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The number of low-income working families in New Mexico continues to grow

—Sharon Kayne

The number of low-income working families continues to grow, with nearly a third of all working families in the United States now struggling to earn enough money to meet basic needs—shows a new report by the Working Poor Families Project (WPFP). In New Mexico, the data found there were 89,000 low-income working families in 2011, representing 44 percent of the total 205,000 working families, up from forty percent in 2007. The state ranks fiftieth in the nation in the percent of low-income working families. “These numbers and trends for the country and New Mexico are troubling,” said Veronica C. García, Ed.D., executive director, New Mexico Voices for Children. “Income inequality—or inequality of outcomes—is very much tied to inequality of opportunity. Those who lacked good educational opportunities as children need additional supports as adults if we are to ensure that everyone has the same shot at the American dream. Additionally, when we invest in an adult’s education and job training, we are also providing their children with better educational opportunities, because children benefit enormously when their parents are well educated.”

Nationally, the number of low-income working families—sometimes called the working poor—increased by 200,000 to 10.4 million in 2011 over the prior year, according to the WPFP analysis of new Census Bureau data. Those 10.4 million families constitute 32 percent of all working families—up from 28 percent in 2007—and represent 47.5 million Americans. 

At the same time, nationally the economic gap between high-income and low-income working families continues to widen. In 2011, the top twenty percent of working families earned 10.1 times the total income earned by the bottom twenty percent, up from 9.5 times in 2007. In other words, the top twenty percent took home 48 percent of all income while those in the bottom twenty percent received less than five percent of the economic pie.

While the increase in low-income working families has been uneven geographically, the analysis shows that every state has a significant proportion of working families that are low-income, with the highest percentages found in states in the South and West. Nationally, with unemployment remaining high, a large number of low-income families are challenged to find full-time, good paying jobs. The analysis found, though, that more than seven out of ten low-income families were working in 2011; despite working many of these families simply don’t earn enough money to pay for basic living expenses. Family budgets were impacted by high transportation and child care costs at a time when often the only jobs that could be found tended to be in eight occupations that do not pay wages adequate for supporting a family—including cashier, cook, and health aide.

Making matters worse, many occupations that provided better wages such as carpenter or painter have seen their jobs disappear, and many people seeking work have been unable to find full-time employment.

The WPFP research shows that the growth in the number of low-income working families is increasingly affecting children. Overall, the proportion of children in working families that are low-income increased from 33 percent in 2007 to 37 percent in 2011. In 2011, there were 23.5 million children in low-income working families.

The new report points out that policy decisions in Washington, D.C., and state capitals have important implications for low-income working families. For example, cuts to education funding have also made it harder for low-income working families to improve their economic prospects. Significant reductions in state investments in two and four-year colleges have led to increases in student tuition and fees, making postsecondary education less affordable. Similarly, potential cuts in federal Pell Grants would make it harder for many low-income students to attend college.
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