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Low-Wage Workers in the New Economy - Creating Opportunities for Those Who Work Hard But Remain in Poverty

Document date: October 02, 2001
Released online: October 02, 2001
Contact: Susan Brown (202) 261-5702

WASHINGTON, D.C., October 2, 2001—Since 1994, well over 1 million people, mostly women, have made the transition from welfare to employment. Welfare rolls have dropped by more than 50 percent nationwide and by as much as 90 percent in some states.

Yet the very success of welfare reform brings an even greater challenge into stark relief: for many people—and not just former welfare recipients—getting a job doesn’t mean getting out of poverty. Financial security and upward mobility often elude entry-level workers, who commonly earn only $6 to $8 an hour, well below what they need to bring a family of three above the federal poverty level. Furthermore, these workers do not advance easily without additional education, training, and supports.

Low-Wage Workers in the New Economy, a new book scheduled for release in early October by the Urban Institute Press, is about what federal and state governments can do to help the men and women for whom the American Dream remains out of reach. In this collection of original essays, an impressive line-up of experts describes the extent and contours of the challenge facing our nation’s working poor. The authors draw lessons from practice and policy about promising approaches to helping low-wage workers advance into the economic mainstream. And they recommend both principles and specific actions for state and federal policymakers.

"Despite their hard work, too many Americans still find it difficult to escape jobs that pay too little and provide little security and opportunity for advancement," says Richard Kazis, co-editor of Low- Wage Workers in the New Economy and senior vice president at Jobs for the Future, a Boston-based education and employment think tank. "A concerted national effort to help bring disadvantaged workers and their families into the mainstream of the U.S. economy and society is both a logical and a necessary next step after welfare reform."

For Low-Wage Workers in the New Economy, Jobs for the Future asked leading practitioners, advocates, and scholars to describe the challenges that face our nation’s working poor. This book presents their ideas on how best to help low-wage workers advance to better-paying jobs with brighter futures. The authors look at the challenges not only from the point of view of the workers but also from that of their families and their current and prospective employers.

"Low-wage jobs have a place in the economy. Many are entry-level jobs held by young, single workers or secondary earners in a multiple earner family," says Greg Acs, a senior researcher at the Urban Institute and a contributor to Low-Wage Workers in the New Economy. "But, for those families relying solely on the wages of a low-wage worker, the wellbeing of every member of that family, not just the low-wage earner, is at stake."

Even as the diverse contributors to Low-Wage Workers in the New Economy come from differing perspectives, their conclusions suggest a set of "core principles" for a policy agenda that could help increase economic opportunity for low-skill and low-wage workers:

  • Keep work central: all those who can work should have the help they need to enter and succeed in jobs.
  • Invest in education and work skills.
  • Encourage individuals to stay employed and advance by providing support for child care, transportation, and health coverage.
  • Use public subsidies and incentives to encourage employers to hire, train, and support low-skill, low-wage workers.

"An appropriate set of public and private-sector policies would be a win-win situation as the working poor and America’s employers cope with new economic realities," according to co-editor Dr. Marc S. Miller. "For example, workforce and welfare policies could connect to economic development and tax policies as well as address the needs of employers in particular regions or industries."

Low-Wage Workers in the New Economy points the way to concrete, creative approaches that focus on self-sufficiency and advancement in careers and the labor market. It demonstrates how states and Washington can align economic development policy, education policy, and workforce and welfare policy to help millions of low-wage workers develop skills and prepare themselves for securing and advancing in jobs that enable them to support their families.

Low-Wage Workers in the New Economy: Strategies for Productivity and Opportunity
Edited by Richard Kazis and Marc S. Miller
September 2001, ISBN 0-87766-705-5, 6" x 9" paperback, $32.50, 360 pages
To order, call the Urban Institute Press at 1-877-UIPRESS (1-877-847-7377) or email pubs@ui.urban.org.

Co-editor Richard Kazis is senior vice president at Jobs for the Future. A former social studies teacher at an alternative high school for returning dropouts, he has also supervised a Neighborhood Youth Corps program in Baltimore, helped organize fast food workers in Detroit, and studied informal, experiential education at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Kazis has written extensively on economic, education, and workforce issues.

Co-editor Marc S. Miller is director of publications at Jobs for the Future. Before joining Jobs for the Future, Dr. Miller directed publications and communications for Cultural Survival, an international human rights organization. He has also served as senior editor of Technology Review, MIT's policy magazine, and managing editor at the Institute for Southern Studies.

Jobs for the Future is a national organization that partners with leaders in education, business, government, and communities around the nation to: strengthen opportunities for youth to succeed in postsecondary learning and high-skill careers; increase opportunities for low-income individuals to move into family-supporting careers; and meet the growing economic demand for knowledgeable and skilled workers.

The Urban Institute is a nonprofit, nonpartisan policy research and education organization that examines the social, economic, and governance problems facing the nation and the world. The Urban Institute Press publishes books and reports by Urban Institute researchers and by other policy analysts in order to advance the discussion on important social and economic issues. The views expressed in the book are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Urban Institute, its board of trustees, or its sponsors.

Topics/Tags: | Employment | Families and Parenting | Poverty, Assets and Safety Net

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