Low Pay: Underbelly of the Beast

Issue section: 

Chanie Rosenberg looks at a new book exposing the scandal of the US working poor.

In the richest country in the world, the US, the working poor number 30 million and, with the families they struggle to support, millions more.

A low wage job in the US is one insufficient to meet the basic needs of the workers' families. But inadequate wages are only the beginning. Low wage jobs also mean few or no benefits, rigid schedules, late night shifts, unsafe and unhealthy conditions, and lack of respect. It is this 'piling on' that makes low wage jobs not just quantatively different than better paying jobs, but qualitatively different.

Beth Shulman's book The Betrayal of Work: How Low-Wage Jobs Fail 30 Million Women focuses on jobs that pay between $5 and $9 per hour (£4.12 and £5.62). $8.70 (£5.44) is the hourly wage for a 40-hour working week for a family of four that is the government-defined poverty level. This amounts to just $18,100 (£11,312) per year for a family of two adults and two children.

While the bottom 10 percent of American workers earn just 37 percent of the US median wage, similar workers in other industrialised countries such as Germany earn 60-76 percent of their country's median wage. Furthermore, other industrialised countries provide healthcare, childcare and education to their citizens. Americans must to a large extent pay for these services out of their own pockets.

There are many other aspects of work and life outside work which disadvantage the low paid millions. In 1995 less than half of low paid workers were offered health insurance by their employer, in contrast to over 80 percent of workers making over $40,000 per annum (£25,000). Part time workers fare even worse - only 13 percent of female and 20 percent of male part timers get employer-provided healthcare coverage.

Over 75 percent of cashiers, food preparation workers, nursing aides, orderlies and attendants, retail sales personnel and waitresses work non-standard hours, exposing them to added health risks, more violence and accidents, and more expensive and less available childcare. While close to half of workers with young children can take paid time off for a sick child, only one third of low paid parents enjoy this 'privilege'. While 80 percent of full time American workers get paid holidays and vacations, only 10 percent of the workers in the bottom 10 percent do.

Childcare takes nearly a quarter of low paid workers' wages, as opposed to only 6 percent of the earnings of families taking in $50,000 or more, causing much juggling of work times, with a third of dual-earner couples working split shifts, creating pressures that fuel divorce rates three to six times the national rate.

Low wage jobs are often unsafe and are getting more so. For instance, poultry workers repeat the same cut on chickens speeding along a conveyor belt as many as 40,000 times a day - a bird and a half per second, eight hours a day in cold temperatures, causing permanent damage to hands, shoulders and wrists. One in five suffered a serious injury in 1995, double the rate of ten years before. Nursing aides suffer more injuries to their backs than all construction trade workers put together. Call centre workers suffer from depression, extreme anxiety, headaches, back pain, shoulder soreness and stiff or sore wrists.

The low income situation affects the country's 'democracy', with voting in elections declining most sharply in low wage families; leads to much lower marriage and higher divorce rates and domestic violence; reduces taxes required for spending in poor areas; and increases alcoholism, drug addiction and crime, leading to staggeringly high prison incarceration rates compared to other industrialised countries. Overall the entire society suffers poorer health and lower life expectancy than almost all other wealthy countries.

And the situation is not improving - rather the opposite, with other countries adopting neoliberal policies, becoming more like the US. And the low wage workers themselves, non- or poorly unionised, have little conceived power to change their situation. Deregulation at home and globalisation of employment markets put power into the hands of the bosses.

This makes the feeblest part of this very useful and powerful book its prescriptions for overcoming low pay. It talks of 'a compact with working Americans that establishes the obligations and responsibilities of employers and government to workers. This compact has a simple and clear purpose: workers should be assured that if they work hard they will be treated fairly and have the resources to provide for themselves and their families.' A series of tried reformist measures are then proposed, which have led to at most small, local, partial improvements which have not prevented a decline, or at best hold, over the years. The book cries out for admitting - but does not admit - that the only sure way of getting rid of low pay is getting rid of the system which causes and preserves it - the capitalist system.

The Betrayal of Work by Beth Shulman,
The New Press £17.85