May 29, 2020

This is what family economic insecurity looks like. Could you handle it?

For a real glimpse into the life of a financially fragile family, PBS followed a New York City mother who works in fast food to keep a family of seven afloat (see video below).

At the time of her interview Shanita Simon, 45, was a shift supervisor at KFC. She earns $8 an hour, but no benefits, no vacations, and no sick days.

“That’s a luxury,” she said

Her weekly paycheck of $269.88 supported her husband (who was laid off from his job), her mother, her brother and her three daughters kids.

She puts a face and a voice on the fast food workers we saw striking for a $15-hour minimum wage a few years ago.

Shanita’s story is told in an unsentimental way, but it exposes realities many low-income workers experiences that would be heartbreaking for most middle-class people.

For instance, two of her daughters get two of their three daily meals from school. If they had to eat at home it would upset the balance of Shanita’s financial situation.

She once had SNAP benefits for food assistance but lost them. During her time with the PBS crew, she went to reapply for food stamps during her day off. It took her five hours just to apply only to be told it could take 30 to 45 days to find out if she qualified.

Because it took so long at the social service offices she had to take a cab – something she never does because of the cost – so she would be late to pick her girls up from school.

She’s not alone as a worker who needs government assistance to supplement her income. 52% of fast food workers use some sort of public assistance (i.e. Food stamps, Medicaid, Earned Income Tax Credit) at an estimated cost of $7 billion dollars a year.

Beyond working every shift at KFC she can get, cutting corners on food, and forgoing any personal luxuries, Shanita walks 3 miles a day to get her kids to a well-performing school.

“My kids [are] in one of the best schools in Brooklyn and we have to sacrifice transportation walking 45 minutes a day to make sure they are in the best schools because we can’t afford for them to be getting by in school. I just got by in school and I’m in fast food. I’m in one of the quote-unquote low-wage jobs.”

She wants better for her daughters, and she knows how to get it.

As a financially struggling mother who wants her children to excel, she is practical. Education matters. She knows a college education will better position her girls to break the cycle of low-wages.

Research is rock solid on the college premium. College graduates have always done better the lesser educated workers, but in the past few years, they have substantially separated themselves from high school graduates, gaining ground economically over the past decade while workers like Shanita fell behind.

Un-colleged workers are less likely to have work, obtain the wealth building benefits of stable marriages, own homes, contribute to retirement plans, and belong to a union (public employee unions represent large populations of college-educated workers).

Toward the end of her interview, Shanita gets serious when asked if she should be happy that at least she has a job while so many others are without one.

She says people can think whatever they want from a distance. Until you have her struggles with living check to check, you’re only talking in the abstract.

“Let me see you survive. I challenge you,” she says.

Here’s the video:

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