The retail sector has been a star of recent jobs reports. May's numbers from the Department of Labor say it was responsible for adding 28,000 positions to the overall economy. It's on an upward trend – the monthly retail employment number has averaged 20,000 for the past year.
Considering one in nine Americans work in, for or in stores ranging from the corner grocery to big box behemoths, this should be great news. And it would be – if these jobs paid anything resembling a living wage. But all too many of them don't. [...]
The Target janitors are not alone. Limited strikes against retailers ranging from Wal-Mart to Simply Fashion have taken place across the country over the past several months. In New York City, a 2012 survey by the Retail Action Project found that half of retail workers – the men and women who stock shelves, fold clothes, assist customers with their questions, ring up the sales and mop the aisles after the doors have closed for the day – earn less than $10 an hour. According to the progressive think tank Demos, the average cashier earns $18,500 a year, while a salesperson brings home a princely $21,000 a year.
If you are wondering how people get by with these wages, there is an easy answer: they all too often don't. The Retail Action Project's report discovered that a third of the retail workers they studied were receiving at least some form of public assistance from the government to help them get by. Many lacked health insurance. [...]
There is, of course, a better way. Demos estimated that raising retail pay by a few dollars an hour would result in an additional $4-$5bn in retail spending annually. The reason? Lower-income workers tend to spend more of the money they bring home because – surprise – they need to spend it in order to get by. That not only helps them, but it makes all our lives better.