Tough Life for Low-Wage Working Mothers

May 11, 2014

A new brief from the National Women’s Law Center tells us what we already knew, but not in such detail. Tough as it is to be a working mother with young children, it’s ever so much tougher if you’re in a low-wage job.

About 2.1 million — nearly one in five — mothers with children no older than three have jobs that typically pay, at most, $10.10 an hour, i.e., what the minimum wage bill stalled in Congress would require nationwide.

They’re the workers who care for our children and our elderly and/or disabled family members, the workers who clean our houses, prepare and serve our food when we go out to eat, ring up our purchases at the store and pack the products we’re buying.

More than half — 53% — are single or, for other reasons, raising their children without a husband in the house. Presumably many of them are the sole breadwinners, relying on their own earnings and perhaps some safety net benefits to support themselves and at least one child.

Here are some of the other things we learn about the group as a whole.

Just over half the mothers work full time. Most of the rest — 35.7% — work part time for “non-economic reasons.” These can include an inability to afford what child care would cost if they had to rely on it for more than eight hours a day, five days a week.

The mothers are disproportionately black or Hispanic — 50.3% of the group as a whole. By contrast, only 26.6% of all workers belong to these race/ethnicity groups.

The largest portion of the mothers — 42% — have only a high school diploma or the equivalent. Somewhat under than 17% have less formal education. But that leaves 41.4% who have at least some college education and still work in low-wage jobs.

This may be, to some extent, because low-wage industries, e.g., food service and administrative support, have more than recovered from job losses due to the recession, while there’s still a deficit of more than 1.9 million jobs in mid-wage and high-wage industries.

Similarly, 60% of women’s job gains during the first four years after the recession officially ended are of the low-wage sort. And to make matters worse, the real dollar value of wages in the largest low-wage occupations has dropped.

So what could we give these low-wage working moms for Mother’s Day? On the policy front, NWLC has some answers. They’d benefit all lower-income families with children — and some of them childless workers as well.

Top of the list, as you might expect, are increases in both the regular minimum wage and the tip credit wage, i.e., the minimum cash wage employers must pay workers who regularly receive tips.

Two related policies would require employers to provide some specified amount of paid leave so that workers could afford to take time off when they were sick or needed to care for a sick family member. Other family-related reasons would also qualify, e.g., pregnancy and childbirth.

As of last year, only 30% of low-wage workers in non-government jobs could take even a day off with pay when they were sick. And only 5% had any paid family leave benefit. These workers, needless to say, can least afford a pay loss. And they’re highly vulnerable to a job loss if they must take time off anyway.

On related note, NWLC calls for stronger enforcement of stronger legal protections against discrimination based on pregnancy and caregiver responsibilities.

The latter is a growing problem and not expressly prohibited by federal law, according to the AARP Public Policy Institute. Nor broadly by any state, except the (non-state) District of Columbia.

The NWLC agenda would also give workers more control over their work schedules, i.e., some say in when they have to show up and when they can leave. And the schedules wouldn’t be so unpredictable from week to week or subject to daily cutbacks and/or required overtime. Both, as I’ve written before, pose a host of problems for low-wage workers.

Child care would be less problematic. There’d be more of it affordable for low-wage workers — both through subsidies to help pay for care by private-sector providers and through expanded pre-K programs.

As things stand now, our low-wage mothers in 19 states would have to pay, on average, at least half their earnings to have their infants or toddlers cared for in a center — assuming they worked full time, year round and had to cover the full cost.

Both child care and early childhood ed programs would be “high-quality” — an iffy matter now, as recent reviews of state licensing rules for childcare centers and state-funded preschool programs indicate.

And policies for both would “respond to families’ diverse circumstances,” which, I suppose, means, among other things, ensuring they’re available when working families need them.

The last item on the NWLC agenda calls for stronger safety net supports, including the Earned Income Tax Credit and SNAP (food stamp) benefits — the latter twice-cut in the past year.

To all this, I’ll add one more Mother’s Day gift for the low-wage single moms. A halt to blaming them for all the ills that beset their children because our public policies leave them in poverty — or at best, on the verge.



Economic Recovery Leaves Low-Income Working Families Behind

February 4, 2013

By the end of 2011, the official unemployment rate had dropped to 8.5%. The stock market seemed on its way to recovering the huge losses of 2008-9. The housing industry showed signs of life.

But the number of low-income working families rose to 10.4 million — up by 200,000 from 2010, according to a new brief from the Working Poor Families Project.

This means that nearly a third — 32.1% — of all working families struggled to make do with incomes below 200% of the Census Bureau’s applicable poverty threshold.*

The percent of low-income working families has steadily increased since 2007, when the recession set in. In that year, 28% of working families were poor or near-poor.

