Welcome to the new America where good people with honest jobs are losing money each month — and scrambling to live
Saturday, Mar 1, 2014
It took less than two years for Kim Brown to go from middle class to minimum wage.
In the fall of 2011, Brown was a Web support technician for an electronics distributor in Chicago, helping customers navigate the company’s website. She had been in the job for 11 years, earning a $45,000 salary, plus benefits.
“I wasn’t rich, but I felt like I had a life,” she said — as good a definition of middle class as any.
That November, the company announced it was moving its office to Cleveland. All the employees were invited to go along. All declined, including Brown, who had lived in Chicago her entire adult life, since arriving to attend college. Having been laid off, Brown was eligible for unemployment benefits — which she figured would last until she found a new job. The last time she’d looked, in 1999, she’d found work right away.
Despite sending out “hundreds of résumés each week,” Brown couldn’t land a full-time job. At age 46, with every month of unemployment making her less attractive to employers, she was wondering whether she ever would. She exhausted her 401K, and only a sympathetic landlord, who cut the rent to $800 a month, allowed Brown to hang on to her one-bedroom apartment.
Brown’s benefits were cut off in July 2013, as a result of the federal government sequester. Two months later, she took a job as a telephone survey interviewer, for $8.50 an hour — 25 cents above the Illinois minimum wage.
“They’re not very selective with the people they hire,” Brown said. “It doesn’t take a great skill. They just want to see if you can read. It was clear that most of the people who were applying for a job had never really had a real job. It’s a lot of young people. It might be their first job.”
The Bureau of Labor Statistics conducted a study of workers who were laid off during the Great Recession and found a new job. More than half are earning less money. During the recession, wage growth dropped from 3.5 percent a year to 1.5 percent, and has been stuck there ever since. The economic upheaval that began in 2007 was not a recession. It was a reordering. Employers used the downturn as an opportunity to ratchet down wages, which are likely to remain at their current levels.