Economic Insecurity of Low-Wage Earners

Brian Halpin, Sociology Ph.D Candidate

Since the 1970s many good jobs in the primary labor market have eroded, while bad jobs, in the secondary labor market, have expanded. Eight years after the end of the Great Recession of 2008, opportunity has stalled for many low-wage workers. Sociology doctoral candidate Brian Halpin is investigating how workers manage the risk associated with the turbulent neoliberal economy; that inquiry forms the core of his dissertation project. Since the 1970s precarious employment relations have dramatically expanded across the U.S. labor market. This transformation, caused largely by neo-liberal globalization, changing labor market norms and the erosion of labor unions, has resulted in material consequences (including stagnant wages, erosion of benefits and long-term unemployment) as well as symbolic consequences (notably, increased risk and uncertainty) for U.S. workers. Halpin is investigating how low-wage workers defend themselves against economic insecurity.

He has collected interview and ethnographic data from three theoretically relevant cases (first-generation immigrants; unemployed workers utilizing One Stop Job Centers; low-wage unionized public employees) in Northern California. His findings indicate that low-wage workers are strategic actors using whatever means are at their disposal to make ends meet. They continually scan their social networks for job opportunities, work overtime without compensation to ensure that management is happy with them on the job, and go to great lengths to maximize their paid hours of employment. They are also very aware of the discourse about the link between human capital acquisition (skills, education and life experiences) and social and economic mobility. Just as some policy analysts suggest that low-wage workers should "work their way out of poverty," the workers Halpin interviewed have a similar individualized assessment of their situation. However, his research concretely documents how the very conditions of low-wage work (schedule irregularity, low-pay, the need to hold multiple part-time jobs, lack of access to formal training and being funneled into “bad” jobs for the cases of unemployed workers) trap them, blocking access to social and economic mobility.