many low-wage workers are not being paid at all because employers are stealing their wages reminds me of my own experiences with employers and their dubious efforts to get as much work for as little money as possible – or as these workers have found out – for no money.

What kind of system insists on undermining the most vulnerable and the poorest?? I was brought up to believe that the strength of the West was the fact that it ensured that the most vulnerable were looked after. Now, they are blamed for all the ills that have befallen the system.

It is not even that there is even any justification for the continuing regime of tax cuts, de-regulation, privatization and de-certification of unions beyond simply enabling the rich get (super) rich!! Our economic system, in terms of rewards and justifications, has become intellectually (and morally) bankrupt. At least at the top where the stratospheric salaries and benefits paid to CEOs have no relation to their performance.

Indeed, it has been pointed out that the ‘incentive packages’ are more of a detriment to corporations than a help because of what CEOs are encouraged to do. To find out more, check out Henry Mintzberg’s work at McGill University (http://www.mintzberg.org/resume). (I will be bringing up more about this soon.)

Also, a survey down a few years ago of contracts for CEOs showed that around 94% of CEOs have it written into their contracts that they are entitled to their benefits and bonus packages even when they fail or the business fails (under their ‘leadership’). So much for an incentive plan!! Something like 44% of CEOs also have it written into their contracts that conviction for criminal activity (certain kinds of crimes, I suppose, are really no different than what they do to the rest of us – the difference is when those kinds of activities are targetted at the shareholders and/or the corporation they’re supposed to be leading – that they are not supposed to get their bonuses – unless it is in their contract!!).

You will find out more in Michael Perelman’s new book (January 2011) on this and more: The Invisible Handcuffs of Capitalism: How Market Control Undermines the Economy by Stunting Workers, Monthly Review Press (http://monthlyreview.org/press/books/pb2297/).

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Filed under Economics, Wages, Work and working conditions