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Post Series - $17 An Hour

Alec Klein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 21, 2004; 12:00 PM

African Americans have moved steadily into the U.S. middle class over the last 40 years -- only to find themselves scrambling to get by. Hit disproportionately by the economy's shift away from manufacturing, they are employed increasingly in service sector jobs that lack the security and benefits associated with a middle-class lifestyle.

Alec Klein was online to discuss his article in a Washington Post series about the changes roiling the middle of the American workforce -- the disappearance of many jobs that pay near the national average of $17 an hour, with such benefits as health care and pensions.

Alec Klein (The Post)

_____$17 An Hour_____
A Tenuous Hold on the Middle Class (The Washington Post, Dec 18, 2004)
A Rough Ride for Schwinn Bicycle (The Washington Post, Dec 3, 2004)
Slowdown Forces Many to Wander for Work (The Washington Post, Nov 9, 2004)
Permanent Job Proves An Elusive Dream (The Washington Post, Oct 11, 2004)
As Income Gap Widens, Uncertainty Spreads (The Washington Post, Sep 20, 2004)

A transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Washington, DC: Alec,

Thank you for your series of articles on $17/hour. Despite the differences in the people you covered, did you find a common link that may explain why there is such a struggle to make ends meet? Also, have you spoken to government officials to get their take on this alarming problem?

Alec Klein: I first want to thank everyone for attending today's discussion. It's good to see that the story about the struggles of middle-income families seems to resonate for many, and it's inspired a lot of questions. So, to begin...yes, there appeared to be many common links among those who struggle to make ends meet, particularly in the population segment that I examined. For one, many African Americans are finding jobs in the services category, and while that presents some opportunities, it also often means that they go without health insurance and other benefits. Beyond that, there seems to be a sense among many middle-income families that they are doing everything they can to reach the American dream of a comfortable life, but once they achieve a relatively good salary, that life isn't quite what they expected.


Dallas, Tx: Hello,

I am the Workforce Development Manager of a large electronics firm in Dallas, TX with over 34,000 employees worldwide. These articles on workforce changes in the US are very insightful and correlates with much of the data that I've learned over the past 7 years.

My question is...are you aware of any discussion / research regarding the impact to US workers if the US begins issuing day work permits for non-US citizens as is currently being considered for Mexican workers?

It seems that, in addition to exporting middle-class jobs, we are on the verge of importing labor for unskilled and service jobs. This does not bode well for the US worker relegated to competing in the workforce at that level. The impact to US Black workers, in particular, could be devastating.

Alec Klein: Good question. In my research and in talks with scholars, there's a palpable sense that jobs of all kinds--not just specialized ones in, say, tech--are being exported, and that raises serious questions about the economy and our prospects. But at least in the services category--often dominated by low-paying jobs without benefits--the numbers show significant job growth for African Americans and others.


Alexandria, VA: Hello: I enjoyed your article. I am an instructor at a career college. The enrollment is predominantly African-American and Hispanic. Graduating students look for work in the paralegal, criminal justice and business fields. Increasingly, we are finding that many of the entry-level positions in these fields require that the applicant be bilingual. This is great for the Hispanic students; they find jobs quickly. Many African-American students are having a difficult time because they don't speak Spanish. Do you see this "language gap" as having an impact on African-Americans' job outlook? Thanks.

Alec Klein: Certainly, you will hear such stories. But I'm not sure that resides at the heart of the problem; rather, it seems that broader currents--global competition, technology and outsourcing--are having a more profound impact on job prospects. Many African Americans, scholars say, also contend with racism, both its legacy and how it's manifested today.


Washington, DC: My question is, what is a recent graduate supposed to do when the only job I can get is a receptionist position that pays $12 an hour? That type of money doesn't even equal half of my college debt in a year!;!;!; Is it beneficial to even go to college anymore if there are no jobs available to live off of after graduation?

Alec Klein: A good question without an easy answer. It also speaks to the series of stories we have been publishing. Even with a college degree, like yourself, many are finding it difficult to find a job, except one in the service category. Stats, however, show that those with a college degree have a much better chance of staying employed.


Anonymous: You mentioned in the article:

"With generally fewer resources to fall back on -- the median net worth of African American families is $19,000, about 15 percent of that for whites -- home down payments move out of reach, and periods of sluggish wage growth, like the current one, hit even harder."

