A quarter of America’s workers are working full-time, year-round in occupations where they cannot expect to earn enough to keep a family of four above poverty.
That’s just one troubling takeaway of the latest Occupational Employment Statistics (OES) report, released yesterday by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
As far as data about occupations go, OES is, to put it mildly, a big deal. Released just once annually, it provides detailed estimates of employment and wages for over 800 occupations at the national, state, and local levels, based on a survey of 1.2 million business establishments carried out over a three-year period. It’s by far the most comprehensive portrait we have of who does what, where, and for how much. Policymakers, job seekers, and employers use its findings to better understand their options, opportunities, and challenges.
One finding should stand above the rest: the less-skilled segment of the job market is not a pretty place. And far more of us are stuck there than we acknowledge or would like to believe.
The figure below shows median wages for the 30 lowest-paying occupations with over 250,000 employees, which collectively employ 31 million people nationally. (The median is the wage right in the middle: half of the people in an occupation make less than it, and half make more. It’s a better measure of the typical worker’s experience than average wages, which can be skewed by a handful of high earners.)
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As you can see, it’s not a question of being poor, it’s a question of by how much. All of the occupations on the list have annual median wages that fall at or below the poverty level for a family of four ($24,250). At the very bottom are America’s 3.1 million food preparation workers, who earn just $18,410 annually. That’s $8.85 an hour. Not far removed from that are other prominent food service professions, including fast food cooks ($18,540), hostesses ($18,720), and waitresses ($18,730). (Note that the BLS measure of wages includes tips and commissions, but not overtime.)
None of this is particularly shocking. Restaurant work is pretty much the caricature of low-wage labor. And the other fields that dominate the bottom of the occupational wage distribution are similarly stereotypical: retail (such as cashiers, salespersons), home health care (personal care aides, home health aides), and maintenance (janitors, maids).
What is surprising is the vast landscape of low-paying jobs. As it turns out, America’s most common occupations are also are among its worst paying. Among the 10 largest occupations, 9 have median wages less than than the national median ($35,540). Half of the top 10 earn less than the family-of-four poverty level; indeed, the two largest occupations nationwide—retail salesperson (4.6 million) and cashier (3.4 million)—fall into this latter camp. Overall, 25 of the 40 largest occupations (each with employment of 700,000 or more) have below average median wages. And, as mentioned at the outset, fully 25 percent of the workforce (33.3 million people) have professions where median annual wages are below the poverty line for a family of four.
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Of course, you could argue that a family of four shouldn’t have a single breadwinner. But unfortunately, poverty in the United States isn’t generally a matter of preferences. Instead, it’s largely about households headed by single moms, as well as those afflicted by sickness, disability, or other types of bad luck that lead to unemployment or limited resources. In these cases, families have no choice except to depend on one source of income. Not all have one earner with three dependents, but many face similarly trying circumstances.
Indeed, there’s an even more basic—and disquieting—point here: adding an additional worker doesn’t improve the equation much. For the 45 million Americans who work in the nation’s lowest-paying occupations—a third of the workforce, if you’re keeping score—wages are so low that, even if their spouse was also employed 30 hours a week in the same occupation, the two of them together still would not make enough money to keep themselves and two children above twice the poverty line. Put differently, a third of American workers have occupations where 70 hours of weekly work at typical wages leaves them within striking distance of destitution. It’s like having a cushion made of paper towels. If anything goes wrong—one parent gets laid off, for example, or an elderly relative needs caretaking—the family is left sitting on the unforgiving wood floor.
Consider the case of food prep workers, the nation’s lowest paying occupation. For them, 70 hours of work at the median wage yields just $32,218 annually, or just 132 percent of poverty. It’s one thing to be poor if you choose not to work. But having two adults work 35 hours a week and still struggle to provide even a basic standard of living for their children is another thing entirely.
It’s also the case that the challenges faced by many American families are worse than the even the dismal data discussed here suggests. The median wage is, well, a median, which means that half the workers in a given occupation earn less. It’s also the case that the BLS medians assume 40 hours of work for 52 weeks a year—anything but a certainty, especially for those working less-skilled jobs with unpredictable schedules. Add it all up and it becomes clear than “poverty” and “work” are not discrete states of being, but instead entwined realities for many Americans.
Perhaps most shameful of all is that many of these working poor are hidden in plain sight. They’re the people pouring your coffee, delivering your takeout, and helping you pick out those new shoes. None of these occupations are glamorous, but they are all professions that, were they to disappear tomorrow, would make your life instantly less enjoyable and immeasurably more difficult.
Many of these jobs are simple, but that doesn’t mean they are easy. Many are commonplace, but that doesn’t make them dispensable. Rather, in our haste to dismiss basic as beneath us, we lose sight of the fact that what is basic is also fundamental, what is mundane is also essential. These jobs matter—they are the substance of simple pleasures, the foundation of daily joys—and they mean more to our interpersonal well-being than any amount of high-flying CEOs ever will. But by labeling its practitioners as “low skill,” we rationalize relegating them to near-poverty wages.
It’s time we changed things. Prospects for an increased federal minimum wage—let alone a living wage—are dim. That doesn’t mean we can’t take action. We can choose to patronize companies, such as Costco and Trader Joe’s, that treat their workers fairly. We can tip our waiters and our cleaning ladies generously. We can vote with our wallets.
And then we can vote with our votes, and send packing those politicians that treat poverty as a choice, or as a moral failing. Because, as the OES data show, for far too many Americans, hard work alone is not enough to get ahead. So long as their jobs are insufficient, ours is incomplete.