There’s No Money In Working Anymore

Whizy Kim

When’s the last time you got a raise, and how much was it? For so many Americans, the answer is too long ago and not enough. Last year, the Brookings Institution took a deep look at pay across the U.S., and found that almost half of workers — 44% — earn low wages. Almost a third of low-wage workers were below 150% of the federal poverty level. The median pay among low-wage workers was around $10.22/hr. And when wages stay the same, they’re not really staying the same. Factoring in inflation, workers are getting paid less and less every year. It’s not enough to live on.

Tiffany Lowe has been working in fast food restaurants for the past 19 years. At her first job, she made $6.50 an hour. Today she’s a KFC cashier in Memphis, Tennessee, and makes $7.85 an hour — an increase of less than $2 in almost two decades. She used to make $7.65, but got a $0.20 raise last December. “It’s very hard to survive,” she says. “I stay with my mom now. I have to worry about food. I can’t move and get an apartment, because for a decent apartment it’s at least $550.”

The median rent in Memphis is $884. The National Low Income Housing Coalition released a report last week showing that there isn’t a single county in the U.S. where a full-time worker making minimum wage can afford a two-bedroom apartment. Lowe has four children; her oldest daughter is 19 and works at KFC with her while she also attends college. Her other children are 11, 7, and 6. According to the MIT Living Wage Calculator, in Shelby County, where Memphis is, a living wage for an adult supporting three children would be $32.68/hr.

And Lowe is far from alone. Even Martha Ross, a senior fellow at Brookings and one of the authors of the report on low-wage workers, was taken aback by the extent of the problem. “You know, I was surprised that it was at 44%,” she says. “To me, that made it clear that this is not only about workers and their ability or desire to get ahead — but about the need to build a labor market that offers chances to do that.”

Ross says there are two common misconceptions about low-wage work. “One is that they’re mostly young people who are going to, as they get more experience or graduate from college or high school, move on as a matter of course,” she says. “Most low-wage workers are not young.”

“Another misconception is that it’s temporary — that you can easily move up. And that is not borne out by the data,” she says. This is particularly true if you don’t have a college degree. “If you’re a person with relatively low levels of education, your chances of upward mobility are really, really limited.” Among low-wage workers, the share of people between the ages of 18 to 24 and currently in college is just 7%.

Various studies have shown that while the U.S. wants to think of itself as a land of opportunity, economic mobility is tough. In a comparison of income inequality among 35 countries in the OECD, the U.S. ranks 32nd. One study found that while Americans whose parents’ income was in the bottom fifth managed to rise to the top fifth income bracket about 8% of the time, we optimistically believe there’s a 12% chance. In Canada, the actual chance of rising from the very bottom to the very top is about 13.5%.


Low-wage work is, of course, not just a general problem facing Americans. It’s more specifically a gender and race problem. The Brookings report found that “women, people of color, and those with low levels of education are the most likely to stay in low-wage jobs.” According to the National Women’s Law Center, women make up almost two-thirds of minimum wage workers. And while both men and women do low-wage work, the gender makeup varies a lot depending on age group and education level. Of low-wage workers ages 18-24 who have no college degree and aren’t currently in school, 57% are men. But among low-wage workers ages 25-50 who have at least an associate’s degree, 62% are women. This indicates that women are more likely to be employed in a low-wage job even with a college degree.

Women, and especially women of color, also dominate in some of the lowest-paying industries. “Black and Latinx women specifically make up between 26% to 28% of those working in the service sector,” says Dr. C. Nicole Mason, president and CEO of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. “These are jobs that are lower paying, have fewer benefits, less job security, the first to go when there’s an economic downturn.”

Among all Latinx workers in the U.S., 63% make low wages. Among Black workers, 54% do. Yet despite these facts, racial wealth inequality doesn’t seem to have really sunk in for the country overall. While Americans overestimate how easy it is to pull yourself up by your bootstraps, we severely underestimate the wealth gap between white and Black people  — according to a study by Yale researchers, we think it’s about 80% smaller than it really is. Mason sets the record straight. “The median wealth for Black families is $17,000,” she says. “For white families, it’s $171,000. It’s criminal.”