Did you really mean 15 percent OF? In other words, the median net worth for whites is $126,667? If so, that is a startling statistic.

Alec Klein: It is a startling statistic--but accurate. It also speaks to a profound problem for African Americans as they seek to move up the income ladder. If you are beginning with far few resources, of course, it is much more difficult to get ahead. Scholars say the huge disparity in such things as net worth is a vestige of discrimination when blacks were blocked from many jobs.


Fuquay-Varina North Carolina: Why aren't the statistics on the increasing economic gap between blacks and other ethnic groups more widely published. If I were to read the newspapers I would be lead to believe that blacks and other minorities are more prominent than ever and that the economy is not in a recession but is producing hundreds of thousands or additional jobs every month. Some body is running a game on the American people. A majority of the American people may be protected from terrorism, but it seems that a majority of us will not be middle class while we are alive.

Alec Klein: It seems to be a matter of perception. Some readers say the media pays too much attention to the increasing economic disparity between blacks and other groups, while others say we don't pay enough attention. As for The Post, we have run two stories in just the last few days on the issue, and it remains an important issue of coverage.


Washington DC - $26 an Hour, Less Student Loans: I have nothing but sympathy for the great bulk of Americans who needed and expected little more than a secure $36,000 per year, plus health, life, and retirement, which the "$17 an hour" rubric symbolized.

I have a graduate degree, and I have found that there simply is no more market for an American with an education. On top of my obligation to get rid of $70,000 in student loan debt, plus interest, I have discovered that with the exception of a tiny handful of top employers, new MBAs, lawyers, accountants, etc. typically earn substantially less money than cops and nurses, and are treated typically as white-collar temps. What does this tell students? Parents? Voters?

Alec Klein: It tells us there's a tectonic shift in the workforce--and one that needs to be addressed. What you've experienced reflects what many others have explained to us, and that's part of the reason we've put a spotlight on the issue. Hopefully, this is only the beginning of the dialogue.


Washington DC: I just bought a house on Capitol Hill -- very modest. I'm single, female, making $37 an hour and I'm barely getting by. I have no clue how entire families are making it on less.

Alec Klein: You're doing much better than others, but the fact that you're struggling speaks volumes about how the economic ground is shifting.


Northern Virginia: I'm sorry, but I am a little incredulous that somebody making $39,000 plus income from the spouse is making an issue of how little they are making and how unfair it might be.

I am the sole earner of my family, have never made over $40,000 a year, and have been unemployed on and off throughout the years. My wife takes care of my two daughters (one of which is very sick, by the way) while I work, and I take care of them while she takes college classes at night.

Even during the trying times, I was able to purchase a house and we have maintained a stellar credit. Of course we don't have luxuries such as being able to travel, new furniture, expensive electronic gadgets or LCD TVs and an extra car, and it's not too fun to be clipping coupons constantly or eating in the house to save money.

Guess what? I don't blame anybody for that. It is what it is. One just has to work harder or learn job functions that are in demand now.

I consider people who have $17/hour very lucky.

Alec Klein: Thanks for the comment. It's interesting to see how readers have reacted so differently to Kayasa Cobb's story. As we've seen, some earn more than she did, but can't understand how people get by on $17 an hour. Your story gives us a different perspective, and I respect that. I'm not sure there's a right way to look at this, except to say that I know Cobb doesn't think of herself as very lucky when her family is struggling to get by.


Hyattsville, MD: Dear Mr. Klein,

--a little background one me.I am an African American female working for a government agency. I am unmarried and have no children. I am a homeowner.

Your article was very good but left out one important point--the child(ren)to family ratio with African American and minority couples. Comparatively speaking, how well do these families compare with non-minority couples with the same amount of children? At what age- and marriage-point did the children arrive?

Alec Klein: One telling fact is that a much higher percentage of African American households are led by a single mother. With only one income, and given the high cost of day care, that can make it much more difficult for many blacks to get by.


Greenbelt, Md.: Alec, thanks for the eye-opening series of the middle-class worker struggling in America. Anyhow, as African-American male who was able to benefit from higher education and find an extremely well paying job, of much of that do you think plays a role in the struggle we face, as well as institutional racism/preferences?

