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Posted on Wed, Jan 16, 2013 : 10:06 a.m.

2013 Forecast: Plight of the working poor?

By Wayne Baker

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Hotel service employees often rank among working poor. Many other working poor are fast-food workers, home health aids, waiters-waitresses, and non-unionized retail workers.

Editor's note: This post is part of a series by Dr. Baker on Our Values about core American values. This week Dr. Baker is discussing future hot button issues.

The economy is picking up, but the economic situation for many Americans continues to worsen. Take, for example, the plight of the working poor, one of my top picks for a key values issue this year.

The working poor are low-income families who are working but don’t have enough money to pay for basic living expenses, even when multiple adults in the same family are employed and pool money. Why will the situation get worse?

The number of Americans classified as working poor continues to rise, according to a new report by The Working Poor Families Project. Their report is based on the most recent data available from the U.S. Census.

There are now 47.5 million Americans who classified as working poor, including 23.5 million children. The total number of working poor may reach 50 million soon. Meanwhile, the gap between rich and poor families in America continues to grow.

Why has the plight of the working poor worsened in an improving economy? The answer: The economy is not improving for everyone. Job opportunities are growing for high-wage work and low-wage work, but not in the middle.

Americans who once held jobs that paid a living wage are finding new employment at the low end in retail, food preparation, food service, clerical jobs, and the like. These jobs typically do not pay enough to cover basic living expenses. They’re experiencing what sociologists call “downward mobility.”

The situation is worse in some parts of the country than others, according to the report. Ten states experienced an increase of 5 percentage points or more in the proportion of families classified as working poor. These are Alaska, Arizona, California, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Michigan, Nevada, and South Carolina. Nevada suffered the biggest increase—12 percentage points.

In the effort to balance state and federal budgets, many assistance programs to help the working poor are on the chopping block. Cuts could affect education, nutrition, skills training, and medical services.

Are you worried about the rising number of working poor?

How about the widening gulf between haves and have-nots?

What's on your list of 2013 top values issues?

Join us all week as we continue our annual tradition of predicting the top values issues of the New Year. Click here to see the 2012 Forecast.

Wayne Baker is a sociologist on the faculty of the University of Michigan Ross School of Business. Baker blogs daily at Our Values and can be reached at or on Facebook.