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KERA's One Crisis Away project focuses on North Texans living on the financial edge.

53 Million Americans Are Struggling To Escape Low-Wage Jobs


A new Brookings Institute report shows 53 million Americans are low-wage workers. Martha Ross, one of the report's authors, talked with KERA's Justin Martin about the struggles these workers face.


On defining a low-wage worker:

We looked at everyone who was 18 to 64 who had worked in the past year. We cut out some college students since they are less likely to depend on their jobs to support themselves and their families. we also cut out people who are self-employed.

Then to figure out what's the wage that marks someone who's low-wage worker from someone who's not, our national threshold was $16.03 an hour, which is two-thirds of the median wage of a full time, full year male worker.

But then, we adjusted it by place since places have such different costs of living. So in some places the threshold was about $12.50, and in other places it was up to $20. 

On black and latino workers earning less:

This study didn't get into it, but there's pretty convincing evidence of employment discrimination — not only in getting hired, but also in getting promoted once you are hired. 

When you look at who is low-wage worker by race, it's quite striking. A little bit more than half of all black workers are low-wage. About two-thirds of Hispanic or Latino workers are low-wage, and about 38% of white workers are low wage.

So although whites make up a slight majority of all low-wage workers, if you're a person of color, chances are greater that you're going to be a low-wage worker.

On the job prospects for low-wage workers:

It is tough. This is an unforgiving labor market for people who are stuck in low-wage jobs.

And this research didn't look at it, but other research has shown that the longer you're in a low wage job, the more likely you are to stay in it.

We have to think about the kinds of jobs that we're creating, who are they available to and what do they pay for? A lot of folks look around and they see jobs that make it hard to live and pay all their expenses. 

On the unemployment rate:

The unemployment rate is a bedrock way that we understand the labor market, but it's only one measure and looking at wages is another important piece of the puzzle. For decades, wages for people who have less than a bachelor's degree have either been stagnant or declining, and those figures aren't captured when you look just at job growth in the aggregate or unemployment in the aggregate.

People have so much more potential to be productive and constructive and contribute than they're able to channel into these jobs. I think it's contributing to a feeling of being demoralized among lots of these workers. They don't feel valued. They feel like their employers view them as replaceable. That's a hard place to be. 

Answers have been edited for clarity. 

Justin Martin is KERA’s local host of All Things Considered, anchoring afternoon newscasts for KERA 90.1. Justin grew up in Mannheim, Germany, and avidly listened to the Voice of America and National Public Radio whenever stateside. He graduated from the American Broadcasting School, and further polished his skills with radio veteran Kris Anderson of the Mighty 690 fame, a 50,000 watt border-blaster operating out of Tijuana, Mexico. Justin has worked as holiday anchor for the USA Radio Network, serving the U.S. Armed Forces Network. He’s also hosted, produced, and engineered several shows, including the Southern Gospel Jubilee on 660 KSKY.