WASHINGTON — Nearly a third of the nation's working families earn salaries so low that they struggle to pay for their necessities, according to a new report.
"Although many people are returning to work, they are often taking jobs with lower wages and less job security, compared with the middle-class jobs they held before the downturn," said a report released last week by the Working Poor Families Project, a national initiative aimed at fostering state policies to help low-income working families.
With the nation's economy in recovery, the report said, more than 70 percent of low-income families and half of all poor families were working by 2011. The problem is they did not earn enough to cover their basic living expenses.
"We're not on a good trajectory," said Brandon Roberts, who manages the Working Poor Families Project. "The overall number of low-income working families is increasing despite the recovery."
Analyzing 2011 data from the Census Bureau's American Community Survey, the report said that 32 percent of working families earned salaries that put them below double the poverty threshold, which was $45,622 for a family of four. That percentage has crept up from 28 percent in 2007, the year the recession began.
And 37 percent of the nation's children — 23.5 million — were part of working-poor families in 2011, the report said, up from 33 percent in 2007.
Nearly three in five low-income working families were headed by at least one minority parent, even though minorities headed 42 percent of all working families.
The growth in the ranks of the working poor coincides with continued growth in income inequality. Many of the occupations experiencing the fastest job growth during the recovery also pay poorly. Among them are retail jobs, food preparation, clerical work and customer assistance.
Jobs typically filled by college graduates fared better than others during the downturn, helping to widen the gap between those at the top of the wage scale and those at the bottom.
In 2011, the top fifth of working families had incomes that were 10.1 times greater than those in the bottom fifth of income earners. In 2007, the top fifth of working families earned 9.5 times those in the lowest fifth.
Meanwhile, the best means for climbing the income ladder — improved education — is growing more uncertain and more expensive, the report said.