From Chuck E. Cheese's to EZ Mart, Low-Wage Workers Are A Profile In Frailty, Hope

May 24, 2018

EDITOR'S NOTE: In his bid for re-election, Gov. Asa Hutchinson has said he’s helped bring more than 60,000 jobs to the state since taking office. Of course, not all jobs are the same. As part of Arkansas Public Media's ongoing partnership with the School of Journalism and Strategic Media at the University of Arkansas, assistant professor Rob Wells and his students investigated wages in Northwest Arkansas and sought out low-wage workers in and around the flagship university campus for a multimedia project called “Working for Low Wages in Arkansas.” Click to learn more.

Twenty-five percent of families are considered to be in poverty in Northwest Arkansas, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and many of them are working for a living.

What is that like? How do these people make ends meet?

A group of University of Arkansas journalism students set out this semester to examine life for people living at or close to minimum wage. 

People in these situations are commonly classified as "the working poor," but we didn’t think that term was accurate after meeting with some 22 people with jobs at McDonald's, Waffle House, EZ Mart and similar places.

Many of the workers we spoke to were making the Arkansas minimum wage of $8.50 per hour, about $17,680 a year. Despite low wages, these workers expressed a positive attitude, hope for their futures and a sense of pride in their work.

To us, the term "working poor" just didn't fit.

It doesn't reflect the optimism of people we interviewed, many of whom are younger and see these low-wage jobs as a step towards another goal.

"Low-wage workers" is a better fit since it offers a sense of hope for the future.

For example, Courtney Boyd, a manager at McDonald's, eventually wants to attend culinary school and become a chef. Boyd spoke with a sense of fondness about working at McDonald's because they're flexible with her hours while she attends community college.

"I love cooking and being around food. That is one reason why I work here," Boyd said. "We are a tight knit group, like a family."

Students from the University of Arkansas School of Journalism and Strategic Media spoke to Boyd and others after conducting a data analysis of U.S. Census and Department of Labor records to understand the general profile of low-wage workers in Northwest Arkansas. The class sought to find people who were not university students, worked full-time, paid close to minimum wage and came from diverse backgrounds.

To prepare for the reporting, we read Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. She "embedded" as a working poor adult in Florida and Maine for an extended period. Her experiences were very humbling as she pinched pennies, went hungry, and physically and mentally drained herself to make ends meet.

When we started out interviews, we were intimidated, since we had read how low-wage employees are in an unrelenting struggle, and we weighed the class differences between college students and low-wage workers as well as the obligations of journalists to represent with dignity the people who were opening up to us about their work and personal lives.

Our data shows more single mothers in Arkansas are in poverty than any other group. So the majority of the interviewed workers were women, though we also found diversity in race and background.

Mishell Quintero, 23, is an undocumented immigrant who works two jobs to help her five-person family make ends meet. At J.C. Penney, Quintero makes $9.50 an hour; as a caregiver, she makes $15.

Quintero would be covered under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA, which defers deportation proceedings for two years for children brought to the United States illegally. The Trump administration is seeking to end the program and its outcome is pending legal challenges.

Quintero's story shows that poverty can affect any individual in this region, even those who came here specifically looking for a better way of life. Bertha Lara came to the United States from El Salvador in 1999 and works at Tyson Foods piecing chicken. She makes $11.50 an hour, but Lara has struggled to support her family because of job-related injuries that prevent her from working for months at a time.

Hard as they might work, these immigrants are often not able to support themselves after an interruption in their wage earnings.

The stigma facing people making low salaries is they do not work hard enough, or are not smart enough, to be successful. We did not see that in our interviews. There are individuals who pursue a calling in spite of low wages.

Carlos Morgan is a barber who hopes to own a shop one day. Money is tight for him right now, but he says haircuts are what he loves. Cathy Lee, a manager at Chuck E. Cheese, spends the majority of her paycheck – she makes $11 an hour — on rent, but when we spoke to her, she was about to go out with friends for a drink, to play video games and see drive-in movies.

These interviews seek to offer a portrait of workers struggling to make ends meet in an area loaded with Fortune 500 companies and high-paying jobs. It's a window into the economic and class gaps in Northwest Arkansas. Readers of this project will get a sense of the types of people who are often disregarded — by the media, in prominent gatherings — amid the cash-green campuses of Walmart, Tyson Foods and J.B. Hunt.

Contributors to the project included Katie Serrano, Andrew Epperson, Ann Claire Johnson, Aubry Tucker, Mary Kerr Winters and Elisabeth Butler. The series was edited by Rob Wells, an assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Strategic Media at the University of Arkansas, and Arkansas Public Media.

This story is produced by Arkansas Public Media. What's that? APM is a nonprofit journalism project for all of Arkansas and a collaboration among public media in the state. We're funded in part through a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, with the support of partner stations KUAR, KUAF, KASU and KTXK. And, we hope, from you! You can learn more and support Arkansas Public Media's reporting at arkansaspublicmedia.org. Arkansas Public Media is Natural State news with context.

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