On most summer days, Laura Millikan’s 10-year-old son begs her for a McDonald’s ice cream cone. It’s a $1 treat. She kisses his head and tells him maybe next week.
Millikan is a single mom living outside Seattle who works two jobs — 30 hours a week as an assistant property manager for an apartment building and a few extra hours at a college, arranging bulletin boards and making photocopies for professors. The two jobs, together, pay her $25,000 a year.
Before the recession, Millikan earned $30,000 a year with full benefits as a property manager at a call center. It was the highest pay she ever had. The company moved to another the state, and she’s struggled ever since.
She said it has been years since she’s had a full-time job, despite sending out endless resumes and earning a college degree in education in 2014 to improve her prospects. She’s repeatedly been told she’s overqualified for low-wage jobs in retail and not qualified enough for coveted positions in business and tech.
To get by, Millikan has become an expert at cost-cutting. Almost everything in her modest apartment is from a thrift store, garage sale or charity. The only thing she buys new for her son is underwear.
It’s a painful reality of today’s economy. Jobs are plentiful, but jobs with good wages aren’t, leaving many working long hours or multiple jobs but still barely scraping by.
“Full-time jobs that pay enough to live on are practically impossible to find,” said Millikan, 39.
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Half the jobs in America currently pay less than $18 an hour, according to Labor Department data. That’s about $37,000 a year if someone works full-time. Forty percent of jobs in the country pay less than $15.50, according to the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute.
There’s always debate about what constitutes a “good-paying job,” but it’s notable that manufacturing jobs, which President Donald Trump campaigned on bringing back, pay over $20.50 an hour, on average.
The latest report on America’s job market came out in early August from the Labor Department. It showed that wages are up only 2.5 percent from a year ago. That’s well below the historic average for the country, and it’s about the same rate of increase as the final years of the Obama administration.
But economists are stumped at how unemployment can be so low — 4.3 percent nationally and a mere 2.8 percent in Millikan’s home county — and so many CEOs complain they can’t get enough good workers, yet wages are barely rising. Some blame robots and overseas outsourcing for keeping wages low. Other says the labor market really isn’t as “tight” as it appears, as many Americans in their prime working years have given up looking for jobs.
Median household income, a good gauge of middle-class pay, peaked in 1999 under President Bill Clinton, according to census data. In the nearly two decades since then, households have seen their modest gains eaten away by inflation.
“Having a job is not enough to get ahead,” says Kasey Wiedrich, director of applied research at Prosperity Now, a not-for-profit that advocates for low-income families. Prosperity Now recently released its annual score card, which found that “the data point to a widespread financial fragility in our nation.”
Economist Elise Gould of Economic Policy Institute believes there may be reason to hope higher wages are coming soon. In the past year through July, the biggest jump in wages occurred for the lowest 10 percent of workers. They went from $9.39 to $9.85 an hour, on average, largely because 19 states raised their minimum wages at the start of 2017.
Still, Gould warns, “Although we are finally seeing broad-based wage growth, ordinary workers are just making up lost ground, rather than getting ahead.”