The recession is over, but low-wage workers can take scant comfort. The jobs crisis has not subsided, with unemployment at 8.1 percent and about 25 million people unemployed or underemployed. Low-wage workers are facing “uniquely tough times,” according to a new Economic Policy Institute report. “Strong and sustained job growth” has yet to occur, and prospects are dim."
The EPI estimates that around one-fourth of all workers are in low-paying jobs, which are defined as “jobs with a wage at our belowe the wage that a full-time, full-year worker would have to earn to live above the federally defined poverty threshold for a family of four. Last year, this was $23,005 per year.
Who are the low-wage workers and where do they live? Low-wage workers are comprised overwhelmingly of female, young, and minority workers, the EPI finds. In 2010, Mississippi and Tennessee had the largest share of workers earning below-poverty wages. Rounding out the top 10 states where the most low-wage workers live are: Arkansas, Alabama, Texas, Louisiana, Kentucky, Idaho, Montana, and Oklahoma.
The occupations that have the highest share of low-wage workers are: Food preparation and service; farming, fishing and forestry occupations; personal care and service; building and grounds cleaning and maintenance; healthcare support; sales; transportation and material moving; production; protective service; and office and administrative support.
The EPI report makes a strong case for education. While one-third of the total work force is comprised of those with a bachelor’s degree or higher, they only represent 11 percent of the low-wage or poverty workforce. This category is dominated by those with a high school education (36 percent), followed by those with some college (26 percent), no high school education (18 percent) and an associate’s degree (9 percent).
“Greater educational attainment should be the focus of efforts to improve social mobility for those from disadvantaged and low-income backgrounds,” the report states. But they cite other challenges and policy-related issues that impact job quality, including the erosion of the purchasing power of the minimum wage, the decline of health and retirement benefits and the typical American worker’s dwindling bargaining power.
“What matters to workers in the near future is not only the number of jobs available, but what those jobs will look like,” the report concludes,