In the Labor Force & in Poverty

According to a recent Bureau of Labor Statistics report there were 34.0 million people, or 10.5% of the population, living below the poverty level in the United States in 2019. Although these are “primarily” adults who are not in the labor force, and children, 6.3 individuals constitute the working poor, those who were in the labor force for at least 27 weeks, working or looking for work, but whose incomes remain below the poverty level. But, that population as a share of all individuals who were in the force for the requisite weeks, fell to 4.0% in 2019, the lowest in the series that goes back to 1986, from 4.5% in 2018. In 1986 the rate was 6.2%, dropped and then rose to 6.7% in 1993, fell into 2001, topped out at 7.2% in 2010, and has been steadily falling with a mini plateau in 2017-18.

Full-time employment (FT) helps a lot, with only 2.7% of those working FT among the working poor, but 9.8% of those working part-time. Women are “more likely” to be among the working poor, 4.5%, than men, 3.5%, and Blacks and Latinos are “much more likely” than Whites and Asians to be so classified. 2.3% of Asian workers earn wages below the poverty level, as do 3.5% of White workers, 7.0 of Hispanic workers, and 7.2% of Black workers. Asian men, 2.4%. have a higher rate than women, 2.3%, but rates for women are higher in all other demographics. The highest rate, 14.5%, is among black women aged 24 to 34 or in their teenaged years, followed by Black men aged 20-24, 10.7%.

Education matters, but it’s no shoo-in. About eleven percent of white workers with four years of high school yet no diploma earn poverty wages, as do 22% of Blacks, 13.9% of Hispanics, and 7.5% of Asians. Overall, only 1.4% of those with Bachelor’s degrees are among the working poor, no difference between men and women. Although white women with BAs are only 0.1pps more likely to be in poverty than men, 1.4%, 1.9% of Black women with college degrees rank among the working poor, as do 0.8% of men, the smallest share. That breakout is reversed among Asian workers, with women at 0.9%, while among Hispanic workers, women are above, 1.9%, and men a bit below, 1.6%, the average, 1.7%.
One fifth of families maintained by women with a child under 18, a demographic we and many others consider highly motivated, earn wages beneath the poverty line, more than twice the share of families maintained by men, 9%. Families with children under 18 and one person in the labor force were five times as likely to live in poverty as those without children.