March 20, 2013

Survey: Low-wage workers gloomy about future

Jennifer Agiesta and Tom Raum / The Associated Press

(Continued from page 1)

A degree of economic "self-righting" will happen as more middle-income and higher-income jobs come back and economic growth accelerates, said Robert Trumble, director of the Labor Studies Center at Virginia Commonwealth University. "But the situation we've been facing for the last half-dozen years or so has been tough. And the lower your income, the tougher it is."

"Some things are better. But there are still some things that are still hard," said Sarah Mueller, 33, of Palm Harbor, Fla., who found work as a Montessori teacher two years ago after working as a part-time and substitute teacher. "With student loans, people are still struggling — I'm one of those people — to pay back student loans that are astronomical," she said.

Seventy-four percent of lower-wage workers say it is "difficult" or "very difficult" for them and their families to get ahead financially. Half thought their financial situation was somewhat or much worse than in 2008.

Many worry a lot or some (71 percent) about being unable to pay their bills, unexpected medical expenses (70 percent), losing their job (54 percent) or keeping up with their mortgage or rent (53 percent).

Many reported stagnant (44 percent) or declining (20 percent) wages over the past five years.

Employers and workers tend to agree that employees themselves hold the bulk of the responsibility for helping workers to get ahead in their careers, but employers are more apt to place some of that responsibility on high schools and colleges.

Despite their many frustrations, 74 percent of low-income workers said they were very or somewhat satisfied with their jobs. Yet 90 percent of all workers said they were satisfied with their job, according to an AP-GfK poll conducted in September.

The surge in low-wage jobs seems to have escaped notice by employers, the survey suggests. Just 22 percent of them said their organization's lower-wage workforce grew over the last four years and only 34 percent expect it to increase in the coming four years.

Lower-wage workers are also pessimistic about the overall direction of the country, with 7 in 10 saying "wrong direction," above the 60 percent of all adults who said so in AP-GfK polling conducted at the same time.

"Lower-wage jobs are coming back first," said labor economist Heidi Shierholz of the Economic Policy Institute, a labor-leaning think tank. "But it's all bleak and it's all due to lack of demand for work to be done. We're still not getting more than just what we need to hang on," Shierholz said. "These last few months have looked better, but we cannot yet claim robust recovery by any stretch."

Lena Hughes, 31, of Indianapolis, a certified hospital nursing assistant, would agree.

"Everybody is struggling financially. It's hard to get jobs still," she said. "I don't think it's getting any better."

The surveys were sponsored by the Joyce Foundation, the Hitachi Foundation and NORC at the University of Chicago. The Joyce Foundation works to improve workforce development and education systems to assist job seekers who may lack skills or credentials. The Hitachi Foundation aims to expand business practices that improve economic opportunities for less well-off workers while benefiting business.

The worker survey was conducted online using the GfK KnowledgePanel and by telephone by interviewers from NORC from Aug. 1 through Sept. 6, 2012. The employer survey was conducted online and by phone by NORC from Nov. 12, 2012, through Jan. 31, 2013. The margin of sampling error for the survey of workers was plus or minus 2.9 percentage points; for employers, it was 4.5 points.

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