* Last year saw 200,000 more low-income families in U.S.
* Despite jobs, more families can't pay basic expenses
* Analysis: U.S. South, West most affected
By Susan Heavey
WASHINGTON, Jan 15 The number of U.S. families
struggling with poverty despite parents being employed continued
to grow in 2011 as more people returned to work but mostly at
lower-paying service jobs, an analysis released on Tuesday
More working parents have taken jobs as cashiers, maids,
waiters and other low-wage jobs in fast growing sectors that
offer fewer hours and benefits, according to The Working Poor
Project, a privately funded effort aimed at improving economic
security for low-income families.
The result is 200,000 more such working families - the
so-called "working poor" - emerged in 2011 than in 2010,
according to the report, based on analysis of the most recent
U.S. Census Bureau data.
About 10.4 million such families - or 47.5 million Americans
- now live near poverty, defined as earning less than 200
percent of the official poverty rate, which is $22,811 for a
family of four.
Overall, nearly one-third of working families now struggle,
up from 31 percent in 2010 and 28 percent in 2007, when the
recession began, according to the analysis.
"Although many people are returning to work, they are often
taking jobs with lower wages and less job security, compared
with the middle-class jobs they held before the economic
downturn," the report said.
"This means that nearly a third of all working families ...
may not have enough money to meet basic needs."
The findings come three years after the nation's recession
officially ended in the second half of 2009.
Brandon Roberts, co-author of the report, said the results
were somewhat of a surprise after Census officials last year
said the U.S. poverty rate had stabilized.
"As the economy has improved one would expect that the
benefits of that improvement would to some extent tie to these
low-income families, and we'd see a decrease or at least a
stabilization in the numbers," said Roberts, whose project is
funded by four groups, including the Annie E. Casey Foundation
and the Ford Foundation, and focuses on state policies.
"But the reality, the data show that the benefits of - even
though it's modest economic growth - it's not going to these
low-income families," he added.
The group's analysis adds to the body of data focused on the
slipping U.S. middle class even as there are signs of the
nation's economy slowly coming back to life with improvements in
the housing sector and lower unemployment rate.
For some Americans, the comeback has yet to begin.
Data showed that the top 20 percent of Americans received 48
percent of all income while those in the bottom 20 percent got
less than 5 percent, the report said.
The analysis also found regional differences.
States in the South, such as Georgia and South Carolina, and
those in the West, such as Arizona and Nevada, had the greatest
increase in the number of working poor. The increase was slower
in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast.
"It's important to draw attention to the fact that there are
real families behind those statistics," said Alan Essig, who
heads the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, adding that his
state is still struggling with housing and unemployment.
IMPACT ON CHILDREN
The effect of near poverty on the growing number of U.S.
children living in such families - an increase of 2.5 million
youths over five years - is also a concern.
In 2011, roughly 23.5 million, or 37 percent, of U.S.
children lived in working poor families compared with about 21
million, or 33 percent, in 2007, the report said.
Part of the problem is that more parents are working in
service-sector jobs that require long hours at night and on
weekends and so face child-care difficulties, along with low
wages and involuntary part-time status, the analysis showed.
About 25 percent of low-income parents work in one of eight
jobs: cashiers, cooks, health aides, janitors, maids, retail
clerks, waiters and waitresses, and drivers, it said.
Such jobs often pay minimum wage, which can vary
state-by-state, although the U.S. federal minimum wage standard
has stood at $7.25 an hour since 2010.
"Any little thing - a child getting sick, a car breaking
down ... those are quite significant events for these working
families," Roberts said.
Focusing on state policies to boost education and jobs
training for their parents could help, the report concluded.
Others have also pointed to other options such as greater access
to paid sick leave and increased minimum wages.
"Folks in our state are working hard, but for many families,
working hard just isn't enough. Things need to change," said F.
Scott McCown of the Texas-based Center for Public Policy
Roberts said some federal policies in the recent agreement
averting the so-called fiscal cliff were good news. The law that
avoided higher taxes and across-the-board cuts kept two key tax
credits and extended unemployment benefits.
He said the recent agreement to avoid higher U.S. taxes and
across-the-board cuts helped by keeping two key tax credits and
unemployment benefits. But those policies were
in place in 2011, when Census gathered its data.
"Even despite those policies ... these families were
struggling," he said.