FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – As Lisa Terry serves hot coffee, eggs and sausage to customers at a nearly empty Waffle House in Fayetteville, she knows the tips she receives from those orders will go toward rent, food and feeding her cat.

                                                                                                                    Lisa Terry classifies herself as working poor. Photo: Katie Serrano

For Terry, 23, and her husband, their annual income is below the poverty line in Arkansas, and their household rent is $200 less than the median for Fayetteville. They live paycheck to paycheck.

“I make minimum wage working at Waffle House, and my husband works in Facility Management at the University,” Terry said. “We consider ourselves working poor. Thankfully my husband gets paid monthly, and we use that paycheck on bills, food and gas.”
Terry and her husband eat “cheap food like spaghetti, and ramen” and she said that she is lucky because Waffle House allows her to eat one free meal for every four hours she works. Waiters and waitresses in Washington County and the Northwest Arkansas area such as Terry make roughly 20 percent less annually than the national average wage.
“The minimum wage for waitering in Arkansas is $2.63, and Waffle House tries to compensate if your tips don’t make up the difference to $8.50, but it’s not nearly enough to get by,” Terry said. “If I’m able to work around 35 hours a week, I’m lucky.”

She has tried to get other jobs, but always ends up back at Waffle House, where she has been working since May 2016.

“I had to drop out of school because of a medical issue,” Terry said. “Whenever I go apply for other jobs, nobody wants to hire someone who wants to work as many hours as me. They want to hire high school or college students who only want to work twenty or so hours a week so they don’t have to pay them benefits.”

Nineteen percent of individuals between the ages of 18 and 34, a category that encompass Terry and her husband, are considered below the poverty line in Washington County. These young people experience a poverty rate that is 5 percent higher than the national average for that age group.

For a family of two living in Fayetteville, Arkansas making less than $24,000 a year, their monthly budget is nearly half of what the Internal Revenue Services considers to be the proper standard of living

Although these occupations pay barely enough to get by, 2.5 million individuals fill the positions nationwide, and a little over 4,000 individuals are employed in these positions in Northwest Arkansas alone, according the U.S. Census Bureau.