Family Values @ Work

Low-wage jobs take toll on families

December 4, 2012

A recent report paints a bleak picture: An economy fueled by low-wage jobs will take a big toll on future generations.

The holiday season begins anew, chaotic and redundant, moving into full gear for those of us lucky to have jobs and cash to spend. At some point this season, you will hand your money to a cashier or salesperson and then you will head home exhausted.

Most of us really aren’t in the habit of thinking much about those workers’ home lives. Why should we? We want good deals, low prices and bargains galore. But what we may not realize is that low prices and the jobs that support them are coming at a cost to our future generation.

Today, one in six U.S. adolescents faces higher risk of obesity, dropping out of school and getting pregnant as teens because their parents are working low-wage jobs. It’s not just the low pay that creates problems: Many of these parents work unpredictable and inflexible schedules that conflict with family time and homework supervision. These mothers and fathers get stuck in jobs that lack advancement, stability, and benefits such as health insurance, paid sick leave and vacation days.

Kids pay the price when mom and dad can barely afford groceries, let alone an afterschool program, or to stay home with a sick child.

Is this the anti-poverty strategy our country is counting on to lead us toward more prosperous times?

“Simply having a job is not enough for parents to ensure a successful future for their kids,” says Randy Randy Albelda, an economist at the University of Massachusetts who along with Boston College sociologist Lisa Dodson authored a newly released report called How Youth Are Put At Risk By Parents Low Wage Jobs.

As a nation, this is egg on our face and it’s about to drip down our neck as the population of parents who work these type of jobs increases. For the last few years during the recovery, low-wage positions have been where the majority of job growth has been. Even worse, low-wage work is projected to account for two of every three new jobs in the United States over the next decade, according to the report.

That is staggering in its potential to effect the future generation.

By now, most of us realize that today’s workplaces are out of sync with the needs of today’s workers and families. Most Americans at all income levels say they struggle with work and family conflict. But we are increasingly discovering that when parents aren’t able to be there for their kids in the way they want or need to be, the results are ugly.

Albelda’s report finds that children in households headed by a low-income worker are being raised with a minimum of parental supervision, lack of routine and often are being forced to assume responsibilities they are not mature enough to manage. The early onrush of adult responsibility often takes a toll on the kids’ health, education and development, particularly when they drop out of high school. Albelda says the report is the first to examine the link between parents’ low-wage jobs and the risk to their kids and she argues that teenaged children in low-wage families are effectively subsidizing their parents’ employment.

Already, there are 16 million families headed by parents in jobs that pay less than $11.50 an hour such as cashiers, nurses’ aides, janitors, salespeople, food servers, daycare workers and elder-care attendants, according to the report.

For the most part, employers always have treated these workers as cheap and disposable and now scurry to find ways to cut hours to avoid paying soon to be required health insurance benefits. Employers often argue they must stay economically competitive by keeping salaries low and benefits non-existent. If this is true, it comes at a price to our youth.

Albelda says the long-term affect could become a vicious cycle: These parents are raising children who aren’t easily able to develop the skills they need to do better than a low-wage job for themselves as adults.

It’s a pretty awful outlook for the future generation if we don’t make changes.

“Employers are just not seeing that their focus on profits is short term,” says Daniella Levine, founder and CEO of Catalyst Miami, a nonprofit that uses civic engagement to improve health, education and economic opportunity for Miami-Dade residents. “By not investing in their employees they are not investing in their future workforce or future customers.”

And now, here comes the fiscal cliff, with its threat to cut funding to afterschool, subsidized child care and mentoring programs and that low wage workers desperately rely on. “The choices we are about to face are so important to the future of our workforce and our educational system and quality of life for these children and families,” Levine says.

If we’re going to break this cycle and give the next generation opportunities they deserve, we need to think differently.

Albelda suggests a start is recognizing the link between low-wage jobs and children’s education and getting the right policy makers talking to each other. “We have to look at why we’re spending on education reform when improving family lives will improve education scores and provide opportunity for kids in the future.”

As important is improving the quality of low-wage jobs. Albelda says we already see efforts to get more flexibility and stability around schedules. We also see some policy makers who understand and have lobbied successfully for parental job benefits such as paid sick leave. So far, Washington, D.C., and cities such as Seattle and San Francisco have approved mandatory paid sick leave laws along with the state of Connecticut.

Yet, it’s disappointing that recent efforts in Miami-Dade County to provide low-wage workers with paid sick leave failed. Business associations lobbied hard against paid sick leave, calling the effort “burdensome, job-killing regulations on private sector employers in the county.” But advocates say they see the effect on families and will continue to push for the passage of the Miami-Dade Earned Sick Time Ordinance. “In low-wage families, it’s common to see teens miss school to stay home with a sick little brother or sister because their parents can’t earn paid sick days,” said Deborah Dion, campaign manager for Miami-Dade Coalition for Healthy Families and Workplaces.

Until change happens, it is the children of workers at the stores where we shop and the pancake houses where we eat who are suffering for the “deal” we think we’re getting.

“These low-wage jobs have a cost,” Albelda says. “The cost is to families …young children and teens and that becomes a question for society.”

Cindy Krischer Goodman is CEO of BalanceGal LLC, a provider of news and advice on how to balance work and life.