Essential jobs and public school teachers in the US fail to provide living wages

Home health aides, retail salespersons, fast-food workers, and public school teachers are essential to the economy and society, yet their wages fall far short of the cost of living.

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The most common jobs in the United States—home health care aides, retail salespersons, and fast-food workers—do not pay a living wage, according to an analysis of federal data by The Washington Post. These roles, crucial to the everyday economy, have median salaries ranging from $29,500 to $33,600, far below what is needed to make ends meet in any state across the country.

Elise Gould, a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), highlighted the significance of median salaries: “Median salary tells you that exactly half [of the workers] are being paid less, and half are being paid more.” This means that a substantial portion of workers in these essential roles earn even less than the median figures suggest.

Median salaries are not much better for other essential workers, including public school teachers, restaurant servers, janitors, bus drivers, warehouse stockers, and order fillers. Public school teachers, who were hailed as heroes during pandemic lockdowns, face their own economic struggles. The average starting salary for teachers in the U.S. is $44,530, and nearly 80% of the nation’s school districts pay a starting salary below $50,000. Teachers have a starting salary below $40,000 per year in around 30% of U.S. school districts.

John Arthur, an elementary school teacher in Holladay, Utah, testified before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, stating, “The number one reason teachers leave the profession is the pay. The number one reason parents don’t want their children to become teachers is the pay. So the number one solution to addressing the issues we face must be increasing teacher salaries.”

The national average teacher salary stands at $69,544, with recent pay increases in some states failing to keep up with inflation. Only 15% of K-12 public school teachers report being extremely or very satisfied with their pay, according to a Pew survey released earlier this year. Additionally, 68% say their job is overwhelming.

Gemayel Keyes, a teacher at Philadelphia’s third-largest elementary school, shared his struggles during the Senate hearing. “Low pay and substantial student loan debt have forced me to work a part-time job and denied me the American dream of homeownership,” he said.

Executive compensation, meanwhile, is ballooning at the highest rate in 14 years. CEO pay at S&P 500 companies increased by nearly 13% in 2023, while the average worker saw only a 4.1% increase in pay. Economic optimists point to a booming stock market and low unemployment, but the inequality gap between the wealthiest earners and everyone else is increasing nearly three times faster than overall wage growth. In 1965, CEOs were paid 21 times more than the typical worker, but in 2022, CEOs made 344 times more, according to EPI.

Despite a much-touted economic recovery, about half the country is still living paycheck to paycheck, with deep income inequality being a throughline connecting various economic woes. From polarization and anti-immigrant sentiment exploited by political figures to skyrocketing housing prices and mass homelessness, the affordability crisis is taking center stage in public consciousness.

Jo Risper, a senior electoral organizer at Right to the City, a national alliance of tenants’ unions and racial justice groups, emphasized that wage increases have not kept pace with the cost of housing in cities across the country. Risper noted that roughly half of all tenants spend at least 30% of their income on rent, and about 50% of these tenants spend 50% of their income just to stay in their homes. “Minimum wage hasn’t gone up in 15 years, but from 2018 to 2021 the average rent was raised up to 30%,” Risper said.

Tenants who rent their homes represent 26% of the electorate in five key battleground states coveted by political candidates, including Pennsylvania and Michigan. The majority are younger voters under the age of 35. Along with health care and wages, the cost of housing is a clear priority for tenants, with 82% believing their lives would improve if the issue were addressed by policymakers. However, 51% of these potential voters report that they do not hear politicians talking about the issue “much” or “at all.”

Swing state tenants tend to have a more favorable view of some candidates than others, but enthusiasm for many mainstream political figures remains lacking. According to the Center for Popular Democracy, only 58% of swing state renters said they will “definitely” turn out to vote in November—a significant drop from the number who reported turning out in 2020.

Risper pointed out that candidates often focus their messaging and canvassing on homeowners rather than renters, even as their constituents face stagnating wages and steep rent hikes. With rent prices up 31% since 2019, corporate landlords see their profits soaring. “They say we just need to build more housing, but in reality, for folks who are home health aides or fast-food workers, they can’t afford to buy a house,” Risper said. “They are losing their base, and this is a block of voters.”

Economic data reflects these trends. Thanks to state-level minimum wage hikes and a tight labor market, low-paid and historically disadvantaged workers saw the fastest wage growth between 2019 and 2023, although wage growth has slowed as pay for managers increases. However, wages for jobs at the bottom of the pay scale remain insufficient to make ends meet, and the wealthiest earners keep taking bigger pieces of the pie.

“Low- and moderate-wage workers typically have seen very little wage growth over the past 40 years, and that makes it harder and harder to make ends meet,” said Elise Gould. “They were barely making ends meet before and they are still barely making ends meet today, and they are not able to get ahead because of the four decades up to about 2019.”

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Alexandra Jacobo is a dedicated progressive writer, activist, and mother with a deep-rooted passion for social justice and political engagement. Her journey into political activism began in 2011 at Zuccotti Park, where she supported the Occupy movement by distributing blankets to occupiers, marking the start of her earnest commitment to progressive causes. Driven by a desire to educate and inspire, Alexandra focuses her writing on a range of progressive issues, aiming to foster positive change both domestically and internationally. Her work is characterized by a strong commitment to community empowerment and a belief in the power of informed public action. As a mother, Alexandra brings a unique and personal perspective to her activism, understanding the importance of shaping a better world for future generations. Her writing not only highlights the challenges we face but also champions the potential for collective action to create a more equitable and sustainable world.

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