Among American workers, poll finds unprecedented anxiety about jobs, economy

The Washington PostNovember 30, 2013 


John Stewart works at the Philadelphia International Airport, escorting people in wheelchairs. He is paid $5.25 an hour, plus tips.

WILL FIGG — The Washington Post

— The alarm rang on John Stewart’s phone at 1:10 a.m. He was up at 1:30, caught one bus north into Philadelphia a little after 2 and another bus, south toward Philadelphia International Airport, a half-hour after that. He made it into work around 3:25 for a shift that started at 4, for a job that pays $5.25 an hour, which he cannot afford to lose.

Stewart is 55, tall and thin and animated. At work, he wears a clip-on tie, a white cotton shirt with a fraying collar and a pair of black sneakers he nabbed on sale for $12.99 a few days ago. He wheels elderly air passengers from the ticket counters through security and to their gates, and back again, and every once in a while they tip him. Usually for lunch, he buys a candy bar. His skin flakes from psoriasis, which gets worse when he worries, which, these days, is all the time. He can’t pay for treatments to soothe the itching or for a car to shorten his commute.

“I can’t save money,” he said recently, “to buy the things I need to live as a human being.”

American workers are living with unprecedented economic anxiety, four years into a recovery that has left so many of them stuck in place. That anxiety is concentrated heavily among low-income workers such as Stewart.

More than 6 in 10 workers in a recent Washington Post-Miller Center poll worry that they will lose their jobs to the economy, surpassing concerns in more than a dozen surveys dating to the 1970s. Nearly 1 in 3 (32 percent) say they worry “a lot” about losing their jobs, also a record high, according to the joint survey, which explores Americans’ changing definition of success and their confidence in the country’s future. The Miller Center is a nonpartisan affiliate of the University of Virginia specializing in public policy, presidential scholarship and political history.

Job insecurities have always been higher among low-income Americans, but they typically rose and fell across all levels of the income ladder. Today, workers at the bottom have drifted away, occupying their own island of insecurity.

What matters in this new anxiety, what unites the people who worry more now than ever, are income and education. Workers who earn less, and workers who didn’t graduate from college fear losing their already weaker livelihoods more than anyone else.

Spend a day with John Stewart – a man who has worked low-wage jobs since the late ’70s – and you start to understand why.

His first job – he doesn’t remember if it was in 1978 or ’79 – was cooking eggs and pancakes at a five-and-dime in New York City. He made $2.35 an hour, which would be a little less than $8 an hour today.

He did leave that cooking job, fairly quickly. He found work right away as a messenger, running documents all over the city. In later years, he would work in offices and at a trash dump infested with rats. He tried college for six months but left when his mother died. He has never gone back, though he would like to; he says he has never had the time or money for school. Eventually he landed in New Jersey at a Walmart, poised, he thought, for a manager’s job. But he lost the promotion chance and the job – he was late to work too often, because of unreliable public transportation, he says – and in the fall of 2010, he retreated to Philadelphia to live with a cousin and look for a new gig.

This time, finding a job took him five months. It’s sadly typical for this recovery: In October, more than 4 million Americans had been looking for work longer than six months. That was down from nearly 7 million people at the start of 2010, but still 1 million more than at any point in U.S. history before the 2007-09 recession.

When Stewart finally got the job at the airport, through a man at his church, he thought he was signing on to $7.25 an hour. On the first day, they told him no, it’s $5.25 plus whatever tips come your way. That’s not usually very much. He brings home about $600 most months after taxes and accounting for unpaid sick days, he says. He pays a family friend $400 a month to live in her basement.

Tips vary from day to day – sometimes he leaves work with enough cash in his pocket for a takeout dinner. Sometimes hardly any at all.

Stagnant wages

There is a reason workers like Stewart are so nervous in today’s economy. That reason is the economy itself. There are still 11 million Americans looking for work who can’t find a job. The unemployment rate is 7.3 percent, higher than it has been since 1980, except during recessions and their immediate aftermaths. Adjusting for inflation, average household incomes for the poorest 40 percent of workers have fallen steadily – by more than 10 percent, total – since 2000.

Lower-income workers get most of their money from wages, as opposed to investments or other capital gains, said Heidi Shierholz, an economist with the liberal Economic Policy Institute, who writes extensively about unemployment and income.

“It’s no surprise that security concerns are off the map now (among those workers) because the labor market is so bad,” Shierholz said. “High unemployment hurts workers across the board, but it hurts workers with low and moderate incomes more.”

Even worse, there aren’t many signs that job and wage growth will rocket upward anytime soon – especially for workers like Stewart without college degrees.

“High-paying jobs for people who didn’t go to college just aren’t there anymore” in large numbers, said Melissa Kearney, an economist who directs the Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution.

As low-income workers tightly grip their current jobs, few are seeking the skills and education often required to land better-paying ones, the Post-Miller Center poll suggests. Fewer than 4 in 10 of those earning less than $35,000 annually said they’ve taken training programs in the past year to update their knowledge or skills, compared with about half of middle-income workers and nearly two-thirds of those whose household income tops $75,000.

Several economists say there’s a simple explanation for that gap: Poorer people can’t spare the time or money to go to school. Stewart, for example, would love to ditch his airport job to work as a hospital aide, hopefully for higher pay and at least some health benefits. (His job now offers none.) He’d need to take classes to earn a certification to qualify for that work. He has no idea how he’d swing that, financially. But he has hope that he will – and that, too, is typical of low-earning, anxious workers today.

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