Economic Enslavement to Survival

In light of current events it seems everyone is voicing their thoughts about it. I’m aware my own thoughts will most likely be drowned by many other voices, however the current issue is being enough that I do find it important to say something about it. 

I want to share some things I learned volunteering at a community service organization in my neighboring town. I want to acknowledge that I can only speak from my perspective, a Hispanic American female who has lots of contact with other Hispanics and other minorities throughout the years. 

My time at this community service organization deepened my perspective a lot on the peril of minority groups. It brought to light a system that, while I don’t fully understand all the technicalities, was seemingly built on injustice, possibly intentionally. Even if racism and segregation are, on paper, officially abolished, it’s clear that much of our economic system was built on it and now we are stuck in the wake. 

At this organization I mostly did phone intakes, interviews, with people who have basic needs like furniture. While I focused mostly on Spanish language intakes for the Hispanic community, I also did plenty of English language interviews with black neighbors and a few white neighbors as well. Intakes would consist of full disclosure of  their life situation including all income and expenses.

I found that our system doesn’t reward all hard workers equally. I also found that it doesn’t give much motivation to those who are already struggling to work at all. 

Instead, our system traps low income families in bad situations, and keeps segregation alive. Believe it or not, I spoke to people who were essentially forced to decline raises and promotions because it would put them at the threshold of “making too much money” to receive some particular government aid. 

This is what that means; with government aid plus their low income job they can pay all their bills and sometimes have a little bit left over, but not nearly enough to build wealth. If they are offered a promotion that will give them maybe 1 or 2 dollars extra an hour, it would mean that the government aid would stop. However, the total amount of money from that raise alone, with no aid,  is not more nor equal to the amount of the lower pay plus the aid. Staying at minimum wage ends up being the better choice for these people to take care of their families. Think of the hard choices we all make for the betterment of our families immediate needs. This does not mean they do not want to work, but weighed their hard options realistically. 

Others are scared to take the step of getting off the aid because the job they do have is still unstable and in places where there are high turnover rates. Families, from generation to generation depend on government aid and there are few people to empower them to take risks but also be there to help if they need aid again. 

Few families have anything left over at the end of the month and if they do, they’re more likely to use it to buy their kids something extra or something for themselves or their home. The idea of saving money is not often practiced 1) because when you live paycheck to paycheck there is no money left over and 2) if there is extra money, the common logic is to use it now because you don’t know when you’ll have it again. 

So if you’re paid $8.50 an hour for 30hr work weeks (many companies give their employees long hours but not enough for it to be full time with benefits), you get $1,020 a month before taxes… that is what many Americans make in a week, if not more. If the household has two working adults that’s still only $2,040 a month.  

This is consistent with my experience of doing intakes, the people I spoke to made an average of $1200-$1500 a month. This never failed to baffle me, because that’s hardly our mortgage each month. Average rent in America is a little under $800 and much more in many areas. This means people in very low income households roughly have $220-440 give or take after paying only their rent! This is why so many are dependent on food stamps and other government aid. In Illinois the max amount of money that a family of 4 can make is $3,541 in order to qualify for snap benefits (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or food stamps). The national average income a month is a bit over $5,000. However from my experience, very few people I talked to made even $2,000 a month and most of these being Hispanic and African American single mothers. Rent is basically half of that, not to mention gas, electric bills, phone bills, and transportation costs, and on top of all that, child care! 

The cost of child care is so high that I spoke to several single mothers who simply decided not to work and live solely off of government aid because if they worked a minimum wage part time job, literally all, or most, of their money would go to child care! So what’s the point of going to work just so that you can pay someone else watch your child when on the other hand you can stay home instead and raise your own children? So they choose to stay on government aid. 

A way to think about it is this: Imagine there is a town at the edge of the ocean, they see people drowning (which in fact are mostly black and Hispanic people) so they throw them a life raft with a medical kit, some food, a blanket, a flashlight and even a paddle. Now lets say that some of those in the water use what they have and manage to paddle onto the shore and want desperately to live in the town, but they’re told that if they start to live in the town, they will no longer receive the food, or blankets or flashlights and they’ll have to pay for their medical supplies as well as everything else starting immediately, plus they have to have a down payment. Is it possible? Of course! Is it an inviting or easy processes for people to take? Not really. Especially if there is a family of 4 on that life raft with small children who depend on receiving day to day basic needs. In this way its easier to see why many prefer to stay in the secure life raft rather than to step off into the shore where there’s no guarantee they will succeed and why it’s so incredibly difficult for those who do decide to take the risk. 

