CHICAGO’S LOW-WAGE WORKFORCE IS GROWING AND TRANSFORMING RAPIDLY
New report shows that of the nearly 1/3 (31.2 %) of Chicago’s employed now depend on low-wage jobs to support a household; the majority are over the age of 30 and one in three have completed at least some college.
CHICAGO —A new study finds that Chicago’s low wage work has changed in recent years, becoming older, more educated, more white and more male—challenging common stereotypes about workers at the bottom of the economic ladder. And the majority of these workers rely upon their wages from these positions to support the basic needs of their households—and not for disposable income.
The report “Chicago’s Growing Low-Wage Workforce: A Profile of Falling Labor Market Fortunes,” authored by Marc Doussard, assistant professor of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, was prepared for Action Now Institute (ANI) and Women Employed (WE). It finds that nearly one out of three of Chicago’s employed now work in low-wage jobs earning too little to support an individual, let alone a family, without relying on public assistance or charity. The majority (57.4%) of Chicago’s low-wage workers are now over the age of 30, over 1/3 (34.7%) have attended at least some college, and over 1/2 (56.7%) live in households getting all of their income from low-wage jobs.
Amie Crawford, a 56-year-old former interior designer now working at a quick service restaurant for minimum wage exemplifies this change. “At this age I had planned to be coasting towards retirement after more than 30 years of honing my craft and advancing in my profession, I am now eating into the little savings I have left as I struggle to live on minimum wage. No health insurance or benefits of any kind. If business is slow I don’t work, no pay, end of story.”
The report defines low-wage workers as earning $12 per hour or less, or $24,000 per year, according to the Illinois self-sufficiency standard what is necessary to meet the basic needs of a single adult without public assistance. Based on this standard, the report concludes that not only minimum wage jobs but all low-wage jobs are inadequate to pay for basic necessities such as rent, food, transportation and clothing for most workers, particularly those trying to support families. “Hard working individuals should be able to earn enough working full time to support their families,” says Katelyn Johnson, Executive Director of Action Now and Action Now Institute, “the increase of low-wage jobs is not just hurting families but devastating Chicago’s communities.
Doussard’s research indicates that the growth and demographic changes in Chicago’s low wage workforce over the last ten years are the result of a long trend beginning with weak job growth, de-unionization and erosion of the value of minimum wage during the “2000s boom” (2001-2007). Doussard points to this as “a disturbing reminder that an increasing amount of the population does everything right and doesn’t get the material rewards we expect from work.”
The report also finds that Chicago’s low-wage workforce has become whiter and more male. Women and non-white workers have always been over-represented in low-wage jobs, and remain a disproportionately large portion of the low-wage workforce today. However, the evidence suggests that the addition of more men and white workers competing for low-wage jobs has displaced some women and African American workers out of the labor market altogether.
“Families aren’t supplementing core income with low-wage earnings anymore,” says WE Director of Equal Opportunity Policy Melissa Josephs. “The typical low-wage job is now held by the breadwinner, and for women who are supporting families, this is simply not enough to keep everyone clothed and fed. And when women are forced out of even low-paying jobs, we’re facing a real problem that can’t be ignored.”
The report concludes that the growing problem of low-wage work is creating an economic crisis for families and communities in Chicago and across the country, and it requires a multi-point response, beginning with an increase in Illinois’ minimum wage.
This would not only benefit workers by putting spending money directly into families’ pockets, but it would save employers money by increasing productivity and reducing turnover, and would benefit the economy by enhancing consumer demand. Doussard urges policy makers to act on other steps such as living wage ordinances, paid sick time, and enforcement of fair labor standards laws to address the damage low wages are inflicting on Chicago’s families, economic health, and future prospects.
About Marc Doussard
Marc Doussard is Assistant Professor in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
About Action Now Institute
Action Now Institute (ANI) strengthens the voices of people in less-advantaged communities through leadership development, civic engagement and direct outreach. More information is available at www.actionnowinstitute.org, or join the conversation by following us @ANInstitute or liking us on Facebook.
About Women Employed
Women Employed is a 39-year-old non-profit organization that promotes fair workplace practices, helps increase access to training and education, and provides women with innovative tools and information to move into careers paying family-supporting wages. For more information, visit www.womenemployed.org, or follow us on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.
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