Hurt and Hope Among Low-Wage Workers

Michael A. Fletcher and Jon Cohen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, August 4, 2008; 1:00 PM

National economics reporter Mike Fletcher and polling director Jon Cohen were online Monday, August 4 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss The Washington Post's ongoing series on low-wage workers.

A transcript follows.

Read the overview article, the political article and the full report including an interactive video poll.


Mike Fletcher: Good afternoon. I'm glad to see these excellent questions. Let's get started.


Washington, D.C.: First, thanks for doing this series -- it's an important topic, and not one that always gets a lot of attention.

My question is about the finding on low-wage workers' opinions of their jobs. I was surprised that it was so positive -- 85 percent saying that they liked or loved their jobs, and only 14 percent saying that they disliked or hated their jobs. At the same time, we know that many of these jobs are inflexible, repetitive, sometimes dangerous. Is this a matter of low expectations? People making the best of their situation?

Mike Fletcher: You and I were both surprised. But the more I thought about it, the more it seemed to make sense. For one, I think people find their jobs more flexible and uplifting than many of us assume. People who work in hospitals, in nursing homes, in day care centers, often have a deep reservoir of love and concern for the people they work with everyday. It is something about the human connection that is forged. Even people in other jobs, particularly small firms--and lower wage workers are more apt than others to work in small firms--often feel a connection to their bosses, with whom they often work closely. Restaurant workers often have the luxury of getting people to work their shifts, ect., which is what many people like. All of this shows me the value of the poll in challenging many commonly held assumptions.


Washington D.C.: So what's the answer to the big question: why do low-wage voters keep voting against their own interests (that is, of the few who seem to vote)?

Mike Fletcher: That is an interesting question, one we plan to probe more deeply as the series continues. One is I don't think people vote against their interests. They probably define them differently that you and I. I suspect all of that may have something to do with their views of the efficacy of government. More than half of the workers say government programs don't affect their lives one way or another. So I can imagine folks rolling their eyes as they listen to candidates talk about how program x or program y will help them.


Danbury, Conn.: I am planning to use the poll and your article from Sunday in my American Studies course on "The American Dream." Question #24 on the poll tells participants that the term "American Dream" is something they already understand. But what do you think the term means? And do you think everyone agrees on the meaning? Would the idea of the American Dream vary by class, race, or gender, in your opinion? Thanks -- fascinating work, and a great piece on Sunday! Sincerely, Martha May Associate Prof of History, Western CT State University, Danbury, CT

Jon Cohen: Good afternoon, and thanks so much.

In this instance we did not describe the "American dream" to people, leaving it up the respondents to interpret it for themselves. That way, they were able to rate their proximity to their own understanding of the term, not our pre-packaged notion.

We asked about the American dream in pre-survey focus groups, and the discussion was fascinating. While there were interesting differences, almost everyone in the groups focused their comments on prosperity, or financial security at the very least. There were differences by race and ethnicity; hopefully we can circle back to this important topic.


Washington, D.C.: I'm amazed by the great attitudes displayed by the people in your article. I travel a lot to Central America and I always notice that the people that have the least are the happiest. Maybe we can all learn that.

Mike Fletcher: I think you are on to something there. I have to think back no further than the experience of my own parents to gain some insight here. They worked all manner of jobs--garment worker, housekeeper, parking attendant, airport cargo worker, key punch operator, subway conductor--and my impression is they always took pride in their work and, yes, liked their jobs. They also always saw themselves as making progress economically, which I think stoked their optimism and fed their good attitudes.


Arlington, Va.: What made you decide to do this series?

Mike Fletcher: The Post and our partners at the Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University agreed that low-wage workers make up a big segment of our population that is often overlooked. Much of the political debate focuses on the "middle class." And to a much lesser degree, poverty is talked about. We wanted to draw a more complete portrait of this population that largely lives somewhere in between those two groups and see not only how this group was coping admid the economic downturn but also how it is faring in the new economy. Our national poll, which involved interviews with 1,350 people who earned under $27,000 last year and are between the ages of 18 and 64, did just that. People are struggling to get by, as we might have predicted. But they also are very optimistic, which is more surprising. The vast majority also likes or even loves their jobs, which I, for one, would not have guessed. They also do not have deep faith in the effectiveness of government programs. So the idea was to draw a nuanced potrait of these workers that gets beyond stereotypes and assumptions. We also hope to have the issues of this large group--nearly a quarter of the adult population--become a bigger part of the national debate.


Puget Sound, Wash.: I was really surprised to see a mortgage broker quoted in your overview article as representing a low wage worker. Granted, it's on commission and right now, the market stinks. But I certainly make less than $42K a year, the article's cutoff, and I have a job that requires a college education (reporting!). I've always felt I was working class and that my friends in social work, education and non-profits were working class, just with a college degree. We live/lived in working class neighborhoods, scrimp and save, have taken second jobs and do worry about health care and what would happen to us if we got too sick to work (the public school teachers among us stress less about that - unions). The same pressures that stress the traditional working class are trickling up. Also, we knew that we'd never get rich in our chosen careers, and we all love our jobs, and we are aware we have resources people without college degrees don't. It's just that the middle class equals a kind of security we don't have, that we have been told was abundant in our country and accessible through a college education. So I guess the question is, where is the line that divides the middle and working classes? Is it totally economic or is there a security component (health care, affording a house in the same area you live (big deal in D.C., right?), education)?

Jon Cohen: Thanks for the question Washington and comments. One quick clarification, for this project we interviewed people who made $27,000 or under in 2007; that corresponds roughly to the bottom 40 percent of the wage scale.