So we now have about 47.5 million people — 23.5 million of them children — in the group WPFP has carved out, i.e., those in families with children where the members who were at least 15 years old collectively worked a minimum of 39 weeks during the prior 12-month period.

What this tells us, of course, is that high unemployment doesn’t sufficiently account for the high poverty rate — or the more realistic 200% of that rate.

It does account for some part of it. According to the brief, the share of low-income families working dropped a bit between 2009 and 2011 — from 73% to 71%.

A larger part of the story seems to be the types of jobs those low-income family members had. About a fourth of the adults in these families worked in just eight occupations — all of them characteristically low-wage, e.g., cashiers, health aides, restaurant wait servers.

The brief tells us that many were working part-time — not by choice — and often in multiple temporary jobs.

But the data in the source it cites are very old. So we really don’t know how much cobbled-together, on-and-off employment boosted the number of working families who, at best, had barely enough to make ends meet.

We do know, however, that these working arrangements made them even more economically insecure than they would have been otherwise.

The rise in working poor families, as WPFP defines them, is another indicator of growing income inequality in the U.S.

While the poorest fifth were getting 5% of all income earned, the top fifth were getting 48% — not, in many cases, only income earned by the (figurative) sweat of their brows.

Looking at average incomes by education level, WPFP concludes that increasing the portion of workers with at least some postsecondary education “would go a long way toward narrowing the income gap.”

As I’ve written before, I find this doubtful, though it would surely move some of the low-income workers up from the bottom fifth.

We’d still have growth in low-wage occupations that can’t be fully automated or shipped overseas.

Employers won’t pay more merely because they can’t find enough qualified workers who’ve got, at most, a high school diploma or the equivalent. They won’t recreate the mid-wage jobs they’ve eliminated either.

WPFP seems to recognize this, since it also addresses job quality — and in terms that would apply mainly to low-wage occupations.

On the policy front, it recommends raising and indexing the minimum wage, mandating comprehensive paid sick and family leave, enforcing fair labor and other workplace standards and “ensuring that if public job creation expenditures persist, they benefit workers and their communities.”

All but the last would be easier for workers to gain for themselves if we had full employment again, i.e., a labor market with relatively few job seekers for jobs employers want to fill.

Economist Jared Bernstein, who’s long championed full employment as a policy goal, cites, only half in jest, the advantages workers gained when the “black death” plague swept Western Europe in the 14th century.

Well, we’re far from full employment. And happily no one’s predicting a plague. But it doesn’t look like we’re going to get public job creation expenditures.

What looms instead are job losses — at least a million, maybe over twice that — if Congress can’t agree to stop the briefly-delayed across-the-board spending cuts.

Same result — or perhaps worse — if it replaces them with equivalent cuts that shield defense, as the House majority wants.

And undoubtedly a much larger number if the Republicans succeed in forcing additional cuts on top of the $1.2 trillion already enacted the last time they ginned up a debt ceiling crisis.

This, as the WPFP brief indicates, would be a double-whammy for working poor families — not only an even worse labor market, but spending cuts in programs that help them meet basic needs and and become card-carrying members of the working middle class.

* Double the threshold for a two-adult, two-child family is $45,622.

Bad Jobs in Our Very Own Homes

January 14, 2013

We’ve been hearing a lot about good jobs — mostly how we need more of them. Sometimes what could be done to create them.

Now comes the National Domestic Workers Alliance and partners with a report on really bad jobs — specifically, the wages, hours and other working conditions for nannies, housecleaners and caregivers for elderly and disabled people.

The report is based on a survey of more than 2,000 of these workers in 14 metropolitan areas across the country.

Lots of racial and ethnic diversity — though, as you might guess, little gender diversity in these “women’s work” occupations. Many countries of origin.

But the workers all had three things in common because that’s how the survey was designed.

They were at least 18 years old. They’d worked at least six hours the prior week in their domestic help occupation. And they were employed directly by the families they served.

No chance to blame agencies for the rock-bottom pay, lack of benefits and extraordinarily long hours — the last of these mainly for the live-in workers.

A sample of the findings to show what I’m talking about here:

  • The median wage for the workers surveyed was $10 an hour — well under the U.S. Department of Labor’s threshold for what full-time, year round workers need to earn for minimal economic security.
  • Twenty-three percent of the workers were paid less than the applicable minimum wage. And fewer than a third got overtime pay.
  • Ten percent of the workers didn’t always get paid what had been agreed on — or at all — during the prior 12 months.
  • Not surprisingly, 60% of the workers spent more than half their income on housing, and 20% sometimes didn’t have any food in their homes because they couldn’t afford to buy it.

