The working poor still have difficult time meeting basic needs despite hard work


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The high unemployment rate has dominated most of the headlines concerning the weak U.S. economy but another part of the story that doesn't get as much attention is the rising number of working poor who cannot make ends meet.

The Working Poor Families Project recently released a report based on new data from the U.S. Census Bureau that shows nearly 1 in 3 working families in this country are struggling to buy groceries and pay utility bills.

As of 2009, there were more than 10 million low-income working families in America, an increase of 246,000 from the previous year.

"It's important to realize we are talking about working families that work hard and play by the rules, but still do not earn enough to move out of the low-income class," said Brandon Roberts, manager of the Working Poor Families Project, based in Washington, D.C. "Low income" is defined as families earning less than 200 percent of the poverty level, which is $43,512 for a family of four with two adults and two children.

The hardships facing these workers who are the backbone of the economy -- cashiers, cooks and caregivers -- challenge the long-held belief that in America people who work hard can be assured of getting ahead.

"Obviously, the Great Recession has taken its toll on low-income working families," Mr. Roberts said. "This new data says we are heading in the wrong direction."

The Working Poor Families Project is a national initiative that works with nonprofit organizations in 24 states, including Pennsylvania, to strengthen state policies on behalf of low-income working families.

For the past eight years, the initiative has measured the economic status of working families, using information from an annual U.S. Census Bureau survey.

The latest analysis shows the 18-month recession that began in December 2007 brought problems facing working families to a critical level, creating even greater roadblocks to their desire for financial success with high unemployment and reduced work hours.

The recession has been especially hard on men, according to the Working Poor Families Project. Men were highly concentrated in the declining manufacturing, construction and financial services industries that lost many jobs.

Between 2007 and 2009, the proportion of working women with an unemployed husband more than doubled from 2.4 percent to 5.4 percent. "This means there is a growing proportion of working families in which women -- who earn less money, on average, than men -- are the primary breadwinners," the report said.

Mr. Roberts said the report came at a critical time, when policymakers have tough choices to make on the future of the country.

His initiative supports greater investments and stronger policies in education and skills training, and in child care for low-income working families.

"We recommend these choices be made with a keen sensitivity to the needs of working families and their aspirations to get ahead and achieve the American Dream," he said.

"We cannot make choices that go against these working families. They are critical to our economic future."


Tim Grant: tgrant@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1591.


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