Academic journal article Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare

The Poverty of Hard Work: Multiple Jobs and Low Wages in Family Economies of Rural Utah Households

Academic journal article Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare

The Poverty of Hard Work: Multiple Jobs and Low Wages in Family Economies of Rural Utah Households

Article excerpt

The combination of paid work and poverty, or near poverty, is a growing problem in the United States, one of which is often accentuated by residence in rural, low-wage communities where underemployment is more prevalent than in metropolitan areas. This paper examines the experiences of sixty rural families with inadequate employment using data from ethnographic interviews with a particular focus on the strategies they use to meet their family's needs in spite of low-wage work.


"We make ends meet by working every minute we're awake."

"Five forty-seven [an hour] which is the slowest way I know to get up in the world because even if I worked eighty hours a week, I'd still almost be poverty."

Two women, both single parents, made the above comments to me during research interviews with low-wage workers. By current welfare policy standards, these women are success stories: they work hard at more than one job, maintain their households and children, and balance tight budgets well enough to satisfy the most frugal accountant. Their household income hovers above the official poverty line. Both households also used some form of social assistance during the year prior to the research: food stamps, school lunch programs, housing subsidies, or child care assistance. However, because they are working and their total income is above official poverty, they are part of a large group, the working near poor, who are often invisible to policymakers and social workers. Yet their struggles to make "ends meet by working every minute" highlight policy issues that are important in this era of "welfare to work." Precisely because the "successful" exits from TANF are likely to be low-wage workers, at least for a time, we need to understand better the contexts and struggles of this population in order to support their momentum away from poverty. Otherwise, as I argue below, these workers are likely to continue to experience sporadic spells of poverty.

While the combination of paid work and poverty is not new in the United States, there is evidence that it is a growing problem. From 1989 to 1997 the poverty rate of workers aged 18-64 rose from 10.4% to 10.9%. It is also noteworthy that the number of full-time year-round workers earning below the individual poverty threshold in 1998 increased by 459,000 persons over the previous year, the largest one-year jump on record (Center for Budget and Policy Priorities 1999). This increase points to a disturbing trend of the growth in inadequate employment nationally.

Poverty and low earnings have long characterized rural (or non-metropolitan) residents to a greater extent than they have urban residents. While rural people comprise only one-fifth of the total U.S. population, rural areas have one-third of all poor people (Duncan and Tickamyer 1988). Rural people are more likely to be unemployed or underemployed, or uninsured for health care when compared to their urban counterparts (Rodgers and Weiher 1986). Although they are more likely to be married and to have more than one person in the household employed, rural workers have higher rates of poverty and near poverty than do workers in urban households (Shapiro 1989; Duncan and Tickamyer 1988). As recently as 1998, the U.S. Census Bureau reported higher rates of poverty in non-metropolitan areas than anywhere else, except in central cities.

Gorham (1992) noted that in 1979, 32% of rural workers were "low earners," defined as those whose hourly wage or salary did not allow them to support a family of four above the official poverty line even if employed year-round on a full-time basis. By 1987, fully 42% of rural workers fit this description and were almost 50% more likely than their urban counterparts to receive wages this low (Shapiro 1989; Levitan, et al. 1993). These rural workers, whom Gorham (1992) identified as the new rural poor, tend to be those who have lost better-paying manufacturing or mining jobs, those who are trying to support households on lower wages, or those who have started in low-paying jobs and are unable to move into jobs with higher pay. …

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