The Working Poor: 'We had to budget down to the penny'

Sep 5, 2019

Imagine wanting to have the American Dream—the family, the house, the car, the financial stability to live the life you want to live. But also imagine working full time and still not being able to make ends meet.


That is the reality for over 100,000 households in Erie County. They are Asset Limited Income Constrained Employed, or A.L.I.C.E.

HEAP assistance is necessary for many low-wage workers across Buffalo-Niagara.
Credit File photo / WBFO News

A 2016 report by the United Way of Buffalo and Erie County showed nearly double the amount of families in the county live just above the federal poverty level than live below it. But the group living just above it, they’re still walking along a razor’s edge with their finances.

United Way CEO Michael Weiner said a larger disparity of the A.L.I.C.E population are minorities.

“All races and ethnicities are obviously affected,” he said. “But there is a higher prevalence of people of color.”

The high cost of living in New York State plus stagnant wages are contributing factors as to why so many people are facing financial hardship in Erie County.

Richard Lipsitz, Jr., the president of the Western New York Labor Federation, said working a low-wage job, even full time, is not enough to survive.

“There’s a problem in society with people who have jobs, who can’t make enough money on the single job to make ends meet,” he said. “That’s a problem.”

The United Way report lists the top occupation in the region by number of jobs. The top three occupations, retail salesperson, cashiers and combined food preparation, all had a median hourly wage below $10.

Caitlyn Clark has been through it. She dropped out of college after becoming pregnant with her first child, she then spent years with her head just barely above water. With only her then-husband's income to rely on, she said their struggle was difficult, even at the best of times.

“And we took advantage of every program that was available to us,” she said. “We had food stamps, we were on Medicaid, HEAP. Everything that we could, we literally had to budget down to the penny.”

Caitlyn Clark
Credit Thomas O'Neil-White

Needing to find work, Clark worked in retail for five years, earning less than $10 an hour. With such a low paying job, she said she never had enough money to put into a savings account. Any extra money was used to avoid a financial emergency. Now working as a Lab Director at a dentist’s office, Clark said the financial anxiety from those years stay with her.

Bruce Fisher, a columnist at The Public and Visiting Economics Professor at Buffalo State College, said low-wage jobs aren’t the only problem facing the A.L.I.C.E population.

“Job sprawl means that people, even when they are making a good wage, have to spend more of their wage, more of their household income on personal transportation,” he said. “And personal transportation is a huge problem around here.”

Fisher said low-wage jobs like retail have moved away from the downtown area and into the suburbs over the past 20 years, having an adverse effect on people living in city centers.  

“Where the jobs are matters,” he said. “As long as we have workers isolated from employment opportunities and those workers happen to be minorities, and they happen to be living inside the boundaries of the old city, we’re going to have racial disparities in household income.”

Both Fisher and Lipsitz believe there really is no difference between poor and working poor. Lipsitz said more labor unions, like the one recently created by Spot Coffee workers, are good for low-wage workers because they have the power to collectively bargain for better pay and benefits. Fisher said many economists across the country believe a higher minimum wage would allow more people to become less dependent on social services and more active in their local economies.

But until those issues are rectified, low-wage workers in Erie County will continue to struggle.