Now of course there are also those who “take advantage” of the system and decide to not work and live off government aid simply because it’s easier. But I’d like to say they’ve unknowingly taken the bait of believing that “getting paid” without working is what is best for them. Making this decision keeps them “comfortably” where they are- in low income, disadvantaged neighborhoods. It keeps them away from ever pursuing to become more, it keeps them away from dreaming big dreams- it keeps them away from the privileged… and by their own decision! Do you see the trap!!?? This is an economic system that benefits those already in power because it breaks the hope of many to succeed and keeps comfortable those who could do more so they never realize they could do so much more! Those who “take advantage” are in a tragically sad situation, they most likely have never had anyone who believes in them and who has taught them how to achieve more! No one to motivate them to work hard even if they won’t get to see the fruit of their labor until much later or not at all. They have learned that free survival is the best there is.

This present economic system keeps poor people poor and keeps minorities segregated. It’s so subconscious in our society, so normal, that we don’t even notice it. Schools and churches offer to wave fees or give special subsidies specifically for minorities for resources and activities because they assume that they’re the ones who will need it. Why? Because it’s true most of the time! Has anyone heard of school grants students can get just for being white? I remember an occasion when a well meaning person from our church offered to wave fees for the kids in our Hispanic congregation if they wanted to attend Vacation Bible School. It made me think about how integrated, how normal it is for us to assume that non white people are disadvantaged! I was not offended, it just made me reflect on this issue. This much larger picture of the problem is what many people miss. I’ve seen people who rant about “people who take advantage of welfare to live of their hard earned tax dollars”. It’s clear these people do not know what it’s like to “live off welfare”.

Slavery was abolished January 31, 1865- 155 years is NOT a long time in the timeline of humanity, but an agonizingly long time for the pain of racism to still continue. Consider that many of our grandparents live to be in their 80s or even 90s! That’s almost 100 years! That means that their parents and grandparents lived in the times of slavery, it means that at most only 6 generations have passed! Your great-great grandparents, your great grandparents, your grandparents, your parents, you, your children. Segregation “officially” ended with the 1964 Civi Rights Act- that is only 56 years ago!! Only 2-3 generations ago. Your own parents most likely lived through these times! Again, this only ended officially on paper,  but it’s obvious that both racism and segregation still exist today and is inadvertently perpetuated through our current economic system.

So think about it, people who grew up in segregated, low income communities are still in these places 2-3 generations later even though segregation is on paper abolished. Why? They’re basically trapped. Most people in these communities do not own a car and rely on public transportation or rides to get to their jobs, thus their jobs are usually within the community itself. Since the community itself is low income, there aren’t many “prestigious” or high paying jobs in the community. Jobs are usually fast food, retail, factories, manual labor or grocery stores- all dignified, needed jobs for the community. However there isn’t much room for growth in these jobs so income is at a steady low. Schools don’t receive much funding because government aid is often tied to the performance of the students and what the community can input. The performance of students in these low income schools is usually poor- this because lack of resources, lack of good teachers wanting to work at these schools, and lack of community services to create healthy home lives. 

The health of low income communities is usually poor as well, many live in “food desserts”- places where only fast food is available and fresh food is much more expensive or only accessible in places further from the community. After long days of work at minimum wage, parents do what they can and buy what they can afford, sometimes this means fast food every day. This situation leads many to suffer from chronic illnesses. Since many people in these communities only have the basic state medical insurance (or no insurance at all) their health only deteriorates further when they cannot access the medications or treatments they need. 

While it is no longer legal to have personal slaves, the most needy are still enslaved to an economic system which has trapped them in their peril. They are enslaved to survival, living day to day, paycheck to paycheck, meal to meal. The system enslaves them to survival in an attempt to distract them from the dream of living. I recall also another organization I have volunteered at where a short video explains that people in extreme poverty literally do not have time to worry about life goals and kids have never even thought about “what they want to be when they grow up” because they’re too busy trying to get their next meal. While it’s hard to go without food in the US, people are still trying to survive day to day making sure they can still keep a roof over their heads. 

Leaders of the nation need to come up with new models in which to build our economic communities. At this point I honestly have no clue of what alternatives exist or can be implemented, but I know it won’t be easy. We need to start with acknowledging that our system is deeply flawed and still struggling to break free from its roots of injustice to black and brown people. We need to start by changing our minds and hearts and helping other people to do so as well. Diagnosing the illness is the first step to giving a prescription.


As Christians, we need to be open, to listen. It is futile to be “technically right” about certain things but to ignore the pain people are suffering. We need to allow Jesus to live through us and guide us with our words and actions. We need to be brave and confront those who are blind to help them remove the speck in their eyes, but we need to be sure that we find all the all the logs in our eyes first. We need to be aware that as immediate and pressing these issues are we also should have a long term focus. Christians know the end goal is every nation, tribe, and tongue will worship God together, steps taken now should be pointed in that direction. And ultimately we need to continually keep present in our hearts and minds that all human beings are are made in the image of God and are His most precious creation. 


some resources I used pertaining to SNAP benefits and average household incomes

I do not own the rights to the pictures used

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