We must focus on the working poor

By Brandon Roberts
January 15, 2013

In many respects the economy is healing, as both the unemployment rate and hiring statistics slowly improve. But there are growing numbers of Americans being left out.

These are not just the unemployed. Rather they are families that, despite having a working adult in the home, earn less than twice the federal poverty income threshold – a widely recognized measure of family self-sufficiency. They are working, but making too little to build economically secure lives. And their number has grown steadily over the past five years.

They are cashiers and clerks, nursing assistants and lab technicians, truck drivers and waiters. Either they are unable to find good, full-time jobs, or their incomes are inadequate and their prospects for advancement are poor.

New analysis of the most recent U.S. Census American Community Survey by the Working Poor Families Project shows that the number of low-income working families in the United States has increased to 10.4 million in 2011, up from 10.2 million a year earlier. In all, nearly one third of all working families – 32 percent – may not have enough money to meet basic needs.

These stark figures should be on the minds of policymakers in 2013. They should make it a priority to bolster these working families’ economic opportunities by preserving funding for education, training and other programs that help working adults prepare for better jobs and by enacting policies that improve the availability of high-quality jobs.

The report, “Low-Income Working Families: The Growing Economic Gap,” shows that the total number of people in low-income working families now stands at 47.5 million, and that number could reach 50 million in the next few years. More than a third of children living in families with a working adult (23.5 million) are being raised in low-income circumstances.

These low-income families are disproportionately headed by minorities, with some of the largest increases in states such as Connecticut, Georgia, Illinois and California.

People are beginning to return to work as the national unemployment rate creeps down, but they are often taking jobs with lower wages and less job security than they had before the downturn. These low-wage jobs typically offer limited opportunities for advancement, few (if any) benefits, and create challenges for parents trying to balance work and family responsibilities.

A growth in these sub-quality jobs is accelerating the nation’s income inequality. New data show that the higher-income families take home 10 times the income of families at the bottom of the income distribution. Those at the top have seen incomes rise while those at the bottom have experienced stagnant or declining income. The disparity has grown consistently over the past five years.

In many cases, low-wage workers are involuntarily working part-time – often in multiple, temporary jobs. If it remains unaddressed, the trend is likely to continue, pushing more families into economic uncertainty, fueling greater income inequality and dampening national economic growth.

Some policymakers recognize this and are looking for solutions. Congress recently extended the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Care Tax Credit, which provide important financial support to many working families.

Many state leaders are recognizing that, in today’s economy, workers need to have some level of post-secondary education to compete for middle-class jobs. They are adopting new approaches to improve job quality, support working families and create opportunities for workers to build skills and move into better-paying jobs.

Colorado, for example, recently passed legislation to better match the needs of employers with the training programs being offered to students in college and workforce programs.

Massachusetts, despite a tough fiscal climate, earmarked millions of dollars to prepare residents for new jobs in high-demand occupations, giving them a pathway to good jobs. And Michigan passed a “work-sharing” bill, which will allow more workers to remain in at least part-time jobs when companies downsize, and receive partial unemployment benefits.

But all policymakers still have important decisions to make. In budgeting, they must protect investments in things like skills training and financial aid for college – the surest path to a better-paying job. At the same time, they should strengthen policies that will improve the economic security of working families through such measures as minimum wage increases and paid sick leave, policies that do not affect state budgets.

It is time to give priority to the needs and aspirations of America’s working families with the goal of restoring their paths to economic security, as well as ensuring economic opportunity for future generations.

PHOTO: A protester holds up a sign at a demonstration outside McDonald’s in Times Square in support of employees on strike at various fast-food chains in New York November 29, 2012. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly


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It’s simple…. double the minimum wage. Currently, tax payers subsidize large corporations like Walmart by offering Medicaid, food stamps etc to their employees because wages are so low. By increasing the minimum wage, these people would not longer be covered, saving billions, and would also become consumers… Yes, some prices might go up, but i much prefer that to a government supported economy we have now

Posted by GA_Chris | Report as abusive

This is a position with which I agree. Wages should be adequate to maintain one’s self in a respectable condition. When I was young, I often had to work several jobs to keep a roof over my head. Because I was low-skilled at the time, the value of my work was being discounted.

Here’s the thing though, without that low-skill labor, nothing moves out the door.

