Poverty is not isolated to families where adults are unemployed or underemployed. According to 2011 data from the National Center for Children in Poverty, 33% of children living in poverty in Oklahoma have at least one parent who works full-time, year-round.
Oklahoma also has one of the highest proportions of hourly paid workers earning at or below the federal minimum wage in the country, at 7.2%. Only Idaho and Texas have higher rates. And escaping poverty level wages is not as easy as applying for a new job. The Alliance for a Just Society released a report December 4th that found,
“For every projected job opening above a low-wage threshold of $15 an hour, there were 7 job-seekers in 2012.”
Furthermore, while jobs lost during the Great Recession were not exclusive to any one sector, a 2012 report from the National Employment Law Project confirms most job losses were concentrated in mid-wage occupations. In contrast, the recovery has seen gains in the number of lower-wage occupations.
Low-wage occupations that increased during and after the recession include “retail salespersons, food preparation workers, laborers and freight workers, waiters and waitresses, personal and home care aides,” as well as office clerks and customer representatives.
Nationwide, three-fifths of people working at or below minimum wage are service workers, mostly in food preparation and food service jobs. The conventional wisdom used to be that most front line workers in the food industry are teenagers. This fact may well be outdated.
Yes, in 1994, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) stated fast food employees were mostly teenagers working part-time who were on the job less than 1 year. However, the median age of fast food workers is now around 29 years old, according to the BLS. And the median wage nationwide for Combined Food Preparation and Serving Workers, including Fast Food workers, is $8.78 an hour.
In Oklahoma, an estimated 28,650 people are employed in the Combined Food Preparation and Serving Workers industry. The BLS lists the average annual income for Oklahoman in this industry as $17,650, meaning many food service workers have incomes falling well below this average amount. For a single parent with two children, $17,560 puts a family at about 90% of the poverty level. And MIT’s “Living Wage Calculator” estimates a single parent of two children living in Tulsa County needs an hourly wage of $21.99 in order to cover estimated annual expenses of $45,736.
For a single person with no children in Oklahoma, the average wage of a food service worker comes out to about 154% of the poverty level. In this case, the Living Wage Calculator says a single worker needs an hourly wage of $8.45 to cover an estimated $17,566 in expenses. So fast food wages may cover a single worker’s expenses, but does not offer much of an opportunity to get ahead and for those whose wages fall below the average it almost certainly spells financial trouble.
And one more fact to consider when addressing the issue of low-wage jobs is this; not everyone enjoys the protection of a mandated minimum wage, as provided for in the Fair Labor Standards Act. John Light, writing for Moyers and Company in July of this year, points out that while around 1.5 million people make minimum wage in America, there are nearly 2 million people earning less than minimum wage.
- To see NPR’s coverage of low-wages, check out “Why A ‘Living’ Wage Doesn’t Add Up.”
- The Economic Policy Institute has recent reports on the issue on their website as well: “Low-wage Workers are Older Than You Think” and “Raising the Federal Minimum Wage to $10.10 Would Lift Wages for Millions and Provide a Modest Economic Boost.“