‘20/20' Looks at Struggles of Low-Wage Workers, Including in Education

By Mark Walsh — January 17, 2017 2 min read
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As President Barack Obama prepares to leave the White House, the economy is humming and unemployment is at a low. But there are plenty of Americans struggling to make ends meet.

That is the upshot of a special edition of the ABC News magazine show “20/20" title “My Reality: A Hidden America.” Diane Sawyer is the correspondent for an hour that highlights, among others, several people working in education who face financial difficulty.

One is a Maryland mother, Tracy Coleman, who works as an aide at the local elementary school, we are told without further detail. Her husband once had a union job in manufacturing, “but it went away,” Sawyer says, so he now spends long days installing air conditioners.

Coleman shaves bars of soap into a bucket to make laundry detergent, saving $10 a month. Still, the family’s income is not enough for its expenses. An $18 family splurge at McDonald’s leaves Coleman wracked with guilt. She also perceives some people as blaming her for the family’s financial predicament.

“We’re working,” she says. “It’s not that we’re not working. It’s just not enough.”

At the end of her brief segment, Coleman reveals some good news. She’s been promoted to parent-teacher coordinator at her school. It’s still a low-paying job, she suggests, but it’s at least a step in the right direction. (Coleman’s segment comes at about the 5:30 mark of the below video.)

The “20/20" special should be of interest to educators because of its focus on a variety of workforce issues, including the minimum-wage debate and a discussion of the long-term financial value of earning a college degree. Sawyer and her “20/20" team worked for more than a year to pursue these stories of struggling workers, and the special is a welcome focus on this sector.

There are a few more folks in education who are highlighted. Eric and Dustin (no last names provided), who work as adjunct professors at Washington University in St. Louis, where “they teach a heavy load” and are “paid, they say, at rates that don’t add up to a living income.”

Sawyer says higher education is “a very surprising place” to find struggling professional educators, although the plight of contract adjunct instructors has been pretty well documented.

Sawyer cites a study that says 25 percent of part-time college faculty members are on some form of public assistance. Washington University tells the show that since Eric and Dustin were interviewed, it has reached a collective-bargaining agreement with adjuncts and that the university pays them more than many other institutions do. (The adjuncts’ segment is at the 5:15 mark of the below video.)

The show also spotlights Ronnie Thomas, a California “supercommuter,” who travels four hours and 80 miles each way by bike, train, bus, and bike to his job as a food-service worker at Stanford University.

Thomas, who has a wife and two kids, comes across as stoic and dignified about his daily sojourn and his work. Asked about seeing privileged Stanford students rolling by on skateboards as he travels the last mile to his job, Thomas says, “It doesn’t bother me a bit.” He’s doing what he has to do to provide for his family, he says. (Thomas’s segment begins around the 5:25 mark below.)

A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.