These factors should throw into question how we measure the health of the economy and job market overall. At the end of last year, before anyone had heard of COVID-19, we were celebrating unemployment levels at a 50-year low. By that measure, finding a good job should have been easy. And yet in reality, more and more people were throwing themselves headfirst into the gig economy and side hustling themselves to exhaustion. The unemployment rate only shows that people who are looking for a job have found one; it doesn’t show that they’ve found good jobs. In fact, a growing number of workers are what’s called involuntary part-time workers — people who work part-time because they can’t find a full-time job.

“[The unemployment rate] is important, and we shouldn’t lose it,“ says Ross. “[But] if wages aren’t enough to support yourself, then the low unemployment rate doesn’t mean that people are doing well.” According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, between 2016 and 2026, the jobs experiencing the greatest growth will be personal care aides, food preparation and serving workers, home health aides, registered nurses, and software app devs. Except for the last, all of these jobs are mostly held by women, and the first three pay low wages. It means the problem of low-wage work is just going to get worse — unless something is done about it.


That so many people aren’t making a living wage isn’t some new reality of the coronavirus. It reached this point over several decades, as wages failed to rise. One easy way to see this is the productivity-pay ratio. In theory, when the productivity of workers goes up — as in, they produce more per hour — their pay should go up too. Between 1979 and 2018, the productivity of U.S. workers went up by almost 70%. Wages, though? Just 11.6%. And it’s not a mystery why the math has shifted. In 1965, CEOs of publicly traded companies made about 20 times more than a typical full-time worker did. In 2014, they made about 304 times what a typical worker did. The highest 1% of wages ballooned by 138% between 1973 and 2013. For the bottom 90% of wages, there was just 15% growth during that time period.

There are other contributing factors, including declines in unions and increases in automation. Globalization has also allowed U.S. companies to employ cheap labor in other countries. But ultimately, a living wage is not like the weather — something you observe and predict but can’t control. If the bottom line was that, as a country, we believe everyone deserves a living wage, the economy could be structured around that immutable fact. Ross says it’s policy and political choices, not “impersonal economic forces,” that have allowed poverty wages to proliferate.

“We need to lead with our values,” Mason agrees. “As opposed to, ‘Oh, maybe you just need to do some reskilling or work a little bit harder’ — no, that’s not it. Start from a place where you lead with, ‘These basic things should be guaranteed to all Americans.’” 

If minimum wage had risen proportionate to productivity, it would have been $19.33 in 2017. The federal minimum wage was set to $7.25 in 2009 and has remained stubbornly rooted there, despite repeated calls for an increase to $15. Though many states have set their own minimum wage, there’s not a single statewide minimum wage of $15 yet.

Where Lowe lives, employers aren’t required to pay a cent over $7.25. Tennessee is one of five states that doesn’t have its own minimum wage. It’s why, around two years ago, she got involved with Fight For $15 — a nationwide movement of workers who have been fighting for a federal minimum wage of $15, as well as health care, child care, and unions since 2012. When Lowe was first approached by Fight For $15 representatives, she wasn’t sure if she’d want to get involved. “But as time went on, I just got fed up,” she says. “We’re not being paid enough. They don’t care about us. Just all-around slave wages — I had to stand up and say enough is enough.”

Last year, Lowe gave a speech on Capitol Hill the day the House introduced the Raise the Wage Act, a proposal to hike the federal minimum wage to $15 by 2025. Nancy Pelosi, Bernie Sanders, and Chuck Schumer, among other politicians, surrounded Lowe. “I feel like [the lawmakers] were with us, the energy that I got was that they were on our side,” she says. “But it has to go through the Senate. That’s the problem.” In July 2019, it did pass the House. The Senate didn’t even vote on it.


Now it’s July 2020, and coronavirus cases are continuing to climb at a terrifying rate. “I’ve been having anxiety attacks,” says Lowe. “My son has a weak immune system, and I’m afraid that I’m going to come home and bring him the virus.” Her immunocompromised son is 7 years old.

