It happened again. I overheard a conversation at Oak Marr gym, where one guy told another “I suppose we have poor people here in Fairfax County, but you don’t see them. They are invisible.”
Why do the poor seem “invisible” to many of us? Not only do we see them every day, but we know many of them. A quick tour of my typical suburban workday tells the story.
At dawn, my alarm goes off and the coffee-maker starts making that slurping sound to tell me it’s ready. In my pre-caffeinated fuzzy mind, I recall hearing the paper guy roaring by in his muffler-damaged van around 5 a.m. Newspaper delivery drivers make about $15,000 a year, just above the poverty line but far below the 200% poverty level used as a rough indicator of working poor.
An hour later, I hop in my car and pass the school bus stop, thankfully just before the driver put on his red blinkers to let the kids in. School bus drivers earn $17 an hour. But since they only work part-time and not usually during summer, their annual earnings are probably $15,000-$20,000 a year, not nearly enough to live in Fairfax County, where an average apartment rents for $15,000 a year.
Starting my commute, I pass the bus stop on the main road, where four people huddle in the morning chill waiting for the bus to take them to work. On average, one of them is likely to be returning from overnight work as a security guard or some other job where they work while I sleep. Security guards make about $12 an hour, just enough for one person to live on in a shared housing arrangement, but forget about buying a car. Hence, the bus for this worker and the others at the bus stop who rely on public transportation.
Just then, a 20-something guy whizzes by on his bike, one of the many restaurant workers I often see biking to work, who are often young Hispanic males. As a cook in a restaurant, he makes about the same as the security guard nodding off at the bus stop. He dreams of opening up his own restaurant one day, but can only save a few hundred dollars each year after sending some of his surplus earnings to even poorer family members in his home country.
Before hitting the office, I stop for my $5 java concoction. I greet my young barista, who does better than many working poor, earning about $15 an hour, including tips. I know him by name. Many retail and restaurant managers prefer to keep workers’ hours under 30 per week to save on benefits like health insurance. So, my barista makes about $25,000 a year, hoping not to get sick, while trying to save money for community college courses he takes at night. Two classes at a time is the most he can afford, and at this pace it will take him 4 years to earn a two-year Associates Degree at NOVA.
So far, I’ve encountered seven working poor people in my morning routine, including one that I know, and my work day hasn’t even started yet. Throughout a typical day, we suburbanites might encounter many others that we know who are working poor — the preschool teacher that we entrust our children to every weekday, the sweating yard service guys we wave to from our window as they mow our lawn, the pleasant and efficient cashier at the grocery store whose line we often choose, the office assistant we rely on to make us look good at work, and the smiling Jamaican guy who takes care of our mother at the nursing home. Not all of them are struggling, of course. However, many have no benefits like a 401(K) match, paid vacation, or sick leave, and live in anxiety knowing that they are just one bout with the flu away from missing their rent payment.
Beyond our view, they struggle to get by, but they don’t complain to us, and we don’t really ask. So, let’s be honest — these working poor neighbors are not “invisible” to us at all. They are in plain view, and we sort of know many of them. What we don’t often know are their stories of struggle of dreams deferred, crisis-induced debts, and of constant anxiety about living so close to the edge of poverty. The problem of “invisibility” of the very visible working poor neighbors in Fairfax County isn’t with our eyes. It’s within our hearts.