Characteristics of Low-Wage Workers and Their Labor Market Experiences: Evidence from the Mid- to Late 1990s. Who are Low-Wage Workers?


Broad consensus exists among studies that low-wage workers are disproportionately female, minority, young, and without a college education (Bernstein and Hartmann 1999; Carnevale and Rose 2001; Mishel et al. 2001; and Mitnik et al. 2002). Consistent with these findings, low-wage workers are also much more likely to live in households with children, that are headed by single females, that contain fewer adults, and that have fewer secondary workers.

At the same time, the research indicates that low-wage workers are a relatively diverse group. For example, Carnevale and Rose (2001) point out that low earners are a diverse group in terms of their family income  among workers whose annual earnings were less than $15,000, more than half lived in families with total incomes above $25,000. Thus, many low-income workers live in families with other earners and with total family incomes above the poverty level.

The research indicates that most changes in the composition of low-wage workers for key characteristics, except for gender, have mirrored those of the total workforce. For example, the share of workers in the low-wage labor market with a high school degree or less decreased substantially during the 25-year period, but the same pattern holds for all workers in the labor force (due to widespread educational upgrading and the long-term wage decline among non-college graduates). Similarly, like the rest of the workforce, the low-wage sector became older and included more minorities. However, studies show that the low-wage workforce became increasingly male between 1973 and 1997, even though the female share of the entire workforce increased.

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