Jobs Aren't Enough: Toward a New Economic Mobility for Low-Income Families

By Roberta Rehner Iversen; Annie Laurie Armstrong | Go to book overview

1 Are Jobs Enough for Economic Mobility?

THE STORY

Twenty-five parents, their fifteen spouses or partners, and their sixty-six children in Philadelphia, Milwaukee, New Orleans, St. Louis, and Seattle let us share their lives from the late 1990s to mid-2003 to learn about low-income families and economic mobility. During this time we also talk with and observe at least one thousand auxiliaries associated with the families' mobility efforts. Through these contacts we learn that the families' attempts to move up economically through work both mesh and clash with the characteristics and conditions they encounter in workforce development programs and systems, firms, children's schools, and public policy.

The story begins with the families. Over the years, the families' infants enter child care and preschool, their preschool children progress to elementary school, their elementary-age children move up to middle school, their teenagers enter or complete high school, and new babies are born. The parents go to their children's basketball games, concerts, school conferences, and special education meetings. They go to the grocery, to the laundromat, to grandparents, to neighbors, to community centers, and to church. They tend to children with asthma, developmental delays, and school performance problems. They take children to doctors, go to doctors themselves, and worry about aging parents. The parents read to their children; the children read to their parents. The parents help with math homework and oversee school projects. They counsel children about conflicts with peers and give birthday parties.

At the same time the parents move up, down, and laterally in their jobs. Some take courses after work hours to try to upgrade their positions. Others wish they could. On the job they commune with coworkers, strive to get along with supervisors, and worry about how to make more money. They work overtime, get second or third jobs, and survive—at times relatively well and at other times barely— on sometimes-rising, sometimes-falling, but generally too-low wages. Many “do without” to provide enriching after-school or summer activities for their children and wish they could afford home computers and build assets and savings. Some make progress on these goals, but many do not no matter how hard they try. They make decisions they later question and mistakes they later rue about work, parenting, job training, and expenditures.

In many ways these families are like most other families in the United States, but they are different at the same time. In the richest large country in the world, they work full time year round, but they still do not earn enough to support their families. In this they are like one out of four other families in twenty-first-century America (Waldron, Roberts, & Reamer, 2004), most of whom work at full-time jobs that keep the country running but do not pay living wages.

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