Politics, Poverty, Employment and Well Being - a Toxic Relationship?

Initiating a pivotal debate on the intricate nexus between employment, wages, and societal well-being, Beth Shulman's 2003 analysis about How Low-Wage Jobs Fail 30 Million Americans brings forth compelling arguments that challenge conventional perspectives. In her comprehensive examination, Shulman not only underscores the indispensable nature of low-skilled jobs but also illuminates the formidable challenges faced by the working poor in contemporary America. Since the 1970s, the United States has grappled with a disconcerting decline in real earnings, a trend accentuated by Shulman's observations. Despite a commendable 77% surge in productivity since 1973, the accompanying increase in the minimum wage has been a mere 12%, revealing a widening chasm between labor output and compensation, as Desmond elucidated in 2018.This disparity fuels an unsettling "economic scarcity" among working-class individuals, plunging them into financial distress while also compromising their cognitive, emotional, and psychological well-being, as highlighted by Meuris and Leana in 2015. For female low-wage earners, the challenges escalate, with Jacobs' 2015 research spotlighting their struggle to reconcile domestic responsibilities amidst erratic work schedules.

Beyond individual repercussions, the impact of this wage crisis extends deeply into family based dynamics. Scholars like Parcel & Menaghan in their study “Effects of Low-Wage Employment on Family Well-Being” (Parcel & Menaghan, 1997) underscores that such economic strains can deteriorate parent-child relationships, fostering environments lacking in nurture and stimulation. Furthermore, Inanc's 2018 findings accentuate the broader societal impact, revealing how poor wages and job instability erode spousal well-being and overall life satisfaction. Consequently, the discourse underscores that low wages transcend mere financial challenges, representing a pervasive societal issue with profound, multifaceted implications for individuals and their families.

This paper explores the challenges arising from paying jobs shining a light on how they affect individuals, families and society as a whole. The discussions started with  Beth Shulman and other experts’ research who have pointed out the gaps between labor productivity and pay since the 1970s. These disparities, coupled with gender inequalities and the struggle to juggle work and family duties lead to what's known as " scarcity" among working class people. However the consequences go beyond hardship. By delving into studies and real life stories the essay explains how insufficient wages not fuel cycles of poverty but also impact various aspects of well being such as mental, emotional and psychological health. It also highlights how families are affected negatively by these wages through parent child relationships and spousal well being. The intergenerational aspect of poverty is highlighted too; future generations continue to face challenges due to paying jobs. The research also calls for solutions to tackle these issues by stressing the importance of policy changes, improved support systems and fair workplace policies and the need for a comprehensive strategy to address the negative impacts of low wages. This approach aims to strengthen resilience, create opportunities and promote shared prosperity, among communities.

The Lowness of the Wage and the Misery of Low-Wage Workers

Worker struggle and hardship is fuelled by unlivable wages and the grueling nature of low-wage work. In his writing Shulman vividly portrays the misery of the working poor through workers like Cynthia Porter who was an African American nursing assistant, who earns $350 every fortnight, lives in a shack, and lacks a reliable means of transportation. The exploitation of service workers, such as home health care aides and guest room attendants, sheds light upon the invisibility of low-wage workers and their inability to move up the economic ladder (Shulman, 2003). Tolentino in his writing “The Gig Economy celebrates working to death (Tolentino, 2017) conveys the suffering of the low-wage worker through Mary, who, in the pursuit of a few extra dollars, continues to drive despite experiencing labour contractions. The draining nature of low-wage jobs exacerbates worker misery. Ehrenreich experience highlighted in the writing “Serving in Florida”(Ehrenreich, 2002) illustrates the exhausting nature of low-wage work : “I am not tired at all, I assure myself, though it may be that there is simply no more “I” left to do the tiredness monitoring” (Ehenreich, 2002). Gringeri also builds on this sentiment through her portrayal of rural workers in Utah, who “make ends meet by working every minute (they’re) we’re awake” (Gingeri, 2011, para.1). Most workers in low-wage employment do not have the opportunity to request an absence in case of illness or illness of a family member as such requests can be grounds for termination of employment. Low-wage jobs also do not necessarily uphold the concept of light-duty for workers who have been injured on the job (Shulman, 2003). Moreover, the controlling nature of low-wage work, such as the close monitoring, drug-testing, rules against eating and talking, lack of breaks, and accusations of stealing, creates a culture of suspicion and hostility, aggravating worker misery (Ehrenreich, 2011; Shulman, 2003). Furthermore, the current market structure, in addition to the modern political fascination with free market solutions to social problems, provides no incentive to the capitalist to address problems of the working poor. Underpayment of labour, or the inadequacy of wages, along with the gruelling nature and hostility of the American workplace explains the struggle of the low-wage worker.