Posted by unobtr | Report as abusive

Keep this kind of wining up and all you’ll jus is inflation. “they” will be happy to pay you a thousand dollars a week, but your one bedroom flat will cost you three thousand a month.

We should march over to the Asians and tell them they are all fired and must go back to real poverty because the Americans want their jobs back, right?
We should cram a guy with a “c” level high school education from the 80′s and brain dead from years on the factory line through some magic certificate course that will increase his IQ 30 points and make a high tech worker out of him, right?
Policymakers must make more policies, but ones we like, right?

How about we learn to adapt to the new global economy and realize that it means competition from the rest of the world, not the union in the next town, or scab factory in the next state.

As a world traveler, I’ve personally seen many large international cities on several continents. Then I land in NYC and I’m embarrassed. It is falling apart, smells bad, and is just worn out.
If we want to have the high paying jobs and snobbery that come with it, then we better wake up cause we fell far behind.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

It’s great to finally see all those promises Obama made to the middle class come true….Forward!

Posted by jaham | Report as abusive

I disagree with your premise that “In many respects the economy is healing, as both the unemployment rate and hiring statistics slowly improve” because these are government statistics that have no relevance in the real world.

For example, if a person doesn’t “actively look for work” in the prior week, they are NOT counted at all in the unemployment rate, thus untold millions may have dropped off the end the line into oblivion, which is convenient for the government but hardly reflects reality.

Also, the only economy that is recovering is wealthy world, all at the expense of everyone else. This is a fact reflected in the rise of the stock markets to equal their previous highs, the fact that we are living day-to-day by dint of printing money the global economy has no viable choice but to accept as real currency, and the massive shift in wealth distribution in the US to the top 1-2%.

Thus, focusing on the working poor, while admirable, isn’t nearly enough for several reasons.

It gives the wealthy a prime excuse to escape their obligations to this nation as a whole, and allows this country to slip back into the horrors of the Social Darwinism of the past, thereby consigning millions of people forever into absolute poverty.

We, as a nation, must get past this Protestant Work Ethic — you only have value (in God’s eyes, therefore the wealthy who belive this crap) if you are able to work — that is crippling us.

Most modern societies recognize that God’s favor or disfavor has nothing whatsoever to do with a person’s ability to work, but is an intrinsic value of human life.

By your logic, if a person is unable to work — even though it is through no fault of his/her own, due to economic circumstances beyond their control, for example — they are not “worthy” of consideration and support by the state.

That is a very pathetic dogma of a group of fringe religious radicals that should have died with them hundreds of years ago.

Yet, it is this exact underlying problem of religious-based intolerance that underlies the social, economic and political basis of our economy.

Until we recognize what is truly driving us as — the absolute unreasonableness of this religious-based insanity of God’s Will favoring the wealthy class, and by extension only those whom they favor (i.e. only those who can work) — we will NEVER prosper as a nation.

Posted by PseudoTurtle | Report as abusive

Nothing surprising here – what this country needs is large numbers of decent-paying low skill jobs. Unfortunately, that will not happen – it happened once – in the post-WWII US economy when the US was the only country left standing – that was a unique, never to be repeated phenomenon.

Posted by SayHey | Report as abusive

Low wage jobs are the result of lack of good jobs. That is a function of low wage policy. High free trade ans high immigration. The trade policies have not worked for the US for decades. The solution is tax firms not increasing exporting of products with high us citizen payroll content at double the rate of firms increasing such exports.

Also increasing competitiveness by breaking up firms more than double economic scale and doubling taxes for firms below half economic scale. That will make the maximum number of firms near economic scale competing against each other and the world in the US.

Fight corruption in school systems particularly in higher public education. Give news organization a cut of corruption they report. Limit the number of people voter vote on so the officials they can follow in the news have responsibility for the bad. Offices too small and numerous to be in the news is not democracy. They just hid dirt and their election can be bought.

To maximize opportunity make sure the student body for tax supported schools are citizens or green card holders. The privet schools for profit should be the ones getting the foreign students on student visas. The public supported schools should be run to maximize citizen educational level not maximize teacher opportunity or provide cheap research labor.

