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Working Full-Time and Still Living in Poverty

Cashier at Walmart

Photo Credit: Walmart Corporate via Compfight

By Roberta Downing, PhD (Senior Legislative and Federal Affairs Officer, APA Public Interest Directorate – Government Relations Office)

In the State of the Union, President Obama announced that he would use his authority to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour for all federal contractors. The current minimum wage is $7.25 per hour. Why is this so important? Even working full-time, a minimum wage worker with children is still living below the federal poverty line (which is roughly $19,000 per year for a family of three).[i]

Some people might say this move by the President is no big deal. But it is a very big deal to the janitors, receptionists, childcare providers, and food service workers who are employed by the thousands of companies that contract with the federal government. A 2009 study suggests that out of the two million contractors that the federal government employs, 20% are earning wages that put them below the poverty line.[ii] So this change in income for the thousands of workers who will see their wages rise is very important to the health and well-being of these individuals and their families.

What are the psychological ramifications of earning such low wages?

Psychologists have documented extensively the negative effects of poverty on individuals and families. Individuals working full-time earning the minimum wage cope with the constant stress of financial insecurity while working jobs that are some of the most difficult in our economy, often spending long hours standing, doing strenuous or dangerous manual labor, and interacting with a public that does not necessarily value their work or even see its existence (e.g., the office cleaner that is only visible during evening hours when staff have already left for home).

Minimum wage workers often prepare the food we eat in restaurants, care for our children in daycares and schools, clean hotel rooms, tend to our elderly family members in long-term care facilities, and work on the grounds of our military bases. Their jobs often do not offer health coverage, retirement plans, paid sick or maternity leave, or other benefits that are afforded to middle class and upper income workers. And when these workers return home, they are faced with impossible choices, when they find that they do not have enough income to feed their children healthy food or pay for rent, medical bills, utilities, and other necessities, despite their full-time labor.

What can you do?

Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Representative George Miller (D-CA) have introduced the Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2013 (S. 460/H.R. 1010), which would raise the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour. This bill, if enacted, would increase an annual minimum wage salary to $21,000 per year, lifting a family of three above the poverty line.

Use APA’s Federal Action Network to email your Member of Congress and Senators and urge them to support this legislation. Show them that the public is on board. A recent poll found that 76% of Americans support a higher minimum wage.[iii] Our lawmakers have to get on board too.

Tell your elected officials that the 3.6 million minimum wage workers in our country deserve an income that puts them over the poverty line, at minimum.[iv]


Roberta Downing, PhD is a Senior Legislative and Federal Affairs Officer with the APA Public Interest Directorate Government Relations Office. Dr. Downing is a former APA Congressional Fellow (2004-2005), working for the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions. She was also a healthcare staffer for Senator Brown of Ohio. Most recently, Dr. Downing was a Senior Legislative Associate at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.


[i]   U. S. Census Bureau (2013). Poverty thresholds by size of family and number of children. Retrieved from

[ii]  Edwards, K. & Filion, K. (2009). Outsourcing poverty: Federal contracting pushes down wages and benefits. Retrieved from Economic Policy Institute website:

[iii]  Gallup Poll (November, 2013). Most Americans for Raising Minimum Wage. Retrieved from

[iv]   Bureau of Labor Statistics (2013). Characteristics of minimum wage workers: 2012. Retrieved from

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