The Struggle of Female Low-Wage Workers

Women employed in low-wage jobs have a more gruelling experience than their male counterparts as they juggle childcare and housework with paid employment. Desmond in his writing “Americans want to Believe Jobs Are the Solution to Poverty. They’re Not” (Desmond, 2018) portrays the dual burden borne by women as a major shortcoming of the economic system; our current economic system does not offer compensation for women’s caring roles. Expecting individuals to work at least 40 hours every week to survive, the system fails to account for childcare, which allows most women to do only 20-30 hours of paid work (Desmond, 2018). A large number of low-wage working mothers are single parents, struggling to manage family care with little or no external support (ASPE Research Brief, 2012, as cited in Dodson, 2013). In addition to the insufficiency of wages, the inability of mothers employed in low-wage work to find stable childcare for their children subjects them to trouble at work, making it impossible to balance family needs with the demands of employment (Dodson, 2013). Low-waged mothers, who seek flexibility in their schedules or experience work/family conflicts are often not only labelled irresponsible workers but also irresponsible reproducers, who have “had children they can’t take care of” (Dodson, 2013, para.3).These experiences shed light upon the unaccommodating nature of the market: ‘We wanted flexible jobs, but the store wanted flexible workers. I learned from my experience to never limit the hours I would work on job applications. Giant retailers do not cater to the needs of employees; their goal is to hire a steady stream of entry-level, malleable, and replaceable workers” (p. 67, as cited in Jacobs, 2015, para.14). According to another low-waged working mother, “sometimes they put you into a place where you have no choice. It's your child or your job and no one's gonna get that but you, so do what you have to do” (Dodson, 2013, para.1). Thus, a lack of recognition of the needs of working mothers- living wages, sick leave, and flexible schedules - aggravates the hardship associated with low-wage work.

Adverse Effects of Low-Wage Work on the Workers

The inadequacy of wages and the suffering associated with low-wage work negatively impacts the physical and psychological well-being of the worker. The economic scarcity experienced by low-wage workers exposes them to “chronic stressors” that lead to “psychological distress” and possibly to “negative coping mechanisms” like “fatalism” and “escapism” (Meuris and Leana, 2015, para. 9). Entertainment of negative emotions induces stress and negatively influences decision-making and self-regulation. (Hobfoll, 1989, as cited in Meuris and Leana, 2015). Economic scarcity experienced by the working poor amplifies the likelihood of future scarcity experiences, pushing the workers into an inescapable poverty cycle. The discrepancy between the funds required to meet basic needs and the funds earned from low-wage work only allows the workers to focus on fulfillment of immediate responsibilities, neglecting opportunities and responsibilities that might positively contribute to their long-term economic well-being (Mullainathan and Shafir, 2013, Shah et al., 2012, as cited by Meuris and Leana, 2015). This economic deprivation requires additional emotional energy to be aimed at suppressing the associated negativity and to continue to fulfill life’s responsibilities at home and work despite the tension and “attentional constraints” (Meuris and Leana, 2015, para.10). Ehrenreich's experience illustrates the physical strain associated with low-wage work. Amidst a plethora of exhausting tasks at her housekeeping job in Maine, she also has to strap a vacuum cleaner onto her back. At Key West,) is punished for glancing at a USA Today in the absence of customers by being assigned to vacuum the entire floor with a “broken vacuum cleaner, which has a handle only two feet long, and the only way to do that without incurring orthopedic damage is to proceed from spot to spot on your knees” (Ehrenreich, 2011). Consequently, the physical and emotional strain imposed by low-wage work has deleterious long-term effects on the workers’ physical and psychological well-being.

The Negative Effect of Low-Wage Jobs are not Confined to the Worker

The detrimental effects associated with low-wages and the economic scarcity that they fuel extend to the dependents of low-wage workers. Children of poor socioeconomic backgrounds experience high rates of chronic and acute-health related problems, live in unhealthy environments, and have unreliable access to health-care than their better off counterparts. (Coltrane, Miller, DeHaan & Stewart, 2013; Currie & Stabile, 2003; Fujiuara & Yamaki, 2000; Seith & Isakson, 2011, as cited in Dodson, 2013). “Parents who have the least income and the most rigid, irregular work schedules are raising children with higher rates of health problems that call for parental attention” (Dodson, 2013, para. 7). Poor children experience above average disability rates, which requires families to incur substantial out-of-pocket expenses and opportunity costs (Anderson, Dumont, Jacobs, & Azzaria, 2007; Parrish, Cloud, Huh, & Henning, 2005, as cited in Dodson, 2013). The lowness of the wage makes it impossible for workers to meet the expenses stemming from the ill health of their children, which in turn leads to further deterioration of their children’s health. This suggests that the struggle of surviving on low-wages extends far into the worker’s familial circle and adversely impacts the next generation of workers.

