This report provides information on job quality and the economic security of working families in the states and the District of Columbia in the ﬁrst half of thecurrent decade. It also quantiﬁes the important role that public work supports—beneﬁts for workers such as the Earned Income Tax Credit and child care assis-tance—play in helping workers make ends meet. Using a new approach to measuring economic insecurity—one that improves on the relatively arbitrary federal poverty measure—we ﬁnd that about one in ﬁve people in working families are economically insecure. Similarly, using a novel measure of job quality that takes both wages and beneﬁts into account, we ﬁnd that only about one in four jobs are “good jobs” in the typical state.
New Approaches to Measuring Economic Insecurity and Job Quality
The federal poverty line does a poor job of measuring economic insecurity in the UnitedStates. In 2008, the poverty line for a family of four is $21,200. Yet, in a recent poll,more than two-thirds of Americans agreed that an income level of $30,000 made a four-person family poor. When asked in another recent poll how much a family needs to“make ends meet,” 70 percent of those surveyed said $40,000 or more.Instead of the poverty line, we use basic family budgets developed by the EconomicPolicy Institute to determine whether working families have sufﬁcient income to makeends meet. Basic budgets have been used in the United States for more than a century.Unlike the poverty measure, these measures take into account the actual costs of goodsand services needed to have a decent standard of living as well as the variations in thesecosts depending on where one lives. In addition to being a more accurate measure of economic security than the poverty line, basic family budgets are consistent with publicunderstanding of the income needed to make ends meet.When measuring poverty, the government and most researchers do not take into accountmost public work supports. Of the six beneﬁts we classify as work supports—childcare assistance, the Earned Income Tax Credit, food stamps, health insurance providedthrough Medicaid and the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, housing assis-tance, and income supplements provided through Temporary Assistance, only Tempo-rary Assistance supplements are typically counted. By contrast, when we determinewhether a family is able to make ends meet, we take into account the value of all of these beneﬁts.To deﬁne a “good” job, we use a simple deﬁnition based on three characteristics: pay,health insurance and retirement beneﬁts. According to this deﬁnition, a good job isone that meets all of the following three criteria: it pays at least $17 per hour (about$34,000 on an annual basis), it offers employer-sponsored health insurance (where theemployer pays at least part of the monthly premium), it offers an employer-sponsoredretirement plan (either a “deﬁned contribution plan” like a 401(k) or a “deﬁned beneﬁt”like a traditional pension).
In the typical state, 22 percent of people in working families suffer from economichardship because their earnings and income from other sources, including public worksupports and other public beneﬁts, fall below the basic needs budget standard for wherethey live. By comparison, some 12.6 percent of Americans live below the federal pov-erty line; an even lesser share of individuals in working families live below the povertyline. Thus, our ﬁndings reinforce the public’s view that the poverty line is set too low toaccurately measure economic hardship.Most economically insecure workers have jobs that pay low wages and provide few orno beneﬁts. Only a minority of jobs are “good ones,” jobs that pay well and providehealth and retirement beneﬁts. In the typical state, 25 percent of jobs are good jobs.Bad jobs—ones that pay less than $17 an hour and provide neither health nor retirementbeneﬁts—account for about 30 percent of all jobs in the typical state.Few workers in the middle-class and above rely solely on wages to maintain theirstandard of living. Tax preferences underwrite the costs of private social beneﬁts thatpromote the health and economic security of middle-class families, including employer-based health insurance and retirement plans. These beneﬁts are structured in a way thateffectively excludes many workers in low-paid jobs from receiving them.Instead of one system of beneﬁts available to all workers, the United States has two: onefor families supported by low-wage workers and another for middle- and upper-incomefamilies. The former system consists of a patchwork of beneﬁts, typically targeted onthe basis of having income and assets below a certain threshold. Moreover, thesebeneﬁts often are not available to everyone who meets the eligibility requirements.Despite their limitations, these beneﬁts, often referred to as public work supports, playan important and largely unheralded role in promoting economic security and opportu-nity for working families. In the typical state, work supports close more than half of thehardship gap—the gap between a working family’s income and the basic family budgetfor where they live. Nevertheless, substantial numbers of workers in low-paid jobsreceive only modest or no help from work support programs.