Posted by Samrch | Report as abusive

lots of little band-aids is all I’m seeing here in the comments.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

A recent NYT article described life for low-wage part-time workers, and it sounds like something out Dickens. We now have the technology to micromanage the workforce to squeeze the last dollop of profit out of the enterprise. Part-time workers have no fixed schedule or even number of hours. If the weather changes, you may be sent home if data shows this will impact sales volume. Or you may be called in, and if you can’t make it, you will have hours reduced in the future. This is no life at all. How you could possibly manage child care under these circumstances is beyond me, and you certainly can’t make any plans such as enrolling in a class, even if your paltry wages could cover the cost. You can’t even really make plans for dinner much less a weekend outing. And businesses are increasingly using part-timers because of the flexibility it gives them. It’s a relentless pac-man of capitalism swallowing the last ounce of our humanity, and it’ll be coming up the wage scale and to a job near you soon enough.

Posted by Sanity-Monger | Report as abusive

The picture shows the bias of this author: “UNION!”

Mr. Roberts wants America’s “top priority” to be those “families…that…earn less than TWICE the federal poverty income threshold…”. He speaks as if these people are helpless victims of American life. Not so.

Does HE have “good, full time jobs” to offer them? No? Then who is he to pronounce the incomes of cashiers, clerks, nursing assistants, lab technicians, truck drivers and waiters “inadequate”?

If two people marry and only one of them has a job, can they afford to have one or more children? Do they have a “right” to anyway? I don’t think so. If they do, whose fault and RESPONSIBILITY is it? Well, the American taxpayer seems to routinely get stuck with their tab, in one form or another.

“…nearly one third of all working families…may not have enough money to meet basic needs…”. Is that before or after poppa’s beer, lottery tickets, or Momma’s bingo money, cigarettes, or cosmetics? In this country the “poor” DRIVE, most seem to have big flat screen TVs and a satellite or cable service, cell phones and “bling” of one kind or another. If the shortfall is due to too many mouths or because of POOR PRIORITIES, whose fault is THAT?

Today there are countless do-gooders who wring their hands and say “well it’s not the child’s fault”. So “we, the people pay such extortion BY THE HEAD as such familys breed their way to a higher standard of living. There exist generations that don’t work any more than they have to. I don’t doubt at all that the 47.5 million people in “…low-income working families…could reach 50 million in the next few years”. The only way to prevent this would be for the government to require sterilization as the “price” of benefits. Ain’t gonna happen.

You can build any kind of society you want just by the way your “system” rewards or penalizes people. It seems to me we’ve already managed to build one that cannot economically sustain ITSELF. Yet Mr. Roberts wants to earmark ever more of America’s economic resources to further subsidize our exploding underclasses? Idiocy. Sheer indefensible idiocy.

Our public schools are the basic “education” that many of these people’s children distract from their primary mission, only to withdraw long before graduation but after great damage is done and countless dollars wasted. Junior Colleges, Adult Education in the evenings, vocational schools and the military are all existing means with which prospects for a “good job” or “advancement” become better. The motivated have their paths.

But some one-third of our young people are too lazy and/or fat for our voluntary military to accept. Once again, whose fault is that? NOT taxpayers. Who pays the price? Yup, taxpayers. If “More than a third of children living in families with a working adult (23.5 million) are being raised in low-income circumstances, maybe those families are TOO LARGE! Whose fault is that? NOT taxpayers. Who pays the price? Yup, taxpayers.

The people that take jobs with lower wages, job security, opportunity for advancement, and benefits do disproportionately include minorities. Why? These are jobs that require little intellect or preparation. They SHOULD pay less!

There are “minorities” that do their best to “pull their weight” in our society. These include orientals, the Vietnamese, and the Indians and Pakistanis that seem to monopolize operating America’s taxis, small hotels, motels and convenience stores.

But there are a disproportionate number of the “others” loitering on street corners instead of actively seeking work. These tend more to be involved in gangs, drug and other criminal activity, which leads to a disproportionate number of them in our court system and prisons. Their families clog up hospital emergency rooms, disrupt our classrooms, and, above all, continue to reproduce more and more of themselves for taxpayers to support. America does NOT need more of THEM.

Minimum wage increases will not “…improve the economic security of working families…” because people and business will not hire “help” that they can not make a profit with. If a business has two minimum wage people and the wage goes up, it is more likely they will let one go. Is that an “improvement”? If they are forced to provide sick leave and other benefits, they may wewlllet both go. Is that an “improvement”? Please.

It is simple reality that in “Right to work” states employment is “at will”. “Economic uncertainty” is universal. Wake up. Get used to it. This America, not Utopia. Americans just do the best they can and “suck it up”. Get used to it.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

Go Sheep!

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive


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