Survey Affords Insights Into Lives and Views of Low-Wage Workers

December 5, 2013

It’s no news that millions of workers in this country don’t earn enough to sustain themselves and their families. Or that low-wage occupations are among the fastest growing in our recovering economy. Or that they’re ranked among the highest for projected job growth through the rest of this decade.

Oxfam America decided to shed some light on the “harsh reality” of low-wage workers’ lives and their views on key issues related to their prospects and priorities. So it commissioned a survey. And now we have the results.

For the purposes of the survey, low-wage workers were those who earned less than $14 an hour or, if unemployed, had earned less at their last job. By this measure, at least a quarter of all American workers qualify, according to the shorter, more rhetorical survey report.

Some of the survey results are what you’d expect. Some not, I think. Here’s a sample.

Hard to Make Ends Meet

A majority of low-wage workers are barely getting by, at best. Forty-two percent said their households could just meet basic living expenses. An additional 17% said they couldn’t even do that.

What’s especially significant here is that we’ve reason to believe they have a more constricted view of basic expenses than most Americans do.

When asked how much they thought a family of four would need to get by, their median answer was about $37,000 a year. The median response to a recent Gallop poll of adults in the U.S. was $13,000 higher.

Nearly half (47%) of the low-wage workers said they’d had to borrow money to make ends meet at least once during the past four years. Thirty-two percent had sold or pawned personal items during the past two.

Not Much Help From Government Assistance Programs

Only 29% of the workers had received SNAP (food stamp) benefits, and only a quarter had been enrolled in Medicaid. The report doesn’t indicate why large majorities hadn’t.

One could guess that household earnings put at least some over the income thresholds. For many who were childless, however, Medicaid would have been out of the question, even with minimal earnings.

A mere 9% of the workers benefited from publicly-subsidized housing. Much of the explanation here surely lies in the long-term gap between federal funding and need, rather than income thresholds.

Only 14% had received unemployment insurance benefits. We don’t know how many of the rest had been jobless during some portion of the two-year period the survey asked about, but do know that 70% had been laid off at least once during the past four years.

With such a large gap, it seems reasonable to guess that many, especially the part-timers, didn’t qualify for UI benefits because of their state’s minimum earnings standard.

Not surprisingly, nearly half worried about not being able to afford healthy, nutritious food for themselves and their families and/or falling behind on housing payments.

Slightly over two-thirds worried about incurring unaffordable health care expenses. And the highest percent of all (69%) worried about not having enough money for retirement, Social Security notwithstanding.

Not Getting Ahead

Sixty-two percent of the low-wage workers believe that most people can get ahead if they’re willing to work hard.

But at the same time, 76% believe that people are more likely to fall out of the middle class than low-income people to rise into it. Only 12% thought the latter was more common today.

Just half said they were hopeful and confident they could achieve their economic goals.

Their experience undoubtedly has something to do with their dim view of prospects for upward mobility. Forty-one percent said that they and their families were worse off than they were five years ago. An additional 21% said no better off.

Over half the workers (52%) had formerly had a job that paid more than their current job. The figures are considerably higher for part-time workers and those who’d been laid off in the recent past (61% and 70% respectively).

Solidly “Middle-Class” Values Anyway

The survey results confirm what Professor Mark Rank recently wrote about the “mainstream” values and behaviors of people at the bottom of the income scale.

When asked what they would do with a $2 an hour raise, 34% of the workers who’d borrowed money said they’d use most of it to pay off debt. Sixteen percent of all the workers said they’d put most of it into retirement savings.

Only 6% said they’d spend it on things like going out more often or taking a vacation.

Ninety-four percent of the workers said that performing their job well was extremely or very important for them — a higher percent than those who said this of having a job that paid enough for them to live comfortably.

While somewhat over half (57%) said that getting a college degree was a high-priority goal, 81% ranked the goal as extremely or very important for their children.

Being in the middle class was that important for only 37%, but having their children better off financially than they was a top-priority goal for 89%.

Does Congress Care?

A solid majority (65%) believe that Congress mostly passes laws that benefit the wealthy, as compared to a (mystifying) 9% who believe most of the laws it passes are to benefit low-income people.

