The Denver Post
Greene: Hard slog on dimes and nickels
May 7, 2009
Kelly James never figured she could work so hard, yet still be so broke.
"That American Dream thing? It ain't happening," she says. "It seems like a giant, impossible lie."
James has a 4-year-old son and a husband who's disabled. She works full time for $9.62 an hour as an entry-level banquet cook in a downtown hotel.
The $1,100 she takes home each month plus her husband's $400 disability check barely pay for utilities and rent in the house they share with another family and a seventh roommate in Aurora. They eat whatever they can buy with coupons. They splurge monthly, at most, for dinner out at the IHOP. Paying for preschool would blow their budget entirely.
"You don't know what it's like until you've tried hauling it everywhere by bus and having to look in your bank account even before you buy a $1 sandwich at McDonald's," she says.
James doesn't want pity. She wants people to know that the ranks of working-poor folks keep growing.
More than one in four workers in metro Denver labor in low-wage jobs, and nearly one out of three earn less than what it takes to meet the self-sufficiency standard for the region, according to a report Wednesday by FRESC, formerly the Front Range Economic Strategy Center, a Denver-based group pushing for good jobs.
Those numbers are expected to jump over the next decade.
Retail clerks, cashiers, food servers and cooks make up four of the area's five occupational categories expected to grow by 2016. About 32,000 new jobs in the region are projected to pay less than 75 percent of the median wage, $13.01 an hour.
Labor statistics show pay stagnation within low-wage industries, leaving more workers stuck in dead-end jobs.
James has waited 3½ years for a promotion that she — at 25, with a high school diploma and three years of technical school — suspects may never come. She had hoped by now to have a car, a house of her own or at least some savings. But those hopes slip away paycheck after paycheck.
FRESC's report cites a study by the Pew Charitable Trusts that just one out of three Americans believe their children's lives will be better than their own economically.
"It feels like you're climbing a steep, icy hill, and every time you think you get close to the top, you fall on your face and end up back at the bottom where you began," says James.
We've read about low- wage service-sector jobs replacing those in manufacturing. And we hear politicians decry the shrinking of the middle class. These trends set in long before the recession and won't stop even after billions in stimulus money is spent. The squeeze, for workers such as James, is nothing new.
But now, as advocates tell it, there's a false dichotomy in the national call for new jobs.
"Too many people are saying we can either create a lot of jobs or only a few good- paying jobs," says FRESC's executive director, Carmen Rhodes. "But the purpose of working is to make enough money for the things we need. That's getting lost in the discussion."
James knows she's lucky to have work. And she realizes it's better to have some, rather than no, food on her family's table.
But it's worth noting that upward mobility seems like an anachronism to some young workers. And that behind the kitchen doors of a downtown banquet room is a 25-year-old breadwinner who is giving up on getting ahead.
Susan Greene writes Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Reach her at 303-954-1989 or firstname.lastname@example.org.