The Dignity in Work, the Value of Workers, and the Face of Poverty

The historic legislation passed in the New Jersey State Senate and Assembly to gradually raise the minimum wage to $15/hr will be signed into law by Governor Murphy on Monday.  As someone who as a child often went hungry and for a few years survived on food stamps, I can tell you first-hand how much the passage of this bill will mean to over a million working New Jerseyans. 

As a Vietnamese immigrant to this great country, my first few Thanksgiving meals were ones donated to our family that arrived in brown grocery bags delivered to our small apartment. Those were the BEST meals because there was protein in them since a lot of my meals were bread and butter sandwiches with sugar sprinkled on for flavor. We were subsisting on welfare and food stamps at the time while my widowed father, an MD who saved many lives during the Vietnam War, was struggling to make a new home in America for his three girls by being a butcher on a processing plant cutting chickens all day.  He worked more than a full time job often leaving us three (all in elementary school) alone at nights while he worked.  For too many years to remember, we never went clothes shopping.  “New” clothes shopping was always rummaging and picking through a large garbage bag of donated clothes and finding something that would fit. 

Though I did not speak English at the time, I vividly remember the shame I felt upon seeing the looks of other shoppers in line at the grocery store as we paid for our groceries with food stamps.  Funny how that translates regardless of language.  I felt my father’s hardship and struggle in this new country but his dignity would not allow him to say so.  Though he was a lauded and highly respected doctor who saved countless lives in Vietnam, in America he had no shame in riding a bike to work, carrying his brother on the handlebars as they made their way to the factory. 

Poverty hits children in ways many never see or feel.  Poverty often brings shame to working women and men whose days are spent toiling away the hours to earn a paycheck that they can live on yet continually barely able to catch up.  There is no catching up:  there is just working every day just to live.  Our culture has this cruel way of making us all believe that those who achieved success did so because of the “right choices” that they made, that high salaries infer the worth of a person.  That’s often how we value people.   

But with a chasm between the wealthy and the poor, we know that that’s a fallacy we all must work to fight against.  There is value in every worker, regardless of what rung of the corporate ladder, what color the collar, and what size of the house.  There is dignity in working.  And raising the wage that will help over a million working New Jerseyans will not only put real money in the pockets of workers and lift many out of poverty and help our economy, it will also have tremendous positive physical, psychological, and emotional reverberations on children living in poverty, too.   For this and so much more, I thank the Legislators who voted yes to raising the minimum wage, to Speaker Coughlin and Senator Sweeney who put the bills forth for a vote, and to Governor Murphy for signing it into law. 

Uyen “Winn” Khuong is Executive Director for Action Together New Jersey (ATNJ). 

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