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Opinion

The Podium

Don’t use children to subsidize low-wage economy

We are seeing a historic rejection of the status-quo by working men and women today. Workers are speaking up and organizing for better wages and working conditions. But if you listen carefully to the many voices of fast-food, retail, and personal services workers, you’ll hear the voices of children. Because when parents are at the mercy of a labor market dominated by low-wage fast food and retail jobs, their kids are too.

When mothers and fathers must accommodate any demand employers make on them, they lose control over their daily lives and can’t tend to their families’ basic needs. In fact, our research finds that low-quality jobs are harming families in both the near and long-term, prolonging poverty and triggering higher dropout rates and obesity among adolescents.

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Thanks to poverty-wage jobs, more and more families are losing ground. Close to 16 million US families are now headed by parents working low-wage jobs. About 3.6 million of the nation’s 20 million adolescents — one out of every six — live in these low-income families.

Unfortunately, low wages and lack of control over work hours have become part of the fabric of the US economy. Every day, tens of millions fast-food workers, cashiers, nurses’ aides, janitors, salespeople, restaurant staff, and elder care attendants take care or clean up after the rest of us. They are struggling to earn enough to support their families, and to find enough hours in the day to spend with their children.

When parents are struggling, stressed, often working more than one job, have no time off, and still don’t earn enough to cover bills, children are deeply affected. Consider that that less than a third of low-wage workers get paid sick days. That means that when a low-wage parent misses work to take care of a sick child, or to attend their child’s school event, or talk to a teacher, she is likely to lose pay — or be written up for unexcused absence from work. Parents are forced to choose between care for their children and earning a paycheck.

As a result, millions of low-income parents cannot meet the bar that they, and society at large, have set as the “good parent” norm. Millions of working parents have work schedules that preclude being home for homework, dinner time talk and bed-time rituals — the face time all families need. While losing out on Thanksgiving festivities—as was the case with Walmart workers this past year — may get a lot of press, these scenarios are playing out every day in the United States.

Sometimes parents turn to youngsters to fill in the gap left by low wages and a lack of free time for family care. They may ask older children to step into the role of adult when parents can’t be home and can’t afford to buy the array of help higher-income parents rely on to keep families afloat. Who else is there to help out?

Our research found that youth in these families may lift an adult’s load with all the love and loyalty that young people will so often give to their families. But there’s clearly a cost to their health, their education, and for many, their future opportunities.

There is an increasing consensus that the high level of income inequality in the US is undermining our collective best interests. More unequal countries, like the US, have worse health, education and well-being indicators than do those that are more equal. While unemployment is often the focus of our economic and social woes, the low-wage and low-quality jobs we do have also account for a lot of poverty’s harms.

Politicians focus almost exclusively on the future of middle class families. But that emphasis leaves out the millions of working parents toiling in the jobs that support middle class lifestyles and keep our economy running. Right by their side are their children—the young people who are carrying a big part of the cost of every day.

Fast-food, retail and other service workers are raising their voices, and we should listen. As a society, we need to decide if what we value most; the future of millions of our children or protecting the right of business to pay poverty wages.

Randy Albelda is a professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts Boston and Lisa Dodson is a professor of sociology at Boston College.

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