Twenty-five percent of families are considered to be in poverty in Northwest Arkansas, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and many of them are working for a living.

What is that like? How do these people make ends meet?

A group of University of Arkansas journalism students set out this semester to examine life for people living at or close to minimum wage. People in these situations are commonly classified as “the working poor,” but we didn’t think that term was accurate after meeting with some 22 people with jobs at McDonald’s, Waffle House, EZ Mart and similar places.

Many of the workers we spoke with were making the Arkansas minimum wage of $8.50 per hour, about $17,680 a year. Despite the low wages, these workers expressed a positive attitude, hope about their futures and a sense of pride in their work.

To us, the term “working poor” just didn’t fit.

That term didn’t reflect the optimism of people we interviewed, many of whom were younger and saw these low-wage jobs as a step towards another goal. We thought “low-wage workers” was a better fit since it offered a sense of hope for the future. For example, Courtney Boyd, a manager at McDonald’s, eventually wants to attend culinary school and become a chef. Boyd spoke with a sense of fondness about working at McDonald’s because they were flexible with her hours while she was attending community college.

“I love cooking and being around food. That is one reason why I work here,” Boyd said. “We are a tight knit group, like a family.”

Students from the University of Arkansas School of Journalism and Strategic Media spoke to Boyd and others after conducting a data analysis of U.S. Census and Department of Labor records to understand the general profile of the low-wage workers in Northwest Arkansas. The class sought to find people who were not university students, who worked full-time, paid close to minimum wage and came from diverse backgrounds.

When we started the interviews, we were intimidated, since we had read how low-wage employees are in an unrelenting struggle. Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, was as an embedded reporter, taking on the role of working poor in Florida and Maine for an extended period. Her experiences were very humbling as she pinched pennies, went hungry, and physically and mentally drained herself to make ends meet. We discussed the class differences between college students and low-wage workers and the obligations of journalists to represent with dignity the people who were opening up to us about their work and personal lives.

Our data research showed more single mothers in Arkansas are in poverty than any other group, and while the majority of the interviewed workers have been women, we have also seen diversity in race and background.

Mishell Quintero 23, is an undocumented immigrant who works two jobs to help her five-person family make ends meet. At J.C. Penney, Quintero makes $9.50 an hour part-time. In her role as a caregiver, she makes $15 an hour. Quintero would be covered under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA, which defers deportation proceedings for two years for children brought to the United States illegally. The Trump administration is seeking to end the program and its outcome is pending several legal challenges.

Quintero’s story shows that poverty can affect any individual in this region, even those who came here specifically looking for a better way of life. Bertha Lara came to the United States from El Salvador in 1999 and works at Tyson Foods cutting chicken. She makes $11.50 an hour, but Lara has struggled to support her family because of job-related injuries that prevent her from working for months at a time. These immigrants are hard workers but have not been able to successfully support themselves with the wages they are given.

All of these individuals help put a face to a topic typically seen through a lens of prejudice or pity. The stigma facing people making low salaries is they do not work hard enough or are not smart enough to be successful. We did not see that in our interviews.

There are also individuals who, despite these low wages, are still pursuing their passions. Carlos Morgan is a barber who hopes to own a barbershop one day. Money is tight for him right now, but he is still doing what he loves. Cathy Lee, a manager at Chuck E. Cheese, she spends the majority of her paycheck on rent – she makes $11 an hour — but she still is about to go out with friends for a drink, play video games and see drive-in movies.

These interviews seek to offer a portrait of workers struggling to make ends meet in an area loaded with Fortune 500 companies and high-paying jobs. It’s a window into the economic and class gaps in Northwest Arkansas. Readers of this project will get a sense of the types of people who are often forgotten amongst the cash-green shadows of Walmart, Tyson Foods, and JB Hunt.

Contributors to the project included Katie Serrano, Andrew Epperson, Ann Claire Johnson, Aubry Tucker, Mary Kerr Winters and Elisabeth Butler. This series was edited by Assistant Professor Rob Wells.


Editor’s Note: See a version of this project published by our partner Arkansas Public Media.