Low Wage Work

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History Of Low Wage Work

For generations, Americans shared a tacit understanding that if you worked hard, a livable income and basic securities would be yours. That promise has been broken. Today, more than 30 million men and women in this country work in jobs that pay poverty wages and provide few if any benefits.

A large body of research amassed over the past decade clearly demonstrates that the structural changes to the U.S. economy over the past 20 years resulting from globalization, industry deregulation and the computerization of the workforce have led to harsh working conditions, reduced benefits, and fewer opportunities for advancement for workers in low-wage jobs.

Workers in low-wage jobs are the least likely to be provided health care coverage for themselves and their families; they cannot afford the premiums on their own, so most do without. Sick pay, family leave and retirement benefits are virtually nonexistent. Their jobs leave these workers little flexibility to care for their children, quality childcare during "regular" business hours is unaffordable for most, and finding childcare during their many nighttime shifts is an even greater challenge.

Low-wage workplaces are often physically damaging and emotionally degrading. High injury rates and unsafe conditions plague these locations, compounding the risks for workers without health insurance. With few opportunities for training or advancement, most are locked into these low-wage jobs. That these conditions continue to erode Americans' most cherished values of fairness, personal responsibility, hard work and perseverance, and sends the message that work does not pay. Failure to address this issue not only hurts these workers' families, it erodes the functioning of American's communities, its economy and our very notion of what democracy can achieve.

The Story of Low-Wage Work

Following World War II, economic growth in the United States meant a shared prosperity as tens of millions of American workers moved into an emerging middle class. Starting in the mid-1970s, however, real wages stopped growing and even declined for certain groups in the labor force. This was a marked reversal from the postwar economic boom. In fact, the fortunes of those in the bottom rungs of the labor market declined drastically. Between 1973 and 1993, the real income of the lowest 20th percent of workers fell nearly 12 percent.

Today, one out of four workers in the United States holds a job that pays less than $8.70 an hour (around $18,100 per year working full-time), which is the official poverty line for a family of four. Most experts estimate that it takes double that amount for families to make ends meet. Although the United States still leads the world in overall prosperity and productivity, the American way of organizing work and rewarding workers no longer provides many hardworking families a piece of the American dream.

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