Alec Klein: When you talk to scholars, they speak about a mixture of factors that are hard to separate out. Racism, many say, played a significant role in holding back African Americans in the past, and while racism is less overt today, professors say it continues to play a role in the economic fortunes for many blacks. Education, however, seems to be a mitigating factor because the stats show that the higher the education, the better the job prospects.


Kansas City, MO: Twenty years ago I was able to work to pay my way through a state university and leave without loans but looking at current wage rates and the cost of college there's no way I could do it today. Is the extra income worth the long term debt or do they cancel each other out?

Alec Klein: The numbers suggest that a college degree can make a difference. But it's true, at least for Kayasa Cobb and others, that a degree increases their debt burden, and it doesn't necessarily make for a better quality of life.


A sad fact...: that a college education does not cut it anymore. A metro bus driver can make $20/hour but have to deal with lots of stress. While an accounting clerk w/ 4 year degree only makes 18 - 25 k/year.

Alec Klein: You are echoing a widely-held sentiment, although I'm not sure that holds true across the board. Indeed, many jobs being created today call for higher education and more specialization.


Laurel : I know this is sensitive, but it's also important.

Af-Am are about the only large population group in which women do not most marry equal- or superior-earning mates. The primary subject of your recent article is an HR manager with a master's degree whose husband is a library assistant and makes about half her salary.

It's well known that two-thirds of Af-Am children's mothers and fathers are not married. What needs to be done to convince Af-Am boys and young men that education is their key to a prosperous life?

Alec Klein: Education does seem to be a crucial factor, the numbers suggest. And the Cobb family seemed to understand that, as Kayasa earned a master's degree, and her husband is considering going back to school.


Baltimore, Maryland: I recently read an article that stated that there are only three counties out of the over 3,000 counties in the United States where a person earning minimum wage can afford an apartment. And that survey assumed that only 30% of take home pay went towards rent. No wonder so many people are just an illness away from being homeless.

Alec Klein: Many spend more than 30 percent of their take-home pay on their rent, or mortgage, which, I think, is one reason that many feel close to the edge, economically speaking. I think the Cobb family reflected the sentiments of many others who grapple with a long list of bills, including health care, car payments and day care.


Kinston, NC: I continue to read these unemployment articles and I empathize with the people, but the country put Bush back in. Your stories must depict people in the minority.

Residents of Ohio said the president did not have any influence on jobs. Students attending the community college on jobs benefits because the company shut down still support Bush. Clearly, people are happy or in denial.

Alec Klein: Thanks for the question. It seems that the economic struggle of middle-income families is a significant issue for debate at every level.


West Palm Beach,Fl.: How long will it be before the changes in the hiring, payroll diminishings, overtime losses and increase in part-time workers( to reduce benefits to workers) will affect the purchasing power of the American consumer?The anti-labor actions of this president will eventually(plus giant tax rebates to the very few)undermine this country's forward progress.The unemployed young will be an easy target for the draft,which is coming.

Alec Klein: Economists have asked some of the same questions. What is, after all, the end product of a trend in which many jobs are being exported? How will that impact consumers' purchasing power? I'm not sure if there are any concrete answers yet.


Wake Forest, N C: When I was a child, the fact that my mother had a full time job was an anomaly. Now it is practically the norm. This results in warehoused children as young as 6 weeks. How does this trend work with the "Family Values" theo-cons policies?

Alec Klein: Good question. That's another point of inquiry for scholars and others to pursue.


san diego, california: Have you done a similar analysis for Hispanics?

Alec Klein: The story touched on the economic fortunes of Hispanics; the numbers show that, like African-Americans, Hispanics' income has improved over the years, but like blacks, Hispanics also face an erosion of benefits, including health care coverage and pensions.


Kensington, Md: The personal histories of workers in this series of stories have been interesting... but more important has been the trend you're reporting about how an important step on the American economic ladder has gone missing. What do you think will happen if these $17/hour jobs with benefits can't be replaced by something else? Will everyone who isn't a trained professional or technician have to go work at Wal-Mart?

Alec Klein: I think that's the fear of some. It's also an evolving question, with some economists saying that the economy will produce new, as-yet defined jobs to replace those being exported or eliminated.


Alec Klein: Just want to thank everyone for participating in the forum. There were several other questions, but we've run out of time. If you'd like to follow up, feel free to e-mail me at kleina@washpost.com


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