At the same time, majorities, of varying percents, believe the government should ensure that everyone has basic necessities, e.g., enough food, health care, a roof over their head.

Should Congress decide to care about measures low-income workers think would be helpful, the survey report includes a list.

Too lengthy to replicate here. But interestingly, the largest majority endorsed school-business partnerships to better prepare students for jobs when they graduate.

The hand-up-not-hand-out crowd should love this, though I doubt they’ll care for much of the rest.


Better Poverty Measure Shows Worse U.S. Poverty Rate

November 6, 2013

We should be used to this by now. The Census Bureau has just reported a higher national poverty rate than the rate it reported in September. According to its Supplemental Poverty Measure, the rate is 16%, instead of 15%, as the official measure indicated.*

This means that somewhat over 2.7 million more people — a total of 49.7 million — were living in poverty last year. On a somewhat brighter note, the percent of people living in severe poverty, i.e., below 50% of the applicable threshold, is again lower — by 1.5% — than the official measure shows.

We again see shifts up and down for state-level rates as well.

For example, the rate for the District of Columbia rises from 19.3% to 22.7%, according to the three-year averages the Census Bureau uses for the SPM. Rates based on the three-year averages dropped in 28 states and increased more than the District’s in five.

As in the past, we also see shifts in rates for different age and race/ethnicity groups. For example, the poverty rate for blacks dips from 27.3% to 25.8%, while the poverty rate for Asians rises from 11.8% to 16.7%.

The poverty rate for non-Hispanic whites is till the lowest, but it’s higher than the official rate — 10.7%, as compared to 9.8%.

The rate changes all reflect differences between the crude, official measure and the SPM, which goes at poverty measurement in a different — and more sensible — way.

I’ll forgo another summary of how the SPM works. I took a stab at one last year and the year before. And the Census Bureau has a more extensive (and wonkish) explanation in its report.

From a policy perspective, both the overall higher poverty rate and the rate shifts are especially important because they show both the impacts and the limits of major federal benefits programs.

So far as the rate shifts are concerned, the most striking are those for the young and the old.

  • The child poverty rate drops from 22.3% to 18%, reducing the number of children in poverty by about 3.2 million.
  • For children, the severe poverty rate is less than half what it is under the official measure — 4.7%, as compared to 10.3%.
  • The poverty rate for seniors rises from 9.1% to 14.8%, increasing the number of poor people 65 and older by nearly 2.5 million.
  • The severe poverty rate for seniors also rises, from 2.7% to 4.7%.

The higher rates for seniors reflect principally the amount they spend on medical out-of-pockets, e.g., deductibles, copays.

This seems to me pretty good evidence that the chained CPI, which could still become the new cost-of-living adjustment measure for Social Security benefits, would disadvantage the 36% of seniors who rely almost entirely on them, as well as younger people who receive them because they’re severely disabled.

At this point, however, Social Security remains by far and away the single most effective anti-poverty program we’ve got. The SPM report shows that, without it, 26.6 million more people of all ages would have been poor — and the poverty rate for seniors a whopping 54.7%.

The report speaks to another issue that Congress is debating — and one that it isn’t, but should deal with swiftly.

The hot issue is SNAP (the food stamp program) — not whether to cut it because Congress has already done that, but by how much more.

So it’s useful to know that pre-cut SNAP benefits lifted 4.9 million people, including 2.2 million children, out of poverty last year. They were the single most important factor in the marked drop in severe child poverty, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports.

The back-burner issue is the soon-to-expire Emergency Unemployment Compensation program, i.e., cash benefits for workers who’ve been jobless longer than their regular state programs cover.

I may have more to say about this, but will note here that unemployment insurance benefits generally reduced the SPM poverty rate by somewhat less than 1% — about 2.54million people.

UI benefits have lifted fewer and fewer people out of poverty since 2009 — mainly because fewer jobless workers are receiving them, according to a recent CBPP analysis based on other Census figures.

Retrenchments Congress made in the EUC program in early 2012 are part of this story. I suppose more recent figures would show the impact of sequestration as well.

