Working and poor in the United States

                    By Debra Watson
                    "Working Hard But Staying Poor: A National Survey of the Working
                    Poor and Unemployed" is the latest in the "Work Trends" series, a
                    quarterly report compiled by researchers at Rutgers University and the
                    University of Connecticut. Published in late July 1999, the report
                    presents a picture of a daily struggle for simple survival among large
                    numbers of workers, as well as a steady increase social inequality in the

                    Since the last recession in 1991, "despite high productivity, low inflation,
                    low unemployment, and a booming stock market, the large gap between
                    rich and poor begun in the 1980s has widened," the report states. The
                    academic researchers point to the "current heated economy which has
                    produced a plenitude of jobs." They show that the wages of lower
                    income workers have, in fact, stagnated or declined during what they
                    characterize as the longest peacetime economic expansion in history. "If
                    the economy slows and unemployment levels start to rise, earnings for
                    low-skill workers may further deteriorate," they note.

                    Today a greater number and a greater percentage of US workers
                    maintain regular jobs while living in daily destitution than did 20 years
                    ago. In 1979, with an unemployment rate over 7 percent nationwide, the
                    poverty rate among all workers was 5.7 percent. In 1996, while
                    unemployment had dropped below 5 percent, the poverty rate among all
                    workers actually rose to 6.7 percent. During that same period, the
                    number of families with children in which a parent worked while the
                    family remained poor rose dramatically, from 2.2 million to 3.6 million. In
                    1996, 15.1 million people lived in a family whose income was below the
                    federal poverty line and had at least one working parent.

                    Unlike other studies that have focused on the poor in government poverty
                    programs, such as welfare or Medicaid, this study concentrated on the
                    broader working poor and unemployed population. The survey was
                    compiled from a national sample of 500 adults. About three-fourths (72
                    percent) of the respondents in the study reported household earnings of
                    $25,000 a year or less. While 15 percent of the national sample were
                    unemployed, nearly one-third of those surveyed had incomes below the
                    official poverty line.

                    In 1964 the government's poverty level was arbitrarily set at three times
                    the estimated cost of modest food purchase requirements for a family.
                    The official rate is now below the amount required for basic necessities,
                    and far below what is needed to function adequately in society. Families
                    with incomes at various levels up to twice the rate can be eligible for
                    minimal supplemental resources provided by states and the federal
                    government via means-tested assistance programs.

                    In 1997 there were approximately 34,859,520 families with an income
                    under $25,000 a year, or roughly twice the poverty level. The typical
                    employed person labeled by the researchers as “working poor” (with an
                    income below 200 percent of the federal poverty level) is a far cry from
                    the common stereotype. She is a single white woman between 30 and 49
                    years old who works one full-time job 40 hours a week. She has held the
                    job for at least a year and has a child under the age of 18. Minorities
                    make up 45 percent of the working poor.

                    Most of these low-paid workers have been on their jobs more than a
                    year and 42 percent have been in the job for more than three years.
                    Despite this relative employment stability, almost half have no paid
                    vacation days and another 18 percent have a week or less of paid
                    vacation each year.

                    The survey of the working poor provides a further glimpse of the daily
                    struggle tens of millions of families in the US must go through to provide
                    for their children. Eighty-seven percent of the respondents reported they
                    are concerned about earning enough money to support their family, 55
                    percent reported having difficulty paying all their bills, and 72 percent
                    indicated they were concerned about personal job security.

                    In a key section of the report, entitled "The Technology Gap: Will the
                    Working Poor be Ready for the 21st Century?" the researchers assert
                    that "in addition to the well-documented wage gap, a serious and growing
                    technology gap is emerging." More than three-fourths of better-paid
                    workers use a computer at work or school compared to half of the
                    working poor and unemployed, and only 42 percent of those living below
                    the poverty line. Three-fourths of the “working non-poor” have access to
                    a computer at home; less than a third of those below the poverty line
                    have access.

                    The report concludes that the working poor and unemployed are
                    working harder, but are falling further behind. Most of those surveyed
                    reported needing an additional $200 per month to meet their family's
                    needs. But researchers point out that this amount of money would require
                    a substantial increase in hours worked at low wages, approximately one
                    additional workweek per month.

                    The report concludes by outlining a series of moderate proposals,
                    including raising the minimum wage and providing additional job training,
                    daycare facilities and low-cost transportation to suburbs where many
                    jobs have relocated. It is a measure of how far the political establishment
                    has moved to the right over the last three decades that such limited
                    reforms are not even seriously considered in Washington today, where
                    political debate centers on how many billions more in tax breaks will be
                    provided for the affluent.