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Most of us have held low-wage jobs now and then. But what about the Americans—mostly women—who are stuck there for the long haul?
By Mary Babic, regional communications officer for Oxfam in the US.
Slicing cheese at a grocery store, scrubbing toilets in a dorm, making copies in a real estate office, walking dogs, changing diapers, cleaning houses… yes, I’ve worked my share of low-wage jobs. For days, weeks, months. Clock in, log the hours, clock out. Take a shower, sit down on the couch, fall asleep.
I actually enjoyed these jobs a lot. There is great satisfaction in doing a simple, necessary task well, and with other people. And the best thing about the work was the other workers. Most were women: moms and grandmas, intelligent, funny, resilient, enduring, and accepting.
In the world of dead-end jobs, I was a tourist. I wasn’t staying. I flew in, did the work, and then flew out. I had good luck: My folks were born poor, but got through college on the GI Bill and scholarships, secured solid middle-class jobs back when they paid enough to enable you to buy a house and save for college and retirement. They sent me to college and then grad school. I’ve worked these jobs, throughout my life, as a way to keep alive for a while and tide me over.
But these women are not going anywhere. They stay, and they work, harder and harder every year, for wages that decline in value every year. And they bid goodbye to me, and people like me, with a resigned wave and goodwill. They know they do good work, day after day, and they know they keep things going: schools, nursing homes, cafeterias, restaurants, offices. They play the role of mothers everywhere, taking care of people and institutions: organizing and washing and cooking and soothing and fixing. (That women’s work is undervalued is a thorny reality; why it’s undervalued is a question with deeper roots.)
The American low-wage work force (folks making less than $11.50 an hour) is full of these women. It’s 55 percent female, and the average age is 35. Almost half of these women have dependent kids at home. And their kids often inherit the same kind of workplace, continuing the cycle.
Why? Because, despite their hard work, the pay is just too low. If you make the minimum wage ($7.25 an hour) and you work 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year, you make a little over $15,000 a year. That’s about $4,000 below the US poverty line for a family of three.
How can you sustain a family—rent, medical costs, food, transportation, clothes—on that income? How can you have any hope of investing in the things that provide a ladder of upward mobility, like education, for yourself or your kids; a car, to give you time and flexibility; or retirement funds? An Oxfam America poll of low-wage workers last summer found that most have to do something else to make ends meet: credit card debt, pawn shops, food stamps, loans from family or friends.
This situation is so different from my parents’ day, when they worked hard and managed to pay the bills and save and find their way through college. And sadly, it grows worse every year. The real value of the minimum wage today is perilously low compared to its high point in 1968 (real value then was $10.69 an hour, over half the average wage, and above the poverty line for a family of three). The federal minimum wage has not gone up since 2007; that’s seven years of increases in every piece of the cost of living, with no increase in pay.
Today, Oxfam America is launching an effort to convince Congress to raise the federal minimum wage. Our newest study found that increasing the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour would benefit 25 million American workers and their families. It would lift more than 5 million Americans out of poverty and help 14 million children see a boost in their family income. Almost 14 million women—including close to 6 million working mothers—would get a raise. Three million single parents would be better able to sustain their families. (In addition, a bump in the minimum would save taxpayer dollars now going to government benefits like food stamps, and fuel economic growth at a time when we need it.)
To illustrate the reality of the low-wage work force, we created this new interactive online map . Explore it and learn more about the people behind these low-wage jobs. Then use the site to take action, and tweet your Members of Congress and tell them it’s well past #TimeforaRaise.
When it comes to low-wage work, some of us are just passing through. Others are stuck there for the long haul. Raising the minimum wage would help all of us take care of each other, reward hard work, and make our society and economy healthier for everyone.