For Lowe, the virus is not the beginning of hardship. It’s her breaking point. “It’s not possible to stand six feet apart in the restaurant industry,” she says. “So basically, you’re just taking a chance on your life for a couple of dollars. I mean, it’s devastating.” She says that being called an essential worker is “a slap in the face.”

Jamila Allen feels similarly. She’s 24 and a supervisor at restaurant chain Freddy’s in Durham, North Carolina, and also a member of Fight For $15. She thinks she was promoted to supervisor because her coworkers relied on her already and came to her when they had questions. “I think I could say I’m keeping the store running,” she says. She makes $11/hr for that responsibility. “I need to get paid more for dealing with difficult customers. I need to get paid more for cleaning up after everybody. I need to get paid more for risking my life coming to work every day, because we’re still in a pandemic.”

And in the midst of a pandemic, Allen rides the bus to work. “I hate it, but I have no choice,” she says. It’s either the bus or paying for a rideshare every day. “That’s like $13 a day. I can’t afford that.”

Asked whether she’s ever seriously considered quitting — deciding that the danger isn’t worth it — Allen admits that she has. “I really did. When [the pandemic] first started, I had a lot of questions,” she says. “I was asking, ‘How are we doing this? What is happening?’” She pauses. “But yeah. I guess more or less, I need the money. I have to work.” 

Since the virus hit, she’s been involved in several strikes for hazard pay, paid sick leave, and other protections. “I think we’ve done at least two virtual strikes.” A virtual strike, she explains, is “a lot of Zoom calls.” During one, they were on a call with senators who listened as they stated their demands. “And we’re planning a strike for July 20th. That’s for Black lives,” she says.

The Strike for Black Lives is a major event — tens of thousands of workers are joining together in nationwide strikes demanding a better social and economic reality for Black Americans. Participants include members of Fight for $15, Service Employees International Union, American Federation of Teachers, National Domestic Workers Alliance, Movement for Black Lives, Poor People’s Campaign, Working Families Party, and many more. Among the strike’s stated demands is that “corporations take immediate action to dismantle racism, white supremacy, and economic exploitation wherever it exists, including in our workplaces.”

This is how Allen explains the status of the low-wage worker in America: “We are essential, but we’re not essential at the same time. Because they need us to work, but they could easily fire us at the same time. We’re valuable, but we’re also expendable.” It almost sounds like some clever riddle you have to puzzle out. But it’s not; it’s just hypocrisy. “That’s why we need to organize,” she says.

If Allen were making $15/hr starting tomorrow, she says she would probably get her own place first. “I could afford a car,” she muses. “I could have enough money for the payments every month. I could easily save more money, and save it quicker. I could go back to school.” She says she’d maybe study to become a veterinarian.

And what would Lowe be able to afford with $15? “A house,” she says immediately. “Extra-curricular activities [for my kids]. It’s not much, but it’s a start.”

Allen agrees that it’s just a start. “Eventually we’re going to need more,” she says. Political movement on the minimum wage is taking so long that by that time a new law passes, and the new threshold is actually instituted, the new minimum may be sorely inadequate. After all, Fight For $15 began in 2012. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) has suggested that a federal minimum wage of $20 is more appropriate.

One thing is clear. Life has been difficult for far too many people long before the pandemic. There’s no nostalgia for the past; this year, across the country, there’s been an explosion of strikes and protests that are determined to forge a different reality. There’s no going back. “Everything is on the table,” says Lowe. “Everyone knows what’s going on, because we scream this all the time. Give us what we need.”

Like what you see? How about some more R29 goodness, right here?

Why Amazon & Target Workers Are Striking Today

What Is Equal Pay Day, Anyway?

More From

  • So Neck Gaiters Don’t Make Good Face Masks. What Should I Use Instead?

