Thursday, September 27, 2012

Chicago's Growing Low-wage Workforce: Older and Better Educated

New report shows nearly one in three Chicagoans depends on low-wage jobs with insufficient earnings to support a household; changing demographics show over half are over the age of thirty and over one-third have completed at least some college.

CHICAGO — According to a new report, nearly one-third of Chicago’s employed now work in low-wage jobs earning too little to support an individual, let alone a family, without relying on public assistance or charity. The report, “Chicago’s Growing Low-Wage Workforce: A Profile of Falling Labor Market Fortunes,” finds that as more job seekers pursue fewer jobs, the number of low-wage workers in the Chicago Metro area has grown, and their identity has changed significantly. Contrary to popular misconceptions, the majority (57.4%) of Chicago’s low-wage workers are now over the age of 30 and over one-third (34.7%) have attended at least some college.

The report is authored by Marc Doussard, assistant professor of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, prepared for Women Employed (WE) and Action Now Institute.

The report defines low-wage work according to the Illinois self-sufficiency standard, or the approximate hourly income necessary to meet the basic needs of a single adult without public assistance, which is roughly just $24,000 per year. Based on this standard, the report concludes that not only minimum wage jobs but all low-wage jobs are inadequate to pay for basic necessities such as rent, food, transportation and clothing for most workers, particularly as more low-wage workers are older individuals supporting families.

Amie Crawford, a 56-year-old former interior designer now working at a quick service restaurant for minimum wage exemplifies this change.  “At this age I had planned to be coasting towards retirement after more than 30 years of honing my craft and advancing in my profession, I am now eating into the little savings I have left as I struggle to live on minimum wage. No health insurance or benefits of any kind. If business is slow I don’t work, no pay, end of story.”

Doussard’s research indicates that the growth and demographic changes in Chicago’s low wage workforce over the last ten years are the result of a long trend beginning with weak job growth, de-unionization and erosion of the value of minimum wage. Doussard points to this as “a disturbing reminder that an increasing amount of the population does everything right and doesn’t get the material rewards we expect from work.”

Women and non-white workers have always been over-represented in low-wage jobs, and remain a disproportionately large portion of the low-wage workforce today. In addition, the evidence suggests that a marginal increase in male and white low-wage workers has displaced some low-wage women and African-American workers out of the labor market all together.

“Families aren’t supplementing core income with low-wage earnings anymore,” says WE’s Director of Equal Opportunity Policy Melissa Josephs. “The typical low-wage job is now held by the breadwinner, and for women who are supporting families, this is simply not enough to keep everyone clothed and fed. And when women are forced out of even low-paying jobs, we’re facing a real problem that can’t be ignored.”

The report concludes that the growing problem of low-wage work is creating an economic crisis for families and communities in Chicago and across the country, and it requires a multi-point response, beginning with an increase in Illinois’ minimum wage. Doussard urges policymakers to act on other steps such as living wage ordinances, paid sick time, and enforcement of fair labor standards laws to address the damage low wages are inflicting on Chicago’s families, economic health, and future prospects. 

The report in its entirety is available at:

About Women Employed
Women Employed is a 39-year-old non-profit organization that promotes fair workplace practices, helps increase access to training and education, and provides women with innovative tools and information to move into careers paying family-supporting wages. For more information, visit, or follow us on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.

About Marc Doussard
Marc Doussard is Assistant Professor in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

About Action Now Institute
Action Now Insitute (ANI) strengthens the voices of people in less-advantaged communities through leadership development, civic engagement and direct outreach. More information is available at, or on Twitter @ANInstitute and Facebook.


# # #