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
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.