Monday, July 19, 2004

Star-Telegram | 07/19/2004 | A deepening rut

Star-Telegram | 07/19/2004 | A deepening rut
A deepening rut

Low-paying jobs keep families mired in poverty

By Christina Hoag

Knight Ridder News Service

John and Kelly Delgado moved their family to Homestead, Fla., from Indiana last August, thinking that John's native South Florida was their land of opportunity.

They now regret the move.

"We never have any money," said Kelly, 32. "Every month, we're robbing Peter to pay Paul and then figuring out how to do it again. It's so expensive to live here. I can't afford to buy uniforms for school. My son had a field trip; it cost $8. He used the birthday money, $12, my mom sent him. It's been a very rough year."

The problem: John, 34, earns $6 an hour as a nursery laborer while Kelly, a medical administrative assistant with two associate's degrees, earns $8.50 an hour at a doctor's office. It's just not enough without food stamps, help from social service agencies and emergency cash from their parents.

The Delgados are part of a vast second-class economy of working poor people who cannot live on their salaries alone.

"These are people who are playing by all the rules of the game," said Oren Wunderman, executive director of the nonprofit Family Resource Center of South Florida, which helped the Delgados find an apartment. "They've got jobs; they're working. But they can't make ends meet."

They've been dubbed the invisible work force. Because these people are working, they don't qualify for many government benefits. But they don't make enough -- typically less than $10 an hour -- to lift a family out of poverty.

And there will be more of them. Of the 20 occupations that the U.S. Labor Department expects will see the biggest growth between 2002 and 2012, 17 are considered low-wage jobs. Only three require college degrees.

In Florida, expanding industries such as retail and food service pay 15 percent less than contracting industries, such as manufacturing and information technology, reflecting a nationwide trend.

"It's not a lack of work ethic," said Bruce Katz, vice president of the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. "It's the structure of the economy that is creating jobs that don't pay enough to make ends meet."

Treasury Secretary John Snow said the administration has implemented several policies that help low-income workers, including tax cuts and more training programs.

"The tax proposals the president pushed through Congress had a number of benefits for low-income people," Snow said. "It took 4 to 5 million people off the tax rolls. The other major area where the administration is taking steps is improving the availability of job-based training skills, often through community colleges."

But liberal economists said the federal government is underestimating the problem because it doesn't classify many low-wage workers as poor, because of unrealistically low poverty standards. The poverty rate rose from 11.7 percent in 2001 to 12.1 percent in 2002 -- the latest statistic available.

For example, a family of four with an annual income of about $18,500 -- an hourly wage of $8.89 -- is poor, according to the federal government. In reality, that family is extremely poor, according to the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington think tank.

"A good measure of poverty is twice the poverty line," said Jared Bernstein, the institute's senior economist. "A family of four with income below $30,000 in any city in this country is going to have trouble making ends meet." A $30,000-a-year income requires an hourly salary of $14.42.

The working poor encompass everyone from hotel maids and clerical workers to teacher's aides and construction workers. They are not just unskilled labor, said Harriet Spivak, executive director of South Florida Workforce.


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