"Class" is a sometimes fuzzy concept, and I do think more than simple financial health is involved; that it includes other security concerns including benefits. When we asked people if they had to choose between a job with better pay but no health insurance or a job with health insurance but lower pay, nearly six in 10 would take the one with health care benefits.

In addition to the questions on class in our new poll, I'd recommend Pew's new study of the middle class.


San Jose, Calif.: It's no surprise that there is predominant element of doubt and suspicion among the special interest groups about any of the presidential candidates (McCain/Obama) being capable of honoring their pledges and implementing their plans for sorting out their problems despite predominant back-up for Obama. This can be understood in the background of utter failure of Bush over last eight years. However as the time passes more people get to understand that a set of positive traits which Obama possesses, enables a leader to deliver as per his/her promises.

Jon Cohen: Thanks for your perspective. The struggle both campaigns (McCain's more clearly) are having convincing these low-wage workers is stark. You're right that high disapproval of Pres. Bush's job performace presents a big obstacle for McCain and underlies some of these views. But both campaigns have some work to do persuading low-wage workers and others they'd be the better choice to lead an economic turnaround.


New York: I once worked in management at a very large corporation, which, to cut costs, instructed us to severely limit raises among the lowest-paid workers. Some of us protested, and company execs eventually thought better of the idea. I couldn't help but be reminded of this recently when Calif. Gov. Schwarzengger decreed that many state employees' wages should be cut back to minimum wage. This implies that those affected were already at the bottom of the wage scale. It makes me wonder whether these people are targeted because they don't complain or have few alternatives for employment.

Mike Fletcher: I think that they have the fewest options, the least leverage and are often the part of the workforce that is most replaceable. The irony is that many of their jobs are absolutely essential and require special qualities. Think of a good home health care worker. Or someone who works with kids in day care. Many of them are committed and effective workers. And while they may not be "high skilled" in the way we have come to think about that term, I think we can all agree that they have a capacity and a passion for a kind of work that many of us do not.


Bethesda, Md.: Do you think our perception of "working class" or "middle class" has changed over time? It seems to me that members of the working class used to be proud of their position in society, now it just seems like a hurdle to be overcome.

Jon Cohen: You make an important point. Most of those in our poll considered themselves to be "working class," and most thought it more likely that they would move up in terms of class than slip backward. A bright optimism shines through in many other questions as well, but that does not mean people are unhappy about thinking of themselves as working class, or any other. That would be a good area to focus on in future polls, thanks!


Jon Cohen: One of the keys to understanding the hopefulness that undergirds many of the findings was this question:

Which of these statements do you agree with more... Most people who want to get ahead can make it if they're willing to work hard OR hard work and determination are no guarantee of success for most people.

Nearly two-thirds opted for the first option.

What do you think - is that true in your experience? Are there any exceptions?


Good for you!: It's rare to see anyone in the major media actually pay any attention to this group. In fact, usually any coverage of the issues mentioned here comes from the perspective of the upper middle class and higher.

Free trade good! (Only "losers" complain)

Being concerned with the impact of illegal immigration is nativism! (Besides, you expect me to pay union wages for my kitchen remodel? How will I afford granite that way?)

Even this chat seems to address the lower income folks as some strange alien or foreign race who are viewed as an anthropological study.

It would be nice if the media could actually include the voices of those outside the well off, well educated folks who make up the bulk of the media. Of course, once you become successful you move into said class rapidly, and you end up as Tim Russert land, where you have the perspective of a millionaire but kid yourself that you still think like a working class kid.

Jon Cohen: Thanks for your comments, and apologies if our going through the numbers de-personalizes the subject. Our intention with the project is precisely the opposite. Too often in our discussion of national economic trends we lose focus on the simple fact that people's (financial) lives hang in the balance. We collected 1,350 randomly-selected individual voices to be able to represent the broader group, but also quoted several directly in the stories. And we'll be doing much more of that as we continue to report on this important topic.

Mike Fletcher: Thanks for your kind words. Like Jon, I'm sorry that some of our analysis may have dehumanized the people in this survey. One thing that is clear, is that the groups is not a "they" so much as an "us." People who earned under 27,000 dollars last year while working more than 30 hours accounted for about the bottom 40 percent of the wage distribution. Hopefully, you'll keep reading--and commenting--as this series progresses.


202: I grew up believing in the first option, that if I worked hard - I would get ahead. I'm only 25, and have worked extremely hard, and have had amazing advantages (being supported through my undergraduate and graduate educations) however I have discovered that despite my utter willingness to work hard to get ahead, the opportunities are not available. Like the poster who spoke about people with B.A.s working in the non-profit sector, I feel strong financial pressures. I feel that I was told if I worked hard, I couldn't help but get ahead, but often connections, large applicant pools, poor managers and other problems stand in the way of getting ahead by hard work alone.

Jon Cohen: here's one answer from the 202. . .


Washington, D.C.: Do you think America will ever start to value the work of, say, a nursing home worker over the value of the CEO of the company that makes the laundry detergent in meaningful monetary terms?

Jon Cohen: In terms of money, that is unlikely.

Mike Fletcher: I too think there is virtually no chance of that happening. It seems like money follows several streams--those who have a unique set of skills, have good leverage, can generate a lot of money in terms of sales or are perceived as contributing directly to the bottom line. The social value of what one does is way down on the list, at least when it comes to money. But, as they say, money is not everything.


Jon Cohen: Thanks so much for joining us today, please stay tuned for more from this project. And if you haven't already, you can take a version of the poll online, comparing your answers to those from all survey respondents as well as key demographic breakouts.


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