In the context of global economies, an often-overlooked but widespread theme emerges—the challenges faced by the working poor. This subtle yet pervasive struggle knows no boundaries, threading its narrative through the economic landscapes of the United States, the European Union, and the United Kingdom.

In this article, we will meticulously analyse the multifaceted dimensions of the working poor, shedding light on the intricate obstacles encountered by those employed, yet facing poverty.

The term “working poor” encapsulates individuals or families actively engaged in the workforce but grappling with financial insecurity and poverty due to low wages, limited work hours, or a combination of both.

In essence, these individuals find themselves where employment does not necessarily guarantee economic stability. The working poor face challenges such as insufficient access to essential services, including healthcare and education, despite their active participation in the labour market. This phenomenon underscores the sobering reality that the traditional association between employment and financial well-being is not universally realised.

The Working Poor in America

In the United States, the issue of the working poor is a significant aspect of the broader discussion about income inequality and economic disparity. Several factors contribute to the prevalence of the working poor in the U.S.:

Low Minimum Wage

The federal minimum wage is set at $7.25 per hour and hasn’t changed since 2009. Many workers, particularly in low-skilled or entry-level positions, earn this wage or only slightly more. The minimum wage has not kept pace with inflation and the rising cost of living in many parts of the country.

Inadequate Working Hours

Many workers classified as part-time or temporary may not have consistent working hours, making it difficult for them to budget and plan for their financial needs. Additionally, part-time or temporary jobs may not offer the same benefits as full-time positions.

Education and Skill Disparities

Limited access to quality education and job training programs can hinder individuals from acquiring the skills needed for higher-paying jobs. This lack of educational and skill development opportunities can perpetuate cycles of poverty.

Geographic Disparities

The cost of living varies widely across the United States. In some areas, housing, healthcare, and other essential expenses are disproportionately high compared to wages. This can be a significant challenge for workers in these regions.

Discrimination and Structural Inequities

Systemic issues such as discrimination based on race, gender, or other factors can contribute to certain groups being disproportionately represented among the working poor. Structural inequities in the job market can limit opportunities for some individuals.

The Statistics

According to data from 2020, a staggering 4.1 percent of individuals in the labour force for 27 weeks or more were classified as working poor. This figure underscores a stark reality: even with steady employment, a substantial portion of the workforce faces financial hardship.

Digging deeper into the data reveals a disparity between full-time and part-time workers. Full-time workers are less likely to fall into the working poor category, highlighting the vulnerability of part-time positions. This divide speaks to the precarious nature of many part-time jobs, which often lack the stability and benefits afforded to their full-time counterparts.

Gender plays a significant role in the working poor dynamic. Women, unfortunately, bear a more considerable burden, with a 4.6 percent working-poor rate compared to men at 3.6 percent. This gender disparity sheds light on existing inequalities in the workforce, including the persistent gender wage gap.

Education, often touted as a pathway to upward mobility, emerges as a critical factor. The likelihood of being classified as working poor diminishes as workers attain higher levels of education. This correlation emphasises the importance of investing in educational opportunities and job training programs to uplift individuals from the cycle of poverty.

The working poor

The Working Poor in The EU

The issue of working poverty is a multifaceted challenge in the European Union too and different factors contribute to it:

No Minimum Wage

It’s crucial to highlight that there are notable variations among member states. An interesting case in point is Italy, where a distinctive feature of the labour market is the absence of a legally mandated minimum wage. Unlike several EU nations that have established a statutory minimum wage to safeguard workers from exploitation and ensure a baseline standard of living, Italy relies on a system of decentralised collective bargaining between employers and trade unions to determine wage rates. This raises concerns about the potential for wage disparities and may necessitate a careful examination of its impact on workers’ well-being and income security.

Part-Time and Temporary Employment

The EU labour market has seen a rise in part-time and temporary employment, which can lead to income instability. Part-time workers, in particular, may struggle to secure adequate hours, resulting in financial vulnerability.

