Millions of low-wage workers in the US are struggling to survive

“I have a 4-year-old, and a couple dollars extra an hour would be a huge thing for me, especially with child care.” Ambre Davidson, working mom in Portland, Maine on proposal to raise the minimum wage Photo: Whitney Hayward / Portland Herald Press via Getty Images

A new project from Oxfam America and the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) reveals shocking numbers of workers stuck in low-wage jobs with scant benefits.

Hard work should pay off. But for millions of workers, it hardly pays the bills. Over the past 40 years, the reality of low-wage work in America has shifted dramatically. Today, more people than ever are working in jobs that pay too little and offer too few benefits. In fact, our research reveals that nearly half the workforce is stuck in jobs that pay under $15 an hour; one in four low-wage workers has not a single day of earned sick time.

Once, people knew that hard work could pay off: they could support a family, save for retirement, educate their children, or even own a home. That is no longer true.

People doing low-wage jobs do vital work that keeps the economy humming: they care for the young and elderly, prepare food, clean offices, and help customers. These jobs are essential, but the economy has stopped adequately compensating the workers who do them.. Wages are stagnating and demands on workers are increasing. And this trend is only growing worse, as the jobs of the future are concentrated in sectors with low wages and threadbare benefits.

This situation is not right—nor is it inevitable. It is the consequence of our policy choices over many years. Oxfam and EPI are proposing a set of policy changes which will ensure that hard work is rewarded, and that the economy functions for everyone. Together, we have created an interactive web site with a series of maps of that illustrate concentrations of working poor in the states; and a new report that explores four essential policy shifts:

  •  Raise the federal minimum wage.
  •  Provide access to earned sick leave.
  •  Protect overtime pay for millions of workers.
  •  Expand the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC).

The state of working America is hurting. What’s more, the people doing these low-wage jobs are disproportionately people of color and women. Again, this trend is increasing, as people find themselves trapped by low wages and threadbare benefits. Here are the facts:

  • 41.7 million workers earn under $12 an hour and 58.3 million workers earn under $15 an hour—wages that are too low for families to thrive.
  • Nearly half of all private sector workers lack a single paid sick day. Over 80 percent of low-wage private sector workers do not have earned sick time.
  • Until recently, too few workers were protected by overtime pay rules; expanded protections are currently under attack.
  • The Earned Income Tax Credit fails to reach many of our lowest paid workers, including young adults and workers without children.
    • While the majority of low-wage workers are white, black and Hispanic workers are far more likely to be in low-wage jobs. More than half (53 percent) of black workers and 60 percent of Hispanic workers earn under $15 an hour. For black and Hispanic women, the numbers are even more dramatic.
    • Many low-wage occupations— from restaurant servers to child care workers—are dominated by women. In every state, women make up the majority of workers earning under $12; the highest percentage is in Louisiana (59.4 percent), and the lowest is in California (50.9 percent).

Action to right these wrongs would make our economy and our society stronger, healthier, more equitable—and, perhaps most importantly, it would restore hope for the future.

Explore the map, and take action by tweeting directly to your Members of Congress and sharing the map on Facebook.

Read more in the report, Few Rewards.


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