According to the Century Foundation’s analysis of the latest Occupational Employment Statistics report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about a quarter of U.S. workers are working full-time, year-round in occupations where they cannot expect to earn enough to keep a family of four above poverty.
The chart above shows median wages for the 30 lowest-paying occupations with over 250,000 employees, which collectively employ 31 million people nationally. All the occupations on the list have annual median wages that fall at or below the poverty level for a family of four ($24,250). At the very bottom are America’s 3.1 million food preparation workers, who earn just $18,410 annually. That’s $8.85 an hour.
The occupations with the largest employment in May 2014 were retail salespersons and cashiers. These two occupations combined made up nearly 6 percent of total U.S. employment, with employment levels of 4.6 million and 3.4 million, respectively. Of the 10 largest occupations (which accounted for 21 percent of total employment in May 2014), only registered nurses, with an annual median wage of $66,640, had an average wage above the U.S. all-occupations median of $34,540.
As the Century Foundation reminds us,
Many of these jobs are simple, but that doesn’t mean they are easy. Many are commonplace, but that doesn’t make them dispensable. Rather, in our haste to dismiss basic as beneath us, we lose sight of the fact that what is basic is also fundamental, what is mundane is also essential. These jobs matter—they are the substance of simple pleasures, the foundation of daily joys—and they mean more to our interpersonal well-being than any amount of high-flying CEOs ever will. But by labeling its practitioners as “low skill,” we rationalize relegating them to near-poverty wages.
The stark facts collected by the BLS also remind us that, when large numbers of people are forced to have the freedom to sell their ability to work, the wages many U.S. workers receive force them and their families to live in or within striking distance of destitution.