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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.

Globalization has thrust many firms and their employees into a new, more intense competition to perform more efficiently. Many computer-based jobs can now be done anywhere in the world. Similarly, lower trade barriers have allowed markets for manufactured goods, raw materials and capital to span the globe. And even when factories stay in the United States, technology has made it possible for them to produce more with fewer workers. Meanwhile, unionization has declined to single-digit percentages among private-sector workers, further eroding the leverage of employees. All of this has been a drag on salaries.

On Their Own

As the nation endures its first sustained downturn since welfare reform a dozen years ago, low-income workers find themselves increasingly on their own. Many low-wage workers are straining to pay for life's necessities and say they feel little impact from government programs designed to help.

With inflation up 5 percent in the past year, the vast majority of those surveyed are having trouble paying for gas, saving for retirement or for their children's educations. Most find it difficult to afford health care and housing, and nearly half struggle to pay for food.

For many, their jobs contribute to the stress. Three in 10 work for companies that do not offer them health insurance or paid vacations. About 4 in 10 get no sick days or retirement benefits.

To cut expenses, most said they are trying to minimize their use of electricity and heat, and more than half said they have postponed needed medical or dental care.

"Our company doesn't provide medical insurance. I have to provide my own, and I cannot find any that I can afford," said Angela Dobson, 36, a restaurant worker in Anderson County, S.C. "As far as having a full-blown checkup, I have not had one in probably 10 to 15 years."

Many others said they have dipped into their savings or cashed out retirement funds in the past year to make ends meet, while 41 percent said they have borrowed money from friends or relatives to get by.

"Prices have gone up, and it's not just gas," said Elaine Judy, 38, who prepares meals for students in a reading program in Burlington, W.Va. "It is hurting the hard-working person."

Neither Judy, nor her husband, Rick, who works for a firm that sells truck parts, have received significant pay increases in recent years. And with two of their three children still living at home, they have had little choice but to tighten their belts. "We've had to cut back on things like going out to eat and shopping to make sure we have the necessities," she said. "We feel okay, but you have to worry more than you used to."

The anxiety is growing. Half of respondents said that financially they feel "less secure" than they did a few years ago. Meanwhile, the vast majority said it is harder for people like them to get ahead financially.

About half said they would only be able to survive a month before landing in financial trouble if they suddenly lost their jobs, while a third said they would last two weeks or less. A third of those polled said that someone in their families has been laid off or lost a job in the past year, while many others said their own or a family member's work hours had been reduced.

Marisa Delgado, 37, a grocery store worker who lives in Bonita Springs, Fla., has been her family's sole breadwinner since her husband was laid off from his construction job six months ago. Now her job hangs in the balance. The Albertson's store she works for is among 49 recently purchased by the supermarket giant Publix, and she has had to reapply for a job that is likely to reduce her pay.

"I might have to be forced to move back to Texas," Delgado said, "because I won't be able to afford to live in Florida." .

While they were both working, Delgado and her husband were able to eat out at least weekly, but no longer. They also sent about $50 to her husband's mother in Mexico every other week, a practice that they have cut back drastically. They have stopped using one of their cars, and last month they took a load of DVDs, jewelry and other valuables to a pawn shop "so that I could put food on the table," Delgado said.

Even with the change in fortune, Delgado, who calls herself deeply religious, is confident it all will work out. "Everything's going to turn out okay," she said. "I always say that the Lord doesn't give you more than you can handle."

Her reliance on faith is a common one: The vast majority of those polled said religion or their faith in God plays an important role in helping them through financial straits.

Nearly half of low-wage workers said their personal financial situations have deteriorated under President Bush, while only 11 percent said things have improved. And a slim majority said that when it comes to getting good jobs, the nation's best years are in the past, not the future.

That view was more likely to be expressed by those who have a high school education or less than by those who have attended college. The gap is not surprising, given education's growing correlation with income. In 1973, the nation's top 20 percent of wage earners were as likely to be high school graduates as college graduates. College graduates now outnumber high school graduates by 4 to 1 in that income bracket.

Placing Blame

Although they feel increasingly squeezed, just 3 in 10 low-wage workers blame their employers for their plight, while 6 in 10 said they are responsible for their own financial situation. A similar proportion said people can get ahead by working hard.

But they are also unsparing in their view of the federal government. The vast majority said the federal government bears at least some responsibility for their situation, and 2 of 3 said the same about corporate America. More than half said that government programs aimed at helping working families "aren't having much impact," while another 2 in 10 said they are actually making things worse.

At the same time, many low-wage workers benefit from multibillion-dollar government programs aimed at helping them. About half said they took the Earned Income Tax Credit last year, which supplements the income of low-wage families, and about half of those with children said they received health care for their children through Medicaid or the State Children's Health Insurance Program, which is jointly funded by the federal government and the states.

Crystal Willis, 21, a sales associate in Oklahoma City, is one of those who benefits from a public safety net. "I make a decent amount, but I don't make enough to support our family," she said. "The baby's on WIC [the federal Women, Infants and Children program] so we can afford our formula. If I had to pay for everything, we'd barely be making it, if we were making it at all."

Also, Congress last year approved the first increase in the federal minimum wage in a decade. The second phase of the increase went into effect in July, raising the minimum wage to $6.55 a hour -- less than the inflation-adjusted 1997 level of $6.88. Nonetheless, it meant pay raises for an estimated 2 million U.S. workers, according to Holly Sklar, director of Business for Shared Prosperity, a Boston group that advocates for policies that reduce economic inequality. Despite their dissatisfaction with government, majorities of poll respondents said the government should make it a "top priority" to get them more affordable health insurance, cheaper gas, financial assistance for higher education and public works jobs.

Nearly half of low-wage workers said illegal immigrants take jobs from legal residents, and half of those believe that they are jobs that residents would want. Still, only 1 in 5 said that they or their family have been hurt by illegal immigration.

Half of low-wage workers believe the growth in international trade has made things worse for the country as a whole, nearly triple the number who said it made things better. Fewer feel impacted personally. More than half said trade has not made much of a difference in their lives, while just over 1 in 4 said it had made their lives worse. Thirteen percent said trade made it better.

Even as they are deeply concerned and frustrated about their financial condition, the vast majority of low-wage workers look forward to a brighter future. By a larger than 4 to 1 margin, these workers are more apt to think they will move up than slip backwards in terms of social class. Similarly, 59 percent of those with children predict that the new generation will be better off than they are today.

In some cases, their confidence springs from experience. Almost half said they are better off now than their parents were at a similar stage of their lives. About a quarter said they were doing about the same. Twenty-seven percent said they are doing worse. Immigrants, who have the circumstances in their home countries for comparison, are particularly apt to say they are doing better than their parents and expect even better times for their children.

Overall, nearly half of all workers in the poll feel at least "somewhat close" to the American dream, and optimism burns brighter among young workers and those born outside the United States. Only about 2 in 10 low-wage workers said flatly that they are unlikely to achieve it in their lifetimes.

"It's still attainable, just a little bit harder now at this time in the economy," said Edward Morrissey, 47, a mortgage broker from Flourtown, Pa., whose income plummeted in the housing downturn. "But yeah, everybody wants to be able to have their own house and family, and be able to pay their bills, and have a little extra money, and you can still do it."

Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta and assistant polling analyst Kyle Dropp contributed to this report.

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