In one respect, we can blame employers — ourselves, at least collectively — for taking advantage of the vulnerabilities of workers who’ve got no job security beyond keeping us reasonably satisfied.

There are vulnerabilities too, the report says, in the fact that domestic work is “invisible.” Who knows what goes on behind the closed doors of private dwellings?

Well, we do. And the report calls on us to be “part of the solution, ” i.e., to provide our domestic workers with contractual agreements, wages, benefits and other working conditions that befit people to whom we entrust the care of our loved ones, our possessions and the intimate details of our private lives.

In another respect, however, we can blame public policies for leaving domestic workers at the mercy of our inclinations.

As I’ve written before, home care workers aren’t covered under the Fair Labor Standards Act rules that generally require employers to pay the federal minimum wage and overtime.

The Act itself specifically exempts all live-in domestic workers from the overtime pay requirement.

Domestic workers are also exempt from the National Labor Relations Act, which establishes basic — if weakly enforced — protections for workers who try to organize and bargain collectively.

And from rules issued under the Occupational Safety and Health Act, which might, in theory, provide some protection.

To make matters worse, only 14 states and the District of Columbia require households to carry workers compensation insurance for their domestic employees, regardless of wages, hours or the number employed.

And unemployment insurance benefits are iffy due to states’ rules on minimum earnings — and more often than not, requirements that exclude workers who can’t accept full-time jobs.

Say, for the sake of argument, that all these laws were amended. A large number of domestic workers still couldn’t assert their rights to the wages and other conditions DWRA advocates for because they’re not authorized to be here.

We don’t know how many there are because the Census Bureau sensibly doesn’t try to find out. We do know they were 47% of the DWRA survey sample, however.

Their wages were lower than those of other workers surveyed. And more of them experienced problems with their working conditions.

But 85% of them said they didn’t complain because they feared their immigration status would be used against them, i.e., that their employers would take revenge by reporting them to the authorities.

So it would seem that improving domestic workers’ jobs would require the long-overdue reform of our immigration laws, as well as elimination of the aforementioned exemptions.

What’s true for immigration laws is also true for other laws, the report says, because “[i]t is difficult to advocate for the rights of domestic workers in an economic and political environment in which the rights of low-wage workers more broadly are so badly frayed.”

So we have to seek public policies that raise standards and improve opportunities for the whole low-wage workforce. But we’ve obviously got to address the occupation-specific exclusions too.

In 2010, there were 726,437 domestic workers in private households — nearly 10% more than in 2004, according to the Census Bureau.

This is probably an undercount — in part because those who are undocumented may understandably have chosen not to share information with any government agency.

Whatever the true number, millions of other workers depend on housecleaners, nannies and other caregivers to free up their time for more rewarding occupations.

We’re told that many say their domestic employees are “like a member of the family.”

Imagine what would happen if we thought of real family members constrained to work so hard for so little — and with so few of the basic legal and safety net protections we usually take for granted.

We Need More Than Just More Jobs

August 28, 2012

“Poverty in America: Why can’t we end it?” Professor Peter Edelman asks. Or maybe the New York Times headline writer asks, since Edelman proceeds to tell us that we can — and how.

Top of the to-do list is to create more jobs that pay decent wages.

Well, how do we do that?

We need a full employment policy, Edelman says. This, I take it, means both public investments and diverse fiscal and labor policy changes that would achieve — and then sustain — a negligible unemployment rate.

We’d have more jobs, but also a relatively small pool of jobless job seekers. Employers would thus have to offer decent wages if they wanted to hire people qualified for the jobs they needed to fill.

Professor Robert Pollin, author of the new Back to Full Employment, says this happened in the 1960s and again in the late 1990s, especially for people “at the low end of the labor market.”

Progressives, Edeleman among them, also call for larger investments in education and skill-development.

Not the answer, according to an analysis by the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

We’ve already got a higher percent of college graduates in the workforce than we did at the end of the 1970s. Yet the share of good jobs, as CEPR defines them,* is smaller — and was even before the recession set in.

The problem, it says, isn’t that workers’ skills haven’t kept up with the pace of technological change — though many allege a “skills mismatch” as the source of our persistently high unemployment rate.

It’s that workers have lost their bargaining power, especially those at the middle of the income scale and below.

Diverse changes in the labor market are responsible for this, e.g., jobs outsourced from the public sector and from local manufacturing to cheap labor markets overseas, a “dysfunctional immigration system” that depresses both wages and other aspects of job quality.

For these and a variety of other reasons, many of the top-growing occupations are in service areas where wages are characteristically low — retail sales, home care, food preparation and other restaurant work, etc.

