Work

For most people in the US today, work constitutes the most important source of income and economic security. Moreover, steady work enables a person to build skills and experience so they can advance to higher-paying jobs to build both income and wealth. Parents’ work is a crucial determinant of children’s work orientations. Adolescents who work may gain important experience and connections that contribute to their longer-term success. Pathways into employment and into better-paying jobs also matter for adults whether they are transitioning careers or just entering the US workforce after moving from abroad. Jobs can contribute to one’s sense of personal autonomy and power and provide feelings of accomplishment and pride; they can also lead to an increased dignity associated with the sense that one is contributing to society.

To see more information on the predictors related to work that the Working Group considered, as well as references for the research described on this page, see the section “Boosting Upward Mobility: A Supporting Framework” in the report.

PREDICTORS

Employment

People experiencing periods of unemployment suffer a loss of income in the short term and potentially lower earnings once they find a new job. A job loss and associated unemployment and a struggle to find work contribute to a rise in depressive symptoms and anxiety as well as losses in self-esteem, life satisfaction, and sense of control. Those who become unemployed are also less likely to be socially engaged than those with jobs. Further, parental job loss and the attendant stress it brings spills over onto children, whose academic performance and behaviors suffer. People who have become so discouraged that they stop looking for work are jobless but no longer technically unemployed. As such, employment is a critical driver of mobility from poverty.

Metric: Employment-to-population ratio for adults ages 25 to 54

This metric is the ratio of the number of employed adults ages 25 to 54 in a given jurisdiction to the total number of adults in that age range living there.

Validity: Employment captures what share of adults in a jurisdiction are engaging in work for pay. The employment-to-population ratio (EP) is a standard labor market metric reported monthly by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) and based on the Current Population Survey. The Working Group recommends applying the methodology used to compute the EP to similar data collected in the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS).

Availability: Data on employment are available from the ACS and Public Use Microdata Sample.

Frequency: New data for the metric are available annually. For subgroup analyses in less populated areas, several years of data may need to be pooled to obtain reliable estimates.

Geography: Data are available at the county and metropolitan levels.

Consistency: Information on employment and age is measured the same way across all geographies in the same year and over time in the ACS.

Subgroups: The metric can be disaggregated by race or ethnicity, gender, and other demographic factors. For less populated areas and for certain demographic groups, several years of data may need to be pooled to obtain reliable estimates.

Limitations: The BLS reports the official EP monthly for those age 16 and up as well those age 20 and up. As such, the BLS-reported measure could be lower for jurisdictions that have many young adults attending college rather than working as well as for those that have many retirees. Consequently, for our purposes, we recommend computing the EP for adults ages 25 to 54 using data from the ACS rather than relying on BLS reports. Even when using ACS data, the EP can drop if unemployed people leave an area or if working people move in.

Access to Jobs Paying a Living Wage

Even if most community members are working, the jobs they hold may not pay them enough to escape poverty or offer prospects for advancement. Ideally, work should be both financially and personally rewarding while allowing workers to meet their family needs; in other words, they need access to jobs paying a living wage. Although many different attributes of a job can contribute to mobility, jobs that offer higher earnings tend to also offer employer benefits such as paid time off and health and pension benefits, and workers in better-paying jobs tend to have more stable employment. Further, children in families with higher-earning parents tend to be in better health and on better developmental trajectories than children with lower-earning parents. Earnings that equal or exceed the cost of a family’s basic needs for food, clothing, shelter, child care, health care, and transportation are an important threshold for predicting economic and social mobility.

Metric: Ratio of pay on the average job to the cost of living

This metric shows what a typical job pays relative to the cost of living in a particular area. The metric is computed by dividing the average weekly earnings across all jobs in an area by the cost of meeting a family of three’s (one parent and two children) basic expenses in that area.

Validity: Employer-reported data on wages paid are a reliable indicator of what jobs pay, and the metric is based on data collected and disseminated by BLS. Data on what it costs to meet basic expenses requires detailed studies of the cost of food, clothing, shelter, health care, and work-related expenses for each jurisdiction. We rely on the work of well-regarded scholars at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to obtain estimates of the local cost of living.

Availability: Data on wages are available quarterly from the BLS’s Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages, and estimates of the cost of meeting a family’s basic needs, referred to as a living wage, are available annually from MIT.

Frequency: New data for the metric are available annually.

Geography: Data on wages are available at the county and metropolitan levels. Data on living wages are available at the county level.

Consistency: Information on quarterly wages is collected consistently by the BLS. MIT uses a consistent methodology to compute living wages by county.

Subgroups: The data cannot be disaggregated by demographics because they describe jobs rather than the people in them, but we can disaggregate by industry type.

Limitations: The metric can only be computed for the 365 largest counties and cannot be disaggregated by subgroups. The metric relies on MIT’s computations of “living wages.”

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