Often when we think about the impact of poverty we think about things such as difficulties obtaining basic necessities (housing, food, heat), a lack of transportation, and the inability to save for your child’s college fund. These are all very real and serious ways in which poverty impacts individuals but there is another way that we often neglect to think about: work. This goes beyond unemployment, underemployment, or working multiple jobs and to issues within certain policies and expectations that make it difficult for people of lower economic statuses to thrive at work. This is not something that I had given much thought to until I attended part 1 of Equity Solutions’ Poverty in an Unequal Economy– and what we can do about it workshop.
One of the first activities we participated in was called Ten Chairs. This activity consisted of one participant laying out across seven chairs while nine others shared the remaining three. Not only was this a striking visual representation of how much wealth and power the top 1% has in comparison to the bottom 99% but it also highlighted our misguided response to this problem. Instead of calling out the system and fighting to gain the extra chairs that they deserved, the nine participants were left trying to get their small sliver of three chairs. As with most people in America today, they had been conditioned to fight over crumbs when there is still an entire cake before them. There is a lot of infighting among those working lower level jobs because there aren’t many opportunities to go around. Blame for a lack of employment is often put on immigrants, both legal and undocumented, as well as programs such as affirmative action that aim to make up for years of intuition racism that kept people of color from prospering. We never talk about the greed of the upper class that led to these problems.
We also spent time looking at workplace policies and really digging into them to see who would most be affected by them. My group looked at a policy centered around drug use. On top of more reasonable rules such as not consuming drugs or alcohol while at work, the policy also outlined requirements for pre and post-interview drug tests, softer punishments for those who “come clean” before they get caught, and the ramifications of failing a drug tests. The policy did not offer employees steps to regain employment were they to fail a drug test. It was clear that this was a policy that had no input from the lower level employers that it would affect.
The main takeaway of the workshop was that workplaces should strive for equity instead of equality. The idea of equity is that people are given the support they need in order to make sure that they are on a level playing field with everyone else. Not everyone gets equal parts—some people need more and some people need less. When applying this in a work atmosphere you have to think about it in the terms that life is not one size fits all so flexibility is a must. For instance, if everyone is allocated two weeks of paid sick days a year that is equality. However, an employee who is a single parent of two children may need more time off than an employee without children. Employers should be open to working with their employees to provide support when possible.
It’s easy for employers to use someone’s economic status as a way to justify having biases or making assumptions as to why employees are late or need to take time off of work. Many fall into the trap of consciously and subconsciously creating policies that make it difficult for those of lower economic statuses to succeed (making employees pay for testing, not reimbursing for travel costs, expecting them to travel without adequate transportation, etc.). Many workplaces continue to create an environment that shames instead of supporting which only contributes to the infighting of those without power. Sometimes the bus runs late, sometimes you have a difficult time getting your kid up and ready for the day, hell, sometimes your mental health might make it difficult for you to get yourself up and ready for the day. This is why it’s important to make sure that the policies are inclusive, thoughtful, and reasonable. This might sound impossible but it’s not. It all begins with allowing employees of all backgrounds to have a seat at the table when constructing workplace policies.
– Kina Thorpe, Program Assistant