Thousands in Crawford County go to work every day but struggle to make ends meet, according to a report released last week by the United Way of Pennsylvania.

The ALICE report — which stands for households that are Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed — provides a comprehensive picture of economic insecurity in the state. Specifically, it accounts for a growing number of workers who make more than poverty-level wages but still don’t have enough to pay for basic necessities like health care, housing, food, transportation and childcare.

In Pennsylvania, that number is 1.2 million, or 24 percent of total households. In Crawford County, it’s 23 percent, and when you add the people who are living below the poverty line, it’s 38 percent (13,699 households). In Meadville, 52 percent of households don’t earn enough to cover the basic cost of living; in Titusville, it’s 54 percent; in Vernon Township, 39 percent; and in West Mead, 34 percent.

So, what gives? Why are so many people struggling to get by — one medical emergency or unexpected car repair away from financial catastrophe?

One opinion is that ALICE households are themselves at fault. Call it the victim-blaming approach. It basically says people are poor (or near poor), not because of circumstances beyond their control (say, a lack of living wage jobs or the rising costs of health care), but because of some personal failing. Accordingly, it relies on assumptions about people’s motivations, intelligence and moral character. And it often shows up in cavalier statements like: “there are a lot of jobs available, but nobody wants to work them” or “nobody can pass a drug test.”

This is something you might hear at a chamber of commerce banquet or a county commissioner forum, precisely because it’s the sort of thing that appeals to people who are NOT struggling; people who are (or aspire to be) members of the elite. It also works for those who have stable jobs with good incomes and feel the need to justify their advantages in a world of increasing economic inequality. The easiest way to do this is to believe that the people who do struggle somehow “deserve” it; that they are too lazy or stupid to improve their situation and could actually achieve economic security if they simply worked hard and had the right attitude.

But this stance is belied by two obvious points.

First, even if there are, as local business leaders like to say, 700 good jobs available in the county, this number drastically pales in comparison to the 13,699 households that need them. Emphasizing those jobs at the expense of the mismatch is a sleight-of-hand that distracts us from a much larger problem: The amount of people struggling for basic needs vastly outnumbers the supply of job openings that cover the cost of living.

Second, contrary to the conviction that people “don’t want to show up for work,” ALICE households are in fact working households. Per the report, “they hold jobs that are vital to the Pennsylvania economy,” and a lot of them have to patch together multiple jobs — and thus work incredibly hard — to make ends meet. So, the core issue is not whether they want to work; it’s that even when they do, their jobs (in retail, food service, office work, etc.) don’t pay enough to afford basic necessities. These workers face what the report calls “a changing landscape, where lower-paying, part-time, and non-salaried occupations account for the majority of jobs.”

This includes home health aides, one of the fastest-growing jobs in PA, which pays $11.75 per hour — $6 less than the hourly income needed to sustain economic stability, according to the report.

While CEOs from home health care companies take in a combined $39.5 million a year, one of the biggest challenges facing those companies, according to one CEO, is “finding people to work for you at a wage where you can be profitable.” In other words, the challenge (perhaps familiar to area employers) is finding people willing to work for a wage that is less than livable (but highly exploitable) so that, in effect, companies can make more. And the high pay of the bosses (who, in health care, make millions) is directly related to the low pay of the workers (who merely make a living).

Hence the crux of the problem: “Because income is distributed unequally in Pennsylvania,” states the ALICE report, “there is both great wealth and significant economic hardship. Now, the top 20 percent of Pennsylvania’s population earns 51 percent of all income earned in the state, while the bottom quintile earns only 3 percent.”

Rather than debate whether this system is “fair” (it’s not) or whether ALICE workers “deserve” to be poor (they don’t), maybe we should direct our attention to the companies that increasingly look to maintain their profits by taking them out of workers’ wages. And maybe we should see the “lazy worker” stereotype for what it is: an ideological fixation that lets the boss off the hook and reduces the pressure on politicians to take seriously the problem of economic inequality by blaming its victims.

Joe Tompkins lives in Meadville and teaches media studies at Allegheny College.

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