These jobs obviously can’t be exported. Nor can the people who do them be replaced by machines.

But barring policy changes, they’ll still be low-wage jobs with few or no benefits.

I’m all for improving our public education system and for making it possible for low-income people to go to college — and graduate. We’ve got a long way to go.

But if every working-wage person in the country had a college degree, we’d just have even more college graduates doing work well below their competencies — and effectively pushing out people whose skills match the job requirements.

So we obviously need more good jobs for these current and future college graduates.

But if we’re going to end poverty, we need to make those low-paying service and other proliferating bottom-of-the-barrel jobs better too.

I’ll have more to say about this. In the meantime, Happy Labor Day to you all.

* A “good job” pays at least $18.50 an hour — the 1979 inflation-adjusted median for men. It also offers employer-subsidized  health insurance and an employer-sponsored retirement plan. CEPR considers other aspects of job quality important, e.g., paid sick leave, but couldn’t get reliable data to measure changes since the end of the 70s.

Why Are So Many People So Poor in America?

June 11, 2012

The gross national income in our country was nearly $14.6 trillion in 2010 — more than $47,300 for every man, woman and child.

So, as Professor Peter Edelman observes, if the GNI were divided equally, everyone would be middle class.

But, of course, it isn’t. In fact, a greater share has been flowing to the notorious 1% for quite awhile now. For Edelman, this is a key reason it’s so hard to end poverty in America — the subtitle of his new book, So Rich, So Poor.

Or more precisely, income inequality is a key reason. For the last 40 years, he says, “our economy has been very unkind to the bottom half of our people.”

At the very bottom, we’ve got nearly 20.5 million people so poor that their household incomes fall below 50% of the Census Bureau’s very low poverty thresholds.

In 2010, about six million — roughly one in 50 — had no income at all except the cash value of their food stamp benefits. For a family of three, this meant, at most, $526 a month — and, of course, available only to buy groceries.

We’ve got terrific public policy, Edelman says. It’s simply not true, as some say, that anti-poverty programs don’t work. Without them, over 40 million more people would be poor.

But the enactment of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program ripped “a terrible hole … in the safety net.”

In fact, “welfare is gone,” Edelman says. It’s “basically disappeared in large parts of the country” because states have no obligation to provide cash assistance (or any equivalent) to families who would qualify according to a common standard of need.

This, however, is only one part of Edelman’s far-ranging analysis.

We’ve had “a flood of low-wage jobs,” he says. And “people in the bottom half have been absolutely stuck.”

Well, not quite, but pretty damn near. Between 1968 and 2010, inflation-adjusted incomes of households in the bottom half grew, on average, about half a percent a year.

And at the end, incomes of households in the bottom tenth averaged just $11,904 — well under the federal poverty line for a family of two.

It’s a stretch to attribute this to a flood of low-wage jobs, however. And I doubt Edelman means to.

If there are relatively more of those jobs now, it’s partly because our economy has fewer living wage jobs for workers with no more than a high school education.

Many of been exported to low-wage countries. Many have simply vanished. When was the last time you called, say, the gas company and didn’t get a recorded message?

I suppose it’s also the case that more jobs have become low-wage — relative at least to rising living costs.

What we know for sure is that wages have been stagnating for a long time. In other words, workers haven’t been getting a fair share of productivity growth, as they did during the post-World War II period.

This is especially true for workers without a college education.

The Economic Policy Institute reports that real wages for high school graduates in the private sector increased by 4.8% between 1989 and 2010 and by just 2.6% for those in state government. During the same period, productivity, i.e., the total output of goods and services per hours worked, grew by 62.5%.

Lots of reasons for this. I’ve mentioned a couple. A fine paper from the Economic Policy Research Network takes up these and many others.

Edelman deals not only with low-wage work, but with poverty children inherit from their parents, disparities rooted in race and gender discrimination and the problems single parents (usually mothers) face trying to support themselves and their children.

Also housing policies, public education and, as Nation blogger Greg Kaufmann says, “much, much more.”

Notwithstanding the complexities, however, Edelman believes that poverty in our country is not an unsolvable problem — or rather, collection of problems.

We need “much more political will” to attack them. That, he thinks, will require, above all, a widely-shared view that it’s in our common interest to have “an economy that includes everybody.”

The sticking point here, he says, is that the vast majority of us middle-class voters think we have more in common with the people at the top than the people at the bottom.

This, I suppose, has something to do with the extraordinary hold the myth of boundless upward mobility has on our imagination. The Great Recession has certainly shaken it, though by how much and for how long is hard to say.

But, says Edelman, if we in the middle don’t see “which side of the line” we’re really on — that our fate rests with what happens to the bottom half — “we are cooked.”