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  • NEW Reentry Staff

Myth: People in poverty are uneducated. If they just went to college they wouldn’t be poor

“Emma” sustained serious injuries after a bad car accident in November. During her time recovering, she was diagnosed with a rare health condition that forced her to step down from her successful nursing career. Shortly after, her husband abandoned her and her two young boys. Emma was forced to move back into her parents’ home in Stokes County.

- Story provided by YVEDDI

Emma has a bachelor’s degree in nursing and had worked several years when crisis struck. Her situation is not unusual. In North Carolina, 44.5% of all people living in poverty have an associate’s degree or higher. Although obtaining a college degree betters your chances of having gainful employment, it is not a guarantee to keep you out of poverty. 

? As any college senior facing graduation can tell you, having a degree doesn’t guarantee a job. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found that one million 20- to 29-year-old students finished their undergraduate degrees between January and October of 2020. Of those million, only 692,000 had employment by October of 2020. By the end of October, the unemployment rate for recent graduates increased to 12.8 percent.

While having a degree does increase the chance of employment, it doesn’t save anyone from layoff, business closings, or firings. Many middle-class families found themselves on the brink of poverty after one or both working adults were laid off during the pandemic. Some were forced to leave their jobs to care for children or to reduce the risk of exposure to high-risk family members. These are the types of circumstances that cause poverty in many families.

But, you say, there are plenty of low-paying jobs these people could take to help make ends meet. There are many reasons why people decide not to work for minimum wage. Some of those that the pandemic highlighted include:

  • Unemployment benefits are more per month than holding a minimum wage job.

  • People are tired of working crappy, low-paying jobs and would rather spend those hours applying, preparing, and interviewing for better careers.

  • Many people decided to start their own business rather than work a job they hate.

  • Most minimum-wage jobs are undesirable – not only is the pay poor but employees are often harassed by unreasonable customers, experience foot and back pain from the hours of physical labor and have to deal with the social shame of being an adult working in a job most people associate with teenagers.

  • The low pay does not make ends meet. It may pay for most of the bills but doesn’t cover everything.

If you’ve ever worked in the restaurant or retail field as a young adult, chances are you would do anything you could to not return to that industry. It may be financially more responsible to have a little money coming in from those positions, but you’d rather pursue higher interests and live off what savings you have before it comes to that.

If you’re not willing to work that job, chances are most other people don’t want to work it either. This is why few people with a college education work in these low-paying jobs and why so many hold out for a better job before accepting a low-wage job. This is also why having a college degree doesn’t guarantee a position. While obtaining their degree, most students work low-paying jobs in unrelated fields such as retail or the food industry. Upon graduation, they then try to find a job in their fields of interest. However, recent graduates aren’t just competing with other recent graduates for those positions.

With the major workforce shifts brought on by the pandemic, many professionals who have years of experience started changing positions, switching companies, or trying to break into new fields. This left inexperienced new graduates to compete with experienced professionals for the same job.

A college degree is also only as valuable as the available jobs. Often, people need to work in and around large cities like Raleigh and Charlotte in North Carolina in order to get living-wage jobs that value their degrees. In other parts of the state, college degrees may help you stand out, but wages are lower in rural communities compared to major cities.

If ending poverty was as simple as earning a college degree, we would have ended poverty decades ago. As it is, poverty is a complex mix of circumstances, opportunities, and bad luck that can’t be fixed with any single simple solution. But with the help of safety net programs, non-profit organizations, and community aid as well as government funding, we’ll continue to chip away at poverty until it’s eradicated.

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