The working conditions, remuneration, and the experiences of low-wage workers determines the home-environment that they create. The quality of the home-environment impacts the child’s emotional well-being, cognitive performance, academic achievement, and social adjustment (Parcel & Menaghan, 1997). Low wages, long hours, and low occupational complexity causes stress, reduces parent-child interaction, and minimises intellectual stimulation amongst the workers’ children (Dodson, 2013). Moreover, children of low-waged parents are often forced into caring roles and/or into labour market at an early age. Thus, the suffering induced by low-wage work harms the physical and mental development of the workers’ children, diminishing the possibility of breaking out of the poverty cycle.

Food insufficiency, which is fuelled by the inadequacy of wages, causes depressive disorders, poor health, academic and psychosocial outcomes amongst children. According to the USDA, > 14 million children live in “food-insecure households”, where there is “limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate or safe foods” (Bickel, Carlson, Nord, 1999, as cited by Alaimo, Olson, Frongillo, 2002). Studies on American 15-16 year olds exhibit a strong correlation between food insufficiency, depressive disorders, and suicidal symptoms. Food-insufficient adolescents are substantially more-likely to experience dysthymia, have thoughts of death, and a desire to die (Alaimo, Olson, Frongillo, 2002). The lowness of the wage fuels the emergence of food-insecure households, hinting at the impossibility of maintaining a healthy standard of living.

Poor wages, job insecurity, and poor quality work also negatively impacts spousal relationships. Job insecurity, which characterizes most low-wage jobs, negatively affects spousal psychological well-being and life satisfaction (Inanc, 2018). The lowness of the wage imposes a strain on family budget which lowers spousal well-being and relationship satisfaction, causing spousal conflict (Vinokur, Price, and Caplan 1996, as cited by Inanc, 2018). However, the resulting spousal harm might be gendered. Female spouses might be more negatively affected by their partner’s working situation because of “men’s failure to live up to the socially prescribed norm of the breadwinning male” (Inanc, 2018, para. 4). The effect, however, on both the husband and the wife is much more pronounced if both experience job insecurity, low wages, and poor working conditions. In fact, the negative effects of job insecurity, low wages, and a lack of autonomy in the workplace, exceed the negative impact of unemployment. (Burchell, 2011; Burgard et al., 2009; Cobb and Kasl, 1977; De Witte, 1999; Fryer and McKenna, 1987, as cited by Inanc, 2018). Thus, the struggle of surviving on low-wages imposes a strain on family life and leads to deteriorating spousal relationships.

It’s a Cycle

The lowness of the wage reinforces exploitation and inequality as the very foundation of capitalist development. The distance between the wages paid to the workers, and the value of the commodity produced by the worker, which Marx (1847-1891) described as surplus labour power, underlies the struggle of survival on the minimum wage. As low-wage workers strive to make ends meet in the “iron cage” (Weber, 1930, p.123), they experience mounting negativity, tension, and deteriorating physical and mental health. However, the negative effects of low-wages are not confined to the workers. Rather, low-wage work damages family life and has adverse social, psychological, and emotional effects on the workers’ partners and dependents. Unlivable wages reduce relationship satisfaction and cause spousal conflict. Deprived of the attention of their labouring parents, children of low-wage workers are exposed to a higher risk of physical and mental health problems and experience impeded educational development. The inequality and poverty associated with low-wage employment is cyclical, trapping not individuals but generations as they struggle to make ends meet. 

So what now?

To address the multifaceted challenges of low wages comprehensively, a strategic action plan is essential. Starting with a deep examination and reformulation of existing wage policies, we must actively engage a broad spectrum of stakeholders, from workers to policymakers. Concurrently, emphasizing skill enhancement programs tailored for low-wage workers can bridge the gap between current employment realities and evolving job demands. Recognizing the distinct challenges faced by female workers, especially concerning balancing work and family responsibilities, calls for specialized interventions such as affordable childcare and equitable workplace policies. Moreover, cultivating supportive work environments and bolstering community resources like healthcare and housing assistance are pivotal. Complementing these measures with initiatives that stimulate economic development in underserved regions, promote entrepreneurial opportunities, and utilize robust data analytics ensures a comprehensive, impactful approach. Through consistent public awareness and advocacy efforts, we can drive systemic change, elevating both individual workers and the broader community towards a more equitable future.


Delving into the intricacies of low-wage work reveals a complex web of challenges that extend well beyond individual paychecks. Shulman's insights illuminate a stark reality: the dissonance between the value of labor and its compensation has significant repercussions. Notably, the narrative underscores the heightened burdens on female workers, juggling multiple responsibilities amidst constrained resources. Yet, the issue transcends individual experiences. The ripple effects touch familial dynamics, strain spousal relationships, and negatively impacts the future prospects of children. This interconnected web of challenges forms a cyclical pattern of poverty and strain, suggesting that addressing low wages is not merely an economic imperative but a societal one. Recognizing and rectifying the disparities in wage structures is crucial. By fostering environments where labor is equitably rewarded, we can aspire to cultivate communities characterized by resilience, opportunity, and shared prosperity.


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