Beyond the Minimum Wage: What’s Really Keeping Hourly Workers in Poverty?

Sarita Gupta 

In the debate about poverty and rising economic inequality, we need to think beyond the minimum wage.

When we talk about poverty it’s difficult to track–and give voice to–all of the different ideas around causes and solutions that need attention. Multiply those competing demands exponentially and you may get a feel for what working people in some of the fastest growing job sectors in our economy face every day.

Shift workers–especially those in the retail sector–are subject to unpredictable and erratic scheduling practices that make it nearly impossible to plan their lives and earn a stable income. An increasing number of these workers simply aren’t able to get the hours they need in order to support their families. They are essentially trapped in a cycle of poverty, with little time or resources to make any progress toward escaping it.

These are workers who aren’t living paycheck to paycheck; they’re living hour to hour.

How can people working under these conditions set a budget? How do they schedule medical appointments or arrange care for their children? In addition to dealing with their erratic schedules, retail workers are often required to be on call–making sure they are available without any guarantee of a shift.

So while increasing the minimum wage is indeed a critical step in the fight against poverty, it is just one piece of a much larger, broken system in the low-wage sector.

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