“It used to be that folks came in with a single issue — it was like, ‘I have to buy a new tire because my tire blew out,’ or, ‘I’m short on my electrical bill,’ ” Ms. Whelchel said. “Now they come in with a rubber band around a bunch of bills and problems. Everything is wrong. Everything is tangled with everything else.”That worsening struggle is visible in the lives of Chattanoogans Steven Greenhouse interviewed, like a nurse's aide stuck at part time and $9.00 an hour after having been laid off from a full-time job at $13.25 an hour, or a prep cook with a college degree who "usually takes home less than $200 a week." And it's not just anecdata:
Climbing above the poverty line has become more daunting in recent years, as the composition of the nation’s low-wage work force has been transformed by the Great Recession, shifting demographics and other factors. More than half of those who make $9 or less an hour are 25 or older, while the proportion who are teenagers has declined to just 17 percent from 28 percent in 2000, after adjusting for inflation, according to Janelle Jones and John Schmitt of the Center for Economic Policy Research.Yet despite the large number of Americans who are working and poor, when Republicans like Rep. Paul Ryan talk about poverty, they talk about people who don't want to work, not jobs that don't pay enough and that keep people stuck at part-time with unpredictable schedules and unpredictable paychecks. The thing is, Ryan may have a point when he says that our nation has "a real culture problem" and a "dignity of work" problem. It's just that employers, not workers, are the ones with the problem.
Today’s low-wage workers are also more educated, with 41 percent having at least some college, up from 29 percent in 2000. “Minimum-wage and low-wage workers are older and more educated than 10 or 20 years ago, yet they’re making wages below where they were 10 or 20 years ago after inflation,” said Mr. Schmitt, senior economist at the research center. “If you look back several decades, workers near the minimum wage were more likely to be teenagers — that’s the stereotype people had. It’s definitely not accurate anymore.”