Chart of the day: The working poor

By Felix Salmon
December 21, 2010
report, and it underscores how the Great Recession has hit the working classes just as much as it has the unemployed.

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poverty.jpg This chart comes from a Working Families Project report, and it underscores how the Great Recession has hit the working classes just as much as it has the unemployed. The baseline here — 200% of the poverty level — might sound high enough to be comfortable, but it isn’t: we’re talking a total household income of $36,620 for a family of three, or $44,100 for a family of four. (I’ve put the full chart, taken from here, over to the right.)

As the report says,

Nearly 1 in 3 working families in the United States, despite their hard work, are struggling to meet basic needs. The plight of these families now challenges a fundamental assumption that in america, work pays.

The workers in these families have a much greater risk of becoming unemployed than the population as a whole, and of course they’re financially much less prepared for any period of unemployment than most of the rest of us.

Michael Fletcher has a good write-up of the report, describing the working poor starkly as “people who earn wages so paltry that they are struggling to survive”, and showing that they’re unlikely to get much help from the government:

With a spate of fiscal conservatives poised to enter Congress and with policymakers more tightly focused on the nation’s huge budget deficit, the prospects of maintaining past spending levels on programs that help enable social mobility are dimming.

Many states also are reeling, causing them to raise college tuitions and, in some cases, consider cuts in public school funding.

If the unemployment problem risks becoming politically invisible, then the plight of the working poor was never visible in the first place. But looking at this chart, it’s easy to see why large swathes of America are angry at their government. If Barack Obama wants to understand and fight back against the fundamental drivers of Tea Party sentiment, he should concentrate on precisely these numbers.


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Looks like they never really benefited from the boom either…

Posted by Danny_Black | Report as abusive

To me this screams 3 things:

#1 our society needs to get serious about population control. How can you possibly meet your obligations as a 21st century parent with 6 kids. You would need a million dollars just to put them through state school! I’m not advocating for China style 1 child/household… just stop paying people to have more than 2 children via the tax code.

#3 There should be mandatory educational requirements required to collect earned income tax credits. I LOVE the whole make work pay movement… I agree with it’s premise and we need it to combat the massive income inequality that has developed. We cannot however afford to perminantly subsidize poor decision making. If you’re working the check-out at Target making $8.00 can society afford to artifically raise your hourly income in perpatuity? You can become a CNA in like 8 weeks and make 25% more. A year after that you could be an LPN and make 250% more.

#3 Poverty is such a relitive term that it is almost without meaning in this country. In my state if you are willing to plead your owne case long enough and loud enough the goverment and various NGA’s will provide a family with 30k in equilivant benifits annually.

Best hopes for a sharp rise in personal responsibility.

Posted by y2kurtus | Report as abusive

And let’s hope they also learn how to count…

Posted by Bernanke | Report as abusive

y2kurtus, they are often stuck working at Target because they didn’t bother to learn enough during High School to survive any post-secondary educational experience. A wide swath of our population is functionally illiterate and innumerate, with no real hope of escape. It is tough enough to complete high school BEFORE you have children and need to support a family.

Shall we water down those LPN qualification exams the same way that their high school diplomas (if they even have them) were watered down? Or leave them in unskilled jobs and work harder on educating the NEXT generation?

Posted by TFF | Report as abusive

I love bar charts that distort the measurement axis for effect. It’s almost as if VISUALLY the numbers are twice as bad as they were, when numerically, we’re talking about a ~10% increase. If you choose to display data visually, you should at least display it in a visually accurate way.

Posted by attrouble | Report as abusive

Well, I’m not feeling so draconian as y2kurtus, but

1.) Make family planning, birth control (including abortion) a human right that women are entitled to and get the churches OUT of the health industry entirely. We cannot take population management seriously otherwise. In fact, in addition to further reducing access to abortion, some politicians want to roll back the clock and restrict birth control as well.

2.) Schools need to be places to learn. End this bogus testing crap that leaves children innumerate and illiterate. Born in 1954, I was educated in the early 60s & 70s in crowded class rooms with 30+ students or more. Somehow most of us learned to read, to write, and to do math competently.

2a.) We need to accept that not all youth are interested in a post high school education. We need to have a strong vocations path that includes trades, services including food and health services and get kids into them starting in the 8th grade.

2b.) We also need to recognize that some young adults, after spending time working in a trades field will then be ready, able and willing to commit to college and they should have that avenue open to them as well.

TFF: People are not stuck working at Target for 8.00 an hour because they’re illiterate, innumerate underachievers as you posit. For a lot of people, even with college degrees, it’s the best they can get because their old jobs were shipped overseas.

Posted by morgansher | Report as abusive

morgansher, do you really believe that the majority of minimum wage workers have college degrees?

Some do, perhaps, but I would guess that most of those don’t stay at the minimum wage long before they find something better.

As for our youth being functionally illiterate and innumerate, I see enough of that as a teacher to know that it is unfortunately too common even among students applying to college. Trade schools can work for some, though plenty of kids flunk out of those because they can’t meet the academic standards.

We really need to teach our children to read, write, and perform basic arithmetic by the time they finish 8th grade. It is hard to function in the adult world without these skills.

Posted by TFF | Report as abusive

‘They’ is me. ‘They’ are you, only you still have a job and apparently you are financially sufficiently provided for, so ‘you’ are not ‘they’.

Mostly I hate these academic discussions about poverty levels, mostly because most of the ‘discussers’ are financially solid (or so most think/hope), and so to discuss ‘them’ is a free-for-all.