    Until this week, Nate Favini, MD, religiously wore a neck gaiter on his daily runs. He also avoided saying hello to people, instead opting to “wave, and sort of bow my head to say thank you if they moved out of the way for me.” He took these precautions in order to minimize the spread of COVID-19, which can be passed via respiratory droplets exhaled when you speak, or cough, or sneeze. But this morning, he switched up this routine, ditching the gaiter for a proper mask.The reason for the change: On Tuesday, August 11, a study was published that looked into the effectiveness of 14 different types of face masks. And the results seemed to indicate that certain neck gaiters might be worse than not wearing a face covering at all, says Warren S. Warren, Ph.D., one of the study’s co-authors and a professor of chemistry at Duke University.“We found there were instances where somebody wearing a gaiter or bandana emitted more droplets than they did not wearing it,” Warren says. “The only way that’s possible is because the loose weave of the fabric is breaking up bigger droplets into smaller ones. That’s bad, because big droplets tend to fall to the ground very quickly, and smaller droplets go for a longer distance.” That’s right — we may have been better off going bare-faced than we were wearing our gaiters. That’s not to say that Warren is recommending running sans face covering, especially if you live in a more densely populated area. But ditch the gaiter for a more effective option. “This morning I went running and wore a surgical mask instead,” says Dr. Favini, the medical lead at Forward, a concierge medical service. “It can be hard to run with something covering your mouth and it can make breathing more challenging, but it does matter to protect those around you.” If you prefer a reusable option, the study found that cotton masks were nearly as effective as surgical masks.In general, Warren says, the more breathable a mask is, the less you should trust it — bad news for runners, who have been relying on airier coverings to get them through hot-weather runs. That doesn’t mean your mask has to be stifling, but: “My personal rule of thumb is that if I can see through the mask, or can stretch the fabric, it probably isn’t doing a whole lot of good,” Warren says.He also recommends getting a mask with a strap that wraps around your head instead of looping over your ears; the former stays in place better when you’re active. And while Warren says you should keep one on while running amongst people, he notes that it’s fine to pull the covering down when you’re in an isolated area. If you, like Dr. Favini, had been using a neck gaiter as a mask on your runs, there’s no need to lose sleep, says Preeti N. Malani, MD, Chief Health Officer at the University of Michigan. “The thing is, if you’re outdoors and you were running alone, it’s probably okay,” Dr. Malani says. “Being outside is a lower risk environment.” Sure, switch to a surgical or cotton mask now — but don’t let the news deter you from being active outdoors, if that’s your usual routine. “I’m worried there’s a group of people who’ll be afraid to go outside,” she says. “We need to keep in mind that there are other risks besides COVID. There’s loneliness, social isolation, and not getting exercise.” Like what you see? How about some more R29 goodness, right here?We Found The Face Masks With The Highest ReviewsCondoms Can Teach Us A Lot About Face MasksIt's Hot. But You Still Need To Wear A Face Mask

  • 8 At-Home Facial Tools That’ll Turn Your Bathroom Into A Spa

    We've lost count of the number of times we've squinted into our magnifying mirror during quarantine and thought, "Damn, I need a facial." But even though social distancing has put a damper on our quarterly pore-purging appointments, that doesn't mean our skin has to suffer for it.  You can play at-home facialist with the products already in your bathroom cabinet, but the right tools will get you even closer to the professional experience. Whether it's a stone roller to massage away tension and puffiness or a vibrating cleansing device to go deep into your pores, we've rounded up some of the best tools to add to your routine. Now, light a candle, pop on the "Relaxing Massage" playlist on Spotify, and float far, far away from the tiny bathroom you've been stuck in for months. At Refinery29, we’re here to help you navigate this overwhelming world of stuff. All of our market picks are independently selected and curated by the editorial team. If you buy something we link to on our site, Refinery29 may earn commission. Like what you see? How about some more R29 goodness, right here?

  • Two Florida Men Were Arrested For Selling A Deadly COVID-19 “Cure”

