WASHINGTON -- America's working poor value the work they do and have high hopes for their children's futures -- even though most believe it's now easier to fall out of the middle class than to rise into it, according to a new survey produced by Oxfam America.
The polling of low-wage workers, conducted by Hart Research Associates, found that nearly six in ten either scrape by each month or fail to meet their basic needs, and more than half have relied on public assistance in order to make ends meet. Nearly 80 percent said they don't have the savings they would need to provide for their families during three months without income.
Nearly all low-wage workers polled said performing their jobs well means a lot to them, and four out of five said it's important that their children someday graduate from college. But despite their optimism for their children, most were in agreement on the underpinnings of the U.S. economy: America tends to be a downwardly mobile society, and the country's policies are skewed more to the benefit of the rich than to the poor, they said.
"The prospects for low-wage workers are worsening rather than improving, resulting in widespread pessimism about economic mobility in America," Oxfam said in its report. "They express disbelief that the government is on their side, and think that Congress is biased in favor of wealthy people."
In an interview, Minor Sinclair, Oxfam America's U.S. regional director, called the findings and the economics behind them "a slow disaster in the making."
"When I was a kid, you worked at a fast food joint, maybe it was a summer job," Sinclair said. "That's not true anymore. These are structural jobs. People are working as many hours as they can get, and this is what they do. The whole ladder has been kicked out from under them."
Many low-wage workers who managed to stay employed during the Great Recession and weak recovery nonetheless find themselves falling further behind. Slightly more than half of those polled in Oxfam's survey said that they previously had a job that paid better than the one they have now.
According to a recent analysis by the National Employment Law Project, workers in low- and middle-wage occupations saw greater real income losses since the recession ended than other workers did. Restaurant cooks lost more than seven percent of their wages when adjusted for inflation, while food prep workers and housekeepers and janitors lost five percent, the analysis of Labor Department data found.
More than three quarters of the respondents to Oxfam's survey said that Americans were more likely to drop out of the middle class and into the ranks of the poor than vice versa. Only 12 percent said they believed the opposite.
And yet most respondents still said they held some faith in the American dream, with 62 percent saying you can still get ahead with hard work.
The survey, however, revealed dismal trust in U.S. policymakers to alleviate poverty. Sixty-five percent said Congress writes laws that tend to benefit the wealthy, while only nine percent said it writes laws that tend to help the poor. Seven out of ten said the government has a duty to make sure people who are willing to work do not live in poverty.
Not surprisingly, many respondents said they don't enjoy the basic workplace benefits that middle- and higher-income workers do. Thirty percent said they have no job benefits whatsoever, whether it's paid sick leave, vacation time, health insurance or a retirement plan.
Women, who make up the majority of low-wage workers, were more likely to say they're just barely getting by than men. Twenty-eight percent of women and single parents said that not getting time off to care for a child or other family member was a problem for them, and nineteen percent of working mothers said they once lost a job because of an illness in the family. Nearly six in ten said they worry about having enough money for child care.
For the survey, Hart considered workers earning $14 per hour or less to be low-wage. Asked what they would do with a raise of two dollars more per hour, respondents were more likely to say they would pay off their debts than anything else.