updated August 11 at 1:48 p.m.
Things are looking up for South Carolina’s economy.
April’s unemployment rate dropped to 5.3 percent and has hung there ever since. The Department of Employment and Workforce will release updated figures on Friday. And more than 56,000 jobs announcements have been added to the pile since Gov. Nikki Haley took office in 2011.
But one group can’t catch up no matter how hard they try—those who are working while living at the poverty level—$23,850 per year for a family of four.
According to a report published by South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center, a group that offers services to low-income residents, the average poverty rate from 2008 to 2012 was 17.6 percent. That date range also corresponds with the economic recession, which started in 2007, and its subsequent anemic recovery.
Everybody’s got a solution to poverty—more jobs, securing a minimum living wage, securing taxpayer-funded benefits—solutions to symptoms of a problem, a pit that people can’t climb out of. Amid the myriad of challenges the poor face—from affordable housing to rising food costs—is a paycheck-to-paycheck marathon.
“Think about how people are working, but still can’t seem to get ahead,” said Wanda Pearson, a program director for The Cooperative Ministry. The organization connects people in poverty to services that can help them improve their situation and offers practical solutions like financial education and training in home gardening.
Pearson mentioned one example of a cafeteria worker, who wasn’t informed of her options for supplemental income during the summer while she isn’t working. At some point, the quality of jobs available becomes a factor, said Pearson.
The state’s seasonally adjusted numbers show 8,100 new jobs added to the hospitality and leisure industry from June 2013 to June 2014. The state added 42,500 jobs overall in the past year. But the part-time, minimum wage—$7.25 per hour—nature of these jobs make it difficult for many to keep up with their bills.
Advocates for the poor say businesses should pay workers a living wage—a rate high enough to meet workers’ basic needs. Others say boosting the minimum wage could lead to job cuts.
But low-wage earners face other challenges.
Pearson referred to parts of Richland County—The Cooperative Ministries serves that county—as a “food dessert,” a Department of Agriculture term for urban neighborhoods and rural areas without close proximity to a supermarket and other retailers that sell healthy food.
The group also works with many people who have criminal backgrounds, but need to find work.
Pearson said many financial assistance programs do nothing to improve a person’s situation—aid that goes directly to the landlord, for instance. But increasing the number of self-sustaining households is the goal. “What can we do to increase human capitol,” she said.
As the poor seem to get poorer, Pearson’s group is one of many focused on long-term solutions like making it easier for them to go back to school and to acquire skills needed to compete in the job market. “[What can we do to] give them a little bit more bargaining power,” she said.