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The Low-Wage Recovery

Ilana Novick

In an country where there are 3.3 job seekers for every one available job, one would hope that those lucky enough to have a full time job would be earning a salary they can live on. Unfortunately, according to new data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, it's just the opposite. America's most common jobs are usually the worst paying ones. BLS data released on March 29 shows that seven out of the ten most common jobs, including retail and food service workers, earn less than $30,000 per year -- yet another symptom of the decline of middle class jobs, the growth of jobs most can't live on, and ever increasing income inequality. 

By contrast, corporate profits remain at an all-time high, and as we've mentioned before the top 1% of earners took home 93% of the total income. No wonder there's not much left for those working retail and service jobs. Meanwhile, the median household income dropped by over $4,000 since 2000, contributing to the shrinking of America's middle class. 

Food service workers, who according to the BLS have the third most common job in America, are at the bottom of the wage ladder, earning on average $18,720 a year. They're also among the most vulnerable of America's workers, and among the most difficult to organize, making their chances of improving their wages or working conditions worse. Full-time fast food workers (not tenagers earning some extra money after school) don't often have high school diplomas, let alone a college degree. As Nona Willis Aronowitz pointed out in December 2012 article in The Nation, "many of them [are] unemployed for months before they got hired—long enough for $7.25 an hour to seem generous."

Retail salespeople, of whom there are now 4.3 million, making them the most common of the list, don't fare much better. They typically earn $25,310 per year, which according to the Department of Health and Human Services 2013 poverty guildelines, is below the $27,570 poverty line for a family of five, and just barely meets the limit for families of four. BLS makes a distinction between cashiers and salespeople; on this list, cashiers are the second most popular job, with even lower pay: $20,370. Making the situation worse is the trend away from teenagers and college students holding these jobs to just to get through school or earn some extra money before going on to better paying jobs. The average age of a fast food workers is 29.5. In retail, more than 70% of workers are over 25. 

The BLS numbers did include a bit of good news, or at least not as bad news, for nurses, secretaries and customer service representatives. They all faired a bit better than the rest of the most common jobs, earning an average of $33,000 per year. Registered nurses, whose average salary in the best possible cases is more than $68,000, and are the 5th most popular job. Unfortuantely, it's not nursing that's among the fastest growing sectors, at least not at the level taking home $68,000 annually. 

The news is not likely to get better without some kind of intervention. The fastest growing jobs are not in fields like nursing, but in food service work and retail. Low wage jobs are expected to grow by 7-10 million in the next decade, according to Richard Florida, writing in The Atlantic. A full 58% of the jobs created during what was supposed to be our economic recovery, were low wage jobs according to a 2012 report from the National Employment Law Project.

It's hard to be excited about job creation when so many of the jobs are so low-paid. The recent calls for higher minimum wages in various states, and even from President Obama, may help to slow these trends. Let's hope the laws can get passed fast enough to make a difference.