Two jobs not enough

Second-class: A growing number of families have jobs but don't earn enough to pay their bills.


MIAMI - John and Kelly Delgado moved their family to Homestead, Fla., from Indiana in August, thinking his native South Florida roots would make the area their land of opportunity.

They now regret the move.

"We never have any money," said Kelly Delgado, 32. "Every month, we're robbing Peter to pay Paul and then figuring out how to do it again. It's so expensive to live here. I can't afford to buy uniforms for school. My son had a field trip; it cost $8. He used the birthday money, $12, my mom sent him. It's been a very rough year."

The problem: John Delgado, 34, earns $6 an hour as a nursery laborer while Kelly, a medical administrative assistant with two associate's degrees, earns $8.50 an hour at a doctor's office. It's just not enough without food stamps, help from social service agencies and emergency cash from their parents.

The Delgados are part of a vast second-class economy of working poor people who cannot live on their earnings.

"These are people who are playing by all the rules of the game," said Oren Wunderman, executive director of the nonprofit Family Resource Center of South Florida, which helped the Delgados find an apartment. "They've got jobs; they're working. But they can't make ends meet."

They've been dubbed the invisible work force. Because these people are working, they don't qualify for many government benefits. But they don't make enough - typically less than $10 an hour - to lift a family out of poverty.

And there will be more of them. Of the 20 occupations that the U.S. Labor Department expects will see the biggest growth between 2002 and 2012, 17 are considered low-wage jobs. Only three require college degrees.

"It's not a lack of work ethic," said Bruce Katz, vice president of the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. "It's the structure of the economy that is creating jobs that don't pay enough to make ends meet."

Treasury Secretary John W. Snow said the administration has implemented several policies that help low-income workers, including tax cuts and more training programs.

But many economists say the federal government is underestimating the problem because it doesn't classify many low-wage workers as poor, due to unrealistically low poverty standards. The poverty rate rose from 11.7 percent in 2001 to 12.1 percent in 2002 - the latest statistic available.

For example, a family of four with an annual income of about $18,500 - an hourly wage of $8.89 - is poor, according to the federal government. In reality, that family is extremely poor, according to the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington think tank.

"A good measure of poverty is twice the poverty line," said Jared Bernstein, the institute's senior economist. "A family of four with income below $30,000 in any city in this country is going to have trouble making ends meet." A $30,000-a-year income requires an hourly salary of $14.42.

The working poor encompass everyone from hotel maids and clerical workers to teacher's aides and construction workers. They are not just unskilled labor, said Harriet Spivak, executive director of South Florida Workforce. "Many of these jobs require an associate's degree or some training. They're not low-skilled."

But they typically don't pay a wage sufficient to live on. About 24 percent of workers earn less than $9 an hour, the federal poverty line for a family of four, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

Stella Williams, a 55-year-old single mother of four in Miami, works 64 hours a week at two nursing-home jobs paying $8 and $9 an hour. If she works less, she cannot come up with the $850 rent, put food on the table and pay the bills.

"I'm living paycheck to paycheck. You think if people work, they wouldn't have to live like this."

The growth in low-wage jobs essentially results from sweeping shifts in the U.S. economy: from manufacturing to services, from domestic to overseas production, from unionized to nonunion workers, from humans to automation. Add to that a highly competitive marketplace where low-overhead giants such as Wal-Mart drive costs down across the board.

The dilemma of low-wage earners looks as if it will worsen because of other factors in the economy, say economists and labor-market analysts.

Although inflation has slowed in recent years to nearly negligible blips, the nation has undergone a housing boom that has brought skyrocketing rents and home prices.

To make ends meet, more working people are seeking help from social service groups and the government.

Nonprofit organizations report a huge increase in demand for everything from housing to food to childcare.

Chantres Moody, a teacher's aide who earns $6.50 an hour at a day-care center, said she would not be able to get by without a generous child-care subsidy for her three small children from the nonprofit Family Central of Broward County, plus $80 a month in food stamps.

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