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Many low-wage jobs seen as failing to meet basic needs

Last updated: 19 July, 2011
Motoko Rich, The New York Times 17:43 IST

Hard as it can be to land a job these days, getting one may not be nearly enough for basic economic security.

Image: NYTThe Labour Department will release its monthly snapshot of the job market, and economists expect it to show that the nations employers added about 1,90,000 jobs in March. With an unemployment rate that has been stubbornly stuck near 9 per cent, those workers could be considered lucky.

But many of the jobs being added in retail, hospitality and home health care, to name a few categories, are unlikely to pay enough for workers to cover the cost of fundamentals like housing, utilities, food, health care, transportation and, in the case of working parents, child care.

A separate report being released tries to go beyond traditional measurements like the poverty line and minimum wage to show what people need to earn to achieve a basic standard of living.

The study, commissioned by Wider Opportunities for Women, a non-profit group, builds on an analysis the group and some state and local partners have been conducting since 1995 on how much income it takes to meet basic needs without relying on public subsidies. The new study aims to set thresholds for economic stability rather than mere survival, and takes into account saving for retirement and emergencies.

We wanted to recognise that there was a cumulative impact that would affect ones lifelong economic security, said Wider Opportunities excutive director Joan A Kuriansky, whose report is called The Basic Economic Security Tables for the United States. And weve all seen how often we have emergencies that we are unprepared for, she said, especially during the recession. Layoffs or other health crises can definitely begin to draw us into poverty.

According to the report, a single worker needs an income of $30,012 a year, or just above $14 an hour, to cover basic expenses and save for retirement and emergencies.

That is close to three times the 2010 national poverty level of $10,830 for a single person, and nearly twice the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.

A single worker with two young children needs an annual income of $57,756, or just over $27 an hour, to attain economic stability, and a family with two working parents and two young children needs to earn $67,920 a year, or about $16 an hour per worker.

That compares with the national poverty level of $22,050 for a family of four.

The most recent data from the Census Bureau found that 14.3 per cent of Americans were living below the poverty line in 2009. Wider Opportunities and its consulting partners saw a need for an index that would indicate how much families need to earn if, for example, they want to save for their childrens college education or for a down payment on a home.

Its an index that asks how can a family have a little grasp at the middle class, said St Louis-based Centre for Social Developement at Washington University director Michael Sherraden, who consulted on the project and helped develop projections for how much income families need to devote to savings.

If were interested in families being able to be stable and not have their lives disrupted and have a little protection and backup and be able to educate their children, then this is the way we have to think.

The numbers will not come as a surprise to working families who are struggling. Tara, a medical biller who declined to give her last name, said that she earns $15 an hour, while her husband, who works in building maintenance, makes $11.50 an hour.

The couple, who live in Jamaica, Queens, have three sons, aged 9, 8 and 6. We tried to cut back on a lot of things, she said. But the couple has been unable to make ends meet on their wages, and visit the River Fund food pantry in Richmond Hill every Saturday. With no money for savings, Im hoping that I will hit the lotto soon, she said.

To develop its income assessments, the reports authors examined government and other publicly available data to determine basic costs of living.

For housing, which along with utilities is usually a familys largest expense, the authors came up with a decent standard of shelter which is accessible to those with limited income by averaging data from the Department of Housing and Urban Development that identified a monthly cost equivalent for rent at the fortieth percentile among all rents paid in each metropolitan area across the country.

They chose a low cost food plan from the nutritional guidelines of the Department of Agriculture, and calculated commuting costs assuming the ownership of a small sedan.

For health care, they calculated expenses for workers both with and without employer-based benefits. Kuriansky said that the income projections do not take into account frills like gifts or meals out. Its a very bare-bones budget, she said. Obviously, the income needs change drastically depending on where a family lives. Kuriansky said the group was working on developing data for states and metropolitan areas.

The report compares its standards against national median incomes derived from the census, and finds that both single parents and workers who have only a high school diploma or only some college earn median wages that fall well below the amount needed to ensure economic security.

Workers who only finished high school have fared badly in the recession and the nascent recovery. According to an analysis of Labour Department data by Cliff Waldman, the economist at the Manufacturers Alliance, a trade group, the gap in unemployment rates more than doubled between those with just a high school diploma and those with at least a four-year college degree from the start of 2008 through February.

For some of the least educated, Waldman fears that even low wages are out of reach. Given the needs of a more cognitive and more versatile labour force, he said, Im afraid that those that dont have the education are going to be part of a structural unemployment story.

Public services

Even for those who do get jobs, it may be hard to live without public services, say non-profit groups that assist low-income workers. Politicians are so worried about fraud and abuse, said Carol Goertzel, president of PathWays PA, a nonprofit that serves families in the Philadelphia region. But they are not seeing the picture of families who are working but simply not making enough money to support their families, and need public support.

In New York, Aine Duggan, vice president for research, policy and education at the Food Bank for New York City, estimates that about a third of the groups clients are working but not earning enough to cover basic needs, much less saving for retirement or an emergency. She said that among households with children and annual incomes of less than $25,000, 83 per cent of them would not be able to afford food within three months of losing the family income. That is up from 68 per cent in 2008 at the height of the recession.

As the nations employers add jobs, it is not yet clear how many of them are low wage jobs, especially those that do not come with benefits, like health care.

Manufacturing, for example, has been relatively strong and tends to pay higher wages.
Over the last year, wages adjusted for inflation have been essentially flat. If we were creating more low-paid jobs, said RDQ Economics chief economist John Ryding, adding, We would expect more of a decline in real wages.

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