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When Work Doesn’t Seem to Pay

Photo via Unsplash

Every day is a struggle when you’re living in poverty. You never know when you might lose your next meal or a place to live. You never know if something unexpected will come around the corner and knock you down, and how you’d find the strength to get back up again.

I never had an easy life, going through difficult family problems, feeling discriminated against, facing abusive situations, and just struggling to get by. When you’re just barely living paycheck to paycheck, you don’t have time to worry about the big picture. You’re just trying to hang on, put all that’s going on in your life to the side so you can work a few more hours a week—if you can find a stable job. Every day is a struggle. Your dreams are crushed. You get tired, burnt out, depressed. Not everybody makes it through.

Politicians don’t realize that while they’re out there asking for big checks from their rich donors, or getting hyped up about the next big thing that is going to fix all your problems, life goes on for the rest of us. They’re out there pushing for votes every four years and forget about us the rest of the time—the rest of us who don’t care which suit gets elected because we know we’ll be scraping together what we can just to get by. We’re the ones living in the daily reality of trying to pay the bills with jobs that don’t pay well, unable to enjoy time with family because it’s so hard just to put food on the table, dealing with crime in our streets or drugs in our communities.

I’m almost 30 and don’t have any kids. If I ever do, I want them to have a brighter future than so many of the people I know in poverty. I knew I had to work my way through the struggle, not stop believing in myself, continuing to dream and want more. I went back to school to get a better job, because after all, that’s what you’re supposed to do, isn’t it?

But in my case, all it led to was more debt, classes that didn’t do me any good, and steps backwards instead of forward. Sometimes it doesn’t feel worth the effort to try to better yourself, when you’re unable to see a path forward out of the daily struggles of life. What’s the point of working harder if you’re just going to end up the same, or even worse off?

For me, I chose to change who I was, to better my thinking and my surroundings. It’s been hard. But I feel like things are looking up for me now. Every day, to me, is a blessing from God.

If you talk to anyone in poverty, you’ll probably hear a story like mine. We aren’t afraid to work hard, we just want to know there’s a reward at the end of the journey. Some of us make it through the darkest of days and come out stronger. But many more are still stuck there, waiting for some help.


Edgerton Essays are a project of American Compass and the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and feature the perspectives of working-class Americans on the challenges facing their communities and families and the debates central to the nation’s politics. If you or someone you know might be interested in contributing to the series, click here for more information.

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Sasha Burns has spent her whole life in Anson County, North Carolina, where she works as a retail manager. Her favorite color is pink, and she loves poetry.

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