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.