High Anxiety As Americans Grapple with Low Wages
Life + Money

High Anxiety As Americans Grapple with Low Wages

Getty Images, iStockphoto, TFT

As we approach the fifth Thanksgiving since the Great Recession officially ended in June 2009, the U.S. economic recovery remains a troubling work in progress. Many Americans – especially low-income families – are struggling with mounting financial uncertainty and stress.

More than six in 10 workers surveyed in a recent Washington Post-Miller Center poll worry that will lose their jobs in this economy. This exceeds concerns voiced in more than a dozen surveys dating back to the 1970s, according to a Washington Post report on Tuesday. Job insecurity, not surprisingly, has always been greater among low-income people than the middle class and wealthy. Yet the recent levels of concern among lower income Americans and the poor is heading into unprecedented territory.

Fifty-four percent of workers making $35,000 or less now worry “a lot” about losing their jobs, compared with 37 percent of lower income workers in 1992 and an identical number in 1975, according to surveys by Time magazine, CNN and Yankelovich, a market research firm. What’s more, a stunning 85 percent of lower-paid workers say they fear that their families’ income will not be enough to meet expenses, which is up 25 points from a 1971 survey asking the same question, according to The Post

Related:  Why Economic Insecurity Hits 80 Percent of Americans

“You’ve got an unprecedented time of uncertainty,” Diana G. Carew, an economist with the Progressive Policy Institute, said Tuesday. “What I’ve uncovered in my research is that you’ve got a bigger break because of the hollowing out of middle-skill jobs” – a trend that has added to the woes of lower-income people and made it more difficult for them to meet their financial obligations.

“When you go into the holiday season and there’s an expectation they’re going to have to spend more money when their discretionary income is already tighter than it’s been [because of wage stagnation], they’re going to have some reservations about what’s in store,” she added. The combination of persistently high unemployment and stagnant or declining wages – especially among young people – is fueling the nation’s collective unease. The unemployment rate is still relatively high at 7.3 percent and there are still 11 million Americans looking for work. Adjusting for inflation, average household incomes for the poorest 40 percent of workers have fallen steadily – by more than 10 percent – since 2000, according to The Washington Post.

There were other related developments as the nation prepares for another Thanksgiving Day celebration:

  • Wal-Mart workers and their backers are planning protests at 1,500 Wal-Mart stores on Black Friday – the traditional start of the holiday shopping season – to  draw attention to the plight of Wal-Mart workers, who complain  they are underpaid, given less than full-time hours and receive few benefits. Last year, hundreds of Wal-Mart workers walked off the job in 46 states on Black Friday.

    Related: Wal-Mart Increasingly Turns to Temp Workers

    This comes as company veteran Doug McMillon is about to succeed Mike Duke as Wal-Mart’s CEO. The giant retailer has been hit with job actions in recent weeks, including walkouts in Miami and Tampa. Protesters used the occasion of a change in company leadership  to renew their call for higher pay and better benefits, according to The Post. “Last week, the National Labor Relations Board’s general counsel found that Wal-Mart unlawfully threatened to retaliate against employees if they engaged in Black Friday strikes this week – as the company did last year.

  • Ron Unz, a Silicon Valley millionaire and publisher of The American Conservative, a libertarian-leaning magazine, is pursuing a goal that has long stymied liberals: raising the minimum wage.  
    Unz plans to spend his own money on a  ballot initiative to increase the minimum wage in California to $10 an hour in 2015 and $12 in 2016, which would make it by far the highest in the nation, according to The New York Times. Currently, the state minimum wage is $8 an hour, or 75 cents higher than the federal minimum.

    Related: Obama Asks Congress to Raise Minimum Wage to $9

    President Obama called for raising the minimum wage during his last State of the Union address, but so far that proposal has gone nowhere in Congress.  So why is Unz pushing for an increase? He contends that significantly raising the minimum wage would help curb government spending on social services, strengthen the economy and make more jobs attractive to American-born workers.
    “There are so many very low-wage workers, and we pay for huge social welfare programs for them,” Unz told The Times.

  • Just one day before Thanksgiving, the Los Angeles City Council is considering imposing a ban on the feeding of homeless people in public spaces, according to a New York Times report. That’s in response to complaints from residents that homeless people were loitering in their neighborhoods.
    The Greater West Hollywood Food Coalition, which has been feeding the poor and homeless for more than a quarter of a century, is under fire by residents for encouraging the encampment of homeless people drawn by the promise of free food in open areas.
    If LA enacts an ordinance to ban such activities, it would join more than 30 cities, including Philadelphia, Raleigh, N.C., Seattle and Orlando, that have adopted or debated some form of legislation intended to restrict the public feeding of the homeless, according to data prepared by the National Coalition of the Homeless.

Top Reads from The Fiscal Times: