Ranks of working poor increasing


The ranks of the so-called working poor have grown even as the nation is showing signs of shaking off the worst effects of the recession. (Michael S. Williamson/WASHINGTON POST)

Nearly a third of the nation’s working families earn salaries so low that they struggle to pay for their necessities, according to a new report.

The ranks of the so-called working poor have grown even as the nation has created new jobs for 27 consecutive months and is showing other signs of shaking off the worst effects of the recession.

“Although many people are returning to work, they are often taking jobs with lower wages and less job security, compared with the middle class jobs they held before the downturn,” according to a report released Tuesday by the Working Poor Families Project, a national initiative aimed at fostering state policies to help low-income working families.

With the nation’s economy in recovery, the report said, more than 70 percent of low-income families and half of all poor families were working by 2011. The problem is they did not earn enough to cover their basic living expenses.

“We’re not on a good trajectory,” said Brandon Roberts, who manages the Working Poor Families Project. “The overall number of low-income working families is increasing despite the recovery.”

Analyzing 2011 data from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, the report said that 32 percent of working families earned salaries that put them below double the poverty threshold. For a family of four, double the poverty threshold was $45,622. That percentage has crept up from 28 percent in 2007, the year the recession began.

And 37 percent of the nation’s children — 23.5 million — were part of working poor families in 2011, the report said, up from 33 percent in 2007.

Nearly three in five low-income working families were headed by at least one minority parent, even though minorities headed 42 percent of all working families.

The growth in the ranks of the working poor coincides with continued growth in income inequality. Many of the occupations experiencing the fastest job growth during the recovery also pay poorly. Among them are retail jobs, food preparation, clerical work and customer assistance.

At the same time, researchers have found that many jobs that do not require much in the way of educational credentials but pay relatively well have lagged in the recovery. They include carpenters, painters, real estate brokers and insurance professionals.

Jobs typically filled by college graduates fared better than others during the downturn, helping to widen the gap between those at the top of the wage scale and those at the bottom.

In 2011, the top fifth of working families had incomes that were 10.1 times greater than those in the bottom fifth of income earners. In 2007, the top fifth of working families earned 9.5 times those in the lowest fifth.

Meanwhile, the best means for climbing the income ladder — improved education — is growing more uncertain and more expensive, the report said. Also, the federal government is facing huge budget deficits, meaning that policies that would help bolster working poor families, such as a higher minimum wage, are unlikely to be implemented.

Still, Roberts said, “we have to be more aggressive” with policy. “We’re not talking about all families. We’re talking about families that work, and they’re falling behind.”

The Working Poor Families Project is funded by the Annie E. Casey, Ford, Joyce and Kresge foundations.

Michael A. Fletcher is a national economics correspondent, writing about unemployment, state and municipal debt, the evolving job market and the auto industry.
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