Margaret (not her real name) drives about 20 minutes each way to get to the little cookie shop where she works. The shop is located on the edge of downtown in a strip center that has been partially demolished to make way for the residential-over-retail template that has dominated Raleigh, North Carolina’s development picture for the better part of a decade.
She makes $15 an hour plus tips, which she says is “pretty good.” For 15 years she worked at IBM until they laid her off. After that, Margaret got a job working with the state. Something to do with information technology, which made for a kind of continuity. She still works at the state job 40 hours a week but also works at the cookie place 20 hours a week, in part to finance her son’s way through college. Beware of the ones you love far more than those you hate – the former stands to do you more harm than the latter, and you’ll seek those lashes willingly.
The underemployment theme runs like a dark river through a cursed forest of a fairy tale. Another barista at a coffee shop can’t find a job that her biology major didn’t find for her. I worked at a breakfast-lunch place for a few months a while ago where my co-workers got in at 4AM to make bread and sometimes dealt with rude customers to provide for their single-parent households. The owners broke their backs being managers, accountants, marketing agents, chefs, and waitresses, sometimes all in the same day. People without money work incredibly hard and hope that time doesn’t run out on them. But the bakery had more good cheer than I would have believed possible, even when it was announced that their building was also getting demolished. They looked for other space, but everything was prohibitively expensive so they took their lease payout and got out of the business for a while to care for their newborn. That place made great croissants and bialys, and it is missed.
In Poverty, by America (Matthew Desmond, 2023) the author unravels the knotted mystery of being the second-most generous welfare state in the world that also has the most impoverished people at the same time. Most United States’ subsidies go towards 529 college plans or loans; tax loopholes that those in power have no interest in closing; mortgage interest tax deductions; and similar benefits for people that are definitely not in the one-in-eight families that fall below the federal poverty threshold. Government support often goes unclaimed by those in need because it is intentionally hard to access. Homes are expensive because “we” want to ensure that the wrong kind of people don’t move in next to “us.” There are so many poor Americans to help make other Americans richer.
Margaret shrugged when I asked if she was doing okay, if she was happy where she was. “The people here are nice.”