It KILLS me to see that so many of ‘you’ still think that a college degree, or even a Phd. will protect you from unemployment.
If you truly believe that, than you have been secluded in your ‘academic circle’ for too long. In that case you need to go outside, outside of your university town. Outside to see the ‘real world’. Cause you don’t see it.
The current official UI is 9.6%. But that only counts those who are still on the official State rolls.
Anyone who’s now on the Federal Extension(s), or anyone having fallen off of those, they’re not being counted.
Think about that. Really.
Do you? Do you ‘study’ that? Do you study ‘them’?

Posted by Ms.Trotsky | Report as abusive

morgansher, would you rather they did their old jobs at the rates the Chinese are doing them? Because 8USD an hour is fat cat pay there.

Posted by Danny_Black | Report as abusive

Ms. Trotsky, there aren’t very many jobs you can perform without the ability to read, write, and perform simple arithmetic at an 8th grade proficiency. And much of our population lacks those very basic skills. Forget college degrees for a moment — we continue to hand out high school diplomas based on very low standards, and many of our students don’t even meet THOSE.

My neighbor lost his managerial office job. After some time on unemployment, he lowered his standards and is now working a couple lower-skilled service-sector jobs. The fact that he is educated and professional keeps him well above the minimum wage, at least.

I would have greater sympathy for the plight of the unemployed and working poor if they didn’t spend so much time whining about how badly off they are. One article, designed to drum up sympathy, made the mistake of noting that the average individual food stamp benefit is $133/month. And I did a double-take, because that is *more* than our household budget for groceries. (And yes, I thought to verify with the state guidelines. That might be the “maximum benefit”, but a family of four can receive over $650/month in food stamps, roughly 20% more than we spend. What the heck are they buying?!?)

In conclusion:
(1) Welfare benefits are VERY generous, at least where I live. If people on welfare have trouble meeting their basic needs, then they aren’t using their resources efficiently.

(2) If we as a nation are to compete in the global economy, and maintain our standard of living (and generous welfare benefits), then we are going to need to position ourselves competitively. Learning to read, write, and perform simple arithmetic would be a start.

(3) The unemployment/underemployment rate ought to tell us that something is seriously wrong. If nobody wanted to hire me, I would first find out WHY and then do my best to correct that. Are we doing this as a nation?

(4) I haven’t held a job paying as much as $30k/year in close to a decade now. If my income is higher than that, it is because I have found ways to make my skills useful to others. Might be a mindset that some of the unemployed can adopt?

Posted by TFF | Report as abusive

Call me back when the poor are not fat (physically) this is when we need to worry about the poor.

Posted by a_guyD | Report as abusive

I hear you TFF,

Having several friends that teach highschool, our standards are very low… espically when compared with other first world economies. The number 1 problem they raise is student and parent apathy.

My 6th grader as much school time per week in chorus/band/art as in math/science class. (Don’t attack Felix… I’m a big supporter of the arts in schools I swear!)

I just think that priorities need to be re-examined… if you can’t jam 90 minutes of math/science into EACH & EVERY 6 hour school day than something needs to be ajusted.

Posted by y2kurtus | Report as abusive

y2kurtus, I’m not sure the solution is as simple as that. Most concerning to me is the number of high school students reading at what I would consider a third-grade level.

My son, like most children from educated families, was reading when he entered kindergarten. We didn’t do anything unusual to encourage this, just sent him for three or four half-days a week to a pre-K/K program that emphasizes pre-reading skills. Of course we read at home and (occasionally) read to him, but shouldn’t all parents? Children learn naturally if given an appropriate environment.

Fast-forward a couple years and he is reading everything he can get his hands on. He knows more marine biology than almost all high school students (and more than I do). His interest in science also includes hands-on activities and observation, occasional visits to the zoo or aquarium, but there is so much that cannot be easily observed — yet is found in books.

Reading is at the foundation of education. Social studies depends on reading (just ask any student in AP US History). Science requires sufficient reading proficiency to work through difficult words and difficult concepts simultaneously. Math textbooks show procedures using numbers and equations — but also explain them in words (that very few students bother to read).

All students should be reading independently by first grade, if not earlier, yet our public schools insist that kindergarten is for learning the alphabet. No more! “No Child Left Behind” becomes “No Child Is Allowed Ahead”.

We need to rethink elementary education from the bottom up. Give serious consideration to Montessori philosophy and techniques. Understand and accept that lockstep teacher-centered learning is grossly suboptimal (since different students progress through different portions of the curriculum at very different paces). Raise expectations to the point where your average student needs to work hard to meet them. Better yet, frame the expectations in terms of full effort and steady progress rather than as “standards” that most students can meet without even trying.

As best I can tell, my son is working a couple years ahead of his grade in most subjects. He isn’t a genius and he doesn’t kill himself with school work, he is simply a normal child in a good environment — and nobody has ever told him that he has learned enough and can slack off. Can we replicate that as a society?

Posted by TFF | Report as abusive

Even in this brutal recession college educated workers are far less likely to be unemployed. Education remains a key factor in how employable you are an how much you will earn. Unfortunately, for our kids and the future of this nation, we seem to have developed into a culture that no longer values education. Academics and the well-educated are often scoffed at and referred to as elitists. That’s a shame. The education level in this country is already falling. If we don’t come to our senses soon the rest of the world – still hungry for education and knowledge – is going to eat our lunch.

Posted by jporter | Report as abusive

@Felix I am 100% percent on board with the main point of this post, which I would summarize as “the Great Recession has negatively affected the working class.” However, I am going to have to disagree that the situation of someone at 200% of the poverty is worthy of the word “plight”. Or that these people are somehow, “struggling to survive”. Obviously this is contextual, based a lot on where that family resides, but even here in Los Angeles a person making 22k per year would be capable of enjoying a fairly decent living standard. Especially when put into the context of the world’s population as a whole.

Posted by CavelCap | Report as abusive