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Low-Wage Jobs Cause More Problems Than They Solve

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The Exchange

By Jennifer Wheary

In the wake of strikes by Walmart workers last week and fast food workers in New York City this past Thursday, the issue of low-wage work is slowly becoming more prominent. This is a timely, important and essential conversation.

Retail's Hidden Potential, a recent Demos' report about the possibility of lifting 1.5 million retail workers and their families out of poverty, provides hard evidence about the impact of low-wage work on the economy. Now a new study by researchers at Boston College and the University of Massachusetts shows the impact of parents' low-wage jobs on their children.

Analyzing over 100 different data sources, the new study, How Youth Are Put At Risk by Parents' Low-Wage Jobs, estimates that nearly 16 million U.S. families are headed by parents working low-wage jobs and that 1 in 6 adolescents alone live in such households.

Figures from the National Center for Children in Poverty corroborate this, showing that 44 percent of U.S. children under 18 live in low-income households. These numbers may be alarming enough, but the impact of low-wage work on family life and on healthy child development is even more astounding.

A Downward Spiral

The Boston College and UMass study shows that parents earning low wages often cannot meet essential expenses, let alone pay for after-school programs, enrichment activities, or services to support the basic health and well-being of their children. It also finds that, since low-wage jobs often have inflexible schedules, parents working in low-wage jobs are often denied time with their children and therefore miss critical opportunities to encourage and support them.

These harsh realities of low-wage life have important short and long-term consequences. According to the Boston College study, youth in low-wage families are more likely to drop out of school. They also have a greater chance of having health problems like childhood obesity, and they are more likely to bear children at a young age. Living in a low-wage household also robs children of their youth. As parents work long hours for little pay, children are forced to care for themselves or care for younger sibling. As a result, they take on adult roles early, diverting time and attention from their education, extracurricular activities, and social and personal development.

No Way Out?

Many people who did not grow up working class often end up shaking their heads at this point. Low-wage work is often judged as low-skill work, and the obvious solution is to get training and to get a better job. But this is much easier said than done in many cases. How do you find the time and money to get training when you are struggling to survive, and when you already have precious little time to spend with your children? Also, how do you find a better job when the economy is not producing one? Estimates show that low-wage work is projected to account for two of every three new jobs in the United States over the next decade.

A national conversation about low-wage work is imperative, and now is the time to have it. We need to figure out ways to improve the situation of workers, to raise wages, and to create better jobs. But we also need to find ways to immediately mitigate the current consequences of low-wage work on children.

Children living in low-wage families have an ongoing disadvantage in living healthy, happy and productive lives, and in improving their own economic situation when they become adults. Most importantly, they meet formidable obstacles in pursuing their education, one of the few routes left to move away from low-wage work into a skilled profession.

Unless we begin to listen to striking workers and to the research that is piling up, the negative consequences of low-wage employment will be amplified across generations.

Jennifer Wheary is a senior fellow at Demos where she writes about current trends in education, economic opportunity and positive public policy.  She holds an undergraduate degree from Cornell University and a PhD from the University of Illinois. Her writing appears online and in newspapers around the country. You can follow her on Twitter @edteachpolicy.