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September, 2000, Vol. 123, No. 9

Women paid low wages:
who they are and where they work

Marlene Kim

Research indicates that, over the past two decades, an increasing proportion of workers held jobs that pay low wages. Most of this research focuses on men, because the risk of falling into these jobs has increased for male workers. Yet it is important not to ignore the low-wage female workforce: women hold the majority (59 percent) of low-wage jobs,1 and they are still more likely to be low paid than are male workers.

But what is the extent of low-paying work among women, who are these poorly paid women, and what types of jobs do they hold? In answering these questions, this article uses data from the March 1998 Current Population Survey.2As many in the field have done, low-wage workers are defined as those workers who could not support a family of four above the Government’s official poverty level while working 52 weeks per year, 40 hours per week, or a total of 2,080 hours per year. For workers paid on an hourly basis, this means that low-wage workers are defined as those who were paid no more than $7.91 per hour ($16,450/2,080 hours) in 1998;3 for workers paid weekly, hourly wage rates were estimated by dividing the worker’s usual weekly wages by usual hours worked per week. The sample includes all adult women aged 18 to 64 who were wage and salary workers; the self-employed were excluded.

Extent of women’s low-wage work

In 1998, approximately 16 million women, or 39 percent of female wage and salary workers, were paid low wages. Even among women who were of prime working age (those between the ages of 25 and 45), 31 percent worked in jobs that paid low wages. (see table 1.)

Of course, low wages may not necessarily relegate these women to a life of deprivation: women who receive low wages may live in families with other earners, so that their total family income may lift them above the poverty level. Or these women may live in small families (recall that low wages are defined as wage rates that are inadequate to support a family of four above the poverty level), so that their wages can adequately support themselves and their lesser number of family members. Thus, in order to better understand the consequences of being paid low wages, it is important to examine the extent to which low wages result in women living in or near poverty. In this regard, then, for each woman who received low wages, the article compares her total family income during the previous year (1997) with the Government’s official 1997 poverty level4 and with 150 percent of that poverty level. This approach allows the proportion of low-paid women who are officially poor and the proportion who live in "near poverty" to be estimated.

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1 See Jared Bernstein, Demand Shifts and Low-Wage Workers (Washington, DC, Economic Policy Institute, 1999), mimeograph; and Jared Bernstein and Heidi Hartmann, "Defining and Characterizing the Low-Wage Labor Market," Chapter 1 in Kelleen Kaye and Demetra Smith Nightingale (eds.), The Low-Wage Labor Market: Challenges and Opportunities for Economic Self-Sufficiency (Washington, DC, Urban Institute Press, 2000), mimeograph.

2 The March 1998 Current Population Survey is a national data set compiled by surveying a representative sample of approximately 60,000 households in the United States. The survey asks respondents about their demographic characteristics, as well as whether they are employed. If they are, the survey inquires about their usual hours and earnings and the occupation and industry in which they work. It also asks workers about their income, earnings, and participation in welfare during the previous calendar year (in this case, 1997), as well as whether the employer on their main job provided health insurance during the past calendar year. Although the job they held during the previous year may differ from the job they currently hold, information about recent welfare participation and access to health insurance is still important.

Earnings are reported only for a worker's primary job; therefore, to the extent that poorly paid workers are moonlighting, their total earnings are underestimated in this article. But because the article focuses on women who hold low-paying jobs and the characteristics of these jobs, the findings do not change. The poverty status of these women, shown in the tabulation on page 27, takes into consideration the total earnings from all jobs they held, because poverty is calculated on the basis of one's total earnings from all jobs, together with any unearned income (such as public assistance) one receives, as well as the total earnings and unearned income of all other family members.

3 In 1998, the poverty level was $16,450 per year for a family of four. Only those reporting hourly earnings of at least one dollar were counted.

4 Because poverty levels vary by family size (women with larger families have a higher poverty threshold, meaning that they require more income to maintain an adequate standard of living), the article uses the poverty threshold that corresponds to the appropriate family size for each woman who received low wages.

Related BLS programs
Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey

Related Monthly Labor Review articles
Women's earnings: an overview.Dec. 1999.
Recent gains in women's earnings: better pay or longer hours?July 1990

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