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Nov. 16, 2021, 10:06 a.m. EST

They aren’t poor exactly, but tens of millions of hardworking Americans struggle to pay the bills

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By Celine-Marie Pascale

Michael Chase works two jobs in southeast Ohio: one as a hotel night clerk and one as retail support—sorting through donations, setting new merchandise out, cleaning—at a nonprofit.

His schedule is not fixed in either job, and his hours are not guaranteed. Some weeks he works back-to-back eight-hour shifts. Some weeks he works fewer than 30 hours. Neither job offers sick leave, vacation time or health insurance.

Chase shares an apartment with three other people, something he finds stressful. And he is not always confident that he can make his portion of the rent. Between the two jobs, Chase earns less than $16,000 a year. While it may not sound like a lot, that places him well above the federal  poverty line for a single person : $12,760.

As a  sociologist  concerned with inequality, I spent one year conducting field work and interviews across the country for  my recent book , which examines how Americans cope with economic struggles amid stagnant wages and rising costs of living.

Nearly everyone I interviewed worked multiple service-industry jobs. Yet I didn’t meet anyone who thought of themselves as poor.

More commonly they referred to themselves as the struggling class: They struggle economically and hold an often unfounded hope that things will get better. But you can’t work your way out of poverty in low-wage jobs.

Low-wage jobs in the 21st century are not only the lowest rung on a career ladder, they are often the only rung.

Across the country,  millions of low-wage workers  like Chase struggle to pay their bills each month, despite holding multiple jobs.

Defining poverty

“I’m fine,” Chase told me. “I don’t consider myself poor…I guess I would say I am struggling a little bit. For me, people who don’t have food are poor. Or someone who can’t feed their kids, or you might not have running water or even electricity. You don’t have the right things you need to even survive.”

Chase was not unusual in his assessment of poverty.

The economic struggles of millions in the United States are erased by the federal definition of the poverty line and by outdated conceptions of low-wage work.

A recent study  by the Brookings Institution defined low-wage work as a median hourly wage of $10.22, or $17,950 per year. By this measure, 44% of all workers in the U.S. are low-wage earners.

In 2021, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, a worker needs to earn  $20.40 per hour  to be able to afford a modest one-bedroom apartment anywhere in the country. That’s an annual salary of $40,800—more than twice what Brookings refers to as the median wage for low-wage work.

Federal wage data shows that roughly  51% of workers  earn less than $35,000 annually. Low wages, unreliable hours and a lack of benefits have come to dominate the U.S. economic landscape.

To understand the economic hardship that more than half of Americans face, it is critical that researchers shift their thinking away from an outdated federal measure of poverty. Instead, they should focus on measures of self-sufficiency.

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