Three years after the U.S. economy statistically emerged from the "great recession," the number of working poor in this country not only is not declining, but actually continues to grow.
An analysis of the most recent Census data by the Working Poor Families Project (WPFP) finds the number of low-income working families increased by 200,000 to 10.4 million in 2011 over the prior year, with low-income defined as earning less than twice the federal poverty income threshold.
Those 10.4 million families total 32 percent of all working families - -up from 28 percent in 2007 -- and represent 47.5 million Americans who are committed to work but aren't reaping adequate rewards.
The WPFP's analysis found that most families are not low-income because they do not work. Rather, more than seven out of every 10 low-income families were working in 2011 but simply didn't earn enough money to pay for basic living expenses. Family budgets were stretched by high transportation as well as health and child care costs at a time when often the only jobs that could be found were in eight low-paying occupations, such as cashier positions.
Making matters worse, many occupations that previously provided better wages such as construction or machine operator have declined.
At the other end of the income scale, the economic gap between high-income and low-income working families is growing. In 2011, the top 20 percent of working families earned 10.1 times the total income earned by the bottom 20 percent, up from 9.5 times in 2007. Stated another way, the top 20 percent took home 48 percent of all income while those in the bottom 20 percent received less than 5 percent of the economic pie.
The American dream is premised on the notion that work will support a family and lead to economic security. As the numbers make plain, that is not happening for tens of millions of Americans. Take a step back and the numbers sketch out a disturbing story about the prospects for millions of children.
Overall, the proportion of children in working families that are low-income increased from 33 percent in 2007 to 37 percent in 2011. In 2011, there were 23.5 million children in low-income working families.
Why does this matter? We know that, on average, children growing up in low-income families have worse health and educational outcomes than kids in more affluent families. Children from these low-income working families are likely to lead more economically insecure lives as adults. They will have dimmer prospects for obtaining an advanced education and the skills they need to gain full-time employment in good-paying jobs.
To be sure, the growth in the number of struggling working families stems from on-going changes to the economy. But it also underscores the failure by policymakers to take adequate steps to support working families and improve the quality of jobs.
Both Congress and the 50 state legislatures can create new economic opportunities for low-income working people and their families. Congress took an important step earlier this month by extending unemployment benefits, the federal Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and the child credit, which bolster the incomes of working people in lower-paying jobs. State legislatures should continue to support -- and expand -- their own EITCs and take similar steps to support the working poor.
We also should maintain, and even boost, investments in Pell Grants and other educational and skill development programs. And increases in the minimum wage at both the federal and state levels -- and indexing the wage so it keeps up with the cost of living -- will drive up income for workers and give them more economic security.
Hard work is not leading to economic advancement. Providing these workers with opportunities to enhance their education and skills and to access better quality jobs is critical to putting the nation on a path toward economic stability and growth.
Brandon Roberts manages the Working Poor Families Project, a national initiative to strengthen state policies so that working families can achieve economic security. The project is supported by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Ford Foundation, Joyce Foundation and Kresge Foundation.