Number of Working Poor Families Continues to Grow: Does Work Still Pay?

It's time for policy makers to put American working families first. As more families drop from the middle class, the number of working families that are low-income increases. The latest Census numbers show that the percentage and number of American low-income families who are working -- yes working despite the country's significant job loss -- has increased for the third year in a row. Now, more than one in three working families has earnings below 200 percent of poverty. These families are the backbone of the economy -- caring for our children and seniors, preparing our food, working the cash registers, and keeping our homes and businesses clean. Policies at both the state and federal levels can help change this trajectory of a shrinking middle class and a growing number of working families who struggle to make ends meet.

This week, the Working Poor Families Project released a new report, Overlooked and Underpaid: Number of Low-Income Working Families Increases to 10.2 Million that provides national and state level data on the number and conditions of low-income working families in America. Using the latest U. S. Census data for 2010, the report notes that the U.S. has over 10 million working low-income families. Some of these families were formerly middle class, but pay cuts, job loss, and reduction in work hours have taken an economic toll. There are noteworthy and disturbing details in these numbers. Families with at least one minority parent are twice as likely to be low-income as white families. Also, poverty is not equally distributed across the country; geography plays an important role. In 21 states, most in the South and West, a third or more of all working families are low-income.

Perhaps most disturbing is the fact that 23 million children, more than one in three of all American children, live in these families. In just one year, from 2009 to 2010, the number of children in low-income working families increased by more than 500,000. While these children see their parents work, they also see that work doesn't pay. It's often assumed that children are poor because their parents are not working, but in 2010, more than 70 percent of all low-income children were members of working families. The sense of hope and opportunity is certainly challenged for children in low-income working families.

What can policymakers do to change this decline for working families? We know that higher education and skills result in lower unemployment and higher average earnings. Our knowledge-based economy and the economy of the future, requires higher skills. A national study forecasts that 63 percent of all job openings occurring by 2018 will require workers to have some level of post-secondary education.

Policy makers can help expand the number of low-skilled adults who enroll in education and skills development programs and obtain post-secondary credentials that can facilitate economic mobility; eliminating the ability to benefit provision of the Pell Grant Program is a policy going the wrong way as it will limit economic opportunity for parents in working families. Policy makers can also work to improve wages, benefits, and supports like child and health care for low-income working families. Finally, we know that more good jobs are needed. State and federal officials can stimulate the creation of more good jobs. American policy makers and families need to structure a future that increases opportunity and supports economic mobility. We can not wait for an economic recovery to invest in our families.