The Washington Post website carried a story Sunday about a “blended” family — divorced parents starting anew and their three daughters — who found it hard to stretch a combined $90,000 salary to meet their middle-class expectations in a Virginia town far from the hubbub of D.C.
Both parents have feelers out on new jobs — he helps keep the information systems running at a hospital and she works for a nonprofit — because they’re tired of living paycheck to paycheck. She thought a six-figure income would mean they’d stress less over money.
While comments to the website chastised the family for its cellphones, tablets and satellite dish — typical trappings of modern life, if you ask me — I was disheartened that $90,000, which is a pretty good sum, just wasn’t cutting it.
And then, a day later, a new report crystallized their plight: We’re in a low-wage recovery, according to the National Employment Law Project.
The New York City-based research and advocacy group contends the 2007-09 recession wiped out close to 2 million mid- and higher-wage jobs, replacing them in the recovery with lower-wage ones.
“As a result of unbalanced employment growth, the types of jobs available to unemployed workers, new labor market entrants and individuals looking to move up the career ladder are distinctly different today than they were prior to the recession,” NELP says.
U.S. private-sector employment is finally close to pre-recession levels, according to the group. But much of the employment growth following the Great Recession has been in lower-wage, service-providing industries — retail, restaurants, administrative support — that pay up to $13 an hour, it says.
Mid-wage and higher-wage jobs — paying up to $20 an hour and $30 an hour, respectively — accounted for the bulk of jobs lost during the recession and now make up just 26 percent and 30 percent of the jobs gained since then.
Lower-wage jobs are 44 percent of new-job growth, according to NELP.
James Ross, a state Department of Labor analyst who keeps an eye on the Capital Region, says the kind of detailed data used in NELP’s analysis isn’t available at either the state or local level, so he couldn’t offer a post-recession assessment of job growth here.
He pointed me to a quarterly census of employment and wages, though, and as I poked around the numbers, I could see patterns that seemed similar. In the low-wage category called accommodations and food services, for instance, the Albany-Schenectady-Troy metro showed 3,000 more jobs in the third quarter of 2013 than in the third quarter of 2007 — about when the recession began. But in the mid-wage category of construction, 900 fewer jobs existed in the 2013 quarter versus the 2007 period.
I’m no statistician or economist. But I worry, like the parents in the Washington Post story, that one legacy of the recession is that being “middle class” no longer offers the physical and psychic comfort it once did.
Marlene Kennedy is a freelance columnist. Opinions expressed in her column are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.