Close to half of workers in the United States age 18 to 64 — about 53 million people nationwide — are earning low hourly wages compared to nationwide median wages and their local cost of living, according to a report released last month by The Brookings Institution.
These 53 million Americans make up a diverse population, but women, African-Americans, and Latinx or Hispanic workers are overrepresented, while white and Asian-Americans are underrepresented. Fifty-four percent of low-wage workers are women, according to Brookings, though women make up 48 percent of the total workforce.
Many low-wage workers are employed in the service economy, with about 8 percent working in retail sales, 5 percent in cleaning and pest control, another 5 percent in food preparation and cooking, and about 4.5 percent serving food and beverages.
Almost two-thirds of low-wage workers are age 25 to 54, considered to be their prime working years, and predictably this group is less educated overall than those making more money. Less than 15 percent of low-wage workers have a bachelor’s degree, another 8 percent have an associate’s degree, and almost half have only a high school diploma — or not even that.
The study’s authors, Martha Ross and Nicole Bateman of Brookings’ Metropolitan Policy Program, note that forces such as automation and globalization are reshaping the labor market in ways that benefit more educated workers and those in certain geographic areas.
Low-wage workers tend to make up a higher share of the workforce in the southern and western US and to be less concentrated in the Midwest, the Mid-Atlantic states, and — good news — the Northeast. In Hartford, Conn., low-wage earners make up about 32 percent of the workforce, compared to 62 percent in Las Cruces, N.M., or 56 percent in McAllen, Texas.