60 Million People Depend on the Incomes of Low-Wage Workers in America

By Oxfam

Increasing the federal minimum wage would benefit on average more than 135,000 people in each Congressional district

WASHINGTON, DC – More than 60 million people, including more than 15 million children, live in American households that depend on the earnings of a low-wage worker, according to new research by Oxfam America and the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) released today. These numbers account for about one quarter of all workers, family members, and children in working households in the United States.

This new evidence further debunks a common stereotype of the typical low-wage worker: a teenager with no skills, working an entry level job before moving up, likely living at home with parents. The reality is that most low-wage workers are often primary breadwinners in their families, are closer to 30 than to 18, and are living in households with multiple people dependent on them.

“As a nation that values families, we should be helping build pathways of opportunity,” said Raymond C. Offenheiser, president of Oxfam America. “Mothers and fathers willing to work hard in our country should be able to earn enough money to sustain their families and put food on the table for their children. It’s time to raise the federal minimum wage to lift millions of working families out of poverty.”

The study, which examined Census Bureau data about low-wage households in all 435 Congressional districts (and the District of Columbia) and the 50 states, found that the trend toward growing numbers of low-wage jobs poses a threat to the future of our nation’s working families and children. The new data illustrates the harsh realities for working families at the national, state, and Congressional district levels. Data is displayed on several interactive maps at www.oxfamamerica.org/workingpoormap.

“The purchasing power of the minimum wage has been eroding for decades,” said David Cooper, economic analyst at the Economic Policy Institute. “Millions of workers and their families are struggling to make ends meet because we’ve let the minimum wage stagnate for too long. There’s no need for it – we can boost family incomes for a quarter of the people in working families nationwide if Congress acts.”

Key findings include the following:

  • Many American households depend on low-wage workers as the primary source of family income; these workers contribute, on average, over half of the family budget (56 percent). As a consequence, most of these families are living in, or near the edge of, poverty.
  • There are 25 million low-wage workers in America, but the figure balloons to 60.6 million by adding the number of people living in their households. One in four Americans are in working households trying to get by on low wages that are not keeping pace with the rising costs of the things necessary to a family: rent, heat, clothes, medicine, food, and transportation.
  • Most low-wage workers are their families’ primary breadwinners, accounting for 56 percent of total family income on average.
  • The average household of a low-wage worker includes two family members in addition to the worker. This may include partners, children, aging parents, or siblings.
  • More than one third (35 percent) of low-wage workers are caring for children. That’s almost nine million parents working for low wages who would receive a raise if Congress were to increase the minimum wage. This number includes almost six million working mothers and almost three million working fathers.
  • More than a quarter of all American children in working families live in households supported by low-wage workers: 15.4 million children.
  • In some Congressional districts, as many as 75,000 children—more than two out of five children in working households in these districts—live in low-wage families.
  • The states with the highest percentage of children who would benefit from a raise in the federal minimum wage are Arkansas (31 percent) and Mississippi (31 percent).

The federal minimum wage, $7.25 per hour, has not been raised since 2007, and is worth between a quarter and a third less than it was worth at its inflation-adjusted peak in 1968. Washington is still deadlocked on the issue despite the fact that poll after poll highlight the popularity of raising the minimum wage among a majority of voters. Raising the federal minimum wage would lift millions of families out of poverty, save taxpayers billions of dollars, and boost economic recovery.

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