November 26, 2013

Poll: Anxiety over job security grips low-income workers

About one-third of American workers – a record high number – worry ‘a lot’ about losing their jobs.

By Jim Tankersley And Scott Clement
The Washington Post

(Continued from page 2)

click image to enlarge

John Stewart works at the Philadelphia International Airport, escorting people in wheelchairs. He is paid $5.25 an hour, plus tips, and worries about paying his bills and losing his job.

Will Figg for The Washington Post

ABOUT THE POLL

The Washington Post-Miller Center poll was conducted Sept. 6-12, 2013, among a random national sample of 1,509 adults, including landline and cellphone only respondents.

Overall results have a three-percentage-point margin of sampling error.

The error margin is 9.5 points among the 142 workers interviewed with annual household incomes below $35,000, 7.5 points among the 250 workers with incomes between $35,000 and $74,999, and 6.5 points among the 321 workers with incomes of at least $75,000.

The job is hardest before the sun comes up, Stewart said, but he tries to treat every day like he’s “going to a party” when morning comes.

“I believe in God,” he said, “and I try to keep that smile on my face, even though I may be struggling.”

He is usually tired by 6 a.m.

“My feet hurt now,” he said, boarding the bus, shortly after his shift ended at noon. “I’m tired. I always get tired.”

There is a reason workers like Stewart are so nervous in today’s economy. That reason is the economy itself. There are still 11 million Americans looking for work who can’t find a job. The unemployment rate is 7.3 percent, higher than it has been since 1980, except during recessions and their immediate aftermaths. Adjusting for inflation, average household incomes for the poorest 40 percent of workers have fallen steadily – by more than 10 percent, total – since 2000.

Lower-income workers get most of their money from wages, as opposed to investments or other capital gains, said Heidi Shierholz, an economist with the liberal Economic Policy Institute, who writes extensively about unemployment and income.

“It’s no surprise that security concerns are off the map now (among those workers) because the labor market is so bad,” Shierholz said. “High unemployment hurts workers across the board, but it hurts workers with low and moderate incomes more.”

Even worse, there aren’t many signs that job and wage growth will rocket upward anytime soon – especially for workers like Stewart without college degrees.

“High-paying jobs for people who didn’t go to college just aren’t there anymore” in large numbers, said Melissa Kearney, an economist who directs the Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution.

As low-income workers tightly grip their current jobs, few are seeking the skills and education often required to land better-paying ones, the Post-Miller Center poll suggests. Fewer than four in 10 of those earning less than $35,000 annually said they’ve taken training programs in the past year to update their knowledge or skills, compared with about half of middle-income workers and nearly two-thirds of those whose household income tops $75,000.

Several economists say there’s a simple explanation for that gap: Poorer people can’t spare the time or money to go to school. Stewart, for example, would love to ditch his airport job to work as a hospital aide, hopefully for higher pay and at least some health benefits. (His job now offers none.) He’d need to take classes to earn a certification to qualify for that work. He has no idea how he’d swing that, financially. But he has hope that he will – and that, too, is typical of low-earning, anxious workers today.

Nearly six in 10 of those workers think it’s likely they’ll find a new job that pays better in the next five years, compared with fewer than four in 10 of middle- and upper-income workers. Almost half expect a significant raise at their current job in the next half-decade, again outpacing the optimism of those who currently take home more.

Day to day, though, Stewart battles fatigue and depression. He rode two buses home from work when his Thursday shift ended, then hopped off and walked a few blocks toward his basement apartment. His friend had visitors, so he sat in the upstairs living room, near a computer table with pictures of the smiling Obama family, and talked for almost an hour.

But if it were a normal day, he said, if he were alone, he’d have walked off the bus and into the house and straight downstairs. He’d strip off his shirt and light a cigarette and lay down. Just to take it easy, for a bit.

Peyton M. Craighill contributed to this report.

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