Carl Wernicke: Poverty Is All Of Our Problem

Dec 22, 2015

A recent report by the Studer Institute in the News Journal, and a subsequent viewpoint by former News Journal executive editor Randy Hammer, again spotlighted the serious poverty issue that persists in Escambia County.

Poverty IS distressing. What’s more distressing is that it has been growing worse despite the visible economic gains being made in places like downtown Pensacola, the growth of Navy Federal and the infill of new houses in places like East Hill. I say it’s more distressing because it seems increasingly difficult to figure out what to do about today’s poverty, which is creating a growing underclass at the same time that other elements of society are increasingly prosperous.

Certainly the News Journal has been writing about Escambia’s poverty for many years, and examining its impact on education. I know I wrote about it many times during my 30-plus years at the News Journal.

As a society, we are obviously struggling to figure out a solution. I think one significant problem making it worse is that in the past, there were many jobs that people with little education, but a good work ethic, could get and live on. When I was a kid, even high school dropouts could make a living pumping gas, changing oil and doing auto repairs at the local gas station.

Today we pump our own gas at convenience stores. Auto repair is a sophisticated, computer-based skill. Bank teller jobs have been lost to ATMs, much secretarial work has been shifted onto higher-paid workers by desktop computers, and cashier jobs are being eliminated by self-checkout stations. Even newspapers are seeing entry-level jobs that once trained young journalists disappear to software that writes basic game stories or financial reports.

All this is to say that smart, hard-working people with little education or sophisticated technical skills face an increasingly smaller job pool.  A high school dropout today probably has a hard time getting a fast-food job, which, by the way, is also becoming automated. Meanwhile, the minimum wage hasn’t kept pace with inflation, so these jobs are less supportive than they used to be.

It’s easy to ascribe poverty to poor work ethic, and to blame the poor for their plight. I’m sure there are plenty of lazy poor people, but I’ve met many people with low-paid jobs who work more than one. A lot of hard-working people in our community simply can’t make enough money to get ahead. It undermines the ethos that says you will be rewarded for hard work.

Meanwhile, if you look at help-wanted postings, you see many openings for people with technical skills that employers find hard to fill.

Maybe one solution is offering tax credits to companies willing to train people for the technical jobs that need filling, and pay them a basic wage during the training.

But I think the real solution comes down to education. Unless we can figure out how to bring up those who continue to fall through the cracks, we will continue to see the growth of an economic underclass that is a growing drag on the entire economy. You can only go so far in pretending they don’t exist.