What’s Left at the Bottom of Pandora’s Box

Writer Dale Maharidge and photographer Matt Black traveled through California, Ohio, and Maine, talking with, working alongside, and photo-documenting the working poor for Smithsonian magazine. They found lots of things they expected — long hours, low pay, financial uncertainty — and one thing they didn’t: hope.

Brown earns less than his wife, who is an administrative assistant and show coordinator for a software engineering firm. On paper, he said, their combined income might make it appear that they’re doing fine. But then there are the bills.

The biggest ones?

“Mortgage and tuition,” Brown said, which amount to some $17,000 per year. “My stepson is in junior high school,” Brown explained. “He’s in a private school because our public school is garbage. That costs $8,000. You got to walk a fine line growing up black and poor. An education is an important thing. If we want to break the cycle, that’s where it starts, right there.”

As for the other expenses, food runs “three to four hundred a month.” The couple has one car, with a $350 monthly payment. Brown usually takes the bus to the Evergreen Laundry to start his 4 a.m. to 2 p.m. shift. They live paycheck to paycheck. “Save? I’m using everything I got to keep my head above water. It’s still always a struggle. I still ain’t made it where I don’t have to worry.”

I asked, Are you poor?

“I used to be poor. Poorness to me is you’re in a position to do things you don’t want to do,” he said, such as selling crack. “I might not make a lot of money, but I’ve got a job, I got a family, and I don’t have to be lookin’ over my shoulder. From where I come from, it’s night and day. What I’ve got that I didn’t have is hope.”

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