Employed But Still Poor

poolSome weeks, RaShaun Rodgers works 50 hours at his two jobs. Other weeks, he works fewer than 10.

His unpredictable schedule, along with his $8 hourly wage, makes it nearly impossible for him to support his 4-year-old son, or even provide for himself. He relies on $170 a month in food stamps, as well as Medicaid, to make ends meet.

The Milwaukee resident puts in up to 30 hours a week as a sales assistant at Old Navy. He recently added a second job as a crew member at Wendy’s, where he hopes to train as a manager later this year. He’s looking for a single, full-time job, but hasn’t landed anything yet.

“Sometimes I work full-time hours, but at part-time pay,” said Rodgers, 24. “If I’m working hard, I shouldn’t have to rely on anyone for assistance. I hate depending on the government.”

Like millions of other Americans, Rodgers is working, but still poor. A combination of meager pay and insufficient hours leaves these folks unable to get by, much less move up the economic ladder.

Rodgers is part of a growing movement of low-wage workers fighting for higher pay. Some companies, including McDonald’s (MCD), Wal-Mart (WMT) and T.J. Maxx (TJX), have recently agreed to increase their hourly rates to at least $10 an hour. But employers would have to boost pay to a minimum of $12 an hour for families to become more self-sufficient, said Ken Jacobs, chair of the University of California Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education.

Until then, many working families continue to collect government benefits. A quarter of those receiving food stamps live in households where at least one person works 30 or more hours a week, according to the center’s research. Some 21% of people receiving cash assistance from the federal government are in working families.

Many of these folks are employed in fast food and retail, but they are also home health care workers, pre-school teachers and waitresses, said Sarah Halpern-Meekin, an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who co-wrote “It’s Not Like I’m Poor,” a new book on struggling working families. Since their hours often fluctuate, many of these low-wage workers also are subject to great shifts in income each week.

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