Working and Poor in the USA | The Nation


Working and Poor in the USA

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In 1962 Michael Harrington stirred the conscience of the nation with the publication of The Other America. He reminded a country basking in the glow of postwar prosperity that poverty was alive and well. Harrington revealed the struggles of invisible millions living in passed-over regions of the country and the economy--in Appalachia, the South, in rural America. They were caught in dying towns and industries, shunted off the main tracks of the economy into unemployment, and left to fester in idleness and despair. In a word, they were outlanders, watching as the rest of the country went to work and thrived. The nation spent the remainder of the century wrestling with this sort of jobless poverty, expanding and then contracting the welfare state as it experimented with different ways of dealing with a population cut off from the economic mainstream.

About the Author

Beth Shulman
Beth Shulman is a lawyer and consultant focusing on work-related issues and author of The Betrayal of Work: How Low-...

These forms of poverty persist, and the country is still arguing about what to do with its welfare recipients. But the great secret of America is that a vast impoverished population has grown up in our midst. These are not Americans who have been excluded from the world of work; in fact, they make up the core of much of the new economy. And it is estimated that low-wage jobs will make up 30 percent of the economy by the end of this decade.

Thirty million Americans make less than $8.70 an hour, the official US poverty level for a family of four. (Most experts estimate that it takes at least double this level for a family to provide for its basic needs.) Their low-wage, no-benefits jobs translate into billions of dollars in profits, executive pay, high stock prices and low store prices.

Who are they? They are all around us in jobs essential to our lives. Low-wage workers are security guards and childcare givers. They are nursing-home workers and retail clerks. They are hospital orderlies and teachers' assistants. They are hotel workers and pharmacy technicians. They bone the chicken that we eat, clean the office buildings where we work and handle our questions and complaints at call centers.

Yet few express outrage about the plight of these workers. There is a reigning American mythology that blunts any concern: that holding a low-wage job is a temporary situation, that mobility and education and time will solve whatever problem exists.

The evidence, however, contradicts this myth. Most low-wage workers will never move up the ladder into the middle class. Economics professors Peter Gottschalk of Boston College and Sheldon Danziger of the University of Michigan found that about half of those whose family income ranked in the bottom 20 percent in 1968 were still in the same group in 1991. Of those who had moved up, nearly three-fourths remained below the median income. The US economy provides less mobility for low-wage earners, according to an Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development study, than the economies of France, Italy, Britain, Germany, Denmark, Finland and Sweden.

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