North Denver Tribune
Low wage jobs increase, middle class shrinks
May 13, 2009
“I work 16 hours a day to support my family.” - A daytime construction worker and night time janitor
Good Jobs Strong Communities released a new study, “American Dream Denied? Low Wage Work in Metro Denver” that finds a shrinking middle class and fewer economic opportunities for low wage workers. “Beyond the current severe recession, the metro Denver area has seen a decline of the middle class and increase in low-wage workers for decades. And the trend for the future remains the same unless we change course,” says Carmen Rhodes, Executive Director of FRESC. “Low-wage workers are scrambling just to keep in place.” The study explores historic and current economic conditions in metro Denver.
“Retail is hard work,” states Marija Weeden-Osborn, lead retail sales associate at a national chain. “I have student loans and on what I make my husband and I are barely scraping by. I wouldn’t be able to get ahead on what I’m making now. I would prefer to leave retail and get a job in social work, but if I can’t, and if I try to stay where I am, there are not a lot of ways to advance even if I wanted to.”
Her experience underscores some of the key findings from FRESC’s report:
- The Metro Area is Losing Middle Class Families: The proportion of middle-class families in the Denver metro area fell by 10.2% from 1970 to 2005.
- Low-Wage Workers Make Up a Large Portion of the Metro Workforce: Over 365,000 metro workers, or more than one in four, are employed in a low-wage occupation with median wages of less than $13.01 per hour.
- Low-Wage Jobs in the Metro Are Projected to Continue Growing: More than a third of projected job growth by 2016 in the metro’s largest occupations will be in low-wage occupations likely to pay less than $13.01 per hour.
- The Divide Between High-Wage and Low-Wage Workers in the Metro Area is Growing: The gap between the highest and lowest paid jobs in the region has grown steadily over the past 50 years.
- Low-wage Workers Have a Hard Time Making Ends Meet in the Metro Area: 446,933 workers, or nearly one out of three, earn less than what it takes for an individual to make ends meet based on the Self-Sufficiency Standard for the region.
- There are Racial and Gender Disparities in the Metro’s Low-Wage Sector: African-Americans and Latinos are over-represented in many of the largest low-wage occupational categories. Women in low-wage jobs earn even less than their male counterparts.
- Few Workers Make the Leap Out of Low-Wage Work: National evidence demonstrates a stubborn lack of mobility within low-wage industries, as well as difficulty moving out of low-wage jobs into other sectors.
“I started at $9.25/hr and after three years only make $9.62/hr. We are pinching pennies. It is tough to make ends meet on my wages,” says Kelly James, a hotel restaurant cook. Patty Robles, a janitor in downtown Denver adds, “I have worked as a downtown janitor for 19 years. I like the work, even though it’s hard. Our work load has doubled since I started, but wages are not keeping up. It would be more just if wages kept up with the increasing amount of work.”
The study underscores the need for better paying jobs as these low wage jobs are permanent domestic jobs. More individuals with greater prosperity translates directly into the purchase of more goods and services from the local economy, thus fueling economic growth. When the tax-paying public bears the costs of increased services for low-income workers and their families, taxpayers subsidize low-wage employers.
FRESC, a nonprofit organization started in 2002, promotes a new vision of organizing around economic policy and development to transform the lives of workers and their communities in metro Denver, the Front Range, and in Colorado. Public dollars should be used to maximize public good. Government can drive those policies and be a catalyst for positive change. FRESC utilizes policy development and advocacy, academic-level actionable research, community organizing and non-partisan civic engagement to promote the creation of jobs that pay family-sustaining wages with benefits, housing and health care which are affordable to all families, and neighborhoods that are environmentally safe and sustainable.
Copies of the study, “American Dream Denied? Low Wage Work in Metro Denver” are available for free at FRESC Good Jobs Strong Communities, 140 Sheridan Blvd, Denver, Colorado 80226, (303) 477-6111, email@example.com.