Abandon Not Thy Fellow Man

There’s a man who lives in Chicago. We’ll call him Roger.

Roger is a good man. A hard-working man. Never got in trouble with the law. Never borrowed money he couldn’t repay.

Roger grew up in a bad neighborhood. It wasn’t easy for him to finish high school, but he did it. He even got himself into community college — at least, until his family ran out of money and he had to drop out to pay the bills.

Roger got a job at a fast food restaurant. It was only minimum wage, but the economy was weak and they were the only ones hiring.

By this point, Roger was married. His wife was pregnant. They lived in a 20-by-15-foot apartment. No kitchen. No furniture. They shared a bathroom with four other families.

Roger counted himself lucky. The other families crammed four, five, even six people in a room. At least he and his wife had the apartment to themselves. All 300 square feet of it.

Roger worked his butt off. He took every shift he could get. He sweated and served and smiled the whole time. He started making $7.25 an hour when the minimum wage went up. Then $8 an hour when he’d been there a couple years. Then $9. And finally, last year, $10.

But it wasn’t enough. They never gave him enough hours to claw his way out of poverty. Even with his wife working nights at temporary jobs — she couldn’t work days because they couldn’t afford daycare — they just barely reached the poverty line for a family of three.

It was at this point that Roger got transferred to another branch. The company said they needed experienced workers in a newer restaurant, and Roger had shown himself worthy of such a responsibility.

Roger’s new commute was twice as long, but he didn’t complain. He had too many friends who were unemployed. At least he could feed his family. Barely.

Two weeks into his new job, Roger got his paycheck. At first, he thought it was a typo. He went to his boss and pointed out the error. The manager told him the number was correct. That’s what the company told him to pay Roger: $7.25 an hour.

Roger insisted it was a mistake. So his boss contacted the accounting department at corporate headquarters and asked for an explanation.

The message came back: When an employee moves to a new branch, his pay goes back down to minimum wage. He can earn his old wage again the same way he did last time — after several years of service at that restaurant.

And so, Roger now makes $7.25 an hour. He has to get food stamps to feed his family. He still lives in that 20-by-15-foot room with his wife and son.

His son will start kindergarten next year. His brain is underdeveloped for his age, but that’s common for kids living in poverty. He’ll struggle like his father did. The local public schools have low test scores and high dropout rates. Roger prays everyday that his son will enjoy a better life than he’s had, but right now it’s almost impossible for him to imagine such a future.

There are millions of Roger’s in America today. They cook our food and clean our buildings. They package the toys that we buy our children for Christmas. They help us find that perfect gift for that special someone, and they ring it up at the cash register. They smile and laugh, joke and shake our hand, but they’re dying inside. They’re living in squalid, cramped apartments — if they live in an apartment at all. They’re missing payments on student loans. They’re worrying they won’t be able to afford groceries next week. They’re probably not getting the necessary medical care unless they’re bleeding profusely, and they’re definitely not saving for retirement.

One in four American employees work in low-wage jobs. That’s the highest percentage in the industrialized world by far.

That’s what’s at stake in the “fiscal cliff” debate. Roger needs help. We all need help. None of us can do it by ourselves.

We must not abandon them. We must not abandon each other. We must preserve the government programs that help us when we are at our most desperate. Above all, the most fortunate among us must not be unwilling to share a little more of their good fortune so that this nation might heal its lingering wounds.

May 2013 be better than 2012 for Roger’s family and for yours.

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This op-ed was published in today’s South Florida Sun-Sentinel.