House and Senate negotiators apparently still hope to stop the across-the-board cuts — at least for while. But this is a far cry from an agenda that would bring the very high poverty rate back down to where it was when we rang in the 21st century.

* The SPM report cites 15.1% for the official measure, noting that this is not statistically significant from the previously reported figure. Several other official measure figures in the report also differ from those the Census Bureau earlier reported.

The differences, if I understand correctly, reflect the fact that the SPM universe includes children under 15 who are living in a household with adults to whom they’re not related. For comparability, I’m using the official measure figures in the SPM report here.


Beyond Poverty Reduction to Resetting the Whole Debate

November 4, 2013

Two years ago, Half in Ten relaunched its campaign to cut poverty in half in 10 years. At the same time, it broadened the goal to reflect a vision of shared prosperity.

Now it’s published its second annual update. Like the last, the update reports progress (or lack thereof) according to 21 numeric indicators in four broad categories — poverty today, more good jobs, strengthening families and communities and economic security.

But this doesn’t begin to do justice to what Half in Ten has produced. Each of the four major chapters begins with a lengthy analytic narrative, with lots of data sprinkled in the text and in graphics. Category-specific policy recommendations follow.

Then come the indicators themselves. These are amplified by graphs and tables, many of which provide race/ethnicity breakouts and/or lengthier timeframes than the indicators proper.

So we actually have many more indicators than just the 21 the campaign established as benchmarks. We also have a higher-level policy framework for the to-dos in the chapters that address them.

A forward by Sister Simone Campbell, a leading voice in the progressive faith-based community, and a concluding call to action by top executives of Half in Ten’s parent organizations give meaning to the title of the report — “Resetting the Poverty Debate.”

Both take off from the 50th anniversary of the declaration of the War on Poverty that we’ll observe in January. We’re also reminded of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington that we recently celebrated — in particular, of the inclusiveness that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called for.

There’s no way I can summarize all this in a blog post. Even a bare account of the indicators themselves would run on too long. Let’s just say, we see some year-over-year progress on a handful of measures, more backsliding and a lot of stasis.

I may return to some of the specifics. At this point, I’ll try to pull out what I see as the major messages.

The first is that increasing income inequality is a major threat — not only to progress on the benchmarks, but to the social cohesion that would generate the political will for that.

The second is that our policymakers in Congress are having the wrong conversation — a “tone deaf debate,” as co-author Erik Stegman terms it. They’re at odds over how to replace sequestration, which they agree (for different reasons) is harmful.

Where they aren’t so far apart is on the need to keep whittling down the near-term deficit, though it’s much lower than it was when we got into all this budget-slashing business.

Results from the Census Bureau’s Supplemental Poverty Measure show that major safety net programs and others that benefit low-income Americans have lifted millions out of poverty.

They’re threatened now, as the debate over SNAP (the food stamp program) and the renewed calls for curbs on Social Security benefits indicate.

Beyond this, we see nothing to suggest that Congress will make the investments needed to create more jobs — unless and until something resets its priorities.

Nor does it seem inclined to enact policies that would ensure that such jobs as do exist are “good,” e.g., pay enough to at least cover the costs of basic necessities and offer critical protections and benefits like paid sick leave.

Nor to invest more in education and training that would enable more low-income people to qualify for good jobs. Or to make high-quality child care affordable for those who’d still have to pay a big chunk of their wages for care at market rates.

Third, the War on Poverty reminds us that poverty reduction and a considerable degree of shared prosperity are possible.

Between 1964 and 1973, the poverty dropped by 43% to an historically low 11.1%. And “the numbers and incomes of the middle class grew steadily,” the report says — though we still had (and have) marked disparities by race, ethnicity and gender.

Fourth, we need a strategy for these times, not a War on Poverty II. The report cites changes not only in our economy, but in our workforce and demographics.

Besides, says Sister Simone, “war is the wrong metaphor” now — most importantly, because “poverty is not a foreign enemy.” It’s “woven into the fabric of our economy” as a result of developments that our policies have enabled — and the ideology that’s sustained them.

We need to reject the false notion that “our nation is rooted in individualism,” she says, and look instead to the “communal relationship” expressed in the preamble to our Constitution.

