Politics of Poverty

Hard work, hard lives: The new “American dream”?

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A waiter clears a table at Lafayette Coney Island restaurant in Detroit, Michigan, February 24, 2013. Photo: J.D. Pooley / Getty Images

Oxfam survey raises questions anew about US poverty and inequality.

Mary Babic is the Communications Officer of Oxfam America’s United States Regional Office.

While thousands are gathering along the Mall in Washington, DC today, thousands more will next be walking off their fast food and retail jobs to protest low wages. Fifty years after the March for Jobs and Freedom and MLK’s “I have a dream” speech, what do we do about a society that offers increasingly less opportunity for those who are willing to work hard, and long, and well?

We at Oxfam wanted to find out more about what happens when low income Americans face more hurdles than hope when it comes to moving up the ladder toward prosperity.  So we commissioned Hart Research Associates to ask these folks about their lives, their aspirations, and their beliefs.  The results of this nationwide phone survey of low-wage workers were stark and sometimes surprising.

From Oxfam America’s new report, “Hard Work, Hard Lives.”
From Oxfam America’s new report, “Hard Work, Hard Lives.”

Despite politicized rhetoric about the poor, the study that found low wage workers believe in hard work and opportunity. Ninety-four percent of low-wage workers said “performing their job well” was an important personal goal, despite poor wages and working conditions. Whether it’s cleaning houses, selling shoes or picking vegetables, almost all maintain integrity by doing their jobs well. Sixty-two percent of low-wage workers reported they still believe that “most people can get ahead if they’re willing to work hard.” (See pie charts, Figure 6.)

But every day, our nation abandons these workers a little more.

At least a quarter of American workers are in low-wage jobs and nearly 40 percent of US families have incomes below 200 percent of the poverty level. Despite their numbers, workers feel their elected officials have forgotten them.

From Oxfam America’s new report, “Hard Work, Hard Lives.”
From Oxfam America’s new report, “Hard Work, Hard Lives.”

Millions of low-wage earners are barely scraping by from week to week, even though they average nearly 40 hours of work a week (numbers that surpass higher wage workers), many at more than one job. They worry about how to pay the rent and put food on the table and wonder what will happen if something goes wrong, e.g. a family member falls ill or if they lose hours at work. (See bar graph, Figure 2.) Not earning enough to sustain their families, many workers find themselves going into debt—taking loans from family or friends, using credit cards, selling their belongings at pawn shops, or taking out payday loans. This debt stops people from getting ahead, let alone investing in education or retirement. Government programs, including Food Stamps and Medicare, are utilized by those working full-time jobs just to get by.

Which workers face the greatest challenges? It’s parents (especially single parents), women, and those earning less than $10 an hour.

From Oxfam America’s new report, “Hard Work, Hard Lives.”
From Oxfam America’s new report, “Hard Work, Hard Lives.”

The future doesn’t look good for these workers as most new jobs being created are low-wage, benefit-poor jobs. Those surveyed reported that they see “middle class people falling out of the middle class” more often than “low-income people rising into the middle class.” (See pie chart, Figure 7.) There are serious, long-term consequences for the US economy and our society when there are growing numbers of people working at unsustainable, poverty-wage jobs, unable to get ahead or invest in their children’s future.

This weekend, many of us will be enjoying a holiday that is supposed to honor “labor.” But how will we honor the millions of American workers who are clinging to the idea of the “American Dream,” while the US economy abandons them in the dark of low wages and few benefits?

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