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The Hidden Poverty-Level Federal Workforce

Hunger Report Monday

Twenty percent of federally contracted workers fell below the poverty line and 40 percent earned less than a living wage in 2006.

A new report by the National Employment Law Project (NELP) introduces Americans to some of the individuals behind those numbers; employees contracted by the federal government who live at or near the poverty line -- a situation that not only keeps them from meeting their family’s immediate needs (like food), but leaves no room for the kind of investments (like education) that can lift them out of poverty. The report, titled Taking the Low Road: How the Federal Government Promotes Poverty-Wage Jobs Through its Contracting Practices, draws upon interviews with more than five-hundred contracted workers across the country, and sheds light into the dark corners of the federal government’s low-bid contracting system.

Federal Contracting Surges

Graph from NELP Report shows growth of federally contracted jobs since 2000.

Nearly half of the federal workforce is hired through contracts—a system that too often leaves its workers earning near minimum wage, without access to basic benefits like healthcare or paid sick-leave. It also makes it much easier for workers to be let-go without notice or explanation. NELP’s collection of stories illustrates the toll this dysfunctional system takes not only on workers and their families, but on the national economy: “By creating hardship for millions of working families in the short term and delaying economic recovery and adding stress to safety net programs in the long term, these shortsighted policies inevitably lead to more government spending -- precisely the result advocates of low-bid contracting were trying to avoid.”

Here’s what some federally contracted workers interviewed by NELP said about their work experiences:

        “This wage is not enough to afford food or even to pay for the subway to go to work...I only ask for a good wage and good insurance in return, so that my family can enjoy the fruit of my work. I dream of my eight-year-old son being able to go to college…I want him to work with a computer and not a broom.”

                            - Nelly Garcia, Janitor at Old Post Office Building in Washington, DC

        “Now, I’m over 65 years old, and I guess I feel disheartened most of the time because I can’t get ahead. I do what I can, but mostly now I’m working for the medical insurance.”

                            -Lucy Johnson, A sewing machine operator in Knoxville who earns the minimum                                 wage after over 25 years at work

        “It is very difficult for me and my family. I must pay the rent, buy clothing for the children, and feed them. But my wages are not always enough. I wish that I did not have to depend on government help like Medicaid and food stamps, but without the help we would be homeless or starving.”

                            -Carmen Cortes, Janitor at Union Station, Washington DC

The 2013 Hunger Report reminds us that the most severe effects of our increasingly skewed labor market fall on low-wage workers in all sectors:

 The work low-wage workers do is needed, and always will be: janitors, food-service workers, landscapers, farm workers, and others. And the people who have these jobs will, of course, always need to earn a living. Thus, one essential response is to ensure that all jobs pay enough to keep employees above the poverty line. Government must do more to counter the downward pressure on wages. Secondly, human-capital development must be strengthened so that even if some jobs are dead-end jobs, no one is trapped in them for lack of alternatives.

The federal government must be a model good employer for the rest of the country. When it chooses to put its people first and uphold decent wage and work standards, it motivates public and private sector employers to do the same and encourages the kind of human capital investment that strengthens our economy and reduces poverty and hunger.

To read more about the relationship between labor standards and poverty and hunger, check out Chapter 4 of the 2013 Hunger Report, Within Reach: Global Development GoalsDerek Schwabe

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