RSF Journal Issue Features Research on Mobility Among Low-Wage Workers

October 4, 2019

The most recent issue of RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences was published in September 2019. Changing Job Quality: Causes, Consequences, and Challenges was co-funded with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and edited by David R. Howell (The New School) and Arne L. Kalleberg (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill). The issue investigates the forces that have led U.S. workers to face stagnant or falling wages, growing wage inequality, and an increasing incidence of low and poverty-wage jobs. 

In his journal article, “The Wage Mobility of Low-Wage Workers in a Changing Economy, 1968 to 2014,” Michael Schultz (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) examines mobility out of low-wage work. Using data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, the article contributes to the existing literature by examining an extended time period over the late 20th and early 21st centuries that allows for a distinction between changes in the economy and long-term trends in mobility out of low-wage work. Schultz’s research demonstrates that the size of the low-wage labor market has remained steady at about one quarter of the overall labor market from 1968 to 2014. The occupations with the largest number of low-wage workers include housekeepers, childcare workers, retail salespeople, and servers. The figure below details the occupations with the highest concentrations of low-wage laborers. 

Schultz’s research illustrates how people’s ability to move out of low-wage work is affected by their membership in various demographic groups, showing that gender, race, and education level can all have a significant negative impact on worker’s ability to find jobs that offer better compensation. His findings show that women and nonwhites are the most entrenched in low-wage jobs, and that women with children under age six struggle to move out of low-wage work. The adverse effect of being non-white on mobility out of low-wage work has worsened since the 1960s, which may be due to mass incarceration’s chilling effect on job prospects for people of color who have been involved with the criminal justice system. 

Schultz shows that there is greater mobility out of low-wage work where unions foster the use of job ladders and pay scale. Those in jobs covered by a union are 8.2 percent more likely to move out of low-wage work. The issue recommends a slate of policies for creating better jobs, including strengthening collective and individual bargaining, especially through unions; this may be an important strategy to increase mobility to better-paying jobs for low-wage workers.

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