There was a time when Labor Day recognized the struggle to win basic workplace rights such as worker safety, a minimum wage, and an end to discrimination in the workplace. Today, it is better identified as a time for back-to-school sales and that last summer barbecue, a final respite before we all start to get serious again.
Yet for tens of millions of low-wage American workers, Labor Day is another long day on the job—doing hard work, often at irregular hours, for low pay and few benefits. They rarely enjoy the luxury of a day off.
They cook and serve food, staff retail stores, care for the elderly and the young, pick fruits and vegetables, clean offices and hotel rooms. America’s working poor are still pursuing the American dream and struggling.
According to a new poll commissioned by Oxfam America, low-wage workers have a strong work ethic and high hopes for their children. At the same time, they live on the edge of poverty, plagued with worries about the precarious nature of their personal finances; about not being able to afford healthy food for their families; unable to pay for unexpected health expenses or save for retirement. Every month is a challenge to stay afloat.
Since their paychecks only go so far, they often borrow money from friends and family, turn to pawnshops and payday lenders, and rely on government programs such as food stamps and Medicaid while falling deeper into debt. Definitions of low-wage work vary, but at least one-quarter of working Americans struggle to make ends meet, with 33 million U.S. workers earning less than $10 an hour.
I know that poverty in the United States looks very different from poverty in developing countries where Oxfam does most of its work. Jobs that pay $10-per-hour in the United States are different from jobs that pay just a few dollars a day under horrific conditions in faraway countries.
But injustice looks the same wherever you go. Working hard but staying poor is, indeed, an injustice. And a society where just a select few are mind-bogglingly rich, some are doing well, and many simply can’t make ends meet, is an unjust society.
Working in poor communities around the world has taught Oxfam that poverty is really about power, not scarcity. Some have the power to command a disproportionate share of resources, while others are powerless to ask for paid sick leave to care for a sick child.
As the nation struggles to recover from the Great Recession, there is little “recovery” for many workers. Incomes have stagnated or declined in the last decade not only for those in the bottom third, but for 90% of the population. Our country is now the most unequal rich country in the world, and has the largest percentage of low-wage workers of any advanced economy.
America’s working poor know this all too well and, in the survey, they point the finger at Congress, an institution they see passing laws that benefit the economic mobility of the wealthy. They believe that today, people are more likely to fall from the middle class rather than rise into it.
While there have always been jobs that paid poorly, several things are different about contemporary America. First, as inequality has grown dramatically during the last 35 years, the socio-economic disparities between those struggling to get by and a wealthy elite are greater than ever.
Second, unlike the mid-twentieth century, when many poor and working class Americans were able to climb into the middle class, today’s working poor and their children have dramatically fewer opportunities for upward mobility. Third, structural changes to the economy and workforce are hollowing out the middle class, resulting in the fastest job growth in low-wage occupations.
Despite their struggles, however, low-wage workers don’t want hand-outs—they want a level playing field. They want fair wages, decent working conditions, and dignity. Our poll found that they support a higher minimum wage, help in making child care and education more affordable, worker training, and expanding the earned income tax credit, one of America’s most successful policies in reducing poverty.
So, as we squeeze in one more summer blockbuster, let’s remember who sweeps up the popcorn when we leave. And as Congress reconvenes, let’s hope they also recognize our fellow Americans who work hard but stay poor. After all, despite being a holiday, Labor Day does represent the time of year when we all start to get serious again.