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Low-Wage Workers Are Happy, But Worried

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The Great Recession has hit many workers hard, but it may have hit low- and middle-wage workers hardest. And those workers don't expect the hard times to end, even though the stock market has recovered and passed pre-recession levels.

New research has found that half of low-wage workers, those making $35,000 or less, are not confident that they will reach their long-term career goals. 

To that end, 67 percent of workers said that they have little or no opportunity to advance at their current positions, a goal that nearly half of those workers said was important to them. Sixty-nine percent of workers said they have never been promoted at their jobs.  

Not only are workers pessimistic about advancement opportunities, but they are also frustrated by their pay.  Forty-four percent of workers said their pay has stayed the same for the past five years, while 31 percent said their income has steadily increased.  As a result, 40 percent of low-wage workers who will be looking for a new job will do so to find better pay. Just 8 percent said they would seek a new job for the sake of better benefits, the next most-common reason.

Despite those feelings, a majority of low-wage workers said they are happy in their jobs. In fact, 74 percent of workers said they are very or somewhat satisfied with their current positions.  Additionally, 62 percent of workers said they feel valued by their employers, compared to just 37 percent who said employers treated them as if they could be easily replaced.

The uneven economic recovery provides a big reason for those responses. New research has found that half of the jobs lost during the Great Recession came from the middle class. However, the recent recovery has not benefited middle-class workers. In fact, just 2 percent of the jobs created in the recent recovery pay middle-class wages, while low-wage positions account for 70 percent of the post-recession job growth.

"During the Great Recession that began in 2008, about one-half of the U.S. jobs lost were middle-class positions, but only about 2 percent of the jobs gained in the recovery pay middle-class wages," said Trevor Tompson, director of the AP-NORC Center, which conducted the research.   

As a result, low-wage workers have lots of competition in their current positions from more qualified workers who are also looking for jobs. That competition has led to pessimism among many workers making $35,000 or less a year.  

However, several simple fixes could help such low-wage workers improve their long-term outlooks in a big way. Most significantly, better training and education would help them advance their careers. Additionally, government and employer-sponsored benefits programs can also make advancement easier.

"There is broad agreement that America needs a skilled workforce for 21st century jobs," said Tompson. "There is widespread disagreement about the policies and programs needed to build that workforce. These surveys of lower-wage workers and the employers of lower-wage workers bring important new information to that debate."

The research was based on the responses of more than 3,000 employers and employees between the ages of 18 and 74.