Working Poor People in the United States

written by Catherine An
September 6, 2011
It’s a week about employment. Yesterday, the country celebrated Labor Day (the federal holiday intended to honor the economic and social contributions of workers ) and the country is awaiting President Obama’s jobs speech which is slated for this Thursday (after quite a hullaballoo). While we’ve been plagued with worries about the high rate of unemployment for years now, we haven’t acknowledged the hurdles that poor employed people face. As New York Times contributor Paul Osterman asked in an editorial yesterday, “yes, we need jobs, but what kind?” Osterman astutely points out that despite job growth in Texas, many people are still struggling to make ends meet as the jobs that were created were low-wage and unskilled. Late last year, the Alliance highlighted a similar point in Economy Byte: Working Poor People in the United States brief. Nearly six percent of the general working population live at or below the federal poverty line and nearly 20 percent of all poor people work. Though they might be employed, their economic fragility leaves that at elevated risk of experiencing homelessness. Worth noting, I think, are the federal poverty levels definitions:
Persons in Family 48 Contiguous States and D.C.
1 $10,890
2 $14,710
3 $18,530
4 $22,350
Given these poverty levels, it’s no wonder that that any individual or family living at or below the federal poverty level is at risk of homelessness. With so little income, any unplanned or unexpected expense could cripple a household. As we discussed in the brief, there are some specific challenges that poor people face that are indicators for homelessness: severe housing cost burden (paying 50+ percent of monthly income on housing) and doubled up living situations (living with extended family, friends, or other non-relatives due to economic hardship), volatile occupations (including service and retail sector jobs), and tenuous work relationships (studies show working poor people work less than their non-poor counterparts). Combined with low earnings, these factors lead to higher risk of homelessness for working poor people. (For more information about this Economy Byte, please reference a previous blogpost.) As the country moves the discussion about jobs further this Thursday, let’s not forget to attend to the needs and challenges of people at the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum. Employment should help people move towards economic freedom, self-sufficiency, and more opportunities; together, we can work to make sure it does.