Widening wealth and income gaps generate fear. In the face of it, we the people need to “reweave society” through “conversations about our shared values and the fact that we all do better when disparities are diminished.”

We need to “reframe the national debate.” This, as I earlier noted, reaches further and deeper than the specific measures the report recommends.

And it’s finally what the report seeks to achieve. It certainly gives us a lot to converse about — and a common fact base to start from.

Highly recommended.


Surprising and Other Facts About Single Mothers and Fathers

September 9, 2013

At least half of today’s children will probably spend part of their childhood in a single-parent family. But we’re seemingly still ignorant about who the parents are and the challenges they face.

Doesn’t mean we don’t have a lot of rhetoric, of course — and a considerable amount of blame-casting.

But facts are in short supply when policymakers and other opinion-leaders turn their attention to single-parent issues — or more precisely, single-mother issues, since we rarely hear about single dads who’ve taken on the responsibility of raising their kids.

Tim Casey at Legal Momentum seeks to remedy this with a “snapshot” of single parenthood in the U.S. — the first of his annual fact sheets that deals with single parents, rather than single mothers only.

Here’s a summary of what we learn — highly selective and far less data-packed than what Casey has pulled together from the Census Bureau’s latest detailed tables and other sources.

Most single parents, i.e., those with kids in the house, are single mothers — 79% of the total last year. No surprise here.

More surprising perhaps, a majority of single parents were formerly married or still married, but separated from their spouses. Only 44% of children in single-parent families lived with a parent who’d always been single.

Also surprising, I think, is the fact that most single parents have no more than two children — and more than half (56%) only one child. Another stereotype bites the dust.

Children in single-parent families are far more likely to be living in poverty than children in two-parent families. In 2011, they accounted for 53% of all poor children.

Looked at another way, their poverty rate was more than triple the rate for children in two-parent families — 42%, as compared to 13%.

Part of the explanation for this, of course, is that the family has only one breadwinner — and apparently in many cases, little or nothing in child support.

Those breadwinners weren’t faring all that well. Just 54% were employed full-time and another 13% part-time when the 2012 census was taken. By contrast, 85% of fathers and 48% of mothers in two-parent families had full-time jobs.

Some of the working parents earned more than enough to support themselves and their kids. I suppose we all know examples. Perhaps some of you are examples.

Yet single parents are much more likely than other workers to be stuck in low-wage jobs. According to a study Casey cites, 34% of single mothers were both low-wage and low-income* in 2009.

We see the results in more current figures. In 2011, for example, the median annual income for single-mother families was $25,353 — only 32% of the median for two-parent families.

This means that the median for single mothers was well below 200% of the federal poverty line — a common definition of low-income.

The median for single fathers was $12,814, but still only 48% of the median for two-parent families.

We shouldn’t be surprised then to learn that 34% of single-parent families experienced food insecurity, i.e., didn’t always have the resources to buy “enough food for an active, healthy life.” Or altogether surprised that they were more than 80% of all homeless families in shelters in 2010.

And, alas, we shouldn’t be surprised at all that only 11% of single-parent families received cash assistance last year — yet another indicator of what “welfare reform” has done to the safety net.

In an earlier study, Casey and a co-researcher compared the status of single parents in the U.S. with the status of their counterparts in other high-income countries.

They found that single parents here have one of the highest — if not the highest — employment rate, but also the highest relative poverty rate, i.e., incomes below 50% of the country’s median.

One reason is their concentration in low-wage jobs — and what seems to be pay discrimination. Another is our relatively small investment in affordable child care and free education for very young children.

Still another is our paltry income support programs, e.g., our lack of a national paid leave mandate or a monthly cash benefit specifically to help with the costs of raising children.

And then there’s our Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. Even when combined with SNAP (the food stamp program), it provides, by far and away, the least assistance, as measured by percent of median income.

We purport to be all far families and the well-being of our nation’s children. But our policies say otherwise.

We don’t, I think, need more enlightened policies specifically for single parents. But we do need policies that recognize the realities of family life today, including the fact that a lot of them have — or will have — only one parent present.

* Low-wage here means less than two-thirds of the median hourly wage for the state. Low-income, as often, is less than 200% of the federal poverty line.


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