The Working Poor

Felix Salmon shows us a bar chart illustrating how the percentage of working families making less than 200% of the poverty level (that’s $44,100 for a family of four) has grown over the last seven years. The obvious observations are that the scale of the graph hides the fact that number has grown by 10% over the period and that the statistics is meaningless unless normed by cost of living in various parts of the country. $44,100 for a family of four isn’t much in New York City. It’s half again the median income in Jackson, Mississippi.

To cast a little light on this subject let’s drill down a bit and look at the characteristics of those earning minimum wage. The average person earning minimum wage is 24 years of age or younger, is white, works in the food service sector (e.g. McDonald’s), and, typically, lives in the South. More than half have at most a high school education and nearly a quarter don’t even have that while about a third have some college or an associates degree. Indeed, 75% of those earning the minimum wage have a high school diploma or above.

The conclusions I’d draw are these:

  1. There are no policies currently in place that are likely to do much for those who don’t graduate from high school. Education policy won’t reach them.
  2. Graduating more from college alone won’t do much about the situation, either. If policy focused more on real, marketable skills, maybe. The way it is now? Fuggedaboutit.
  3. Poverty isn’t solely a factpr of race. It is in part but race is not the only factor or even the most important factor.
  4. 150 years after the American Civil War the South remains blighted.
  • 7 comments… add one
    • PD Shaw Link

      I’d guess the median starting salary for lawyers in many parts of the country is under $44k. I don’t see a BLS breakdown, but the median national starting salary for government lawyers is $50k. I’m assuming in Jackson, MS it’s much lower.

    • john personna Link

      The graph here called “Household Net Worth as Percentage of Disposable Personal Income” tells another part of the story.

      Pretty much everyone below median income saved, if they saved at all, using home equity as their vehicle of choice.

      Combine that with even a small decrease in lower quintile incomes … and you have a snapshot of this disaster.

    • Jimbino Link

      Austin, Texas is part of the South and is in no way “blighted,” unless you are referring to our socialist city council.

    • I understand that the economy is absolutely booming in Washington, DC, also a Southern city.

    • steve Link

      “I understand that the economy is absolutely booming in Washington, DC, also a Southern city.”

      Yes. As we know, our most productive, hardest working members of society make the most money.


    • PD Shaw Link

      From what I’ve observed, Jackson, MS is booming compared to the rest of MS. I’m not sure what the connection might be.

    • I’ve lived in DC and I’ve lived in the South. DC isn’t southern. At best it’s like Florida – mostly transplants.

      On the Felix Salmon chart, that doesn’t surprise me at all considering incomes and job growth have been flat for the past decade.

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