Let’s talk socio-economic status

Let’s talk socio-economic status

Posted: Friday, November 2, 2012 7:02 pm

What shall we discuss today?  How about socioeconomic status (SES)?  Yes, that is a component of diversity.  Remember diversity is “the condition of having or being composed of differing elements; especially the inclusion of different types of people.”   Socio-economic status is defined by answers.com as “an individual’s or group’s position within the hierarchical social structure.  Socioeconomic status depends on a combination of variables, including occupation, education, income, wealth, and place of residence.”   Gee, that’s interesting, I thought is was just how much money you had, but there are a number of factors that need to be considered.  Interesting.
Generally you think of three levels of SES – low, moderate and high.   But these terms have subjective and objective components.  What?  The level into which you fall is relative to many other factors!  As indicated above, wealth is not the only measure of SES.  Woolfolk defines SES as “the relative standing in society based on income, power, background and prestige.”  Hmmm!  So you are saying that I can live in one area of the country and be considered wealthy and live in another area and be poor?  Yes!  Definitely!  But let’s look at Weakley County since that is where we reside and our SES is based on the social factors here.
In a report by 24/7 Wall Street Tennessee was determined to have the “third-lowest median income in the United States as well as some of the worst poverty and unemployment rates in the country.”  How does that look?   According to the U.S. Department of Commerce there are approximately 34,980 residents in Weakley County. The average family income was about $32,358 compared to the national average family income of $62,273. The percentage of persons living below the poverty level in Weakley County is 21.7 percent compared to the national poverty level of 15 percent. The national poverty rate for children under age 18 is 21.9 percent. Weakley County’s average is 25.6 percent, or 1,702 children living below the poverty level.  Yikes!! 
There are several forms of poverty.  There is absolute poverty.  In this form a person is living on less than $1.25 per day.  Less than the cost of a small Mountain Dew at McDonalds.  Hmmm!  Then there is relative poverty.  This is based on social setting, or how your income matches that of the average income of the people where you live. This fluctuates from city to city and region to region. Then there is situational poverty.  This occurs when a family suffers a negative change in finances due to illness, job loss, divorce, death of a spouse or significant other, etc. This is traumatic at the time but usually has minimal lasting effects.  And lastly there is generational poverty. This is when two or more generations of the same family are living in poverty. This type of poverty is persistent, and has far reaching long-term effects.
One common misconception is that people who are living in poverty are freeloaders who don’t work, but would rather live off of the government. Wrong!  Well, I must admit that there are probably some people who just choose not to work but then there are the working poor. Those people who have full time employment but earn a poverty level hourly wage. A U.S. Census Bureau reports that over 28 percent of workers in this country earned poverty-level wages – $11.06 or less per hour. The majority of these workers fall in the categories of female, black, Hispanic and/or between the ages of 18 and 25.
What are these jobs? According to NBC News some of the lowest paying jobs are food preparation workers, waiters/waitresses, cashiers, employees at movie theatres, and farm workers.   The Bureau of Labour Statistics reports that in Tennessee there are approximately 14,870 food preparation workers whose average hourly wage is $8.97, well below the poverty level.  Waiters and waitresses earn even less with an average hourly wage of $8.62. (Servers in Martin make about $2.50 an hour.) After taxes there isn’t much to take home.  That is why tipping is important to them.  Farm-workers and laborers who work with crops, in nurseries, and in greenhouses earn an average hourly salary of $9.78.  I don’t know about you but that is a lot of hard work for very little pay. 
Let’s look at some of the effects of any form of poverty.  Though not all people living in poverty fit all or any of these categories research indicates these effects to be common.  I guess the most obvious effect is health issues.  Worldwide figures indicate that on a daily basis 18 million people die due to poverty related causes such as starvation and disease.  People living in poverty have a lower life expectancy, and suffer from malnutrition and other illnesses including asthma, headaches, ear infections and dental caries – cavities. They oftentimes live in run down homes that are overcrowded, with little peace and quiet or a place to study.  People living in poverty are often involved in fights, shootings and gang activity. Poverty frequently leads to alcohol and drug abuse, which in turn leads to poor work conduct and eventually unemployment.   The Family and Corrections Network reports that more than 2 million people are incarcerated in our prisons and jails.  Of the men who were incarcerated, 60 percent had an income level below poverty level at the time of their arrest.
Poverty oftentimes leads to poor education opportunities.  Children from low SES families come to school with less linguistic knowledge.  A study by Hart and Risley found that by age 3 children from low SES families had a vocabulary of 525 words in comparison to their middle class counterparts who had a vocabulary of 1,100 words. Children of poverty are at a higher risk of educational underachievement, higher retention rates, and frequent absences.  They are more likely to drop out of school than wealthy children. The American Psychological Association reports that between 60 and 70 percent of students who attend low-income schools drop out and do not graduate.  The dropout rate for Weakley County Schools is 4.3 percent compared to the 3.9 percent statewide.  
Oh but Weakley County Schools aren’t low-income schools!  Hmmm!  All of the other schools in Weakley County except Weakley County Regional High School are Title I schools.   That means that at least 40 percent of the students are from poor families.  Martin Elementary School has 50.7 percent of their students who are eligible for free or reduced meals, while Sharon Elementary has 93.3 percent eligible for the same assistance – 80 percent of Sharon Elementary’s students qualify for free meals.  Those statistics tell me that we have low-income schools in Weakley County.  What is your conclusion?
So how can we help?  Good question.  I have seen many in poverty.  Not the absolute kind but I guess the generational kind – the working poor.  Not poor enough for assistance and having most of the daily necessities – food, a home, clothing, etc. – but oftentimes not having pencils, paper, etc. at home.  Few books in the house.  Relatives on welfare, out of work, in jail, dropping out of school, pregnant at a young age.  It is difficult, to put it mildly, to get out of that cycle.  It takes the helping hands of others.  Oftentimes those hands come from a neighbor, a teacher, a guidance counsellor, or the school principal.   Someone who can see the potential, acknowledge the dangers, and persistently provide support.  Hmmm!  But I donate money to charity and give my castoffs to We Care!  Isn’t that enough!  A bellowing NO!  The support I am talking about isn’t measurable in that way.  It is the time you can give to someone to pull that person out of the quagmire of life.  It takes extreme courage to basically say to your family that you don’t want to live that way anymore.  Especially when the person is living in generational poverty. I have heard what mothers tell their children who aspire to make a better life for themselves!  “So you think you’re better than us?”  “We aren’t good enough for you anymore?”  “You’ll be back with us, you’ll never be anything.” “Why go to school?  Just drop out, get married and have kids like I did.” 
So what kind of support do I give, you ask!  A listening ear. A shoulder to cry on.  Sometimes a kick in the behind or a good shove in the right direction.  First we have to see the problem, accept it, own it, then deal with it. I see getting out of poverty a little like those stairs that collapse in a fun house – you take two steps toward the escape then they collapse! You slide right back where you once were. Frustrated.  Afraid.  Ready to give up. What you desperately need then is a good set of stair rails to pull yourself up. 
That is what you need to be – that set of rails.             
Published in The WCP 11.1.12

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