U.S. Jobs Growing, But Most Will Pay $15 or Less


December 14, 2015

This post was originally published by the San Francisco Chronicle on December 13, 2015. 
minimum wage rally living wage for allThe federal government issued new projections last week about the kinds of jobs that will be created over the next decade — and the news is not good for many of us. Sadly, the picture threw into stark relief the widening disconnect between upbeat reports on job growth and a glowing “future of work” on the one hand, and American workers’ decidedly downbeat mood on the other.

Although government and business leaders tout recent job creation and declining unemployment, the reality is that all too many new jobs in the United States pay wages that fail to provide workers or their families with a decent living.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projected 9.8 million new jobs will be created between 2014 and 2024. If you look at the 15 jobs with the largest numbers of openings, you’ll see that 12 of them typically pay less than $15 per hour; eight have median hourly wages of $12 or less. This wage puts a family of three squarely below the federal poverty level.

Few advancement prospects

Worse yet, these jobs come with few benefits or job security and offer little opportunity for career advancement. They are not exactly what most of us hope for ourselves or our children, and not exactly the jobs that will create a robust economy with a strong middle class.

Already 40 percent of American workers earn $15 an hour or less, according to former Labor Secretary Robert Reich. And he rightly points out that “most Americans are on a downward escalator in terms of incomes, wealth and job security.”

While “management” will see about half a million new high-wage, high-skilled jobs, middle-class jobs are dwindling. For example, production jobs — once the backbone of the middle class — are forecast to decline by 300,000.

This is not a surprise to the millions of Americans who viscerally feel that they are getting shafted in an economy that largely benefits the rich. Americans disagree on many things, but they overwhelmingly agree that the economy is in bad shape. Businesses worry that potential customers can’t afford their goods and services, according to a survey by the Center for American Progress. And the government takes a hit as well: Low wages mean lower tax revenues and higher government spending on public benefits for workers in poverty.

Four of the largest-growing jobs are in health care support. By 2024, America will have more than 800,000 additional personal-care and home-health aides; these jobs pay barely $10 an hour, are physically demanding, and typically require irregular hours. There will be 400,000 more medical and nursing assistants, who are paid only slightly more.

Fast-food and other restaurant jobs will grow by about a half million. These jobs hold perils from kitchens with grills fired up to 335 degrees to simple exhaustion. Typically paid around $10 per hour, restaurant workers are twice as likely as other workers to turn to food stamps and public-assistance programs, a UC Berkeley study found.

Rounding out this grim list are janitors, laborers, sales clerks and customer-service representatives, accounting for another million new jobs and paying low wages.

These are tough jobs, but they are also vital to our economy and our society, and should reward workers appropriately.

Although 28 states, including California, and San Francisco have minimum wages higher than the federal minimum wage — many only marginally higher — the federal wage of a paltry $7.25 per hour has not been raised since 2007. While California’s minimum will rise to $10 on Jan. 1, that hardly provides a good standard of living. One proposal by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., would raise the federal minimum to $12 by 2020 and benefit 35 million workers around the country, the Economic Policy Institute reports.

But Congress is stalling, even as poll after poll shows that voters of all parties strongly support raising the federal minimum wage, according to a survey by Oxfam America and Republican pollster McLaughlin Associates. Yet, partisan politics has made this a nonstarter, as most Republican presidential candidates steadfastly oppose an increase.

As a humanitarian organization, Oxfam has been fighting against poverty and economic injustice around the world, and we cannot turn a blind eye to the poverty and economic inequality that we find here at home.

We must take action to get out of this vicious cycle of low wages and struggling families, depressed consumption, and growing federal budget deficits.

Despite starry-eyed predictions about the “gig economy” and high tech defining the future of work, the reality is quite different. Most new workers will be lifting elderly patients, cooking french fries, and cleaning office buildings at night.

These jobs can offer dignity and fair compensation, and workers should have access to ladders of opportunity. We need to work to make sure these workers earn what they deserve. 

[Photo Credit: Michael Fleshman via Flickr]

Labor and Employment
living wage
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Poverty and Income