November 26, 2013

Poll: Anxiety over job security grips low-income workers

About one-third of American workers – a record high number – worry ‘a lot’ about losing their jobs.

By Jim Tankersley And Scott Clement
The Washington Post

CHESTER, Pa. — The alarm rang on John Stewart’s phone at 1:10 a.m. He was up at 1:30, caught one bus north into Philadelphia a little after 2 and another bus, south toward Philadelphia International Airport, a half-hour after that. He made it into work around 3:25 for a shift that started at 4, for a job that pays $5.25 an hour, which he cannot afford to lose.

click image to enlarge

John Stewart works at the Philadelphia International Airport, escorting people in wheelchairs. He is paid $5.25 an hour, plus tips, and worries about paying his bills and losing his job.

Will Figg for The Washington Post

ABOUT THE POLL

The Washington Post-Miller Center poll was conducted Sept. 6-12, 2013, among a random national sample of 1,509 adults, including landline and cellphone only respondents.

Overall results have a three-percentage-point margin of sampling error.

The error margin is 9.5 points among the 142 workers interviewed with annual household incomes below $35,000, 7.5 points among the 250 workers with incomes between $35,000 and $74,999, and 6.5 points among the 321 workers with incomes of at least $75,000.

Stewart is 55, tall and thin and animated. At work he wears a clip-on tie, a white cotton shirt with a fraying collar and a pair of black sneakers he nabbed on sale for $12.99 a few days ago. He wheels elderly air passengers from the ticket counters through security and to their gates, and back again, and every once in a while they tip him. Usually for lunch he buys a candy bar. His skin flakes from psoriasis, which gets worse when he worries, which, these days, is all the time. He can’t pay for treatments to soothe the itching or for a car to shorten his predawn commute.

“I can’t save money,” he said recently, “to buy the things I need to live as a human being.”

American workers are living with unprecedented economic anxiety, four years into a recovery that has left so many of them stuck in place. That anxiety is concentrated heavily among low-income workers such as Stewart.

More than six in 10 workers in a recent Washington Post-Miller Center poll worry that they will lose their jobs to the economy, surpassing concerns in more than a dozen surveys dating to the 1970s. Nearly one in three, 32 percent, say they worry “a lot” about losing their jobs, also a record high, according to the joint survey, which explores Americans’ changing definition of success and their confidence in the country’s future. The Miller Center is a nonpartisan affiliate of the University of Virginia specializing in public policy, presidential scholarship and political history.

Job insecurities have always been higher among low-income Americans, but they typically rose and fell across all levels of the income ladder. Today, workers at the bottom have drifted away, occupying their own island of insecurity.

Fifty-four percent of workers making $35,000 or less now worry “a lot” about losing their jobs, compared with 37 percent of lower-income workers in 1992 and an identical number in 1975, according to surveys by Time magazine, CNN and Yankelovich. Intense worry is far lower, 29 percent, among workers with incomes between $35,000 and $75,000, and it drops to 17 percent among those with incomes above that level.

Lower-paid workers also worry far more about making ends meet. Fully 85 percent of them fear that their families’ income will not be enough to meet expenses, up 25 points from a 1971 survey asking an identical question. Thirty-two percent say they worry all the time about meeting expenses, a number that has almost tripled since the 1970s.

Americans’ economic perceptions often divide along political lines; supporters of the incumbent president are usually more optimistic about the job market and the health of the economy. But that’s not the case with this new anxiety. Once you control for economic and demographic factors, there is no partisan divide. There’s no racial divide, either, and no gender gap. It also doesn’t matter where you live.

What matters in this new anxiety, what unites the people who worry more now than ever, are income and education. Workers who earn less, and workers who didn’t graduate from college, fear losing their already weaker livelihoods more than anyone else.

Spend a day with John Stewart – a man who has worked low-wage jobs since the late ‘70s – and you start to understand why.

(Continued on page 2)

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