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Survey: Low-wage workers gloomy about future

By Jennifer Agiesta and Tom Raum

Associated Press

LAST UPDATED: 05:22 a.m. HST, Mar 20, 2013

WASHINGTON » America's lower-income workers have posted the biggest job gains since the deep 2007-09 recession — but few are bragging.

As a workforce sector, those earning $35,000 or less annually are generally pessimistic about their finances and career prospects. Many see themselves as worse off now than during the recession, a two-part Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research survey of workers and employers shows.

The survey revealed that many people at the lowest rung in the workplace view their jobs as a dead end. Half were "not too" or "not at all" confident that their jobs would help them achieve long-term career goals. And only 41 percent of workers at the same place for more than a decade reported ever receiving a promotion.

Yet 44 percent of employers surveyed said it's hard to recruit people with appropriate skills or experiences to do lower-wage jobs, particularly in manufacturing (54 percent). While 88 percent of employers said they were investing in training and education for employee advancement, awareness and use of such programs among the lower-wage workers was only modest.

Although President Barack Obama made it a national goal to "equip our citizens with the skills and training" to compete for good jobs, the survey shows a U.S. workforce that has grown increasingly polarized, with workers and their bosses seeing many things differently.

Seventy-two percent of employers at big companies and 58 percent at small ones say there is a "great deal" or "some" opportunity for worker advancement. But, asked the same question, 67 percent of all low-wage workers said they saw "a little" or "no opportunity" at their jobs for advancement.

Through last month, the economy had recovered only about 5.7 million of the 8.7 million jobs shed in the deepest downturn since the Great Depression. Low-wage jobs are usually the first to come back following a recession. While the outlook clearly is improving, economic growth remains anemic and unemployment is a still-high 7.7 percent.

Ronald Moore, 48, of Lebanon, Ind., is among those who have seen their situation improve. He started his own home-inspection company three years ago after he couldn't find enough work as a truck driver. But "nobody was buying homes, so no one needed an inspection," he said. "It was pretty rough in the beginning." Now he operates a custom cabinet business, where business is starting to improve. Slowly.

To gauge the experiences and perspectives of lower-wage workers, the AP-NORC Center conducted two separate surveys. A sample of 1,606 workers earning $35,000 or less annually was surveyed last summer, while a companion poll of 1,487 employers of such workers was conducted from November through January.

Roughly 65 percent of the jobs the U.S. economy added since the recession officially ended in June 2009 have been lower-wage ones.

Despite those numerical gains, "lower-income households have been hit very hard and have not benefited as much from the recovery," said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Analytics. "Their real wages are going nowhere. And this is a group that has more debt, fewer assets, is less likely to own a home or stocks and with little capacity to absorb higher gasoline prices."

Economists also say low-wage workers were hit particularly hard by an increase in Social Security payroll taxes resulting from "fiscal cliff" negotiations late last year between Obama and Congress.

A degree of economic "self-righting" will happen as more middle-income and higher-income jobs come back and economic growth accelerates, said Robert Trumble, director of the Labor Studies Center at Virginia Commonwealth University. "But the situation we've been facing for the last half-dozen years or so has been tough. And the lower your income, the tougher it is."

"Some things are better. But there are still some things that are still hard," said Sarah Mueller, 33, of Palm Harbor, Fla., who found work as a Montessori teacher two years ago after working as a part-time and substitute teacher. "With student loans, people are still struggling — I'm one of those people — to pay back student loans that are astronomical," she said.

Seventy-four percent of lower-wage workers say it is "difficult" or "very difficult" for them and their families to get ahead financially. Half thought their financial situation was somewhat or much worse than in 2008.

Many worry a lot or some (71 percent) about being unable to pay their bills, unexpected medical expenses (70 percent), losing their job (54 percent) or keeping up with their mortgage or rent (53 percent).

Many reported stagnant (44 percent) or declining (20 percent) wages over the past five years.

Employers and workers tend to agree that employees themselves hold the bulk of the responsibility for helping workers to get ahead in their careers, but employers are more apt to place some of that responsibility on high schools and colleges.

Despite their many frustrations, 74 percent of low-income workers said they were very or somewhat satisfied with their jobs. Yet 90 percent of all workers said they were satisfied with their job, according to an AP-GfK poll conducted in September.

The surge in low-wage jobs seems to have escaped notice by employers, the survey suggests. Just 22 percent of them said their organization's lower-wage workforce grew over the last four years and only 34 percent expect it to increase in the coming four years.

Lower-wage workers are also pessimistic about the overall direction of the country, with 7 in 10 saying "wrong direction," above the 60 percent of all adults who said so in AP-GfK polling conducted at the same time.

"Lower-wage jobs are coming back first," said labor economist Heidi Shierholz of the Economic Policy Institute, a labor-leaning think tank. "But it's all bleak and it's all due to lack of demand for work to be done. We're still not getting more than just what we need to hang on," Shierholz said. "These last few months have looked better, but we cannot yet claim robust recovery by any stretch."

