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The Most Common Essential Jobs in the US Don’t Pay a Living Wage

The economy is improving, but inequality is tearing the US apart. Democrats ignore working-class pain at their peril.

A United HomeCare Services home health aide, Wendy Cerrato, helps Olga Socarras get dressed during a visit on January 6, 2010, in Miami, Florida.

The most common jobs in the United States are home health care aide, retail salesperson and fast-food and counter worker, which are all tied for first place on a long list of professions tracked by the government, according to analysis of federal data by The Washington Post. From caring for the elderly to serving the lunch rush, people who work these jobs are bedrocks of the everyday economy.

However, the 2023 median salaries listed for the top three most common jobs — and many others — do not offer a living wage in any state across the country. Ranging from about $29,500 for home care aides to $33,600 for fast-food servers, the median salaries offered by the top three most common jobs are at least $11,000 short of what is needed to make ends meet in states with the cheapest cost of living. California is out of the question.

“Median salary tells you that exactly half [of the workers] are being paid less, and half are being paid more,” said Elise Gould, senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), in an interview.

Median salaries are not much better for public school teachers, restaurant servers, janitors, bus drivers, warehouse stockers and order fillers, and many essential workers who were hailed as heroes during pandemic lockdowns. With wages and the cost of living quicky becoming major campaign issues ahead of the November elections, President Joe Biden is trailing Donald Trump in the polls and hemorrhaging support from voters without college degrees, a large group that includes many Black and Latino voters as well as union members that Democrats depend on.

Meanwhile, executive compensation is ballooning at the highest rate in 14 years. CEO pay at S&P 500 countries increased by nearly 13 percent in 2023, while the average worker saw only a 4.1 percent increase in pay. Economic optimists point to a booming stock market and low unemployment, but the inequality gap between the wealthiest earners and everyone else is increasing nearly three times faster than overall wage growth.

The data reflects trends going back decades. In 1965, CEOs were paid 21 times more than the typical worker, but in 2022 CEOs made 344 times more, according to EPI.

The most common job after the top three is “general and operations manager,” which includes bosses and supervisors of lower-wage workers. Managers earn a median salary of $101,000, about three times the median salary offered to employees in fast food or retail. Working toward a manager position at a burger chain or corporate store is an age-old trope, but how do workers support their families in the meantime when the cost of living is out of reach?

Despite a much-touted economic recovery, about half the country is still living paycheck to paycheck, and deep income inequality is increasingly the throughline connecting so many woes and resentments. From the polarization and anti-immigrant animus exploited by Trump and the global far right, to skyrocketing housing prices and mass homelessness, the affordability crisis is taking center stage in the public consciousness.

Jo Risper, a senior electoral organizer at Right to the City, a national alliance of tenants’ unions and racial justice groups, said wage increases haven’t caught up with the cost of housing in cities across the country. Risper said roughly half of all tenants spend at least 30 percent of their income on rent, and of those, about 50 percent are spending 50 percent of their income just to stay in their homes.

“Minimum wage hasn’t gone up in 15 years, but from 2018 to 2021 the average rent was raised up to 30 percent,” Risper said in an interview.

After years of pushing neoliberal policies that benefited elites, Risper said Biden and other establishment politicians ignore this working-class pain at their own peril.

Tenants who rent their homes represent 26 percent of the electorate in five key battleground states coveted by Trump and Biden, including Pennsylvania and Michigan. The majority are younger voters under the age of 35. Along with health care and wages, the cost of housing is a clear priority for tenants, with 82 percent believing their lives would improve if the issue were addressed by policy makers, according to a poll commissioned by Right to the City. However, 51 percent of these potential voters report that they do not hear politicians talking about the issue “much” or “at all.”

Swing state tenants tend to have a more favorable view of Biden than Trump, and 77 percent say they would vote for a candidate that supports rent stabilization, a position favored by some progressives. It’s enthusiasm for Biden and the Democrats that is lacking. According to the Center for Popular Democracy, only 58 percent of swing state renters have said they will “definitely” turn out November — a significant drop from the number who self-reported turning out in 2020.

Risper said Democratic candidates tend to focus their messaging and canvassing on homeowners rather than renters, even as their constituents face stagnating wages and steep rent hikes. With rent prices up 31 percent since 2019, corporate landlords see their profits soaring.

“They say we just need to build more housing, but in reality, for folks who are home health aides or fast-food workers, they can’t afford to buy a house,” Risper said. “They are losing their base, and this is a block of voters.”

Democrats boast about low unemployment numbers and record wage growth since the pandemic, but with millions of people struggling to pay make ends meet, Biden remains one of the most unpopular presidents in modern times. To understand why, Gould looks beyond Biden’s time in office.

Thanks to state-level minimum wage hikes and a tight labor market, low paid and historical disadvantaged workers saw the fastest wage growth between 2019 and 2023, although wage growth has slowed as pay for managers increases. However, wages for jobs at the bottom of the pay scale remain insufficient to make ends meet, and the wealthiest earners keep taking bigger pieces of the pies off the top.

“Low- and moderate-wage workers typically have seen very little wage growth over the past 40 years, and that makes it harder and hard to make ends meet,” Gould said. “They were barely making ends meet before and they are still barely making ends meet today, and they are not able to get head because of the four decades up to about 2019.”

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