Educational Disparities

Limited access to quality education and training programs can hinder individuals from acquiring the skills necessary for higher-paying jobs. Educational disparities contribute to an uneven playing field in the job market.

According to statistics, in 2022, a staggering 23.3 % of people aged 25-74 years in the EU had a low educational attainment level.

High Living Costs

In some EU countries, the cost of living, especially in urban areas, may outpace wage growth. High housing costs, healthcare expenses, and other essential living expenses can strain the budgets of low-wage workers.

The Statistics

As of 2021, a staggering almost one-tenth of all workers on average across the EU found themselves at the precipice of poverty, highlighting a pressing concern that transcends national borders. Disturbingly, Romania emerged with the highest figure in Europe, recording a working poverty rate of 15.2 per cent, followed closely by Luxembourg (13.5 per cent), Spain (12.7 per cent), and Italy (11.7 per cent). These statistics illuminate the stark reality that, despite economic advancements, a significant portion of the European workforce faces the daunting challenge of financial insecurity.

A demographic particularly vulnerable to the challenges of working poverty is the age group between 18 and 24, facing heightened risks and economic uncertainties. Within the European Union, Romania stands out with the highest share of workers at risk of poverty, revealing alarming figures of 15.2 per cent among the general population and an even more significant concern among the youth, at 21.1 per cent. This underscores the profound economic insecurities faced by the Romanian workforce, especially the younger generation.

Notably, when examining the disparities in working poverty between the age group of 18-24 and 18-64, the most substantial gap is observed in Denmark at 14.2 percentage points, followed by Bulgaria (8.2 points) and Luxembourg (7.3). This stark divergence emphasises the unequal distribution of economic stability among EU member states. Furthermore, it’s noteworthy that only a handful of Member States exhibit a gap that favours young workers. In this context, Latvia takes the lead with a notable five-percentage-point difference, shedding light on the critical need for targeted interventions to address the economic vulnerabilities experienced by the youth across the European landscape.

The Working Poor in the UK

In the United Kingdom, the issue of the working poor remains a significant concern within the broader context of economic and social dynamics and different factors contribute to it:

Low Wages

The level of wages, particularly in certain areas, may not be sufficient to cover basic living expenses. Many individuals working in low-skilled jobs or part-time positions struggle to make ends meet. As of 2023, the minimum wage is set to £10.42 for people aged 23 and over.

Precarious Employment

The rise of gig economy jobs and temporary contracts has led to increased job insecurity for many workers. This lack of employment stability can make financial planning and budgeting difficult.

Housing Costs

The cost of housing, especially in major cities, due to a shortage of affordable housing, represents a significant portion of household expenses. High rents and property prices can strain the budgets of low-income workers.

Government Policies

Changes in government policies, including alterations to social welfare programs and austerity measures, can impact the financial well-being of low-income individuals and families.

The Statistics

According to a debate on Government in-work poverty, a striking 61 per cent of working-age adults living in poverty find themselves in households where at least one adult is gainfully employed. This statistic underscores the harsh reality that employment alone does not necessarily shield individuals from the grasp of financial hardship.

Moreover, the contrast in poverty rates between part-time and full-time workers reveals a significant disparity, with the former experiencing a poverty rate double that of their full-time counterparts (18 per cent compared to nine per cent). The vulnerability of self-employed workers is glaring, as they are twice as likely to be in poverty than their employee counterparts (21 per cent compared to 10 per cent). An additional layer to this economic tapestry is the rapid surge in gig economy participation, with 14.7 percent of working adults now engaging in gig work at least once a week—a substantial increase from 2016 (5.8 per cent) and 2019 (11.8 per cent).

As we dissect these statistics, it becomes evident that addressing the multifaceted challenges faced by the working poor in the UK demands a comprehensive approach that considers the nuances of employment types, working hours, and the evolving landscape of the gig economy.