    Colombian officials arrested two Florida men who were wanted in the United States for illegally selling a chemical solution similar to pool cleaner through their church as a miracle cure for the coronavirus. Mark and Joseph Grenon, father and son, were arrested in Santa Marta where they were shipping their “Miracle Mineral Solution” to clients in the U.S., Colombia, Africa, and elsewhere.Mark Grenon is the archbishop of the Genesis II Church of Health and Healing in Bradenton, FL. One of the beliefs it espouses is the use of toxic chemicals as a sacrament to cure all manner of illnesses and conditions —from cancer to autism, and now COVID-19. The Food and Drug Administration received reports of people being hospitalized and developing life-threatening health conditions after drinking the solution. The FDA analyzed the “Miracle Mineral Solution” and found that it contained chemicals commonly used in treating textiles, industrial water, and paper. At least seven Americans have died from using the substance; it is unclear if there have been any deaths from it in other countries. But Grenon are part of a larger wanted party dispersing the deadly “cure.” In April, the Food and Drug Administration issued an injunction against the church for marketing “Miracle Mineral Solution” as a cure for the virus. It was ignored. Federal agents responded by showing up to the church with search warrants, a federal order, and a hazmat team in July, reports CBS Miami. Inside, they found 50 gallons of muriatic acid, 22 gallons of the miracle solution, and 8,300 pounds of sodium chlorite. The same day, Mark Grenon and his three adult sons Jonathan, Jordan, and Joseph Grenon were charged with conspiracy to defraud the United States, conspiracy to violate the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, and criminal contempt. According to court documents, a federal judge ordered all websites selling “Miracle Mineral Solution” to remove the product, and all supplies involved in making it are required to be confiscated and destroyed. Furthermore, the creation of future websites to market the product is prohibited. The church is also required to reach out to everyone who bought the chemical solution to notify them that the product was distributed unlawfully and is dangerous to ingest. This also isn’t the first time the family has peddled their concoction as a cure. Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, the Grenons marketed the solution as a treatment for preventing and curing Alzheimer’s disease, brain cancer, autism, HIV/AIDS, and multiple sclerosis. Investigators first discovered it being marketed as a coronavirus cure in March. In April, Mark Grenon wrote to President Donald Trump encouraging him to embrace the product as a solution for containing the virus, The Guardian revealed. MMS “can rid the body of COVID-19,” reads the letter. A few days later, Trump was now-famously quoted raising the idea of injecting disinfectant into the body as a cure for coronavirus. “Is there a way we can do something, by an injection inside or almost a cleaning?” said Trump. He later insisted he was being sarcastic.Mark Grenon has since admitted to U.S. investigators that the church “has nothing to do with religion” and that it is solely to “legalize the use of MMS” and avoid “going to jail,” according to court documents filed in Florida. The Grenons were reportedly making around $120,000 a month selling the solution, a four-fold increase from previous sales prior to the pandemic.“We will NOT be participating in any of your UNCONSTITUTIONAL Orders, Summons, etc.” an email from Mark Grenon to U.S. District Judge Kathleen Williams. “Again and again I have written you all that…you have NO authority over our Church.”If convicted of all charges, they all face at least 14 years in prison with the possibility of more than 17 years.Like what you see? How about some more R29 goodness, right here?19 Women On The Long-Term Effects Of COVID-19Would A Coronavirus Vaccine Be Free For Everyone?Trump Dangerously Suggests Disinfectants As Cure

  • 10 Bestsellers That Outdoor Voices Can Hardly Keep In Stock

    Athleisure's been having its moment in the fashion spotlight for a while now — but 2020 is officially its biggest year yet. As we've collectively found ourselves stuck at home amidst a global pandemic, the casual-cool style is what we've been living in. Our go-to brand that checks the boxes of durable enough for a workout, comfy enough for the couch, AND cute enough for a Zoom meeting (all things we've been doing a lot of lately)? Outdoor Voices. The Austin-based athleisure-wear staple has continued to serve up cult-favorite styles from sports-bra crop tops to super-soft leggings and much more in an array of refreshing colorways — most of which almost always sell out. We went ahead and combed the site's ever-popular selection for the top-rated styles that shoppers can't stop adding to cart. Whether it's a pair of TechSweats to get you through the hottest of summer runs or an Exercise Dress to serve as your new WFH uniform, better nab these OV bestsellers now while they're still in stock. At Refinery29, we’re here to help you navigate this overwhelming world of stuff. All of our market picks are independently selected and curated by the editorial team. If you buy something we link to on our site, Refinery29 may earn commission.Like what you see? How about some more R29 goodness, right here?Outdoor Voices' New Collab Is Biking Goals8 Pairs Of Lighter Than Air Leggings For SummerThe Best Summer Workout Bottoms Are Bike Shorts