My struggle with low wage work

At least a quarter of American workers are working hard but are still struggling to make ends meet. I know this because I am one of them. And I know many others through the Witnesses to Hunger program - a growing group of parents who speak out as the true experts on hunger and poverty in America.

As a married mother of three children, I am proud of our 9-year-old honor-roll son and our twins, who are starting kindergarten this month. I also dearly love my three teenage stepchildren. Like most mothers in this country, providing for them is a responsibility that I do not take lightly. But the American Dream is failing me, and it is failing our family.

Millions of Americans -- like me -- hold jobs that keep us stuck in a cycle of working hard and falling behind, with little hope for economic mobility. These jobs do not pay enough to provide even a modest standard of living, do not offer adequate benefits to protect workers from family illness and the demands of child-rearing, and leave us unable to invest in paths to prosperity or to save for retirement.

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A new survey conducted for the global anti-poverty organization Oxfam America found that most American low-wage workers barely scrape by from month to month, are plagued by worries about meeting basic needs, and are often compelled to turn to other sources just to get by: loans from family or friends, credit card debt, pawn shops and payday loans, and government programs.

I work part-time for a childcare provider at a recreation center making about $10 an hour, and my husband works behind the deli counter at a grocery store making $8 an hour. We have tried but haven't been able to find full-time jobs, so our incomes go up and down at the whims of our employers.

Despite our hard work, we rely on government assistance.  But when our income temporarily goes up because we are able to get work more hours, our Food Stamp benefits get cut. And a few months later, when our companies choose to reduce our hours at their own convenience, we need to turn to Food Stamps again to feed our kids.

My three children have medical issues, including epilepsy and asthma. They need medications, but I constantly worry that the day that might come when they won't have their medicine because I can't afford the co-pay.

There have been times when my oldest son was sick or having seizures, and of course I wanted to be at the hospital to care for him and comfort him.  But that meant my husband had to stay home to take care of the twins, which meant neither one of us was working. Those months were the toughest because we had to make some rather tough choices:  do we pay the rent or do we pay the electricity bill?  And how do we buy food?

No family should have to choose between paying the gas bill or caring for a sick child. But that's what is happening in our country every single day. Medical issues, food, and paying for utilities and housing all go hand and hand and are issues low-wage workers struggle to juggle on a daily basis. Low-wage parents, especially working mothers, face particularly acute challenges in both making ends meet and in balancing work and home life. One in six low-wage workers surveyed by Oxfam has lost a job in the last four years because of having to care for a child or parent,  one in five among low-wage working mothers.

Due to this juggling act, most low-income families I know are working harder than many other people who make a lot more money.  They're working sometimes two or three jobs to make ends meet.  We're playing by the rules, but we're simply not getting ahead.

But I am not writing this to ask for a hand out. I don't even want a hand up, I want a hand in.

As a country, we must work together to find solutions to today's poverty -- and people actually living in poverty need to be part of the discussion. If you do not have an understanding of the struggles, how can you try to solve them? I am not a number, I am not a statistic, I am an American citizen. I have a voice and you need to hear it. We are the real experts. We know American policies first hand.  And we're eager to help develop the solutions. There's no better time to start on this national discussion than after Labor Day.

Gaines-Turner is a working mother and "witness to hunger" with Drexel University.