Working for a Pittance

By BOB HERBERT

New York Times

October 9, 2004

Reality keeps rearing its ugly head. The Bush administration's case for the war in Iraq has completely fallen apart, as evidenced by the report this week from the president's handpicked inspector that Iraq had destroyed its illicit weapons stockpiles in the early 1990's.

Coming next week are the results of a new study that shows - here at home - how tough a time American families are having in their never-ending struggle to put food on the table and keep a roof over their heads. The White House, as deep in denial about the economy as it is about Iraq, insists that things are fine - despite the embarrassing fact that President Bush is on track to become the first president since Herbert Hoover to preside over a net loss of jobs during his four years in office.

The study, jointly sponsored by the Annie E. Casey, Ford and Rockefeller Foundations, will show that 9.2 million working families in the United States - one out of every four - earn wages that are so low they are barely able to survive financially.

"Our data is very solid and shows that this is a much bigger problem than most people imagine," said Brandon Roberts, one of the authors of the report, which is to be formally released on Tuesday. The report found that there are 20 million children in these low-income working families.

For the purposes of the study, any family in which at least one person was employed was considered a working family. Very wealthy families were included.

The median income for a family of four in the U.S. is $62,732. According to the study, a family of four earning less than $36,784 is considered low-income. A family of four earning less than $18,392 is considered poor. The 9.2 million struggling families cited by the report fell into one of the latter two categories. And those families have one-third of all the children in American working families.

Not surprisingly, the problem for millions of families is that they have jobs that pay very low wages and provide no benefits. "Consider the motel housekeeper, the retail clerk at the hardware store or the coffee shop cook," the report said. "If they have children, chances are good that their families are living on an income too low to provide for their basic needs."

Neither politicians nor the media put much of a spotlight on families that are struggling economically. According to the study, one in five workers are in occupations where the median wage is less than $8.84 an hour, which is a poverty-level wage for a family of four. A full-time job at the federal minimum wage of $5.15 an hour is not even sufficient to keep a family of three out of poverty.

Families with that kind of income are teetering on the edge of an economic abyss. Any misfortune might push them over the edge - an illness, an automobile breakdown, even something as seemingly minor as a flooded basement.

For the families in these lower-income brackets, life is often a harrowing day-to-day struggle to pay for the bare necessities. According to federal government statistics, the median annual rent for a two-bedroom apartment in major metropolitan markets is more than $8,000. The annual cost of food for a low-income family of four is nearly $4,000. Utility bills are nearly $2,000. Transportation costs are about $1,500. And then there are costs for child care, health care and clothing.

You do the math. How are these millions of poor and low-income families making it?

(A lot of those families are going to get a shock this winter as price increases for crude oil get translated into big jumps in home heating bills.)

The economy relies heavily on the services provided by low-wage workers but, as the report notes, "our society has not taken adequate steps to ensure that these workers can make ends meet and build a future for their families, no matter how determined they are to be self-sufficient."

Mr. Roberts said he hoped the study, titled "Working Hard, Falling Short," would help initiate a national discussion of the plight of families who are doing the right thing but not earning enough to get ahead. "Seventy-one percent of low-income families work," he said. More than half are headed by married couples. But economic self-sufficiency remains maddeningly out of reach.

Even in a presidential election year, these matters have not been explored in any sustained way. We're quick to give lip service to the need to work hard, but very slow to properly reward hard work.