Latest Census numbers confirm millions of Americans work but stuck in or near poverty

By Oxfam America

Share this story:

WASHINGTON, DC – Oxfam America hosted a forum today at the US Capitol to explore the state of America's working poor, just as the Census Bureau released poverty numbers for 2012 underscoring how millions of workers are paid so little that they are living below or near the poverty line.

"These chilling numbers expose the reality that, despite the economic recovery, poverty remains near its highest point in two decades, and lowest paid workers have yet to see their circumstances improve," said Raymond C. Offenheiser, president of Oxfam America. "People who work full-time should be able to earn enough to sustain themselves and their families financially, not struggle to get by. Sadly, we have become the most unequal rich country in the world."

The Census figures revealed the poverty rate held at 15 percent in 2012, affecting more than 46 million Americans. Nearly one in four children lives in poverty in the US. Median income remained unchanged at around $51,017 (after a steady fall since 2007), indicating that the recovery has done little to lift median incomes of working poor Americans.

Offenheiser was joined at the Oxfam event by Guy Molyneux, the lead researcher on an Oxfam America survey of low-wage workers at Hart Research Associates; Eugene Steuerle, a fellow at the Urban Institute and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Treasury; and Tianna Gaines-Turner, a part-time child-care worker in Philadelphia.

"No family should have to choose between paying the gas bill or caring for a sick child. But that's what is happening in communities across the country every single day," said Gaines-Turner. "Medical issues, food, and paying for utilities and housing all go hand and hand and are issues millions of working poor families struggle to juggle on a daily basis."

The survey, which was conducted on Oxfam America's behalf by Hart Research Associates, found that most low-wage workers are plagued by worries about meeting their families' basic needs, and often turn to loans from family and friends, credit card debt, pawn shops and payday loans, and government programs just to get by. The poll also found that the workers facing the greatest challenges are also the most vulnerable, and that includes parents, women, and those making less than $10 per hour.

"Our survey sheds some light on the experiences and perspectives of America's working poor; millions of people who work hard but barely scrape by month-to-month--and in many cases are falling behind," said Offenheiser. "While our economy is slowly recovering from the Great Recession, there is little recovery for a quarter of American workers who are stuck in low-wage jobs."

Oxfam's survey shows that in addition to inadequate incomes, low-wage workers face challenges and obstacles that make it difficult to maintain basic job security and to find paths for advancement. A majority are now earning less in their current jobs than in the past work. Almost a third of those surveyed reported that they have no workplace benefits, such as paid sick leave, health insurance or paid vacation time. One in seven reported having lost a job in the last four years because they got sick or had to take care of a child or family member. A majority surveyed believe that it is more common for middle-class people to fall out of the middle class than for low-income people to rise into the middle class.

A majority of low-wage workers reported that they believe that government policy is slanted toward benefiting the rich rather than helping the poor get ahead; and they support a higher minimum wage, help in making child care more affordable, and expanding the earned income tax credit.