Lena Hughes, 31, of Indianapolis, a certified hospital nursing assistant, would agree.

"Everybody is struggling financially. It's hard to get jobs still," she said. "I don't think it's getting any better."

The surveys were sponsored by the Joyce Foundation, the Hitachi Foundation and NORC at the University of Chicago. The Joyce Foundation works to improve workforce development and education systems to assist job seekers who may lack skills or credentials. The Hitachi Foundation aims to expand business practices that improve economic opportunities for less well-off workers while benefiting business.

The worker survey was conducted online using the GfK KnowledgePanel and by telephone by interviewers from NORC from Aug. 1 through Sept. 6, 2012. The employer survey was conducted online and by phone by NORC from Nov. 12, 2012, through Jan. 31, 2013. The margin of sampling error for the survey of workers was plus or minus 2.9 percentage points; for employers, it was 4.5 points.

Associated Press News Survey Specialist Dennis Junius and writer Stacey A. Anderson contributed to this report.

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sluggah wrote:
Too many people think they ought to be starting out making a big check. You have to EARN IT!!! You need to show them that you deserve it with competence, diligence and loyalty. All things which are not taught by the schools or parents(who should). Then they see no talent dorks like the Kardashians making bank and acting the fool and that's their role model because parents use the TV as their babysitter.
on March 20,2013 | 06:23AM
foursun wrote:
But it's the locals here that think they're owed a high wage without earning it. Take a look at the way government workers do so little and expect a wage higher than an honest working person would make. Look at the HPD and Department of Corrections that let countless criminals escape on a regular basis, they expect to be paid well without doing their jobs. We need a mainland touch to make things work here.
on March 20,2013 | 08:49AM
HAJAA1 wrote:
Yeah I think you need a lesson on how things really work out there. It's the laws / lawmakers / judges that are letting the criminals "escape:.....not the law enforcers. That and the crowded prisons. You must simply be one of those police haters.
on March 20,2013 | 09:07AM
RetiredWorking wrote:
I've read seven posts from foursun, and ALL of them put the locals down. Hmmmm. BTW, I'm a government worker. Do you have a crystal ball that shows how I work? Or are you generalizing that tens of thousands of government workers ALL slack off? Hmmm.
on March 20,2013 | 09:27AM
foursun wrote:
no, very few are good at what they do the state does bring in expertise from the mainland and that's what prevents the local government from completely imploding from laziness and incompetence. They're the ones that get the work done so the others can take it easy.
on March 20,2013 | 08:07PM
foursun wrote:
more than likely you made your post while you were suppossed to be working.
on March 20,2013 | 08:08PM
Grimbold wrote:
This comment has been deleted.
on March 20,2013 | 06:46AM
AhiPoke wrote:
Sorry but I don't agree with this victim mentality. IMO, most of the low-income American workers are uneducated and/or lazy. With all of the opportunities available, many Americans chose chose to play video games and/or do drugs instead of studying and improving their abilities. I've seen both sides. I've witnessed many high school graduates with such poor skills they made me wonder how they graduated. I've also seen workers from poor immigrant families excel due to effort. I do agree with your comment that, "The future of America's low income workers and most others is bleak and , and crime and taxes will rise.". Unless American youth get off their butts and strive to improve their skills the future of America will depend on enticing immigrants to live here.
on March 20,2013 | 08:43AM
Bdpapa wrote:
Wow what a surprise! What does one expect? If you make low pay and have hard time eking out a living, of course the future looks gloomy. Improve yourself and find a better job or work more hours like the rest of us.
on March 20,2013 | 06:57AM
SueH wrote:
on March 20,2013 | 08:56AM
HD36 wrote:
My Granpa was a low wage earner, selling sewing machines. Yet he bought 3 houses. The value of the dollar has dropped 98% since 1913, the same year the Federal Reserve gained the power to print our money.
on March 20,2013 | 08:15AM
RetiredWorking wrote:
The best way to raise your standard of living is to marry another wage earner, then manage your time, energy and $$ wisely. The worst way to lower your standard of living is to have children before you're even able to take care of yourselves. Delayed gratification is key.
on March 20,2013 | 09:33AM
HD36 wrote:
My friends grandfather raised 8 kids, wife never worked, on a meager job as a carpenter.
on March 20,2013 | 09:48AM
Grimbold wrote:
This comment has been deleted.
on March 20,2013 | 10:33AM
foursun wrote:
agree locals breed like rabbits overburdening resources
on March 20,2013 | 08:10PM
RetiredWorking wrote:
HD36, I bet your grandparents were excellent money managers and used their resources well. And Grandma was a good cook and seamstress!
on March 20,2013 | 04:13PM
foursun wrote:
or get a government job, don't do your work and post to the SA when you're suppossed to be working
on March 20,2013 | 08:09PM
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