Media Highlights

Our Youth Need Jobs With a Future

by Jennifer Jordan   •   low-wage-worker-nyt-story

(Photo by Billy Weeks for The New York Times)

An insightful, sobering March 16 story in the New York Times details just how hard it has become to lift oneself up from poverty in America, even if a person works hard. This thoroughly-reported article: Low-Wage Workers Are Finding Poverty Harder to Escape should be required reading for anyone who believes that people who struggle just to get by every day deserve their plight because they lack a work ethic or shirk responsibility for their complicated lives.

In Chattanooga, journalist Steven Greenhouse introduces readers to several residents who have jobs, children, bills and seemingly insurmountable challenges preventing them from inching ahead. These folks have a goal of modest economic security – not untold riches – as their American Dream. Yet, this goal appears out of reach for too many.

Opportunity Nation is proud to partner with Chattanooga State Community College, which is a member of our Higher Education Council. The college is promoting dynamic collaborations with employers to help more young people get jobs.

“Climbing above the poverty line has become more daunting in recent years, as the composition of the nation’s low-wage work force has been transformed by the Great Recession, shifting demographics and other factors,” according to the story.

More than half of Americans earning $9 or less an hour are 25 or older, writes Greenhouse. “Today’s low-wage workers are also more educated, with 41 percent having at least some college, up from 29 percent in 2000.”

Main takeaways:

  • Place matters.
  • Education matters, but isn’t always enough to overcome a bleak job market.
  • Many working Americans aren’t earning enough or getting enough hours to support their families without assistance. Even then, it’s much harder than it ought to be to make ends meet.

The author paints a vivid picture of Chattanooga, Tennesee, a city that “was not always a magnet for low-wage jobs.” Like many other American cities, however, Chattanooga has struggled mightily since good-paying manufacturing jobs dried up over the last forty years.

In their place are thousands of low-paying service sector jobs in hotels, restaurants, discount stores, big-box stores, beauty salons and hospitals – jobs that reflect “a hollowing-out of the middle class,” Greenhouse writes.

When Volkswagen opened a $1 billion assembly plant in Chattanooga three years ago, 80,000 people applied for 2,000 jobs that paid nearly $20 per hour. According to the article, many applicants were shut out because they couldn’t perform the math required for the positions that use advanced machinery.

The low-wage job market isn’t the region’s only problem – only 23 percent of adults in Tennessee have a bachelor’s degree.

Even for those young people with a college education, finding a good job in Chattanooga isn’t easy. Landon Howard, who graduated from the University of Tennessee four years ago has been unable to find a job in his field, social work.

He moved back home with his parents and works as a prep cook bringing home less than $200 a week.

With record high youth unemployment – 16.2 percent – and a grim labor market for teens and young adults, Opportunity Nation believes our country’s number one priority must be to help more students and young adults find meaningful educational and career pathways, so that they are not stuck in low-wage jobs. By strengthening our workforce, our economy can become more globally competitive and employers can create more jobs that lead to the middle class and greater opportunity.

Check out our bipartisan Shared Plan to restore opportunity to young adults. Stay in touch by signing up to receive our regular updates on opportunity-related issues.

Jennifer Jordan

Jennifer D. Jordan is Opportunity Nation’s Senior Writer. She shares the campaign’s mission and accomplishments and those of its coalition with diverse audiences, seeking to heighten awareness about expanding economic mobility to more Americans. Read Jennifer's bio.

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