The State of the Low Wage Workers

wotwubobby-jindal-1Raising the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour would not only help those who work minimum wage jobs, but will raise the standard of living for all low wage workers as compensation adjusts at the lower end of the pool. Which is probably why Fox News complains that fairer compensation is just soooo unpopular and why Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal is hilariously declaring  that the POTUS is “raising the white flag” on unemployment (because keeping wages low leads to more buying and therefore more employment?) and calling Obama the “Minimum Wage President” – which is a step up from being called the “Food Stamp President” I guess?

It sounds like Jindal thinks lowly of people who work low wage jobs and this attack is his way of linking President Obama to undesirable members of society. We, my friends, are just a step above ruffians and scalawags. Or are we scalawags? But today we won’t focus on the h8trz or their h8trzaide, we want to focus on the state of low wage workers and on how we can improve our circumstances.

According to a study put together by the AP called “America’s Lower Wage Workforce: Employer and Worker Perspectives”:

Recent analyses suggest that half of the U.S. jobs lost during the Great Recession were middle-class jobs, but that only 2 percent of the jobs gained during the recovery pay middle-class wages.

Instead, these disappearing middle-class jobs are being replaced by lower-wage positions with 70 percent of recovery jobs growth occurring in lower-wage industries.


Compared to national averages, lower-wage workers [those making $35,000 or less a year, according to this study] are far less likely to be satisfied in their job or to feel valued for the work they do. Lower-wage workers perceive few opportunities for advancement moving forward and many have not yet advanced in their current jobs. Pessimism is especially acute among whites and younger workers.

The study also demonstrates low-wage jobs have few opportunities for advancement, even though they offer training. However, the training is not relevant to other career opportunities available outside the company.

Tellingly, according to the study, thirty-five percent (more than one-third) of low wage earners worry “a lot” about not being able to pay bills. Another 36% worry “some” about not paying those bills. Similar numbers worry about facing sudden medical bills. That is, 71% of American low-wage workers are worried about having to pay bills in the first place. Additionally, 69% of USAmericans worry about suffering the economic effects of some sudden illness or catastrophe because, 1) their company doesn’t cover them adequately (if at all) and 2) their country doesn’t cover them (likely not at all). More than a quarter of these same workers are highly concerned about losing their jobs, for job security is not a guarantee in this economy. Employers tend to demand loyalty, but do not extend it. Over half of low-wage workers also worry about paying rent and mortgage.

These are the basic necessities of life, and yet they are the constant worries of the working poor. This is not just; this is not right.

What about the call from conservative pundits and ditto-heads that if someone in a minimum wage or low paying job doesn’t like her pay or options, she should get a high school GED? That may have been true in 1968, when less than half of the bottom-fifth of workers had a diploma, but now 79% do. Should the other 21% of workers be punished because school wasn’t their thing, because they were forced out of school, or they had family situations they couldn’t wrestle against, or because they underwent brutal bullying that led to their dropping out, or because they made mistakes like everybody but likely didn’t have the safety net that wealthier folks have? As progressives, we need to not let the right wing establish the playing field for us. We fight for the rights of all workers regardless of educational achievement. But the fact is that the clear majority of low-wage earners finished high school.

And this while wages for the lowest fifth have dropped significantly over that period of time. Even as we’re significantly more educated. And as production has increased, also significantly. (ibid)

Next, Fox N00bz will argue that low wage earners should go to college if they want to live well. But 46% of low wage earners have at least some college experience (ibid) – including yours truly, with a Bachelors and working on a Masters. In fact, adjunct faculty at most colleges have at least a Masters and the majority get by on poverty wages while teaching tomorrow’s leaders and workforce. They also have the additional bonus of having to pay off school loans. In fact, adjunct faculty end up in homeless shelters, many without basic health insurance, living off food stamps. Professors teaching college students are, ironically, low wage workers.

MSNBC’s Timothy Noah, backed by the Economic Policy Institute says:

If we were to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour, as Iowa Democrat Sen. Tom Harkin and California Democrat Rep. George Miller have proposed and President Obama supports, you wouldn’t just be boosting income for the 17 million workers currently making between $7.25 an hour (or a bit more in some states that have their own minimum wage) and $10.10 an hour. Indirectly, you’d also be boosting, to a fairly predictable extent, income for another 11 million workers making slightly more than $10.10, for a total cohort of 28 million. And the average worker in this larger group provides fully half of his or her family income.

We can all work harder (and we should); we can all attain the highest level of education we’re good with (yes we can!); and we can all lean-in as much as we want, but the problem isn’t our lack of effort. Our problem is that we are being forced to push against each other. The walls close in on us – it may be time to bring the hammer down on that wall, progressives.


When he’s not riding both his city’s public transit system and evil mayor, Jasdye teaches at a community college and writes about the intersection of equality and faith - with an occasional focus on Chicago - at the Left Cheek blog and on the Left Cheek: the Blog Facebook page. Check out more from Jasdye in his archives as well!


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