Report: More than 50 million Americans work 'low-wage jobs'

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- In the face of affordability and low-wage concerns in the Triangle, a new report from The Brookings Institute highlighted the prevalence of low-wage work throughout the country.

The left-leaning Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit public policy organization found 53 million Americans between ages 18-64, accounting for 44 percent of all workers, qualify as "low-wage."

Just last week, low-wage workers in Durham, voiced their concerns directly to city workers.

"My story is not unique; there are thousands of working people in Durham whose lives are literally being put in jeopardy by a minimum wage law that allows billion-dollar companies to pay poverty wages," said Wanda Coker, a manager at a fast-food chain.

"I work two jobs, I still struggle. With the $9.50 (at my fast-food job) and my other job, because it's still not enough. I don't get health insurance, anything extra I don't get," added Cierra Brown, one of the two moderators of the event organized by Raise Up NC on Thursday night.

Dr. Michael Walden, an economics professor at NC State, can relate; his first job was in the fast-food industry.

Walden stressed the value of post-high school education in attaining higher wages.

"There are lots of occupations that you can train for in the crafts. Electrician, plumber, HVAC person, a lot of technical occupations in the medical field, that pay very, very good salaries. So I certainly want people to know that's an option," Walden said. "And in fact, you read studies already that show a lot of those occupations are not able to fill their ranks."

He spoke glowingly of the state's community college system, which offer training for many of those skill-based professions.

"It's open enrollment. Anyone can go. It's relatively inexpensive. Most of the programs at two years, and there are lots of occupations you can train for," Walden said.

Automation has replaced some low-skill professions, further highlighting the importance of developing a marketable skill.

"Long-run for any individual, they want to skill themselves in a way that they got to the employer, and the employer will willingly pay them more because they're getting more back," said Walden.

The minimum wage in North Carolina is $7.25, which is the federal minimum wage. The federal minimum wage has remained the same since 2009, the longest stretch without a raise in US history.

A 2018 report by Cal-Berkeley noted 30 percent of North Carolina children live in low-income households.

In March, the North Carolina Justice Center reported Durham, Wake, and Orange were the three most expensive counties for a family of four to "to afford housing, food, child care, health care, transportation, taxes, and other necessities." The average costs for Durham and Wake more than doubled the minimum-wage working rates for two parents (working 40 hours with no overtime).

Walden encouraged families to routinely review their budgets, noting doing so can help eliminate extraneous costs.
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