Hovering Above Poverty, Grasping for Middle Class

By Michael A. Fletcher and Jon Cohen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, August 3, 2008

Low-wage workers in the United States are gripped by increasing financial insecurity as they inch along an economic tightrope made riskier by pervasive job losses and rising prices. Many struggle to pay for life's basics -- housing, food and health care -- and most report having virtually no financial cushion should they stumble.

Still, they remain inspired by the American dream, with most saying they are more apt to move up economically than slip backward even if they are frustrated now. Most also expect better for their children.

This complex picture of low-wage workers emerges from a survey conducted by The Washington Post, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University. The nationwide poll, conducted June 18 to July 7, included 1,350 randomly selected people between ages 18 and 64 who work at least 30 hours a week and earned no more than $27,000 last year.

These low-wage workers account for nearly one-quarter of all U.S. adults. They care for the elderly in nursing homes or for the very young in day-care centers. They stock store shelves, do administrative work in offices, staff reception desks in hospitals and man assembly lines in factories. Not only do they receive low pay, but their jobs frequently come with no health-care coverage, vacations or even sick days. Yet, the vast majority said they like or even love their jobs and they believe in the power of hard work to transform lives.

The two major presidential candidates and members of Congress have largely turned their attention to middle-class Americans, whose anxiety is rising as the national economy falters on falling housing prices, tightening credit and rising inflation.

"A lot of issues that have long confronted low-wage workers are now increasingly facing middle-income workers," who more than ever face the prospect of jarring income declines, and the lack of health care and pensions to support them, said Beth Shulman, a scholar with the Russell Sage Foundation's Future of Work Project.

If those growing concerns translate into political action to bolster the social safety net, she said, it would disproportionately help low-wage workers. "I don't think we want to live in a country where people are working and doing what they are supposed to do but yet they can't get the basics," Shulman said.

For many low-wage workers, financial struggles persist and anxiety is high even when the economy is humming. Most of them occupy an uneasy and often overlooked place on the nation's economic spectrum, hovering above poverty but still grasping for the relative comfort of the middle class.

Over the coming weeks, the Washington Post will examine the lives of low-wage Americans. The stories will explore how they juggle their finances and bolster their spirits to cope with their economic struggles; how they adapt when the dream of a middle-class life fades; the factors that propel the optimism of others in the face of increasingly tall odds, and why, more often than not, they believe their fortunes are unaffected by the policies crafted by politicians in Washington.

Low-wage workers tend to be younger, less apt to be Republican and are less likely to be registered to vote, own homes or be married than the overall population. Most call themselves working class. About half live in households that earn no more than double the poverty-level income, which would be about $42,000 a year for a family of four.

They also are more likely to be female and Hispanic. They tend to have less education than the general population: Most have not gone beyond high school, and only 1 in 8 has graduated from college, less than half the national rate.

Low-income workers have been hit hardest by the economic trends that have come to define the modern economy. Their wages have stagnated as a greater share of work's rewards go to the best-educated and best-paid workers, widening income disparities to levels not seen since the 1920s.

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