Politics of Poverty

5 myths about the working poor in America

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Ambre Davidson works the register in Portland, Maine. Davidson, who holds two low-wage jobs, said she was recently notified of a rent increase for her apartment. She noted that an increase in the minimum wage would make it easier for her and her family to survive. While Maine ranks 26th in the list of states in percentage of workers who earn under $12 an hour, nearly half of all women workers in the state earn under $15 an hour. (Photo: Whitney Hayward / Portland Herald Press via Getty Images)

While many of us enjoyed a day of rest at the tail end of a steamy summer, a whole lot of people rolled out of bed and headed into work on Labor Day. Of course, they’re the ones most in need of a day off.

Working full-time can be tiring. Working full-time at many low-wage jobs can be exhausting, and stressful. Surviving on low wages in the US requires strength and stamina, perfect health, and some serious penny pinching.

It’s time to bust some myths and pay these workers the wages, and respect, they deserve. Then check out our map and report for more info on An agenda to give America’s working poor a raise.

Myth #1: Most workers in low-wage jobs are young or starting out at the entry level.

If you define a “low” wage as under $15 per hour, you’re referring to almost half the workforce in the US.

Today 73 percent of workers earning under $15 per hour nationwide are older than 25. Overall, 58 million workers (44 percent) earn under $15 an hour; 42 million earn under $12 an hour. Many are parents of young children. Over 125 million people, including over 31.5 million children, live in households with at least one worker earning under $15 an hour. That’s more than 42 percent of the children in the US. Roughly one third of parents earning low wages are single parents.

While some workers may find ladders out of low-wage jobs, millions stay in these jobs for their working lives. For example, the median age of the more than 1.4 million home care aides in the US is 45; nearly half graduated high school and have had some college education; the majority work full-time. However, with a median wage of $10.25 an hour, 54 percent live near poverty. This is one of the fastest-growing occupations in the US, projected to increase by 26 percent in the next ten years.

For decades, US workers have faced wage stagnation and a federal minimum wage that has not budged since Congress last raised it in 2009 certainly has not helped. For seven years, it’s been stuck at $7.25 an hour: $290 a week, $15,000 a year. In that time, the cost of groceries has increased 25 percent; rent has increased over 50 percent.

Myth #2: Most employers provide workers with earned sick time after a certain tenure on the job.

Not only is this not true, in a cruel twist of fate, it has a disproportionate effect on those who can least afford it. In the private sector, well-paid workers are much more likely to enjoy paid sick leave than low-wage workers: 80 percent of high-wage workers have sick time vs. 15 percent of low-wage workers.

The US is unique among developed nations in not requiring employers to provide sick days. In fact, the law does not even protect workers from being fired if they miss work due to illness. In a recent Oxfam survey, one in seven low-wage women workers reported having lost a job as a result of taking a sick day.

This leaves low-wage workers gingerly walking a tightrope over a vertiginous drop, often holding hands with young children and aging parents, praying that no one will catch a cold, contract the flu, break a bone, or get a stomach bug. Any hitch, and they could all be falling toward economic catastrophe: days or weeks without pay can mean missing rent, skimping on groceries, turning off the heat.

Myth #3: The low-wage workforce cuts across all populations: race, gender, age

While this has an element of truth, the core reality is that women and people of color do more than their fair share of low-wage work.

The majority of low-wage workers are white, but black and Hispanic workers are far more likely to be in low-wage jobs. More than half (53 percent) of black workers and 60 percent of Hispanic workers earn under $15 an hour. In some states, the numbers are staggering: in North Carolina, three quarters of Hispanic workers earn under $15 an hour.

Despite women representing less than half of the workforce (49 percent), they are well over half (nearly 55 percent) of those earning under $12 an hour. Many low-wage occupations (childcare workers, cashiers) are dominated by women. Even in other occupations, however, women earn less per hour than do men.

Finally, black and Hispanic women earn the lowest median wages per hour of any group. Hispanic women earn slightly more than half of what white men earn, roughly 54 cents to the dollar; black women make 64 cents to the dollar.

Myth #4: Working longer and harder will pay off.

After years of hard work and long hours, some workers start the climb up the ladder to better jobs. They may become managers of the fast food franchise, or shift supervisors on the line in a plant. They may shift from hourly to salaried, and enjoy an increase in benefits and flexibility.

Or not. They may find they’re working longer hours and seeing their pay actually shrink per hour. Until the Obama administration recently raised the threshold for overtime pay, the cap had been stuck at $23,600 since 1975. Any salaried worker making more than that would not be compensated at “time and a half” for hours worked beyond 40 per week. This included about 92 percent of the salaried workforce – and clearly brought many more benefits to employers than modestly paid employees.

In May, the threshold was raised to $47,476, which impacts 12.5 million workers, especially women and people of color.  Still, some in Congress are threatening to block implementation of the updated rule.

Myth #5: Most jobs pay a living wage.

Of the top ten occupations in the US in 2015, only two pay a median wage of over $15.25 an hour: registered nurses and secretaries. The top three are retail sales at $10.47, cashiers at $9.82, and food preparation and serving at $9.09.

Nationwide, more than 11 million people in these occupations alone (mostly women) scramble to sustain families on wages that often fall well below the official federal poverty guidelines.

Many of them find they simply cannot survive on these wages, and turn to government programs and private charities for help. A recent study from the Economic Policy Institute estimates that 41 million workers tap public assistance programs such as food stamps, housing subsidies, and cash assistance. Overall, it mounts up to over $200 billion a year in taxpayer dollars.

How does your state stack up? Check out our map of the US that provides various insights into the population of low-wage workers across the states. And read the report for full info on the Agenda to give America’s working poor a raise.

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